Sunday, December 14, 2008

Season of Good Cheer?

I know a handful of people who get giddy with delight in the holiday season, which now virtually stretches from Halloween to Presidents Day, it seems.

But really, the tiny group of folks who get all goofy with good cheer in the weeks leading up to Christmas, they are the exception that proves the rule.

It seems to me that there is far greater number that find the holidays to be taxing and exhausting, at best, and I dare say that fully half the population goes through some form of melancholy at this time of year, ranging from mild discouragement to clinical depression.

This year seems worse than ever. The Salvation Army--always serving as a Christmas reminder that lots of people are desperately poor--reports that donations in Minnesota are a full $1 million below target. Religious violence between Muslims and Hindus has erupted in India, at least giving us something other than Muslim/Christian war to worry about.

One of my editors is struggling with newly erupted grief over the loss of her mother, who died at this time last year. My son, an honorable and hardworking young man, is banging his head against an economy that is hiring no-one at the moment, trying to keep his optimism amidst a steady drizzle of "Sorry, we're not hiring" letters from employers.

My best friend is exhausted from a lifetime of caring for family members, a duty that gets even more weighty at the holidays. The only corporation that seems to be thriving is WalMart, which perhaps gives their leadership reason to chortle that using third-world child labor isn't as bad as everybody thought. My dad, a paragon of strength and health for the first 65 years of his life, has in recent years begun to fall apart mechanically, and last week underwent an extremely painful shoulder surgery.

These various forms of human suffering are always present, of course, but they become much more obvious at the holidays, because this is the time we feel such pressure to be of good cheer, to ignore various forms of suffering in favor of yule-tide good will.

So I don't know about you, but this year I've decided just to feel what I feel, and say the hell with al this false effort to put lipstick on an ugly pig. There is suffering in the world, lots of it, and it doesn't go away just because Hallmark runs a tear-jerking holiday television movie.

In my rebellion, I feel better already.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Space Exploration

This morning on the bus ride into downtown, a young man took the seat next to me. He was munching on a large, chocolate covered sweet-roll with one hand; in the other hand he was thumbing through a novel. Not just any novel, but a graphic comic-book novel with bright, violent colors. In his ears were audio earbuds, through which MP3 music was audible, even to my failing hearing. At one point, the young man even took a phone call, removing only one of the earbuds to talk, while continuing to eat and to read his comic book at the same time.

It was a voracious orgy of sense fulfillment, and I both admired the young man's ability to juggle so much data, and was worried for his mental well-being.

His was an extreme example, but in this young man I recognized a pretty common human urge. As a modern culture, if not as a species, we seem to be intent on filling up all available emptiness and space with sensory stuff. I cannot even use a public restroom these days without also reading advertising placed at eye level on the wall above the urinal.

Because we are so intent on filling up every empty moment, every blank space, with excitement and sensory input, we might logically conclude that humans have some inherent nervousness and fear regarding openness and space. We're told that a large percentage of Americans are now so uncomfortable with silence that they use television and radio as sleep aids. If modern humans don't hear the voice of God, it may well be because they've chosen to distract themselves with Muzak instead.

This speaks, I think, to a certain existential uneasiness we have about our own identity. It's the information flowing through our senses that gives us an illusion of concrete solidness, and we force-feed ourselves all this experience, all these sights, all these sounds, all these tastes, to reassure ourselves that we do actually exist. Our deepest fear, I think—the one underlying all the other forms of nervousness—is that we don't truly exist. If we keep the forms flowing fast enough, we can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

And so one of the very biggest moments in a spiritual practice comes when we finally run up against the inherent spaciousness of existence. This seems to be a necessary stage no matter what spiritual tradition you practice. Some Christian practices place a supreme value on "surrendering to God," which is a metaphor for recognizing the relative insubstantiality of our "selves". In the various eastern traditions I have studied, there comes a point when the practice inevitably discovers a certain kind of emptiness or hollowness that is quite jarring and disconcerting.

For example, ever one I know who has had a serious meditation practice speaks of coming to a time when the quiet, relaxed seeing-of-things-as-they-are reveals that things we once viewed as solid and concrete are in fact extremely fluid and ever-changing. It's certainly not all that hard to recognize that emotions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings don't have any material substance, and it's not all that long that you begin to recognize that even the things you regarded as physically solid, such as mountains and boulders, exist solidly only within a split second of time. Nothing is genuinely real in terms of permanent solidness; everything is in motion, at all times.

Lots of meditators will acknowledge that this is a point where they're forced to work through a time of despair or even depression. After all, we turned to spiritual pursuits in the first place in order to transcend the temporal, to discover something eternal. What we discover, instead, is that nothing eternal exists, whatsover. Form is the most fleeting of all things, and we begin to feel that we are being devoured, evaporated by this spaciousness we didn't really want to see. The very first intimations of this can be extraordinarily shocking. The rug gets pulled out from under you entirely, in a way that can feel quite devastating. Lots of people even talk about a physical feeling of vertigo, a sense that they are falling, when they glimpse the true spaciousness of things.

But then, if you begin to experiment at resting in the spaciousness, the fluidity, you begin to sense that it is within this spaciousness that genuine awareness, genuine freedom exists. You are falling, yes, but there really is no ground that is going to shatter you when you hit. You begin to have moments when you begin to appreciate the ocean, because you are no longer fighting waves. When spaciousness and fluidity are the matrix, all things become possible.

Ever so gradually, you learn that the antidote to pain isn't to grasp for the shore of a particular island, but to swim freely among all the islands.

Suffering is largely the process of trying to make things solid, when their inherent nature is spaciousness.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

For Now, Anyway

A recent change in my work life is greatly cutting into my available time for blogging, and also for checking up on your blogs, which is a far more serious crime. My job now involves direct supervision of 20 people, many of them remarkably immature personalities, and it is very rare that I'm able to put together more than 20 minutes to focus on a single task in between interruptions. Sometimes, days go by before I can get back to cyberworld and check up on what my friends are doing.

So life has become a bit more dense lately, but strangely, it hasn't particularly affected my level of happiness. What I'm aware of is a kind of controlled frenzy, but within it there never seems to be a lack of space or perspective. I feel a bit like a conductor orchestrating a large group of rowdy musicians. It's noisy, but all the notes are still defined by the space and silence surrounding them.

I'd like to think this hints at a certain spiritual maturity has been reached, but this could well be wishful thinking on my part, ego puffing itself up. I am aware, though, that in recent days I feel a good deal of comfort and trust in my instincts to respond appropriately to circumstances, even very difficult ones.

A phrase from a favorite teacher keeps popping up for me. "...(true practice) is realizing that space contains matter, that matter makes no demands on space and that space makes no demands on matter. Spirituality is a panoramic situation in which you can come and go freely and your relationship with the world is open. It is the ultimate non-violence."

For this moment, anyway, I get it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

This Is.....

If my early morning mediation session is especially relaxed, my awareness of mind sometimes takes a shift, so that there is a more leisurely awareness of each phenomenon of mind as it arises. This is in sharp contract to the waterfall cacophany of thoughts and feelings that normally tumble one upon another at breakneck speed in my awareness.

An air vibration behind me enters awareness, and I can physically feel the oscillation of tiny membranes in my head.

This is hearing.

My feeling regarding this sensation is utterly neutral. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it does interest me, and my mind begins to form a rudimentary constellation around the sense object.

This is feeling. This is interest.

Instantly, and inextricably linked to the hearing and feeling, myriad associations move toward the new constellation. Memories join the bare object of hearing, and this leads to the recognition and name of this sound as "plane taking off from airport."

This is perception.

Perception continues, the constellation builds. From the sound I know the direction the plane is heading, and memory of maps tells me the likely destination is Detroit, or New York, or Boston. Mental images of these cities arise, and now there is a new sense object for the mind to constellate around. New feelings: Detroit--unpleasant. Boston--pleasant.

The perception doesn't fade until well after the initial sound object, the noise of the plane, has faded.

A skin sensation arises, along the back side of my body.

This is touching.

This time, an immediate feeling of pleasantness joins the constellation.

This is feeling: pleasant.

Perception arrives in the form of memory and language and naming.

This is perception; this is warmth.

In response to pleasant feeing, an energy of attraction arises. I want more warmth.

This is desire.

A new skin sensation arises, this one along the front of my body. This, too, is touch, but this time the constellation is a little different.

This is feeling. This is unpleasantness.

Perception tells me that this is "cold." An almost magnetic energy of repulsion, aversion now joins in.

This is aversion.

A subtle energetic shift takes place. I am aware of an intention to capture warmth, to escape cold.

This is intention.

Another energy is present, though, one that intends to study rather than react.

This is restraint.

I am now aware of two constellations around touch sensations: one dominated by pleasantness and warmth, the other by cold and aversion. Close examination, though, indicates that they do not occupy the same space; they aren't experienced at the same time, but oscillate back and forth so rapidly that there is the illusion of simutaneousness.

In truth, there is only one "this is" at a time.

The present constellations seem to grow tired of their existence all by themselves, and quietly die and fade away. Others various constellations replace them: Itching. Story-telling. Planning. Muscle aching. A fantasy. Smelling bacon.

None of them need to be avoided; none need to be captured.

Gradually during the course of the meditation, I become absorbed in the sheer knowing, the "this is" of every phenomenon that arises. For this time, anyway, I have no investment in things being different, and am nothing more than a student of what's arising.

This is delight. This is peace.

Occasionally, this fascination with the bare "this is" of experience follows me off the meditation cushion and informs the entire day. This is more common on leisurely weekend days, especially when bad weather enforces an indoor indolence, but even a work day may sometimes be treated with a steady fascination with things just as they are, whatever they are.

More and more these days, the fabric of a spiritual life seems to be just this simple.

"This is."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Few Words Regarding "Suchness"

For the vast majority of practicing Buddhists, the lifestyle is about practice--following common sense living patterns that are intended to remove the elements that hinder our ability to be happy, and to cultivate those that nurture happiness. We try to avoid hurting others, avoid bad habits, in order to be happier, and to help other people be happier.

The idea is that living in such a way will very gradually cause us to evolve out of the habit of suffering. For traditional Buddhists, it's believed that many lifetimes of such gradual evolution will eventually bring us to the brink of full awakening, or enlightenment.

In a relatively small corner of the Buddhist world, a somewhat mystical and esoteric corner, the focus is on View. The belief here is that one can come to enlightenment all at once, in this very lifetime, by opening one's mind suddenly to see the truth of how things are. Some forms of Zen practice fall into this corner, as do the Tantric Tibetan schools, such as Dzogchen. To become awakened here is said to be a matter of achieving permanent non-dual awareness, an awareness in which it is seen finally that observer (witness) and the observed phenomenon are not two, but are the same thing. It's here that you run into strange sayings, such as "Emptiness is Form; Form is Emptiness."

It is in this corner of Buddhism where you run into a term that is sometimes translated as "suchness," or "is-ness," or "thusness." I first ran across the term while reading Ken Wilber nearly 10 years ago now, but I didn't really begin to understand it at all until I began to study the Tibetan teachers from whom Wilber was borrowing his ideas. In particular, I would recommend Chogyam Trungpa, who elucidates these powerful ideas like no one else.

A vastly oversimplified explanation of "suchness" is that it is our state of mind when we flash to a genuine experience of non-dual awareness. At these moments, past and future cease to exist, and we are entirely within the absolute perfection of a moment. All striving is seen as pointless, since each moment is a perfect one. There is no goal to achieve; it was a delusion to have been pursuing a goal at all, since Buddha-nature is already ours. We are said to experience "one taste," in which observer not only merges with the observed, but understands that there was never any separation at all.

Trungpa describes these glimpses as "flashes," and points out that once experienced, the ongoing practice is to cultivate and stablize our ability to dwell within the flash of the awakened mind.

I had studied these ideas and contemplated them for quite a long time before I had the first such small flash of really understanding what these very smart people were talking about.

It occurred during a lecture I was attending at a local meditation center. That night, the teacher was elaborating on the nature of awareness, in particular talking about how to shift one's attention during a meditation sitting from the beginning object (in our case, the breath), gently onto the faculty of awareness. We talked for quite some time about this very important element of meditation practice: resting comfortably in bare awareness.

Then the teacher said "And it will be interesting to note that at no time is it possible to be aware of nothing. To be aware, is always to be aware of some thing, some phenomenon. Phenomenon, experience itself, is always connected to awareness. You cannot have awareness without an object. And vice versa, I suppose."


There was a common sense truth here that I saw, so simple that I was stunned to have missed it for so long. Of course awareness occurs only with an object, and this implied a reflexive truth: that all objects, all phenomenon, include awareness within their fabric. In all things, awareness is included. It is inherent in all phenomenon. It could be no other way. It's only our mistaken view that prevents us from joining into this cosmic awareness. In one writer's words, "you no longer look up and admire the sky. You become the sky."

In the years since, I have had other flashes, and I suppose its fair to say that the experiences both awe me and terrify me a little. Unlike the Dzogchen masters of Tibet, I'll almost certainly fail to fully awaken in this lifetime.

In my own rare and fleeting glimpses of non-dual suchness , my experience is of a complete dissolution of boundaries between self and object. But unlike what occurs in madness, this dissolution carries with it not annhilation of self, as we commonly fear, but a vast and natural expansion of self into a kind of grand awareness that is implicit in all things.

The paradox of progress in this kind of practice is that it's really not about achieving anything at all, but about systematically surrendering all the things that obstruct our genuine awareness. First and foremost among these obstructions is the terrible defense of the small self, sometimes called ego. It is this defense that fills our normal everyday life, which is exactly why we imagine that awakening is a difficult feat rather than wonderfully simple. Pretty much everything we thought we knew turns out to be a delusion.

Even with pitifully small experience, I would warn you that this is very serious practice that requires much discipline and fearlessness. It most definitely should not be viewed as some kind of shortcut for people too impatient to practice moral living. Expert teachers will tell you that you have to pretty much surrender everything you've believed about yourself to practice in this kind of way. After 10 years of rather serious study, I know just enough to be careful.

Monday, November 10, 2008

No Expert, Me.

Sometimes in these pages I am asked to speak as an authority on Buddhism. While I'm flattered at this, I also feel compelled to say quite honestly that I should not be regarded as any kind of expert. I am not a formal teacher of Buddhism, nor am I a veteran of lengthy meditation retreats that have given me the keys to the Absolute.

My practice is that of an amateur in every sense, and while it's true that I've avidly studied these subjects for a long time, it would be a mistake for anyone to see me as anything but a serious beginner.

While there are many various spiritual traditions that interest me, Buddhism has always held a special appeal for me. Partly this is because there is an intellectualism to Buddhist study that appeals to my need for cerebral exercise, and partly it's because Buddhism has a clean coolness and clarity that I find to be an enormous relief and antidote to the fiery emotional winds that once dominated my life.

But if pushed to really define why I see myself as a Buddhist, the reason can be summed up by one single experience.

About 15 years ago, one Saturday morning saw me shopping at a local indoor retail center in Minneapolis, a relatively avant guarde section of town known as Uptown. In one of the upstairs galleries at the shopping center, I came upon a pair of Tibetan Buddhist monks working on an elaborate geometric mural painted with colorful sands, known as a mandala. The exhibit was sponsored by some American-Tibet exchange program, and the room was sparsely decorated with a simple Tibetan alter with some small shrine objects, but it was extremely simple by most standards.

Mandala artwork is a well-known craft in Tibet. These large sand "paintings" are created on the floor, by artisans who sit cross-legged on the floor, applying the dyed sands to outlined patterns with tools that most closely resemble those pastry bags that bakers use to apply fancy frostings to wedding cakes. Sometimes the designs are purely geomentric; sometimes they resemble landscapes or other natural scenes. The artist sits cross legged, hold the nozzle of the bag where he or she wants the sand to fall, then gently taps on the metal tip so a fine layer of sand drifts down and covers the wood base. A variety of nozzles are used, depending on the relative coarseness or fineness of the design.

In can take days, weeks, or even months for a mandala to be completed, depending on its complexity. Ultimately, this is an exercise in understanding the temporary nature of existence, since the artwork is never preserved, but is soon cast to the winds or allowed to wash away in a river.

On this particular morning, the two young monks were nearing completion on the mandala; a small flyer announced that in a week, the mandala would carefully be carried down to the shores of Lake Calhoun and allowed to wash away. A number of observers came and went during the hour or so that I sat and watched the monks. Once, a man paused to ask me a question, a fact that puzzled me until I realized that the khaki trousers and Minnesota maroon sweatshirt I was wearing was very close to the saffron and gold robes the monks were wearing. I had by mistaken for some kind of tour guide or sponsor for the exhibit.

The work was painstaking, with the monks hunched over in a position that would have been agonizing for you or me. They were about three hours into a four-hour work session. Eventually, they'd be relieved by helpers.

Then a young family with two small children came into the gallery to watch, and something in me know that problems were brewing. The mandala could not have been any more delicate, and the boys were about 4 and 6 years of age. No genius was required to see what was coming.

The moment of disaster was both entirely innocent and quite dramatic. One of the young boys, as they sat off to the side to watch the monk, kicked off his boot---which sailed across the floor and smeared colored sands to all four corners of the compass, effectively ruining the portrait. Days worth of work were instantly ruined.

Now, I know that Buddhist monks were supposed to be patient and kind, but nothing prepared me for the response of these two young monks, perhaps 20, 25 years old. I would have supposed that even these fellows would have to wrestle with anguish and possibly impatience at seeing their work ruined. In my mind's eyes, I imagined that they'd struggle with a bit of anger, probably successfully fighting it back, then grinning and bearing it.

That's about the best I'd have hoped for for myself, on my very best day. But even though I was watching with utmost intensity, I saw not the least flicker of dismay in either of these young monks at seeing their hard work demolished in a moment. Instead, one of the monks simply asked for the boy's name, then lettered his name in finely scripted colored sands on the floor of the gallery using his bag of slendidly colored sands. The boy was at first startled at not being scolded in any way, then lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw his name emerge on the floor.

I watched the monks for another hour, long after the family left. When I finally stood up to leave, one of the monks stood, and bowed to me with a smile as I left. I wasn't asked for any contribution, wasn't handed flowers, didn't receive any literature asking me to join the club.

As I looked back through the storefront glass, the monks were already back at work, in intent and joyful concentration on a task they well knew was entirely ephemeral.

That day, I knew that I'd very much like to be like those monks. If not in this lifetime, then perhaps in another.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Concentration, Spiritually Speaking

The subject of "concentration" gets a lot of attention in spiritual circles, particularly among Buddhists. Concentration is courted in a meditation practice is thought to be a trait of substantial benefit to progressing on a spiritual path. However, confusion often arises because the traditional western definition of concentration isn't quite the same thing as the Buddhist meaning of the term.

Modern westerners approach meditation with a gung-ho goal of achieving a fierce, single-pointed that involves a highly focussed, intellectual obsession with some object that has been selected for attention. While this kind of concentration, similar to what we used to cram for an exam in our school days, can be useful for beginning to quiet a mind that wanders wildly, it isn't exactly what genuine concentration is about.

Spiritual concentration is a more refined thing. It's is not about intellectual ferocity, but comes about when a mind exists in unity and connectedness to circumstances as they actually are at the moment. Concentration is absent whenever the mind finds itself alienated from real conditions, obsessed instead with goals and outcome.

Browbeating oneself into banishing all thoughts, sweatily focussing on the breath, or a mantra syllable, or a flame, or an mental image of a lotus flower, isn't the end goal at all. This rudimentary form of intellectual concentration is useful only as a bare starting point for beginning the process of quieting the mind. It should be dropped the moment we begin to glimpse the quiet awareness beneath, which is what we're actually seeking.

What we're seeking to join ourselves to during meditation is not an object at all, but the restful, wide awake quality of bare awareness itself. A concentrated mind isn't one that lacks thoughts, feelings and concepts. It's one that is awake, present to whatever phenomena are occurring.

In practical terms for the meditator, this kind of concentration will have a more subtle feel to it. When I reach it in my own sittings, it's sometimes accompanied by a physical sensation of first becoming microscopically small, then paradoxically large. This kind of concentration feels like a fine jeweler's hammer—much smaller and humbler than a sledge hammer, but capable of far more intricate and powerful work, in the end. It's this tool, after all, that can carve diamond.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Meditate

A colleague who learned that I meditate regularly asked me about it the other day. It turns out that some years ago she had struggled mightily to "get" meditation, and was rather wistful about the fact that she hadn't made it work for her. It was, she felt, a rather serious failure in her life. In listening to her words, it was obvious that she had been anticipating dramatic changes, had wanted them badly, and was disappointed with herself at failing with something she wanted so much.

I'm always somewhat matter-of-fact when describing what meditation can and will do for you. In truth, expecting dramatic, mystical results is one of the surest ways to hinder yourself in a mediation practice (or in any spiritual endeavor, for that matter), so I surely don't really play up this aspect of the practice.

One of the best definitions of meditation I ever heard came from a Tibetan Rinpoche, Chogam Trungpa, who said that mediation practice was really nothing more than "making friends with your own mind."

A similarly useful and reassuring definition came from a teacher of basic insight practice, who said that meditation was really nothing more than "experimenting with letting things be exactly as they are, with no pushing or pulling."

(The movement from "concentration" to "insight" meditation comes about naturally. At the point where you are truly letting go and letting things be as they are, insight arises automatically.)

Such definitions might quietly disappoint you, if you're looking for something more earth-shattering. It's not until you're well into practice, perhaps for many years, when you finally realize that these simple definitions have a quiet, earth-shattering quality after all.

When you start a meditation practice, it's essentially not much more than setting aside 30 or 40 minutes a few times a week, or perhaps each day, to just let the mind fall quiet, to see what might happen, to see what it feels like. It's not uncommon at first for this to feel like a slightly guilty pleasure, since the luxury of letting the mind go quiet is so very alien to us.

This is because our normal status for being in the world is one of incessant, never-ending willfulness. Virtually all our energy is spent in pulling or pushing against things as they are, in an effort to transform them into something that suits our liking. So to take a break, even for a few minutes, may seem like an utter waste of time, a luxury that delays our accomplishment of goals. I, for one, fiercely defended my willfulness, seeing it as the engine that allowed me to accomplish things in life.

Very gradually, though, as the mind begins to settle just a little, a quiet insight starts to take shape. There is another way of being in the world, and that is simply to act logically and naturally based on circumstances as they happen to be at any given moment. You begin to see that you can "be" in the world by just responding to things as they are. All the mental pushing and pulling --the desire and aversion–-have absolutely no impact on changing things. The experience of wanting or rejecting, in fact, are entirely unpleasant, when examined directly.

No amount of wanting will cause a dirty sink to miraculously become clean and neat.

Washing the dishes, however, does the trick.

"Hold on a second," you might say. "If you don't hate a dirty sink, or want a clean kitchen, then the place will never get cleaned." The common belief is that desire and aversion are the fuel that makes the engine of accomplishment turn.

But I'd suggest to you that this isn't so. A decision to wash the dishes can well arise simply because the kitchen is chaotic, and the natural thing to do with chaos is to create order. Wanting and hating are symptoms of having failed to act intelligently, not a fuel that causes us to act.

Willfulness-- pushing and pulling, desire and aversion--need not enter into the equation. Without willfulness, the world begins to act through you, and you begin to have a sense of experiencing things as they are, not as an affront to the way you'd like them to be.

In the early days (perhaps the early months, or years) of a meditation practice, the meditation session itself is a novelty, is something far different than the way you lead your life off the mat. Gradually, though, you find that the outlook you have while meditating begins to carry over into the rest of your life. Eventually, you start to live a meditative life, and everything that happens becomes a part of your on-going practice. "Hmm," you think when your tire blows out on the freeway. "How interesting the way my heart pounds during fear," even while you matter-of-factly slow the car with precision and pull safely over to the shoulder, rather than panicking.

So what I told my colleague was this, as she expressed her disappointment in herself over her expectations for meditation. "The feeling of disappointment....Are you experiencing it? Right now?"

She paused for a moment, then nodded.

"That's mediation," I said.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Thoughts on Emptiness

The Buddhist practice as it has evolved for me more closely resembles a practical science than it does a religious practice. Meditation is nothing more than a technique for becoming familiar with the activities of our mind and studying it. Everything else——all the highly touted spiritual goodies— simply flow from that common-sense observation.

What I invariably notice is that very precise, close observation of almost any subject always has the effect of eliminating the subject's solidity. Study a piece of marble and you begin to see the veins of ocean sediments, even the individual grains of sand—not a big solid chunk stone. Meditation, like any form of observation, introduces space into any object. And in the case of mind-study, it introduces space into thoughts, emotions, concepts——all the stuff that we sometimes treat as though they have material concreteness.

Some years ago, after I'd already studied meditation for a few years, there came a quiet little breakthrough. On the cushion one day, I was looking at some very old, very ingrained hostility toward a family member that had arisen in me. It was a very common thing for me in those days. I was looking at this hostility very closely, studying all its nuances—when the thought suddenly came to me:

"This is only a feeling. It has no weight, no physical body, no substance of any kind. This feeling is present only in this moment, and only in my mind. It can't be photographed or recorded in any way. It is not real, but only an odd mental activity."

The "solid thing" was a story I had been telling myself. Over and over.

And instantly, the decades-old resentment I'd been nursing was seen as a rather bad plot in a soap opera. It wasn't real in any truly identifiable way, other than as a weird little constellation of enzymes and hormones and brain chemicals that had strangely come together for a moment. And I felt, for perhaps the first time, that my emotions didn't own me, nor I them, but that they were just phenomena with their own cycle of life.

That day didn't mark an absolute turning point. I still have times when I'm gripped by worries and irritations and fears—times when I treat them as though they're my possessions. But with increasing regularity, as I get more astute at studying these mind activities, I see them as little more than stories that my mind habitually tells itself. Deep seeing reveals this to be true about virtually everything —everything—that troubles me: it always turns out to be nothing more than a temporary construction of mind. Not real in any kind of demonstrable way, less concrete than water vapour.

This, I've come to realize, is one way of looking at the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When you look at anything closely, you realize that it has no permanent, concrete substance at all, but is merely a snapshot of energy in time. All things arise, all things pass away, and the illusion of stability and permanent realness is just a story we tell ourselves.

Even a chunk of marble is really just a collection of recently bonded sand particles on its way to becoming sand again sometime in the future.

Initially, I found myself a little saddened by this recognition, because something in me really wanted some things to be permanent. Gradually, though, I'm recognizing that it's the clinging to permanence that causes much of the sadness and pain. Turn loose, go with the emptiness, and illusion begins to fall away and a pretty delicious freedom begins to cook.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tuesday Buddhism

Buddhist philosophy begins with position that is terrifically different than the tenants of most western spiritual beliefs. This perhaps explains why it feels so alien, especially to those of us raised in Judaic/Christian traditions.

The degree of difference can be clearly seen when you look at the Buddhist version of genesis:

In the beginning, Buddhism would argue, human beings mistakenly made a incorrect distinction between matter and space. To matter, and the various physical forms assumed by matter, they gave the name "real." Spaceousness, however, was demoted to a position of non-reality, so much so, in fact, that to this day we believe that space is nothingness, a void.

This belief in the primacy of form makes up what Buddhists term the first of five skandas, sometimes translated as "aggregates" or "heaps". The skandas represent five different mistaken assumptions human beings make, which form the foundation of a cyclical, unhappy existence. Each of the skandas is a karmic result of the preceding skanda, and depends upon the others.

So the first skanda, form, arises due the human decision to reduce spaciousness to non-existence, and to give primacy, and false permanence, to the various shapes that matter takes. The first human error is in separating matter from space, in separating various forms from one another, and in believing in the truth of "this vs that."

Note how radically different this position is from Judaic/Christian mythology, where the separation between matter and space, rather than being the cause of misery, represents the birth of reality. In this mythology, it is God, not man, that separates heaven from earth.

In the Buddhist cosmology, the second skanda arises when we strangely choose to take up a relationship to the various forms that we have noticed. We create the illusion of ego by creating a feeling that we exist in relation to the various forms that have arise. Feeling is the second skanda, and it is created because we hold to a belief in self and other. "This is me, and that is not me, and that's how I know I exist," is the logic.

The third skanda is usually called perception, and with this skanda there arises an impulse to take some kind of action in relationship to the various forms perceived by ego. We respond with longing to the form, with hostility to the form, or with indifference to the form. This is the skanda that is responsible for desire and hostility in all their forms, and it exists to prop up the illusion of ego/self. We grab for the things that support our sense of self, we reject those that threaten it.

The fourth skanda is usually translated as intellect. This aggregate includes a complicated system of mental concepts and beliefs, a framework that attempts to make sense of various forms and their relationship to one another. In modern western society, this is the skanda that is most highly celebrated. We may, in fact, view intellect as the supreme accomplishment of the human species. Buddhists, however, regard intellect as a construct built on faulty foundations (the previous skandas) and do not find it of particularly important value.

And because intellect cannot exist without a context, the final skanda is consciousness, which is a somewhat artificial ocean upon which the intellect bobs and sails. In this context, it does not mean awareness, which is a non-judging quality that does not discriminate. Awareness is much different from the skanda of consciousness, which exists to give relationship and context to ego and form. Awareness leads us to awakening; consciousness (as defined here) is something of an obstruction.

For theoretical Buddhists, the skandas represent the basic fallacies of human existence, and are the root of all unhappiness. On the face of things, this fact could depress us mightily, since the skandas seem to represent pretty much everything we consider part of the human experience. What could a world without form, with intellect, without passion, without consciousness possibly look like? we wonder.

The key to the Buddhist path is pretty simple, though. We simply look at the initial premise of the first skanda—that form is separate from spaciousness. Is this really true? we ask ourselves. And we then ask what existence would feel like if we ignored the illusion of separateness, and behaved as though form and space are not separate, but are the same phenomenon.

It is no oversimplification to say that this is precisely what represents awakened enlightenment—the discovery that form and spaciousness are not separate at all. For Buddhists, meditation is not a religious practice, but a laboratory in which we experiment with our assumptions regarding matter and space.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Modest Proposal

A friend and I have been talking over the last few days about personal power. Specifically, the discussion was about that maddening feeling we get when faced with people who seem perfectly able to claim all lordly rights to exist in the world, when many of us are meek and subservient to the point near invisibility.

There’s a perfectly good case to be made that the meek of the earth can and should reclaim what is rightfully theirs—to stand up in the face of the egotistical energy hogs who seem to regard it as their place in the world to be served by others.

As a recovering doormat myself, I most certainly am part of this club. Surely this is responsible, after all, to stand up for oneself, to take no crap, to insist on being treated with equal respect. Psychologists, spiritual advisors, and intelligent people of all kinds tell us that this is the way to be.

Gradually, though, something has been whispering to me that this stance, defensible though it is, isn’t exactly the path to happiness.

Sure, there is a kind of relative happiness that occurs when you’ve earned the respect of family and peers, when you feel parity with others. I have known this happiness, have earned it through hard work. But this sometimes strikes me as a kind of hollow, runner up award.

I’m just slightly embarrassed to say this, but the fact of the matter is that at times of real, genuine, transcendental happiness…

I don’t feel powerful at all. I feel powerless.

I can feel the derision arising out there, but let me elaborate.

When I’m genuinely happy, I don’t feel that I’m in possession of personal power at all. Instead, I feel that I’m just a willing servant to some kind of natural energy, playing out in a natural plot. This energy really has no interest in the personal needs or wants of myself or anyone else, for that matter. It’s friendly to me only to the degree that I live in accord with it. It’s my delusion to imagine that such power can belong to me, to you, or to any individual at all. It is a delusion that makes me unhappy. I’m happy when I move myself into alignment with the cosmic plan; I’m always unhappy if I’m pleading with it to bend to my wishes.

I’m all too aware that this is utterly illogical, and that it places me at odds with modern humanism, which believes only in the god of Self.

But I just can’t ignore my own experience. There is enormous freedom in smallness, because being free of self can do nothing else but make you one with the universe. You can’t get any bigger than that, nor any freer.

Let the games begin.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Good Karma for Modern Folks

For modern Buddhists, karma isn’t so much a theory of multiple lifetimes over eons as it is a model explaining the psychological cycles we go through in daily life—the pattern of making the same decisions, having similar experiences, over and over again. On a practical level, this view of karma can give a model for understanding our perpetual cycle of bad habits and repeated thought processes. Karrma isn’t played out over multiple lifetimes, but many times a day, even from moment to moment.

In this modern view, the human experience of the work, the steps in the karmic cycle, go something like this:

Forms arise in our various human sensory faculties. Through eyes, vision arise. Through ears, sounds take form; through skin, touch sensations arise. Though the tongue, tastes; through the nose, smells; through the brain, thoughts.

This initial level of experience is purely abstract, preverbal. Immediately, though, these physical sensory forms enter a network of associations and memories, a process through which “meaning starts to become assigned.

Sitting at the bus stop, my eyes and ears become aware of a large, shiny black shape, from which a low, throaty sound emerges. Forms.

What I see and hear, the forms that arise, is now compared to millions of different memories and ideas and concepts stored away, including memory of language symbols.

This is Cadillac SUV with spinning silver hubcaps and loud music.

Sometimes immediately upon receiving sensory form, other times through the assignment of meaning and names to these sensory forms, some kind of feeling arises. This is not yet a judgment of any kind, but simply a very basic sense of pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling. When the feeling is extreme, I might experience it as pleasure or pain. At this early stage, though, it is really nothing more than the recognition of pleasantness and unpleasantness; no judgment is really made regarding this experience of mine.

Memories of my political beliefs, my experiences with drivers of SUV’s, causes an unpleasant feeling to arise.

The next step happens so quickly and so automatically that we may well regard it as inevitable and incontrovertible. The sensation of pleasantness or unpleasantness is now immediately joined by some variation of either greed or hatred. In milder forms, we may think of it as longing or vague irritation, but whatever the name, this next step in the karmic chain involves either grasping to capture a pleasant feeling; or a revulsion and repulsion of an unpleasant feeling.

I dislike my unpleasant feeling, find myself with an opinion of derision regarding the driver of a gas-guzzling vehicle.

Wanting/hating leads immediately to volition, or intent: a decision to take action in order to accomplish the desireous or hateful goals.

I decide either to ignore the SUV, turning my attention elsewhere; or perhaps to say something confrontational and hostile to the driver, who happens to be playing loud music through open windows.

Volition initiates physical action: our muscles and joints literally create physical changes in the environment.

I follow through on my intent.

Upon action—perhaps nothing more dramatic than a change in position that brings a new view of the world—an entirely new set of sensory forms begin to take shape. Presto, chango, a new cycle of karma begins. On and on, again and again, forever and ever.

The description of this cycle makes common sense logic to many people, even those who don’t lean the Buddhist direction. It does seem to be a perfectly plausible model for how we experience the world.

It’s also a little disheartening and discouraging, really, because careful examination shows that there is not a lot of freedom here. With all actions and thoughts and feelings arising out of a reaction to conditions preceding, there is seemingly not much room for free choice in this model. Even those moments of apparent choice, when closely examined, arise out of previous beliefs and thoughts and in response to current situations.

But what Buddhism suggests is that this entirely karmic cycle is not a description of how things actually are, at all. It is really an illusion. This karmic cycle is, in fact, the artificial construction of ego.

Ego, in the Buddhist sense, can be likened to a still pond of water that suddenly receives a sharp smack on its surface, which temporarily causes ripples to create the illusion of a hard, firm plane upon which to stand. The action of ego, the Buddhists say, is like continuing to slap the water frantically, trying to perpetuate the illusion of a hard, solid surface, on and on, forever and ever, for fear that might might fall still and silent and deny us of our illusion.

Now, spiritual practice in the Buddhist sense is really a pretty simple affair. All we’re trying to do is introduce just a little natural spaciousness into the illusion of solidness that is created and fiercely defended by the ego. We’re letting the surface of the pond fall a little bit still in order to experience the waterness of it.

Introducing spaciousness (meditation is the primary tool for this, initially) does several things. First, it allows us to identify the various stages of the karmic cycle described above. Meditators, for example, may soon begin to see that the stages in this mental cycle occur with blindingly fast speed, and they may actually find themselves able to spot the moment where form transforms into language and naming, for example.

Secondly, the introduction of space lets us consider the possibility of stepping outside the chain of karma. Seeing the stages lets us consider what it might be like to choose something else, and we see the possibility of this through observing that there is a small gap, a natural space, between each stage of the karmic cycle. These gaps are what we look at with interest.

Thirdly, introducing spaciousness through meditation might allow us to experiment with non-karmic existence. Perhaps only for a few moments, or maybe a few minutes at a time, we might actually get a glimpse of what a non-conditioned, non-cause-and-effect existence might be like.

A finally, spaciousness, for those particularly dedicated and courageous, might lead to a permanent renounciation and escape from the dreariness of karmic existence.

Now, in modern Buddhist practice, the karmic, psychological stages can be divided into two types. First, there are resultant karmic stages. These are simply the natural result of conditions that have come prior, and for this reason they are viewed as completely, utterly, without moral implication. Form, perception/memory and feeling/emotion—the bare experience of pleasantness and unpleasantness—all these are regarded as resultant karmic stages. There is nothing that must be done in response to them; they are simply the completely natural result of experiences and memories and conditions that have come prior. This is in pretty sharp contrast to certain other spiritual traditions, in which thoughts and feelings are thought to be reflections of our moral character.

But then there are karmic stages which are said to be causal. These are stages that actually create new karmic outcome. These stages include wanting/hating, volition, and action. It’s here, the Buddhists say, where free will enters.

Buddhists focus considerable attention particularly on the stage between the feeling of pleasantness/unpleasantness, a stage which carries no moral overtones whatsoever, and the next step, when feeling/emotion becomes joined by wanting/hating of any kind.

For it’s here, the Buddhists say, that there is a pretty exciting opportunity for freedom. Here is the point, it’s suggested, where you can simply interrupt the cycle. It’s the point where you can simply choose to accept a pleasant and unpleasant experience, and not join it with wanting or hating. Rather than an event that demands response, this stage of experiencing pleasantness and unpleasantness is simply the logical outcome of previous conditions, and doesn’t demand a response at all.

To most of us, this seems utterly illogical and impossible. Of course we’re supposed to act when we feel pleasantness or unpleasantness. That’s what we do: seek pleasantness, reject unpleasantness.

But perhaps it seems this way simply because of our habits, our ego belief.

In sitting meditation, for example, it’s quite common for a skin itch, a slight muscle ache, or some other mild physical discomfort to arise. In group meditations, I’ve seem some meditators who twitch and fidget pretty much constantly in an effort to overcome the vaguest of unpleasant sensations.

But what becomes very clearly evident, though, is that joining the sensation of unpleasantness with desire or aversion, wanting or hating, does nothing whatsoever to prevent the unpleasantness from arising. In fact, the people who twitch and scratch seem to be far more prone to more itching, more aching. Nor does itching and shifting really do all that much to even relieve the present discomfort. Left all on it’s own, a skin itch naturally evaporates of its own accord, almost as fast, and usually more permanently, than if you react with irritation by scratching it.

The suggestion meditators are given, to sit quietly and be present with physical discomfort is not about demonstrating some kind of impressive emotional restraint. It’s not the Eastern version of wearing a hair shirt. What we’re seeking to do is examine the small gap between the experience of unpleasantness/pleasantness and the leap to wanting/hating. We’re just examining the spacious gap, playing with it, even.

The fact is that nothing very disastrous happens if we don’t jump to wanting/hating. The unpleasantness naturally evaporates anyway, and pleasantness can never be permanently captured, despite the Herculean efforts of our wanting. Both conditions come and go of their own accord, not because of the wishes of our ego.

What we find is that the ego’s wanting/hating was not driving the world at all, as we thought was true. The world was, and always has been, driving itself.

This doesn’t mean that we go through life symbolically refusing to scratch the things that itch. Our memories of poison ivy rashes and hornet bites is probably going to cause us to automatically respond with a scratch to most itches.

But it may well be possible to respond to the world intelligently without bringing wanting and hating into the equation at all. We can scratch without resenting the itch. We can recycle our trash without hating litterers; we can walk to work without disliking SUV drivers; we can answer truthfully without feeling morally superior to liars. We can appreciate this good meal without wanting a better one or worrying about where the next one will come from.

Wanting/hating isn’t what drives the world; the driver seems to be simple, natural intelligence.

It’s that moment in the mind just before wanting/hating begins where things get interesting, where new possibilities arise.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Saturday, Here in the Park

Saturday, unexpectedly, I found myself resurrected.

My work week had been brutal, and had ended with a dozen unresolved problems. Though pretty desperately in need of a full weekend's rest, I had committed to working at a yearly civic festival up at our Wisconsin book warehouse all day Saturday. It was a duty I was not looking forward to. I would have paid money just to hole up in the dark and nurse the headache that had been with me all week.

It helped not at all that it was a beautiful fall day, and that the hour drive took me up through some tremendous scenery along the St. Croix river valley into a quaint little small town in western Wisconsin. When you seriously don't want to do something, great energy goes into holding onto that unhappiness. The fact was that I was giving up a Saturday to work, and I wasn't resentful of this fact so much as just weary deep down to the soul. I was too tired to be angry, too tired for depression, really

The festival was a full city event, of which our little book selling festival and classic car show was just one part. I was surprised to find that there were literally thousands of people milling about the warehouse and affiliated car show. For the first hour, I worked indoors, trying, and largely failing, to help customers find a book on classic 57 chevies, or 1930s Piper Cub aircraft. I really couldn't have been more useless, since I didn't know the warehouse layout at all, and asking colleagues for instructions only took them away from the real work they were doing.

I've never been very good at being incompetent, and it wasn't good for my spirit to be largely in the way of everybody else. A day that started poorly was taking a turn for the worse.

Then one of the organizers handed me the keys to one of the golf carts--one of our services was offering rides to help book buyers get back to their cars at remote parking lots about 3/4 of a mile from the warehouse.

It took only a few minutes, really, for the world to change entirely. For the next four hours, I ferried pedestrians carrying backs of books back to their car, and I'm not sure I've ever been happier in my life. Older people were gracious and thankful for the rides; kids were delighted to ride in the golf cart, and consistently asked me to go as fast as possible. It was warm in the sun, but high, fast moving clouds blocked the sun every few moments, introducing delightful little shivery moments that tell you it is September rather than August.

A man from Indiana said that he came to the town every year at this time to vacation, so much did he like the annual festival. One small group of motorcylists picnicking alongside the road stopped me at one point after seeing me pass a dozen, two dozen times, and offered me a beer. I declined, with professionalism.

One of the traffic directors called on the walkie-talkie and asked for somebody to bring cold water; I delivered.

I always do better outdoors than in, but as they day wrapped up, I realized that my rebirth was the result of something even simpler than that. For the entire afternoon, my only responsibility had been to serve others in the most simple way imaginable. There was nothing at all complicated about the solutions I was being asked to deliver. There wasn't any kind of production workflow to troubleshoot and improve; I had no personality clashes to reconcile, no emotional upheavals to tend, no deadlines to meet.

For four hours, my entire being was simply focused on giving rides to people who were invariably happy to receive them.

These small acts of service were events of utter freedom for me, for there was nothing that needed planning, nothing else to think or worry about, other than simply delivering people to a place they wanted to go.

"What do you do, when you're not driving ladies around in a golf cart?" one woman asked me as I dropped her off at her station wagon. "Are you one of the big shots?"

I grinned to myself. "Today, this is as important as it gets," I said to her.

Perhaps in the end, genuine freedom is mostly a matter of freedom from self.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Bit of Quiet Outrage

My Minneapolis office is located just around the blog from the downtown precinct station, and yesterday when I left work at 5:30, about 80 swat team members were gearing up for the night's activities in this RNC-plagued twin cities.

Rage Against the Machine was playing at the Target Center, and there was an assumption right from the get-go that this might get ugly.  At a stoplight, I paused for a moment to chat with a young policeman pulling his riot helmet from the back of a black SUV.  "Bet you're ready for all this to be over, eh?" I said to him.

"Nah. They haven't yet assigned me to St. Paul, so this might be the only chance I get to mix it up. About time," he said.

And sure enough, some hours later, when a couple of hundred concert goers lingered around downtown Minneapolis after the concert, there came a moment when the cops ordered them to go home. When the concert-goers got a bit indignant (after all, the parties for the official delegates don't even get started in downtown Minneapolis until 2:00 am), the cops reacted instantly by hosing them with pepper-spray and arresting 100 of them.  

Other than verbal shouts, there was no physical provocation visible in any of the footage. 

I"m not sure how many of these anti-riot squad members have come in from out of town, but I can tell you that my opinion of local law enforcement is dropping by the day.  At the moment, there's no effort to "keep the peace," but rather a distinct wish to provoke confrontation. 

Republicans partying at the Aqua club downstairs from my office littered the sidewalk outside with vomit, beer cans and wine bottles last night from 2:00 to 4:00 am.  I don't think any of them were maced or clubbed for the offense. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Republicans, Be Gone!

The Republicans are in town for their convention.  Or, rather, they're supposed to be across the river in St. Paul. I had hoped that the silliness would be confined to St. Paul, which is always so desperate for attention, but alas, the entire Twin Cities has been pretty well consumed by lots of white people with regional accents and American flag buttons and patent leather shoes.

A Republican convention, I've learned, most closely resembles a parade at Disneyland. About as vanilla white as you can get. This, folks, ain't America by a long shot. 

On Sunday, we were briefly in downtown Minneapolis, where against all logic there were hundreds of cops in riot gear patrolling the streets—on horseback, on bicycles, on Segways, in patrol cars.  This made little sense to us, since civilized Minneapolis is a full 8 miles from where the real action is in downtown St. Paul. Maybe the cops were practicing in Minneapolis for the fun that was about to start in St. Paul the following day. 

Early on Saturday we had received our first whiff of things to come. There were four or five surprise raids on the local homes of suspected "anarchists". The busts turned up lots of incriminating evidence, including slingshots and buckets of urine and feces.  Oh yeah, and conveniently there were also the makings of molotov cocktails.  As though folks whose weapons of choice are piss and shit really have the moxie to use real explosives.

The real message was apparent to everybody: cops had grabbed glass bottles in the homes, and found gas cans for lawn mower gasoline in the garages, and presto, chango—probable cause for violating their civil rights. The most egregious raid occurred at a home visited by a group of civil libertarians devoted to nothing more than videotaping the activities of police during public demonstrations. These weren't anarchists at all, yet the proclamation was that these dangerous folks had also been harboring weapons of some sort. This is MInnesota, after all, and most every home has an ancient shotgun once used to hunt pheasants. 

Silly nonsense, really, but indicative of how much civil rights have dwindled in this time of homeland security.

In reality, things were a little dicier here in the Twin Cities than the carefully restricted media has let on. The silly "anarchists" with their bandana masks are getting most of the press and video airing—this is by intent, since it makes the entire protest movement look silly.  In reality, fully 15,000 people marched from the capital to the convention center on Monday, the vast majority of them responsible middle-classed folks,  and things were quite a bit scarier than is being seen on CNN and Fox. Many dozens of people with no intention of violence or confrontation of any kind received their first ever dose of tear-gas, something that really hasn't been used here in the Twin Cities since a University of MInnesota demonstration in 1972. 

The presence of large squads of riot police in black swat gear is becoming a bit unnerving, and is starting to remind many of us old timers of images of Chicago in 1968. Thus far, I've been a good middle-aged citizen and have been mostly polite to the Republicans clogging the streets. However, there is another march scheduled for Thursday, and I'm giving some pretty serious thought to taking a step back to the early 1970s. 

If I have to step around one more drunken Republican with a southern accent, all bets are off. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

And by evening....

A fourth practical truth arises out of the first three.  Fully experiencing the pain with which I awaken in the morning, learning something of its causes while I am in the shower, remembering on the way to work that joy is a possibility, I  now try to observe my simple experiences of life during the day. If I can, I try to avoid and minimize those things that exaggerate pain, and cultivate those things that support peace. In virtually every aspect, this path is about recognizing and removing friction and restriction.

I am not so fully evolved that I can remain awake from morning to nightfall. Many days, I awaken and fall asleep several times during the course of the day. Some days, I'm pretty much frozen and sore and asleep all day long. The next morning, though, I may find myself born into a day where I'm free much more often than not. 

And though I can't predict when exactly it will happen, I can see the possibility that  eventually there may come a time when I may fall asleep at the end of the day with all my energy flowing freely, pretty much devoid of fear and arthritic soreness, utterly unconcerned and trusting about what will come the following morning.

That next day's rebirth, the morning after falling asleep in trust,  that will be the one worth watching. 

In the third hour...

Having accepted the important truth that I hurt when I awaken in the morning, having looked deeply into that pain to discover the truth of its cause, a third truth follows instantly.

Even while faced with the truth that I am experiencing pain at this moment in time, I also immediately recognize that there are times when I do not hurt. At the very least, I can remember moments of bliss and utter freedom.  In this very moment, even, I may  get a brief glimpse of this freedom, especially if I have recognized very clearly what is causing my pain. 

Perhaps the most important and noble truth of all: Pain and suffering ends. There is an end to it. If I have ever in my life known a moment of genuine happiness, this is proof of that fact. Though life as we know it includes pain and suffering, the fact that we know moments without it tells us that pain ends and joy exists. 

The fact of joy is the third important truth. 

(continued above)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just after the beginning....

Awakening with an awareness of discomfort in the body, in the mind, of the spirit, there is an immediate choice to make in the morning. I can either disagree with the fact of my pain and try to distract myself with diversions; or I can choose to simply experience it, look deeply into it, respond to it. 

The first strategy, disagreement and distraction, can pretty much guarantee me a day of quiet though familiar woe. It was my strategy of choice for many, many years, and sometimes I'm convinced that this is the typical mode for most people. Disagreeing with and running from the simple fact of pain is the normal course.

On the simplest physical level:  if I awaken and immediately choose to disagree with the fact that premature arthritis makes my ankles and hips ache, even though I am only 53, I enter the day in resentment and bitterness.

Another strategy, though, is to enter deeply into the ache of my ankles and hips, to investigate it, and to wonder about its causes.

When I don't fight my pain, but rather accept it and look into it, what I realize in the case of the physical pain of my joints, is that it arises because I have been motionless for many hours. I hurt in the joints because the energy flow seems to be dammed and restricted within me. The pain begins to dissipate almost as soon as I begin to move and allow the energy to flow once more, which tells me that my suspicion is correct.

I see somewhat the same thing when I stop disagreeing with some experience of emotional or spiritual pain and begin to look into it.  Like physical pain, it quite often arises out of some restriction or energetic friction within me.  If I cling to some hope or ideal or concept, or idea, for example, this often leads to emotional unhappiness, but when this energy moves freely, my pain lessens.

Following closely on the first noble truth ("We hurt"), a second important truth, perhaps equally noble, becomes apparent. Pain and suffering, for me at least, is a matter of frozenness. Pain has trouble existing in conditions where muscles, tendons, joints, thoughts, emotions, concepts, beliefs flow freely. 
(continued above)

In the Beginning...

I sometimes make the mistake of imagining that my own experience is somehow universal, that I represent the archetypal human experience. My daughter, though, likes to point out that I'm "one weird guy," and so it is perhaps a mistake for me to make conclusions about how life works for the rest of humanity. It might well be that it's this way for me alone, and not really for other people at all.

But what choice do we have?  Atfter all, the only thing we can do is genuinely experience how life is for us, share it with others, and if enough sharing goes on, we're likely to discover enough commonality to relieve our aloneness in the world. 

This is the way life is for me....

During times when I'm particularly mindful and objective, I notice in the morning that the process of awakening starts with an awareness of pain and discomfort. It's a relatively rare thing to awaken with a heart that sings. Much more often it is some form of pain that  starts the awakening process.  Sometimes the very first sensation is the ache of muscles and joints that have been inactive for many hours. Sometimes it's a bit of emotional discomfort of some kind—memory of an unpleasant event from the day before, for example. 

For me, anyway, awakening begins with a recognition of pain.  It's the thing with me when I climb out of bed and into daily life. Sometimes I think that without pain, there would be no reason for us to awaken in the morning at all.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't really think this means that I'm some sort of melancholic, depressive personality. It seems to me that almost everyone awakens with pain of some kind. And if we're perfectly honest, if we drop our defenses at any given moment during that day, we'd also likely have to recognize the underlying presence of some discomfort and pain.

It seems to be a human truth, and since truth is by definition honorable and noble, this is the first of the noble truths:  Life is painful. To pretend otherwise is deception, and serves only to obscure the truth. 

(continued above)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reflections on Fear

I've been giving a lot of thought to the subject of fear lately. 

I've been seeing a lot of it in friends and colleagues lately, perhaps a natural response to unsettled economic times and political upheaval. Good friends are either struggling to find work, or are queasy about their current jobs. Northwest airlines, 3M—I have friends wondering about their futures with these local corporations after 20, 30 years of service. 

I know fear pretty intimately m self. Earlier in my life I had a couple of periods where I was plagued by panic attacks that pretty much disabled me for months at a time, and even today, when I have the courage to look beneath whatever petty irritation or annoyance I might be feeling at the moment, there is very often a ground floor of quiet fear that serves as the foundation for other unpleasant emotions. 

These days, I'm a bit more equanimous as regards my own fear.  I see remnants of the old stuff, though,  in my feelings when I see other people's fear. I don't like it in others, at least partly because I'm still a bit afraid of my own fear. 

With a particular employee of mine, I find myself feeling some annoyance during routine meetings, and I'm aware that what I'm reacting against is my sense of his inner nervousness. At all points, he insists on knowing details of issues that really don't need to be worried about. Energetically, I feel his center of gravity humming up about the level of his Adam's apple, and I don't react well to his compulsive fearfulness and perfectionism. It puts me off, and my response is vague irritation. Same is true of family and friends: I sometimes respond to their fears with a little bit of quiet annoyance. Clearly, a bit of old baggage in me.

This morning on the bus, I paid attention to how people survey the seating opportunities when they climb aboard.  Except in instances where they know one another well, people will always look for the one seat that allows a bit of personal space to remain.  Nobody sits directly next to someone, unless there is no other option. Quiet fear at work.

When a stranger sits next to a person, that passenger always struggles briefly with just a little discomfort and mild fear, visible in nervous movement—they shift their legs, shrink away from the possibility of brushing shoulders. 

Some people have enough fear that they absolutely cannot meet the eyes of any bus passenger. 

What is it that we're all afraid of, I wonder?

This morning, observing fear in others, I found myself remembering the old days when panic lived along side me all the time. A panic attack, for me, was experienced mostly as a mind that raced frantically, utterly unable to rest on the present.  Thinking back, I now see that a panic attack was for me an attempt to desperately escape feelings that were even more unacceptable to me.  Panic was for me an escape from feelings of fear and anger and betrayal and hurt that I'd been running from my entire life. A panic attack is fear of fear itself.

As a young man, I turned the corner toward a real life at the moment when it became just plain impossible to run any longer. When there was no longer any option other than to face fear and be overwhelmed by it, it began to dissolve. 

Sometimes I forget the old lesson and find myself inadvertently running away again. This can feel good for a little while, but then pretty soon I find that there is more and more to run away from, and I need to run faster and faster to maintain the illusion of being separate from the difficult stuff.  Then irritation arises, I feel my mind begin to spin a bit faster than is comfortable, I might find myself troubled by cruel thoughts.

There is an antidote for me.  It's a strange coping mechanism, I'll grant you, but it was born long ago out of my failure to escape fear.  The answer is always to look for the fear and experience it. Once known, it stops looking for recognition. 

Somebody smarter and healthier than me once suggested a better approach, though I've never exactly made this work for me. He told me that once you learn to ignore everything that is superficial and temporary and not real,  you begin to recognize that there is nothing that ever threatens our essence. Fear then disappears entirely.

Yet another goal for a future life. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Country Boy in the City

I'm a country boy at heart. But I choose to live in the city, even though I'm a bit saddened anytime I walk late at night and look in vain for the Milky Way, washed out of the night sky by the brightness of the city.

There are some obvious reasons I live in the city. It's where the jobs are, for one thing, and since I really don't much like commuting in a car, the city is the logical place to live. My bride is now a city girl, and she'd be truly unhappy living out in the sticks, as I once did. There are more important reasons though for my choice of domiciles.

In the last week, I have had the following evening excursions:

* A picnic supper at the Lake Harriet bandshell, where a string trio played folk ballads while beautifl sail boats passed by the open vista behind the bandshell.

* A bike ride around lake Calhoun, with a stop at the Peace Garden & Lydale Rose Garden, where an improv comedy troupe was giving a free performance.

* Dinner at a nearby Mongolian restaurant within walking distance, followed by a walk around yet another city lake, this one landscaped with a variety of garden styles. Elderly gentlemen entertained us by describing how they built the elaborate model boats they were sailing on the Centential Lakes pond.

* Went to the Minnesota Zoo, where a fabulous new exhibit of Kodiak Bears entertained us for an hour, just before outdoor concert in the zoo's amphitheater.

* Watched the Twins beat the hated Yankees at the stadium that is a mere 5 miles from my house.

* Last night, we drove to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for an ice cream social event held for the members (we've belonged for 30 years now). The Arboretum is a true world-class public garden, and we arrived at 7:00 pm, just after a brief thunderstorm dampened everything and ignited the gardens in glistening crystal light. In the far distance, towering bluish grey thunderheads moved off, now touched with salmon and pink light from the setting sun.

Most of these excursions were within 15 minutes of home, and several required no car trip at all.

None of these things are really possible if you live in rural areas. A couple of times we drove through suburbs to get to our outings, and I"m frankly a bit mystified by the suburban experience. Though originally intended to mimic the look of genteel rural life, the suburbs offer me nothing of any appeal. In no way does life there really resemble life in the country, and it's also missing all the advantages of the city. No charm, no culture and high gas prices to boot.

I'm a country boy at heart.
But if that's not practical, give me sidewalks to stroll late at night, and interesting restaurants to find, and parks, and gardens, and museums and ball parks any day of the week.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why I-phones & I Pods Were Invented

There's a whole lot that's pretty darned magical about the I-phone, but at long last I've discovered it's true reason for being.

Last week, I discovered Podcasts, and quickly subscribed to something calls "ZenCast," a series of lectures on Buddhist philosophy and practice. Lasting from 30 to 70 minutes or so, this series of talks by leading Buddhist teachers gives me a perfect beginning or ending to my work day.  

Hop on the bus, plug in the earphones, and I arrive at my destination with an open heart. 

There are about 150 of these delightful little talks, so I"m pretty well set until the end of the year. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Evening at the Band Shell

My work day yesterday was stressful, to say the least, and by the time I walked home from the bus stop at 6:30,  the tension had crystalized in a painful burn in the junction between my neck and shoulders.

Wisely, my wife suggested that we make nice salads and go to the Lake Harriet bandshell to have a picnic dinner. 

About 60 minutes into the 90 minute concert, which featured a simple but skillful trio of bass player, violinist and guitarist playing old pop favorites, I felt the tension in my neck finally begin to loosen up.  Too tired to think, I blissfully stopped thinking. 

An odd, oblique and apparently random recognition came to me then, unbidden. Here is what occurred to me while listening to a pleasant rendition of "Norwegian Wood":

No music is ever created without the destruction of silence. 

This was a new expression of an ongoing intuition I have; namely, that almost everything about the way the world works can be explained as an expression of the ongoing dance between two strains of energy, one positive, the other negative.  Simultaneously, these energies are conflicting, opposing, and complementary.  They fight with one another, but also cannot exist without the other. 

Culturally, we describe these energies in different ways. Some people like to talk about the underlying male and female energies of the universe. Others might think in terms of creation vs. destruction, and for still others the dualism is between good and evil. My father in law insists you can divide the world into Chevy people and Ford people. My own father divides the world into Republicans and Democrats.

All these paradigms are different ways of describing the same basic truth, though, which is that there are opposite energies that exist in a constant dance with one another. 

The truth of this was clear to me last night, in my exhausted, thoughtless state. It was inherently obvious everywhere I turned my head. Up front near the stage, small children danced to an Irish jig, the very fact of their existence speaking to the creative power of the universe. Directly across from me, though, was a 65-year old man dressed in a muscle shirt that exposed a midriff that would be best kept covered. Relatively hale and hearty, but a lifetime of exposure to sun and simple life showed in his wrinkles, sagging skin, round belly. And this was the other half of the universal truth: creation always comes at the price of destruction. The fact of birth dictates the fact of aging and decay. A building cannot be constructed unless trees or clay are sacrificed for the building materials. A song cannot be born except at the sacrifice of silence. 

If we were not mortal, no children would ever joyfully dance a jig. 

My hunch is that a lot of human misery occurs because we can't quite get our heads around this truth. Often, I think, we would like to seize upon positive energy as belonging to us, and would like to banish negative energy altogether. Unfortunately, it can't be done. We suffer because with disagree with the inevitable—we disagree with what IS.  Upon getting sick, for example, we may react with bitter disagreement with this fact, and as a result we suffer unbearably. Or, we can perhaps accept decay and the truth of negative energy, and thereby eliminate a lot of suffering. 

It occurs to me that a fair definition of "art" might be that it is any human effort to articulate and communicate this universal drama between energies. In any case, when I think about works of literature or painting or sculpture that have moved me powerfully, they share this in common: creation and destruction are always dancing inside them.

In any case, for those few moments last night,  I gave up struggling against my black mood, and mused upon it as perhaps just a natural manifestation of negative energy seeking expression. Like the atmosphere needing to periodically discharge static energy through a lightning storm, perhaps our occasional moments of sorrow and woe really are nothing very serious at all. 

It's a place to start.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Spiritual Goal

In my adopted tradition, "good" is defined as any chosen behavior that has the intention or effect of reducing unhappiness and suffering for sentient creatures.

Interesting concept, "sentience".

The dictionary defines a sentient creature as one that is "receptive to or conscious of" sense impressions. And "sentience" is defined as "feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought." In other words, to be sentient is to be aware of the sensations of pain and pleasure—having the capacity for suffering  on the one hand, and to experience peace on the other hand.

It is quite a mixed blessing, this capacity for sentience. Looking around, you can readily see that it is the managing of pain and pleasure that drives virtually everything we do. Almost every human behavior you can study becomes pretty easily understandable as an expressions of sentience. The man honking frantically behind me in traffic this morning probably was not really trying to make the rest of us suffer; some kind of fear and pain was making him desperate to reach his workplace. He was just trying to relieve his suffering.

We hurt, and we want to not hurt. This is the human condition, as well as the condition of all living sentient creatures. It is true of me, and it is true of all creatures. It is the first truth, and one upon which all others are based.

This knowledge, this truth of suffering, is indisputable. It is a noble truth. To pretend it is not so is to live in delusion, and delusion is the root of all evil.

To call someone a "pleasure-seeker" is thought to be a pejorative label. In reality, though, the avoidance of pain is the instinct behind the spiritual urge, too. Though the goal here might be more accurately labeled "peace-seeker," the goal of the spiritualist, like that of the most blatant hedonist, is to minimize pain and suffering. If the hedonist makes an error, it is only because he imagines that pleasure conquers pain rather than being its intimate partner.  

So I'd argue that an effective spiritual path must be one that acknowledges the phenomenon of pain and suffering, studies it, even; and proposes practices that reduce that pain and suffering for ourselves, for other people, for any creatures who experience suffering. 

If your tradition doesn't offer you any help in this most basic of needs, then something is seriously wrong.

May you know happiness, as well as understand the causes of happiness. 

Friday, August 1, 2008

Please Loiter

Earlier this week, I found myself sitting in a public park area on the way back from a walk to the bookstore. The day was beautiful, clouds scudded by overhead, and it was quite pleasant to simply sit and meditate for a short while, doing nothing whatsoever.

When I opened my eyes, my gaze fell upon a sign posted on a lamp post. "No loitering," it said. "Please limit your visit to 60 minutes."

I was saddened, amused, and a little outraged, all at the same time. Here was a place landscaped in a manner to encourage people to sit and relax and reflect, and yet the "authorities" had posted a sign asking people not to use the park in this manner. Logically, such a space should have a sign that says "Please Loiter." If my meditation had lasted 61 minutes, though, I technically might have been in violation of public policy.

I find this indicative of a primary human foible, this sense that we're not exactly welcome in the world, that we must always be striving for goals and accomplishment——headed for somewhere——to be legitimate. To simply exist——to sit and just BE—— is not an acceptable condition. The human condition seems to be primarily one of restlessness. We get angry, in fact, when people aren't restless.

Of course I understand that the intent of this policy was to protect the park patrons from beggars and vagrants, and it wouldn't be very likely a solid middle-aged citizen would be ousted for dawdling for, say, 90 minutes. Still, it's telling that our society frowns upon non-accomplishment and aimlessness of any kind. Whenever a person is seen to be simply sitting without a clear destination, we view it with suspicion and even fear.

I'm going to the same park some night next week, and I plan to sit and do nothing whatsoever for at least two hours. My experience, you see, is that the more aimless I become, the more I genuinely accomplish.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Spritual Life, Three Movements

A few nights ago in balmy evening air, a friend and I sipped icy cocktails with a mild percentage of rum and talked a bit about the spiritual instinct in human beings. What exactly is it that makes humans (at least some of us) seek spiritual growth and truth? we wondered.

Rum isn't the best elixir for coming to the truth, however, and we came to no pithy conclusion on this important question. But the conversation did prompt several days of musing and thought.

Reflecting on my own life, as well as on pretty serious study of many different spiritual traditions, it occurs to me that there are three facets to a spiritual life, no matter what form that the instinct choses to take—from fundamental Chistianity to new age Wicca.

The first stage seems to come when we realize that our habitual way of living is less than satisfying. In the histrionic fashion of the Christian tradition in which I was raised, this stage is represented by an awareness of guilt and original sin. In the Buddhist tradition I now follow, it's called the recognition of dukka, a word sometimes translated as "suffering," but more accurately as "unsatisfactoriness."

In practical terms, this stage can appear as very dramatic dark night of the soul, or more gently as a pervading sense of ennui, in which we begin to understand that all the goals and aspirations we've been living with don't amount to much in the end. Either way, it is the moment when we choose to go a different direction.

One teacher I've read describes this first condition, the "ground," as being a place where we acknowledge our own weariness and see the need to renounce old habits that don't work for us. It is a stage to be celebrated, for it is the prerequisite to taking up a different way of living, and for this reason the truth of suffering is called one of the noble truths of Buddhism.

The second stage is sometimes summarized as "path," or "practice" in my Buddhist tradition, and it is marked by developing a sense of the causes of our inherent confusion (or sin), and a movement toward surrendering them or cleansing ourselves of bad habits. In the Christian tradition, predictably, this is a stage marked by ferocious dedication to rules and commandments and dogma. Practice in many Christian traditions looks a little bit like scrubbing your skin with steel wool to remove imperfections. We are inherently loathsome, the belief goes, and only through incredibly hard and painful work will we be cleansed.

In the Buddhist tradition, I find, the practice is much more akin to standing under a gentle shower and simply allowing warm water to wash away the grit and slime and algae. We look carefully at the nature of what's being washed away, but it is for the most part a relatively gentle process of simply surrendering bad habits and taking delight in the natural clean truth that lies beneath. This second stage in an unrelentingly practical one in Buddhism, marked by dozens of different ideas and practical exercises such as meditation, all aimed at helping to shed the grime and seeing the underlying reality.

The third stage, for Buddhists, is known as "fruition," at it involves learning how to comfortably dwell in the clarity and genuine nature we now have come to recognize through the path. Trust and devotion are its hallmarks. For many Christians, it's believed that fruition comes in another existence after we die to this world, but especially in the Dzogchen-flavored Buddhism I favor, it is believed that it's perfectly possible to be enlightened here and now. The third stage, fruition, is about choosing to remain in clarity, to learn how to use this energy, rather than slip back down into the mud and slime of unconscious living.

I've come to believe that spiritual cycle isn't necessarily a perfectly linear process. You may, in fact, go through the entire cycle in the space of a day. ON some level, in fact, all three stages of a spiritual life are present simultaneously. The very act of renunciation, for example, instantly creates both path and fruition.

There is no reason to think that getting to deep spiritual peace requires a lifetime of exertion and sacrifice. The condition is, I think, inherent in every moment and simply waits for us to see it.

I wonder if Christianity might have evolved differently if the ancient scholars putting together the Bible had thought to include some interesting words of Jesus found in the gospel of St. Thomas.

"The heaven of God is right here, right in front of them," Jesus mused, speaking of some local religious leaders. "But they know it not."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Citizens of 4F: July 29, 2008

This morning, I find myself wondering again at what I see: Is it desperation I see, or an example of the heroic human spirit of adventure?

I've watched it for a long, long time, and still I don't know for sure.

My bus commutes have become a laboratory for observing human behavior, and here's what's puzzling me lately:

Human beings have a very clear urge to say "NO" to the present, to escape the here/now and go elsewhere in their minds. A woman I saw on the morning northbound bus this morning was a poster child for the condition. Upon boarding the bus, she fiercely clamped stereo earphones around her head, then opened a novel and buried herself there. For the 40 minute bus ride she did not reside in the present at all, but was clearly doing everything in her power to be someplace other than where she was at that moment. I wondered what her senstations must be like at that moment, trying to read while music blared in her head at the same time. It gave me a headache just to think about it.

It's not as though the here-now was a terrible place, at least not this morning. This morning's air was balmy and nice to touch; a slight humid haze made garden colors in the passing homes almost luminescent. For anyone not buried in a book, or ensnared by I-pod music, the world was a pretty great place. Yet fully 90% of the commuters were doing pretty much everything in their power to be someplace other than where they were. Many had eyes closes as they listened to canned music. Others were buried in newspapers. One woman applied makeup; a young man busied himself with office paperwork.

This urge is pretty prevalent. It's a rare person on the morning bus ride who is isn't trying to distract themselves in some way, or to escape into some realm of imagination.

I vacillate between thinking this is a tragic human trait, and thinking that it's evidence of the herioic human spirit for exploration and reach. Do we try to lose ourselves in music, in the imaginary world of printed language, because we're unable to handle the quiet pain of the here/now? Or is this evidence of our adventurousness, our talent for exploring strange new worlds, or going where no one has gone before?

Ruefully, I recognize that my judgment depends on what I'm doing at the time. If I'm grooving to the here-now, I find myself pitying the folks with eyes and ears buried in other media. This morning, the woman I watched entirely missed the three young children who stood hugging one another a yard we passed along the way.

I'm an utter hypocrite, though.

If I'm enjoying a great novel myself, for example, then I'm celebrating the power of human imagination, and wondering if the folks staring blissfully into the distance are somehow incapable of loftier thought. The folks who stare into sad that they don't roam the rich world of Thomas Wolfe's archetypal America in "Look Homeward, Angel", like I am.

Much as I'd like to think I have a bit of skill at here/now presence, the brutal truth is that I'm prodigiously capable of fleeing the present through gyrations of mind. When I read, I pretty much lose the world entirely.

This inherent penchant for distraction, for escaping the present....Is it a tool for our transcendence? Or a hindrance to it?

Even as I wonder about this, another answer suggests itself. Transcendence may be neither a matter of dwelling stubbornly in the present, nor escaping the present into other states of mind.

Perhaps freedom lies in the simple awareness of both faculties.

Awareness itself...there's a subject worthy of serious wonderment.