Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sound of Silence

Last week I was on a meditation retreat. One of the meditations we practiced used the sound of silence as its focus. Doing this meditation led to memories, not of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, but of earlier experiences with the sound of silence which may give some idea of what it is and how it can be of use.

After a few years of attending Insight Meditation retreats, I first began to notice the sound of silence. As the mind became more quiet, usually after being on retreat for a few days, I would hear a high pitched sound in the background. It had a wavering quality to it similar to the sound of cicadas during the summer, though a higher pitch and not deafening the way cicadas can be. At first I thought it was a whistling in the ventilation system of the meditation hall. But then I heard the sound during meals and while falling asleep as well. After I returned home I noticed that for the first few nights I also heard it as I was falling asleep. So it couldn't have been something at the meditation center. And since the sound would disappear after I had been home for a few days, I figured it must have been something odd going on with my body.

Immediately after one retreat I happened to see my family physician for my annual physical and casually mentioned this sound to him. He was a concerned about it and referred me to an audiologist. After several tests in a soundproof room, the audiologist said that the physician had been concerned that the sound might be an indication of a brain tumor but that it was actually a condition known as tinnitus. Since I wasn't going to die from tinnitus, the audiologist suggested that I should protect my hearing from loud and high-pitched noises in the future. Other than that I'd just have to live with the sound, unless it got a lot worse.

Each time I was on retreat, as the mind became quiet and concentrated I'd occasionally notice this sound. It didn't annoy me and I didn't struggle with it. It was just an experience that would occur sometimes and hearing it just seemed to be an artifact of retreat practice.

Once, though, I read about a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho, who often meditated on what he called the sound of silence, the sound when the mind is quiet, open and receptive. I wondered whether it was what I had been experiencing. So I tried to find the sound so that I could meditate on it. When I tried to find it, the sound was never appeared. When I wasn't looking for it and when my attention wasn't caught up in a story about my life or absorbed in a strong sensation or mood, then the sound of silence was there like a loyal dog, always beside me in the background. But if I tried to focus on it like on the sensations of breathing, it would disappear.

Once I mentioned this to a meditation teacher. He told me that it sounded to him like it was tinnitus. He said that I should just keep noticing the impermanence of the thoughts, feelings and sensations that came into awareness, which is the standard practice of Insight Meditation.

Over the years of practice, the mind became more open and relaxed, quiet yet alert and receptive, not only on retreat but during everyday life at home and at work. And wherever I was, there was the sound of silence. As long as I stayed relaxed but alert and just let the sound be, it was easy to hear. And I noticed that other than the wavering quality of the sound that never changed, the sound of silence didn't seem to be impermanent. It didn't come and go. It just stayed there constantly in the background.

This past weekend as I was flying home from the retreat, the sound of silence was there once again. Although the sound of roaring engines and whining ventilation were quite loud, too loud for me to listen to music, the sound of silence was easy to notice.

As I investigated the sound of silence during the meditation this past week, I noticed that if there was open and non-judgmental, relaxed but alert attention, then the sound of silence was there. I also noticed that if I was hearing it, then it was impossible to be caught up in stories or strong emotions or sensations. When the sound of silence was present, a thought might bubble up into awareness but before attention was caught up in it the thought would disappear. Like a bubble bursting, the thought would show its impermanent and insubstantial nature. If the sound of silence was there, then there wasn't a "me" that was doing anything. No holding on or pushing away of any momentary experience. Just a being-with whatever life presented in the moment.

On the other hand, when attention was absorbed in stories, emotions or sensations, or even thinking about the sound of silence, then it was impossible to hear it.

Whether I believe that the sound is a result of tinnitus or the background sound of the universe, the sound of silence turns out to be a handy indicator of presence.

Friday, October 23, 2009

What Remains

A few days ago I went for a walk around the neighborhood park. The sky was gray and at times the wind blew a chilling mist against my face so I tried to keep my head down. I noticed that the ground was covered with leaves. Yellow leaves, orange leaves, golden leaves. Leaves knocked from the trees by the previous day's long hard rain.

Seeing so many leaves on the ground, my attention was drawn up into the trees. There's something about looking up into the trees and seeing the limbs reaching towards the sky that I find quite enthralling. A few weeks ago these limbs were full of green leaves. Now they are growing increasingly bare. And the leaves are changing color from green to yellow, orange and occasionally red.

Science tells us that the yellow and orange pigments have been there in the leaves since Spring. We just couldn't see them because the green of the chlorophyl masks the other pigments. Then in the Fall when the chlorophyl ebbs away, the yellows, oranges and browns are revealed. Knowing this scientific explanation, I still find the Fall colors enchanting. And I wonder if in earlier times people thought the yellows, oranges and browns replaced the green.

As we bring mindfulness to moments of experience on and off the cushion and see things as they are, we increasingly let go and let life just be as it is. In time, the mind becomes more and more silent. At first I didn't notice this. Then, when I did it felt rather eerie. When I became more accustomed to the silence though, I began to notice the spaciousness and ease of this silent but attentive mind.

At first it seemed that there must have been things that I was doing to cause the silent mind to be present. Slowly I came to see that, like the yellow and orange pigments in leaves, this silent spacious attention has always been here. It's presence is just masked by the worries, distractions and obsessions about me and the way I want life to be. When I see these clearly as just thoughts in the mind, not holding on or pushing away, they pass away. What remains is the peacefulness of simple presence.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Foundation Stone

In the early morning when it is still dark out, I'm sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor in a semi-dark room. A candle flickers. A gentle breeze enters the open window along with sounds. The ho-ho-hoo hoo hoo of a Great Horned Owl mixes with the distant roar of cars and trucks on the highway several miles away and the plop, plop, plop of joggers running down the street just outside the window.

Some mornings attention is quickly snagged in a net of thoughts: the things that I need to do this day, the things I have put off for too long, the worries about some future event or regrets about the past. This particular morning, though, the heart and mind are at ease. The net is empty. Instead there is a gentle sense of relaxation as the sounds come and go, as thoughts and sensations arise out of emptiness and pass back into it. Eventually it is time to rise from the cushions and begin the day's activities. I arise settled and refreshed.

I first began this early morning meditation practice over 20 years ago. At that time, there were very few resources here in the Midwest to offer support or guidance to a beginning meditator. I found some books and read about meditation. I gathered a couple of cushions from the sofa, put them on the floor and sat down cross-legged. Then I began to sit quietly, paying attention to the sensations as the belly expanded and contracted with each breath. Attention would wander to something else and I would bring it back, again and again and again. Eventually I worked up to sitting for 20 minutes. I also found two or three people to sit with once a week, but these people offered no instructions. So for about the first two years that I practiced I had no teacher.

Circumstances changed and my family moved to the East Coast where I found a Zen Buddhist teacher. I did that practice for two years and sat some retreats. The initial retreats, in particular, were excruciating. The body just wasn't used to sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours at a time. And I didn't know how to work skillfully with physical pain.

Then I moved back to the Midwest and began attending Insight Meditation retreats. By then, the Zen people had trained my body and mind to sit without moving so that retreats weren't so painful any longer. They began to be a joy. Insight Meditation has been my practice since that time. And I've come to love it.

As I look back on those beginning years, I've wondered what kept me going in spite of the sense that I didn't know what I was doing and the pain of those first retreats. It wasn't that I was interested in Buddhist philosophy or was moved by the clarity of the Buddha's teaching. And it wasn't that I had an interest in being a Buddhist or even spiritual. The simple practice of sitting in silence satisfied a need that I had. A need to begin the day on a calm note. A need to have some space just for myself. A need to touch, if only for a few minutes, what was true. In this way sitting meditation became a foundation stone which my daily life rests on.

Photo: CuscoPiedra12angulo.jpg on Wikipedia by Håkan Svensson, Creative Common License: Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Down the Drain

This morning I was taking a shower. But I wasn't in the shower. I was sitting in a house a few miles from here drinking tea and having a conversation with a friend. My friend said something about me that I felt was pretty judgmental and I was feeling quite irritated about it. The next thing I knew, though, I was back in the shower having a conversation with myself. I was expressing my irritation, to myself, about this person's personality and how it bent their view of me and my actions. Then a few moments later I found myself standing in the shower feeling the streams of water pressing against my skin, noticing the warmth of the water and the slippery feel of the shampoo as I rubbed it into my hair.

It struck me that this is how I spend a lot of my life. My attention is focused on a memory or on something I expect to happen. I argue with this memory and defend myself. Or I make plans for how to deal with a situation, either to get it to turn out the way I want or to keep it from turning out as I fear it will. Then I review the defense or plan again and again to try to make sure I've got it right. While I'm caught up in this the situations seem real and I react to them emotionally. But when I look at them later, at the best of times only a moment or two later, there is the recognition that the past and future are simply happening in the mind, in imagination. No matter how hard I try I can't locate past or future anywhere else. The events that I now remember did once occur but at that time they were now, not past. Now all they are is memories, thoughts in the mind. The events that I anticipate may indeed occur, but if they do it will be in the now. Until that happens they are only thoughts in the mind. So I spend much of my life caught up in a world that I imagine, with one set of thoughts countering another, all in the mind.

When I recognize that these memories or plans and my reactions to them are only thoughts, only in imagination, mind and body relax. Thoughts fall away as though they are washing down the drain. The mind becomes more and more quiet. What is left is simple awareness. Simple awareness of thoughts arising and passing away. Simple awareness of the sensory experience of this moment. The pressure of water falling against the skin. The sound of water striking the shower walls and floor. What is left is living in the now, this moment. This moment. This moment… Until I forget and fall into past and future once again.

Photo: 3035887375 on Flickr, Shower, by gfpeck, Creative Common License: Attribution No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sweet Taste

Yesterday I went to the Columbia Farmers Market. It is always a stimulating place to visit. There are so many sights: white plastic coolers filled with fresh Missouri trout, mounds of exotic Asian vegetables, jar after jar of local honey. Walking between the vendors it is hard to know which way to look. Do I look at the fresh blueberries or the goat cheese? Do I check out the young herb plants or the fresh artisanal bread? Then I notice people carrying baskets of fresh peaches, so I go to search for them and find a long line of people with the same desire.

Standing in line, I realize I know the person in front of me. It's hard to go to the Farmers Market without running into someone I know. Especially when we haven't seen each other in a while, we'll stop to chat, briefly letting go of that sense of mission about finding peaches or lettuce or whatever it is that we desire. We talk about family, friends, work or the events of the world, sharing our views and opinions.

All of these sense impressions, views and opinions belong to the realm of conditioned things. They're the things we get attached to. When I say we get attached to them, I'm not making a value judgement. It isn't a statement of right or wrong. It's simply a statement that "this is the way that it is." The way-it-is is that we get attached to conditioned things. Yesterday I was attached to getting fresh blueberries and peaches. I also get attached to my own views and opinions and believe that I'm right and others are, to put it nicely, misguided.

If I hadn't found the blueberries or peaches, I would have been disappointed. If they spoil in a day or two, before they're all eaten, I'll be disappointed that they didn't last. If I eat them all before they spoil, I'll be disappointed that they're gone and will want more. Even pleasant things bring disappointment, or unsatisfactoriness, because they don't last. This is the nature of conditioned things. When I'm attached to them being a particular way --available, fresh, lasting as long as I want -- it leads to some uneasiness with life.

Sometimes, though, I have my fruit and am still at ease. What makes this possible? It's when there is a knowing and an acceptance that this is the way that it is. If the peaches are gone and I'm disappointed, it is simply knowing the disappointment as the way that it is. If the peaches are a perfect combination of sweet and tart and desire is arising for another bite, it is a simple knowing that this is the way that it is. There is no judgement about one or the other. There is just the knowing and accepting that in this moment this is the way that it is.

When I rest, truly rest, in this moment, there is peace. There is contentment. At these times there is no story about what is happening, no sense of passing time, and no sense of an I that is doing or knowing or experiencing, there is just this. The taste of freedom at these moments is truly sweeter than the taste of fresh blueberries or peaches has ever been.

Photo: 60297670 on Flickr, Peach Fuzz, by wanderingnome, Creative Common License: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bee-ing Present

Today I spent some time working inside our beehive. This involves taking off the top of the hive and pulling out some of the wooden frames to see what the bees have been doing. The worker bees create the comb in the frames and store honey and pollen there. The queen bee lays eggs in the comb. (By the way, do you see the big balls of pollen on the legs of the bee in the photo?) Opening the hive is an adventure because I'm still learning what the bees do. I'm also still learning what I should, and shouldn't, be doing as a beekeeper.

When we started the hive, we bought a three pound box of bees along with a queen. (Yes, isn't it amazing what one can buy!) After we, literally, dumped the bees into their new home and put the lid on it, I wondered if this would work. Would the bees accept this as their home? Would they build comb? Would they accept the new queen? Would the queen lay eggs so that the colony would survive and grow? Unlike me, the bees didn't seem to worry about what they needed to do. They didn't seem to sit around worrying "Hmm, should I make wax here, take care of the queen or go eat sugar water?" They just did what needed to be done. Their lives seem to just unfold from moment to moment in this way. When they are making wax, they make wax. When they are feeding the baby bees (that is the eggs and larvae), they just feed them. Can we live our lives with this same kind of simplicity?

As I examined the hive, I pulled a few frames from the top level, which we added about a week ago. There weren't a lot of bees in this level though the ones that were there were busy making comb. When I moved to the bottom two levels of the hive there were a lot more bees and the frames were heavy with comb full of baby bees, honey and pollen. It was hard to pull the frames out because there were so many bees crawling all over them and I didn't want to pinch or squash any of the bees. It was even harder to put them back and I was sorry to see that no matter how careful I tried to be a few of the bees were squashed. So my attention was very focused. There wasn't a lot of thinking about what I should or shouldn't do. There was just doing: Feeling the weight and pressure of the hive tool in the hand as I used it to the move frames around so that there was space to pick them up. Slipping fingers onto the ends of the frames trying to avoid bees while keeping a firm grip on the frame so that it wasn't dropped. Awareness of the changing weight as each frame was lifted and examined. Looking at the bees and the comb on one side of the frame and then flipping it to look at the other side. Slipping it back into the hive slowly so that the bees would move out of the way without being crushed. Moving from one thing to the next, looking at and listening to the bees and their home. I've spent hours on retreat practicing being this present for my life, practicing letting the sense of a separate me drop away, but it just happened naturally as I tended to the bees. Some people call this "being mindful" but it is really just paying attention moment after moment, not getting caught by any thoughts or sensations, just being what life is in this moment.

Of course I didn't realize whether I was being present or not while I was working the hive. If I had thought I was being present, at that very moment I wouldn't have been. It was only when I reflected on the experience after the fact that I recognized that for a while there had been no sense of separateness, just bees and beekeeper together in the moment. That's part of the promise and challenge of a practice of awakening.

Photo: 519742656_0b2323bc8e on Flickr, European Honey Bee Touching Down, by autan, Creative Common License: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Round and Round

Earlier this week I received a message from a friend whose opinion I respect. When I first read the message, I found what it said was pleasant and I took it as praise. At the time I was working on something else, so I set the message aside and returned to my task. After finishing the task, I remembered the message. The memory was of a warm pleasant feeling but I didn't clearly remember what had been said. So I felt compelled to go back to it and to read it several more times. The first time seemed to be to verify what it said and that my perception of it as praise was accurate. The second time simply seemed to be about getting the pleasant feeling again. Satisfied, I set it aside again and went on to other things. Over the next few hours, I noticed how the mind would keep returning to the memory of the message, wanting to recall it again and again and again.

As I noticed this compulsion, what came to mind was a teaching from the Buddha in a collection known as the Numerical Discourses. The Buddha said:"These eight worldly conditions keep the world turning around…. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain." He then goes on to explain that they keep the world going around because when we encounter these conditions, we get caught up in them and either become elated or dejected.  When we're caught in them it is like being on a merry-go-round, they just keep coming around again and again.

This is certainly what was happening, and often happens, in my own mind. When I'm caught up in the pleasant worldly conditions I want more and more and more. When I'm caught in the unpleasant ones, I usually try to push them away by explaining them away in some imaginary internal dialogue. Sometimes, though, there is an awakening. I clearly see what is happening. I see that this is the way the mind is. Then that particular merry-go-round stops.

Quote: AN VIII.6, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya, p.198
Photo: 2461667238_e34a81841f on Flickr, Children in a Merry Go Round, by Nicolas, Creative Common License: Attribution-Noncommercial-Share-alike generic 2.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Waking Up to Air Travel

Last week it was Spring Break here in Columbia, Missouri. My wife and I were fortunate in being able to fly to Florida to visit some family for the week. As is often the case, I found traveling to be quite an interesting, and in many ways difficult, experience. Running the gauntlet of what seems to be ever-changing rules of airport security is often a challenge, especially when the rules seem to be applied one way in one airport and another way in a different one. But the actual experience of flying is where I find things get really interesting.

On our flights, there was not one empty seat. So, everyone was confined to their four square feet of space for the duration. (At least it seems that small.) As I sat in coach with all the other passengers, I wondered if this would qualify as a form of torture if we weren't doing it voluntarily? Anyway, one of the things I was noticing on the flights was the noise. There was the on-going roar of the jet engines, which, of course, one really wouldn't want to be without. Then there was the high-pitched whistling of the ventilation nozzles as people attempted to regulate the temperature in their little bit of space. And there was the background rumble of a hundred or more people engaged in conversations, folding and unfolding newspapers, typing on keyboards and snoring. And, since these were Spring Break flights, all of this noise was periodically punctuated by the loud protests of many small children. They seemed to be troubled by the general commotion of traveling, the restrictions to physical movement, the changes in air pressure as the planes ascended and descended, and general boredom, among other things.

As I watched and listened to the children, I noticed that they, and the adults on the flight, seemed to use two strategies for coping with the difficulty of travel. The most common strategy was putting themselves to sleep to the experience. They would either literally fall asleep, often to the relief of their parents and the surrounding passengers. Or, they would do everything they could to distract their attention from the unpleasantries. The other strategy was actually paying attention to the experience, which most of the children and adults didn't seem to do for very long. I did some of both on our flights.

The strategy of distraction is based on a belief that if we string together enough pleasant moments we won't have to experience anything unpleasant. But while this strategy of distraction seems to work in the short-run, it really fails as a long-term approach. Sooner or later something unpleasant comes into our lives. As long as we are caught up in dividing experience into pleasant and unpleasant, we can't have one without the other. This is the nature of a dualistic world.

The other strategy is to transcend this duality, to let go of our addiction to the pleasant and our aversion to the unpleasant. Instead we focus on fully experiencing what is true right now, in this moment of our lives.  

When our focus is on meeting each moment of experience with non-judgmental awareness, or mindfulness, it allows us to stand outside of, and consequently to transcend, the dualities of good and bad, right and wrong, pleasant and unpleasant. We just see that this is what is at this moment. Mindfulness allows us to see when it is time to open our hearts to the life that we have at this moment, even when it is the sound of screaming babies and the sensation of cramped legs.


Photo 118140540 by carib on Flickr. Creative Commons License Attributions-Non-commerical-No Derivative Works 2.0 generic license

Monday, March 30, 2009

That Beep, Beep, Beeping Sound

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were in Kansas City, Missouri visiting family. We had been up late Friday night and were sleeping soundly, enjoying the quiet of our hotel room on Saturday morning. Suddenly, at 6 a.m., an alarm clock sounded: beep, beep, beep, beep. I was pretty certain it wasn't the alarm next to me, because the beeping wasn't that loud and jarring. But I checked to make sure it was turned off. Then we looked around the room to see if there was another clock or some other electronic gizmo that might be sounding. But finally we realized that it must be the alarm clock in the room next to ours, and that the room must be empty. The beep, beep, beep continued and continued and continued.

Once I realized that there was nothing to do to change the situation, that it was totally out of my control, it simply became another opportunity to practice. I lay in the bed, awake earlier than I wanted to be, and listened to the beep, beep, beep. My practice was attending both to the sound and to the way the mind and body were relating to the sound, especially noticing when there was resistance to it. Resistance when the body was not relaxed but was tight and contracted. Resistance when the mind would get agitated at the sound. And then, when there was awareness of resistance, either in body or mind, letting it go. Letting go of the resistance to what was and letting the sound just be.

As I let go of the resistance again and again, mind and body relaxed. And sleep returned.

It wasn't my intention to relax so that I could fall back to sleep. It was simply the paradox that being awake, being present to the beeping sound, brought sleep.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Perfect Titles

As I sit here at my desk, I'm surrounded by shelves and shelves of books on meditation, Buddhism and other spiritual subjects. A few titles jump out at me. I love these titles because they so perfectly capture aspects of practice. The titles say a lot to me, and not necessarily what the books say.

One is Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are. This title captures the truth that we have to let go of all of our ideas about what practice, or life, is supposed to look like. We have to let go of these ideas and just begin with what our life is in this moment. Whether we are in agony or ecstasy or are just bored. I don't always find this easy to do. Sometimes I really, really want life to be different from the way it is. But it sure is more peaceful internally, and I'm probably a nicer person to be around, when I can just open to what my life is right now.

I think that the phrase "start where you are" also points to the quality of acceptance and non-judgmental attention that is essential if we're going to be fully present for this moment of our lives. This title also points us towards the realization that life occurs now, not at some time in the future when we think we'll have it all together or when we think it will all fall apart. Life occurs now and not at some point in the past either. Future and past are nothing more than thoughts that occur in the mind. (You can check this out for yourself. Don't take my word for it.) Life only occurs now, so this is where we need to focus our attention. Start where you are.

Another title that jumps out at me is Joseph Goldstein's The Experience of Insight. To me, this title emphasizes the fact that what we are working with in practice is our experience. This is what we are grounding ourselves in, the experience of each moment, rather than what we think about it. The wisdom or insights that arise aren't a product of our thinking about experience. Drawing conclusions on the basis of what we think is certainly what so many of us have been trained to do by our educational system. But in practice, the insights arise spontaneously from our openness to experience, or our openness to life. The insights are an experience themselves, some kind of an ah-hah!, not just another thought. 

So much of our practice is opening up to our experience of life. So much of our practice is a matter of coming to see where we are holding on, resisting or in some way creating a sense of an individual, separate self. Then, after recognizing that we're caught in the content, in the story of our lives, letting go and just being what our life is in this moment. Just experiencing it, without there being any one who is doing the experiencing.

This reminds me of another book sitting in the bookcase, Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker. It's a title that perfectly captures the selfless nature of experience. It's true that thoughts arise in awareness. It's also true that there is no one doing the thinking. But it sure seems like there is. We combine the sense of aliveness, awareness and the sense of locality that comes from sense organs looking out from this head and confuse all of that with "I," a separate and distinct being who is, to some degree, in control and directing this life. Which is why it is important to closely look at our own experience. We need to see for ourselves that it is true that thoughts (and sensations, feelings, intentions and emotions, in other words all of experience) arise due to causes and conditions and not due to there being a thinker, senser, feeler, intender, emoter or experiencer.

Then there is Jack Kornfield's After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. This title is so grounding, isn't it. It just points to the reality that no matter how deep, ecstatic or earth-shattering one's realization happens to be, eventually we have to go on living our daily lives. We have to do the laundry, go to work, shop for groceries and cook, wash the dishes and take out the garbage. And in many ways this is where practice really begins. This is where we have to find a way to bring whatever insights have arisen, whatever truths have been realized, back into daily life. This is where we, in a sense, have to confirm that while realization is significant, eventually we have to manifest it in life so that it becomes, as Charlotte Joko Beck's title says, Nothing Special, just this moment, and then the next and the next and the next.

The Roman Catholic priest and Zen teacher, Willigis Jager, offers a somewhat similar perspective on awakening in his book Search for the Meaning of Life: Essays and Reflections on the Mystical Experience (p. 47):

"Those who really break through to ultimate experience will not remain caught up in any cloud-cuckooland, nor in some sort of ecstasy. They are always there in the particular moment. True experience is experience of fullness in the moment. … Enlightenment leads to the moment. We arrive at the place where we are."

So we begin the practice by starting where we are, and we end there as well — though in reality we were never any place except now and practice never ends, there is just another moment to be.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Rustling Leaves

Rustling leaves
a robin
awakens me

Walking down the sidewalk on a bright late Winter day, I was absorbed in thinking, caught up in ruminations about the past and future. Suddenly, startled by a sound next to me I looked down. There was a robin, squatting among brown, dried out leaves, looking up at me quizzically. …

As I write this now, the mind wants to make it into some kind of metaphor. Yet all it was is what I described. There was a sudden sound that shifted attention from thinking to the sensory world. Attention shifted from the narrow world of thought, of past and future, to the lively spacious world of now. So much more vital than any metaphor could be.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Luminous Mind, Cloudy Mind

The following quote came to mind this week as I was working on a talk about bringing mindfulness to consciousness, which is the simple quality of knowing associated with a sensory object. The Buddha said:

      Luminous is this mind, brightly shining, but it is colored by the attachments that visit it.

Then I remembered first noticing this luminous quality of mind. I often find that going for a walk is one of the best times for listening to the mind and one of the times when insights most naturally arise. When I used to walk down the street, I would be caught up in stories about my life. There were stories about things that needed to be done, or issues I had with other people, or regrets about the past, or hopes for the future. My attention was largely absorbed in these stories, only superficially noticing the world I was walking through. Then, one day, after years of practice, I was struck by the silence in the mind. It had become quiet and it wasn't getting caught in thoughts, sensations or emotions. When I walked down the street, there were just the sensations of walking, the sights of houses, cars, and trees and the sounds of birds and children and traffic. In the beginning, the silence of the mind was a little eerie.

Now it is just the opposite. The silence of the mind is commonplace and comfortable. It is a mind of contentment. What stands out now is when the mind does get caught up in the things that visit it and the mind becomes disturbed. For example, recently I received some news that I found quite unpleasant. It felt like I had been personally attacked and the mind moved into defense-and-attack mode. So I said something harsh in response and, of course, once it was said I realized that it didn't help the situation at all. Saying it didn't even bring peace to the mind. What was most apparent, though, was how painful it is when the mind is caught up like this and is disturbed, agitated and obsessed. It is quite a painful state of mind and body. Yet that is the mind that most of us live with all the time, often without even being aware of it. It is the mind that keeps us searching for that next pleasant experience, whether from food or drink or sex or shopping, all in an effort to avoid the unpleasantness.

No wonder one of the Buddha's early followers, Sariputta I think, described the mind freed from greed, hatred and the view of an enduring and substantial self or essence as the highest form of happiness.

"Luminous is this mind…": The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, translated by Jack Kornfield and Gil Fronsdal in Teachings of the Buddha, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996, p. 2

Monday, February 2, 2009

Right Socks

In the meditation hall we do not wear shoes. It's a way to keep the floor clean, which is important since many people sit on it when meditating. But we do wear socks, especially when the weather is cold.

When I was on retreat a few weeks ago, during an extremely cold night, the water pipes in the meditation hall froze. As the first period of sitting meditation in the afternoon began with the sun warming the building, there was a loud popping, then a gurgling sound followed by a shower of water from the ceiling.

As water began flooding the floor, I ran for a bucket. When I returned I stripped off my socks and stepped into the water, trying to catch what was falling from the ceiling. I was quickly joined by another retreatant, Floyd, who stripped off his socks as well, while other retreatants ran to shut off the water.

After the water was mopped up, I grabbed my socks and returned to my meditation cushions. We settled in and continued with our meditation practice for the remainder of the day, our last full day of the retreat.

That evening, as I was packing, I noticed that the socks I had been wearing didn't look quite familiar. Although they were the same brand and color, these were in much better shape. The socks I thought I remembered putting on in the morning had been quite worn out in the heels while these were like new.

While I continued packing, the mind struggled with what to do. The first thought was to ignore the obvious, that these were Floyd's socks and he had mine. —The mind can be quite shameless, it seems.— There was a sense of not wanting to make a big deal out of it. But then there was the thought that these were a kind of wool sock that I have always regarded as somewhat of a luxury, so how could I just ignore that I had the newer pair of socks. Then there was the thought that it wouldn't be a big deal to Floyd, who is a kind and generous man.

Finally, though, there was the realization that while it might not make a difference to Floyd, it would make a difference to me. It would keep the mind and heart agitated. There would always be a sense of guilt if I didn't make the effort to exchange the socks. Each time I encountered Floyd, I realized, this uneasiness would come to mind and would interfere with my ability to be present with him.

As I had expected, when I brought the socks to Floyd's attention and we exchanged them, he commented that "In the scheme of things it's not a big deal." Immediately, though, I noticed that the mind became more clear and calm and the heart more open.

This was a lesson for me in why it is so important to be scrupulous with our ethics. When we are not, it comes between us and others and prevents trust and intimacy. When we are not scrupulous with our ethics, it leaves our minds agitated, even if only in a subtle way. This is probably part of the reason why the Buddha began his path of spiritual transformation with ethics and why all spiritual traditions emphasize ethics. Ethical behavior creates conditions of mind and heart that are conducive to meditation and to seeing things as they are.

So it's important to carry on the practices of Right, or ethical, Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood — and Right Socks.

Friday, January 30, 2009

This Moment

Recently I've been reading a lot of haiku, the Japanese-style short poems. What seems to have drawn me to these is that they are succinct and yet capture a moment of life in a clear way that may also be metaphorical. An example is this poem by Sylvia Forges-Ryan:
Sparrow chirping—
     this winter morning
       its white breath

When we engage in the practice of Insight Meditation, one of the objectives, and one of the benefits, is that we come to see the true nature of our experience more clearly. Ultimately we want to see the universal characteristics of each moment of experience —that it is impermanent, ultimately unsatisfactory and lacks an enduring essence or self— as this brings us to spiritual freedom, to a life of contentment. But seeing the specific characteristics of a moment of experience is what brings our lives a richness and newness in each moment, whether seeing the white breath of a sparrow on an icy winter morning, noticing the sweet-sour taste and crisp, firm texture of a Granny Smith apple as we take the first bite, or experiencing the vibratory, dancing quality of an itch on the face as we meditate. Opening to and seeing clearly both the universal and the specific characteristics are such a benefit, I hope you will just take this moment to look, to see and to be completely present for your life. This poem by Shiki Masaoka captures a moment so beautifully:
cutting a pear
sweet drops drip
from the knife

This moment, each moment, will never be here again. Please look closely, and enjoy!

"Sparrow chirping…", Take a Deep Breath: The Haiku Way to Inner Peace by Sylvia Forges-Ryan and Edward Ryan, p. 90.
"cutting a pear…", Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart, p. xi.

Welcome to awake n missouri


The sun rises over the Missouri River. A golden reflection on the water. The beginnings of warmth. The sounds of birds chirping. The smell of, well, the river. A clear, crisp moment in life. A new day dawns.

In the same way, spiritual practice offers the possibility of a new day. We begin to pay attention to our sensory experience in each moment and life opens up, shining bright. We come to realize that there is no "me" separate from life, separate from what is and the struggle falls away, perhaps for a moment, perhaps longer. These are the possibilities of awakening.

As the subtitle says, this blog is about exploring awakening in a Midwestern life, a life that is not especially dramatic and that is pretty ordinary. There is no one to be awakened, no one who is awake, yet awakening happens. What is it? What seems to lead to it? What is it like in an ordinary Midwestern life? These are questions I hope to explore.