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.