Tag Archives: buddhism

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The impulse to label the things we feel and think threatens our ability to meditate in a manner that improves our wellbeing and supports our mindfulness practice. We feel sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions that discomfit us, and we call them “bad” emotions. We have thoughts that trouble us or spark attacks of anxiety, and we call them “bad” thoughts. The normal human flow of thoughts and emotions seems to get in the way of our meditation, making it difficult for us to get into a groove or a flow or to another place, however we characterize that satisfying feeling we crave when meditating.

The solution, in my view, is not to find a way to block those thoughts and emotions. Frankly, for most of us, it’s probably not even possible to shut them down. So what can we do?

At the risk of being accused of trying to perpetrate some kind of reverse psychology mumbo jumbo, I think the answer is to not block them at all. Let them flow. Treat them with compassion and don’t label them as either bad or good thoughts or feelings. They’re just thoughts and feelings — inanimate objects — and are, therefore, incapable of being either. When we cease to label them in this manner, we can pay attention to what they mean, to what our brain is trying to say to us. Many times, they are just random, fleeting, and we can let them go as quickly as they came. Other times, we make a mental note to come back to them later after our meditation, and then we let them go. And occasionally, the thoughts or emotions are worth dwelling upon for a time because they feel urgent or particularly important.

The point is, being present with and open to those thoughts and feelings allows us to treat them with equanimity and get past them. Trying to block them is like placing a dam in a river — the pressure on the dam builds and builds until, finally, the waters (our thoughts and emotions) burst through and overwhelm everyone and everything in its path (us and our meditative practice). Better to employ a sluice that directs the waters but does not attempt to block them entirely.

Like a lot of dharma, on the surface it seems like an oxymoron, but it is truth: As long as we try to resist the thoughts and emotions that arise during our meditation, the more they will undermine us; but when we learn to accept our thoughts and emotions and to coexist with them, our meditation can rise above them.

For some more good thoughts on this subject, check out Joseph Mauricio’s post, “Living Meditation,” on ny.shambala.org. And come spend some time with us at the Dharma Beginner Facebook page or follow us on Twitter @dharmabeginner.

Can mindfulness and tangible rewards coexist?

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As mindfulness practice becomes more and more “mainstream,” it is being linked more often with various kinds of tangible rewards, like better jobs, higher pay, sexier partners, etc. It excites me that more people are becoming aware of mindfulness practice and meditation, but I worry that the push to popularize them comes at the cost of watering them down or, worse, rendering them impotent. In a recent Huffington Post column, Soren Gordhamer asked the question, “Mindfulness: What’s In It for Me?” and does a far better job than I could in highlighting this trend.

But, of course, I can’t help but chime in. I’m funny that way. In my view, mindfulness itself is the reward of being mindful. It is an awareness of yourself, your surroundings, and the beings around you to whom you are connected that makes you feel more alive. It is a kind of wakefulness that leaves you wondering if you were slogging through life half-asleep until now. Rooted in the present moment, life appears more vibrant and our connection to it more powerful. Does there really need to be some other enticement waiting on the other side of mindfulness to make one want to practice it?

Beneficial things may come to you as a result of being more mindful of the here and now, but those things cannot be the goal. Because the moment you start to think about what may be, you are no longer focused on what is. In other words, you’re no longer mindful, no longer present. That thought suggests that, if you practice mindfulness with the intention of garnering a prize, you cannot possibly achieve mindfulness to any great degree. In other words, the desire to obtain a reward by practicing mindfulness guarantees you will not get that reward. That strikes me a mighty sobering.

The Best (and Worst) 12-12-12 I’ve Ever Experienced

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The night of 12-12-12 was a study in contrasts for me. On the one hand, I was very fortunate to be able to attend the 12.12.12 Concert to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims. If you saw any of it on TV, then you have a sense of what an incredible experience it was. The emotions in Madison Square Garden were real and palpable.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinarily challenging person standing next to me for over six hours (when she wasn’t excusing her way in front of me over a dozen times to fetch beer or whatever). Long story short: she spent much of the night invading my personal space. Perhaps you might say that it is ridiculous to expect to maintain personal boundaries during a crowded and often raucous concert. No disagreement there; I attend many concerts every year, frequently standing in general admission, and am well familiar with the experience of a tightly packed and enthusiastic crowd. I’ve done my time in the mosh pit.

But this was no run of the mill invasion of private space. It was a full on, preemptive tactical nuclear strike at my private space. The private space version of Seal Team Six storming Osama bin Laden’s compound. This otherwise pleasant woman (we chatted amiably for the first hour or so) would not stop touching me—holding my hand and lifting it up into the air, looping her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. No matter how far I turned away from her, no matter how I contorted my body like a yogi, I could not escape her tentacular reach.

Did I mention that I brought my 16 year old daughter to the concert? I inched closer and closer to her on my right-hand side as I sought to escape my friendly neighbor to the left. At one very loud point in the concert (Kanye West’s lower-intestine-vibrating performance?) my daughter shouted in my ear, “What is that woman’s problem?” Actually, it sounded like, “Why do goblins hate Gollum?” But that would be a ridiculous thing to have said at that moment, even with The Hobbit opening this week. Somehow, my brain intuited her meaning.

Upshot: At a time when I should have been out of my mind with excitement at the panoply of stellar musicians performing before my eyes, my attention was being divided between the stage and the seat next to me. I wrote recently about praying for challenging people, so with that freshly in mind I offered some prayers for my grabby new friend. Except, my initial prayers came out mostly as pleas that some greater power would stop her. Praying for her necessitated thinking about what was going on with her, why she was behaving that way, what kind of suffering she had experienced and wished to be relieved of.

With everything that was going on in the arena, that was nigh on impossible. But I did elicit some personal details. She had lost her home last year during Hurricane Irene. No doubt, she can feel more keenly than most the losses that Sandy victims have endured, and that reminder must have been painful to experience. What’s more, here she was witnessing an outpouring of love and financial support to the victims of Sandy, likely making the efforts to help the victims of Irene seem paltry by comparison. As she said to me, no one helped her rebuild her home.

The focus of the prayers I offered from that point on—relief from the lingering pain of losing her home and from the reopening of fresh wounds from last year—shifted my perspective on the situation. Gradually, I felt myself relax, the tension in my back and neck melt away, as compassion for a fellow being replaced discomfort and annoyance at her behavior. I didn’t, by any means, offer myself up to be groped, but I did stop turning away from her, both physically and emotionally. I could not see how to ease her pain at that moment, but I certainly could refrain from adding to it.

In the words of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”

Be well, my friends. Peace be yours.

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.

Meditation, Mindfulness, and the Issue of Race

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Jaweed Kaleem writes on the Huffington Post about the growth of racially based meditation groups in and out of the Buddhist community in the U.S. (“Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators”). He describes one such group: “This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. … No whites were allowed.” The participants in the group – and others like them – were led to take this step because they felt excluded from the broader community, especially in areas like Seattle that are not racially diverse.

This is an issue for many religions and practices, not just meditation and Buddhism. It is fraught with contradictions. In my opinion, anything that can help people learn a practice of meditation and mindfulness is welcome, even these racially based groups. However, Kaleem gets to the heart of the controversy when these groups are not just meditation-oriented, but also ostensibly Buddhist: “One of the prime focuses [of Buddhism] is on letting go of any attachment to the individual self. The aim is to be one with the wider spiritual world in the pursuit of harmony, and ideally, that includes going beyond skin color differences.”
I am concerned that there are people of color who feel excluded from the larger community of meditators. In the short run, these race-based groups may be a reasonable solution, which may be why some prominent Buddhist leaders have endorsed them. But I think the answer, in the longer run, is to address what the broader community is doing – intentionally or unintentionally – that makes people of color feel uncomfortable or unwanted. At the same time, we need to ask people of color why they feel excluded because it is difficult for me to accept that practitioners of meditation and mindfulness would actively seek to exclude anyone. It is not that people who live mindfully are necessarily better people, or are completely free of bias – it is just that I don’t know how anyone can practice meditation and mindfulness and continue to view those around them as “different” from themselves. Perhaps I am naive or too wishful.
I believe these tings because I do not think dividing into groups based on “distinctions” such as race is ultimately consistent with meditation and mindfulness practice. I see unity as a natural outgrowth of living mindfully because I believe that mindfulness means seeing things as they really are – and in “reality,” we are all one, indivisible, connected, inseparable.

Are thinking and meditation incompatible?

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“It’s a very deep misconception that meditation is about making your mind blank, that it involves shutting off or pushing away things so that you can achieve some kind of deeper, more desirable state of clarity and calmness. It’s not that those deeper, more desirable states of clarity and calmness do not exist and cannot be cultivated—they can. But it is a kind of learning that in some ways is akin to falling asleep—although meditation is really about ‘falling awake.’ If you try too hard to sleep, chances are you are not going to fall asleep at all. … I like to describe the mind as being like the surface of the ocean—it’s just in the nature of water to wave. And it is part of the nature of our minds to wave as well. The mind waves virtually all the time. If you try to shut off the waves, it’s a bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean to stop it from being as it is. It’s not going to work very well.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Power of Meditation and Prayer

I think I know exactly what Dr. Kabat-Zinn is talking about, from my own experience and from what I have heard from others who have experience both failure and success with meditation. Sometimes my meditation can leave me kind of agitated, rather than calm, if I try to fight the thoughts that arise, to stuff them down or block them out. You know, the moment you determine not to think about something, that’s all you can think about. Likewise, the moment you decide not to think at all, thoughts come streaming in from every direction! Only by accepting that thoughts arise and treating them—and myself—with compassion can I fully benefit from my meditation practice.

Pema Chodron suggests that when you notice your mind thinking thoughts, just say quietly, “Thinking,” and let the thought go. Don’t scold yourself for doing what comes naturally to your mind. I do this sometimes, and when I do I always hear the word “Thinking” in Pema’s voice, which never fails to make me smile. And smiling is the perfect medium for letting thoughts slide away easily and without labeling them as something “bad” or antithetical to proper meditation.

If a thought is persistent, then maybe I ought to pay attention to it. If I am routinely feeling a pain in my tooth, shouldn’t I go to the dentist and have it looked at? The pain may be a signal that there is a physical ailment that requires attention. If a thought keeps popping up during meditation—even when I treat it kindly, imagine Pema saying “Thinking,” and let it go—then perhaps it is something that requires attention. Why not let the thought run its course naturally and see where it leads? Following the thought to its resolution may be the only way to keep it from coming back.

As with most things, expectations play a role in meditation. If we expect to achieve an out-of-body experience, we are likely to be disappointed. If we enter meditation, though, with the expectation that thoughts will arise, with acceptance that thoughts arising is totally normal, then we can more fully benefit from our meditation practice. In my opinion, the goal of meditation is not to experience balance and peace during meditation, but rather to experience balance and peace in our lives away from the cushion. Accept that your mind may be noisy sometimes during meditation and you are more likely to reap the benefits of meditation—a life that is more mindful, peaceful and, yes, less noisy.

Action

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“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?” ~ Buddha

This saying of the Buddha is quite stark, black and white, and therefore perhaps a bit extreme. Certainly, good words—read and spoken—have a positive impact on us, and thereby on the rest of creation, to which we are connected. But words fall short of their potential if they are not a prelude to action. After all, “Actions speak louder than words,” right?

The Buddha himself was no “do as I say, not as I do” leader. He definitely had a lot to say to his followers. I believe, however, that what truly inspired his followers then—and continues to inspire us today—is that the Buddha’s words were a reflection of his actions. His teaching was believable because he was already living it.

Maybe another way to approach these words is to say, “Just act rightly and don’t worry about the words.” Your actions tell the real story anyway, no matter what you say. Think of what we could accomplish if all of the time and energy currently devoted to talking were giving over instead to doing. We would certainly benefit from the additional actions, as well as from far less talk that accomplishes little, if anything, on its own.

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Change – get used to it

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“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” ~ The Buddha

Natural occurrences of order are fascinating, like the way Fibonacci sequences appear in sunflowers and nautilus shells. Not only are such occurrences beautiful to look at, they are oddly comforting—evidence that life isn’t totally random and unpredictable. I think they grab our attention in part because so much of life is, in fact, disordered—if not chaotic.

But let’s not confuse these oases of orderliness with the swirling maelstrom of everyday life. If predictability in life becomes our aim, our expectation, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, and ultimately suffering. For life is motion—it is dynamic, it is constant change. Moments of calm and order can be enjoyed and appreciated for the respites they are. But, like the eye of the hurricane, they are ever-so-brief interludes in the midst of the storm.

Our expectation, if we must have one, should be change, surprises, the unexpected. Because much of our disappointment and suffering derives from just the fact that things have changed, and not even what the new circumstances are. Even changes for the better can be sources of suffering because of our intolerance for and aversion to change. Grasping for a particular time, a specific set of circumstances that no longer exists, is full of pain. Accepting impermanence, the inevitability of change, is the balm for that pain.

Be Present with Love

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“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” ~ Buddha

I think that of all of the Buddha’s teachings, this may be the most important, the linchpin to all of the others. Mindfulness leads to right action, right thought, right speech, right livelihood, and so on. One might venture to say that they could not be practiced without first being mindful.

The way in which this teaching intertwines with the Buddha’s other teachings reminds me of what Jesus said when asked which of the Ten Commandments was the most important: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” In other words, every Judeo-Christian teaching derives ultimately from those two—love God, love your neighbor.

From a Buddhist perspective, loving God translates, I think, to an all-powerful respect and love for creation. Loving one’s neighbor is the equivalent of the Buddhist teachings about loving all creatures in the manner that you would love your mother and showing unfettered compassion for them. In fact, Jesus equates loving God and loving oneself and one’s neighbor by saying “the second [commandment] is like [the first]…” Loving God/creation is tantamount to loving your neighbor; loving your neighbor is, in effect, loving God/creation.

“And who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked. “Everyone,” he answered. I believe the Buddha would agree.

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All I Do Is Talk Talk

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“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” ~ Buddha

For much of my life I’ve been a talker—an incessant talker. When I was a kid, my dad would say I “suffered from verbal diarrhea.” Okay, he was still saying it when I was an adult. It was an apt description.

I could talk a blue streak. I was often quite funny, and occasionally squeezed in something meaningful. But 99 percent of what I said might charitably be called “babble”—and that might be a generous estimate of the worth of what I had to say most of the time.

It has taken me a long time to learn judiciousness when it comes to speaking—truthfully, I’m still learning. The process has moved along in stages—learning first to choose my words with care, to say much with few words. Then, learning that silence can speak volumes and is often preferable to speaking. More recently, learning to put speaking aside in favor of listening.

And I mean really listening, paying attention to the person speaking, being present for them and mindful of their words and their “non-words”—the things they’re not saying. What I used to think was listening was really me paying half-attention while figuring out the next thing that I was going to say once I could cut in.

I think that what the Buddha called “right speech” sometimes is best put into practice as no speech. I think that “I’m here for you, my friend” or “Go on, I’m listening”—and then being silent—is far preferable to any advice I might conjure up on a moment’s notice. Saying nothing sometimes says everything.

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