Monday, October 31, 2011

Letting Go of Suffering...Patiently

"Suffering is like rope burn. We need to let go." writes Jack Kornfield. Jack is a really good mindfulness teacher as well as a therapist. He continually has a well-seasoned and wise perspective on healthy, constructive practice. All the quotes below are from his book, The Wise Heart.

There is a sacred quality to the witnessing of our suffering that is different from suppression or repression. This witnessing is an essential part of meditation, an attentive and compassionate awareness. Sometimes witnessing is all we have to do. At other times after witnessing, a strong response is necessary.

Loni, a 38 year old woman, came to a weeklong retreat the year after her diagnosis with AIDS. In the months since her diagnosis, she had become lost in confusion and fear. On the retreat, she began to see how much suffering she was creating for herself. As she relaxed and became more mindful she discovered the fear was worse than her bodily pains. Loni began to work on releasing the fear each time the thoughts and feelings arose. At first they were tenacious, sticky, and she would soften and let go each time. After several days of this, her body relaxed, her mind eased, and she was filled with a healing love and grace she wouldn’t have thought possible. Letting go was key.

Another practitioner, Steve, came on retreat in the middle of a conflict with his grown children. When he sat in meditation he saw that he was full of blame, fear, and confusion, that he was grasping at everything they did. Then he noticed that there were moments when his fear would subside and his heart would open. Instead of holding tightly to “How it should be,” he could look from the perspective of “What’s best for everyone at this point?” When he let go even a little, his caring started to return.

Pillar was full of blame and anger. She had recently lost her job in a company restructuring. She believed this was because her patriarchal boss did not like to promote women. She was so angry she thought about revenge. She wanted to file a lawsuit against her unjust dismissal. In her meditation, she could feel how much pain she was in. She was encouraged to study the causes of her suffering. She realized that if she acted primarily from grasping and anger she would suffer. She still thought the lawsuit was necessary, but she realized she could do it differently. If she acted from compassion and care for herself and those who might follow her, she could choose the same action with much less suffering.

Be patient with the process of letting go. Sometimes it seems as though nothing is happening. This is hard for Westerners who want quick results. We need to learn to observe the tiny openings along the way. With practice we can let go and relax into any moments of stillness and compassion. We can begin to trust the moments of well-being. ...Eventually, even in great pain and difficulty, we will have learned to let go.
(Excerpted from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Introducing Delusion to Reality

Delusion: "an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality." 

A key purpose of mindfulness practice is training our own minds to pay attention to the way things really are. It’s kind of crazy to go through life arguing with reality. The quotes below are from Jack Kornfield’s book, The Wise Heart.

Without seeing clearly, we take the surface illusion of things to be reality. Delusion underlies all the other unhealthy states.

When we awaken from delusion, our life is transformed. This is not easy, because…delusion is hard to see. “It’s like riding a horse,” said Ajahn Chah, “and asking, ‘Where’s the horse?’
We live in a culture of chronic inattention fed by the frenzied pace of modern life. Our schools and workplaces push us to multitask, and our fragmented attention becomes cursory, shallow. Surrounded by stimulation, we become bored and restless, prone to addictions of all kinds…. What is commonly accepted by Western psychology as “normal” can actually mean we are functioning at a significant level of delusion.

Without mindfulness, the deluded [normal?] mind habitually grasps pleasant experiences and rejects unpleasant ones. Harder to see, delusion ignores neutral experience. When things are neutral, we get bored and spaced out because we are so culturally conditioned to seek high levels of stimulation. So we miss the aliveness behind the neutral experiences that make up much of our day. And yet when our attention grows, what seems neutral or dull becomes full with an unseen richness.

Instead of trying to dispel delusion, first we can simply notice the times it arises, when we go on automatic. We can take an interest in lack of awareness. To do this we can look for the areas of our life that are most unconscious. We will notice how delusion comes hand in hand with distractedness, speed, and addiction. It is a challenge to our habits to pay attention to delusion. As we do so we begin to wake up. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

God's 'Other' Presence

Oh God, when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...!

You are with me.

What a pairing of often unrelated experience that is. However (a huge however), when the two come together--deep fear, deep presence--our darkest dreads begin to be transformed because they are experienced more and more in the company of God. In God's PRESENCE.

But there's another presence in the 23rd Psalm: "You set a table for me in the presence of my enemies." Sounds like a recipe for massive indigestion, doesn't it? A banquet catered by God with a guest list from hell.

But the Valley-of-the-Shadow and God's Generous Table are almost the same thing. Both experiences are made into something we think of as almost impossible by God's presence.

Our big, familiar, blackest fears can be faced and will be changed in God's presence.

The banquet we think mostly for people we enjoy, the great and happy feast we long for but that also includes people we don't enjoy at all, people who we're in conflict with--this too, this too, this too is transformed by God's PRESENCE.

We long for God's presence when we're afraid. God longs to be present with us wherever we encounter our 'enemies.' In both places, as we open our minds, hearts, and imaginations again and again and again, Ah, find PRESENCE is a wonder. We are profoundly comforted in it and fed by it.

Being mindful of this wonder incarnates love, peace and purpose in us and into the world where we touch it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Even God Had To Let Go

Christian theology uses the Greek word kenosis as a very sacred metaphor for letting go. As the generations just after Jesus tried to wrap their heads around God's incarnation in Jesus, they first figured that Jesus must have been God from the beginning. But then they had to figure out how God could be born human. You know, if he was just pretending to be human, that would be meaningless, cheating even.

Ah. He would have had to empty himself of God-ness in order to be truly human.

Next, reasonably enough, our Christian forefathers and mothers imagined that it would have been a real pain in the butt for God to let go of divinity, complete wisdom, perfect peace and to start over again and grow up as a completely ordinary person. Kenosis is God letting go.

For a good cause.

It works the other way too. For Jesus to then incarnate God, he had to let go, just like us, of all the stuff that distracts, misdirects, confuses, bullies, and poisons our human minds, bodies and souls. Just like us.

Kenosis works in both directions. A profound Emptying, for a good cause.

So...what's the good cause? Why did God let go? Why would we?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Experiencing, Cultivating PRESENCE

Anne Lamott wrote, "My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone." She has a wry sense of humor and an attractive kind of honesty. 

We all have times when, if we're honest, our minds are somewhat dangerous, toxic, unhelpful, confusing. Our own 'Bad neighborhood' consciousness often arises in response to something in life that threatens us. Often when we're threatened our minds go on a kind of automatic pilot, doing what they do whether it's helpful or not. 

During stressful times we usually experience our 'selves' as knocked around a little. Mugged even, in Anne Lamott's metaphor, because we are in a bad neighborhood--which is why it's so very helpful not to go there alone. 

This, to say the least, is a good time to remember, "Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil, because You are with us." You. "Presence." Some One to guide us, to protect, to advise, to shield us. 

I believe 'Presence' is both a God thing and a mindfulness thing. Us 'God people' will forever be conferring, one way and another, with God and experiencing joy and purpose and profound gratitude. AND 'Mindfulness people' will forever be cultivating wise, compassionate attention--or Presence--and also be experiencing joy and purpose and gratitude. 

The wonderful thing is that in scary times or ordinary times, whenever we remember to do our best to embody kindness wisely--in ourselves and in the world--we are engaging the very Presence that heals, restores, and feeds the world just as it does us.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Buddhists brought mindfulness to the West, and though many Buddhists in the East believe in God or gods, mostly Buddhism here in the US and in Europe is non-theistic. Yet mindfulness practice can be just as revelatory and helpful for Christians as it is for Buddhists.

But it's impossible for God-people to meditate without reference to God, even if we were to try. But it is quite possible for Christians to trust Buddhists to embody love and wisdom within their own deepest integrity.

When I work mindfully with fear, in moments when I'm afraid and need help, mindfulness practice is for me is a godsend. And I ever so gratefully call to mind what my Buddhist teachers have so skillfully taught me about how to do it!

Recognize that 'fear' is 'happening.'
Accept it, don't repress it.
Investigate what it feels like to be afraid.
Not, however, go with the force of fearful feeling to the point where I'm identifying with it. Where the author 'fear' is telling is MY story, a story that 'wants' to define and circumscribe me.

While all this is happening (the being afraid, the working through fear with the RAIN paradigm) I'm also remembering to open heart and mind to spaciousness, emptiness, and through it all to have great loving kindness for myself. To rest in awareness itself, which is wise presence.

Yet emptying 'my'-self, embodying openness, spaciousness, loving kindness and wisdom is, for me, quite unmistakably incarnating God. When is God not encompassing me and permeating me with wise and loving Presence?

So working with fear mindfully is ever and always also working with fear faithfully. Underneath and supporting the fresh and very helpful practice of mindfulness is Presence with a really vast capital P--as in

 "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

PRESENCE. Can't help it. It is what it is. Or, as God says, I Am That I Am.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Working with Fear

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d rather see you in better living conditions.” –Hafiz

Fortunately, we can train ourselves to live with mindfulness, to meet fear and pain with wisdom instead of with the habits of aversion and anger.

When a painful or threatening event arises, we can open our eyes to it. When we learn to bear our own pain and face our own fears, we will no longer blame and inflict it on others, neither family members nor other tribes.

With mindfulness, instead of reacting, we can respond with spacious clarity, purpose, firmness, and compassion. A wise response includes whatever action, fierce at times, is the most caring toward life, our own and others’.

Imagine a healthy mind as one that is free from entanglement in any level of hatred. At first this might seem impossible, an idealistic attempt to impose decorum on our innately aggressive human nature. But freedom from hatred is not spiritual repression: it is wisdom in the face of pain and fear.

(from The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nov 5: Mindfulness with Trish Thompson

A Day of Mindfulness

Trish Thompson, Dharma Teacher
In the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn

St. David’s Episcopal Church
385 Forest Hills Rd (across from Ramsey Center)
Cullowhee, NC
November 5, 2011        9:30 – 3:30 

Cost:  offering of $25 for Clean Slate (home for women released from jail in Jackson Co) is welcomed.
Lunch is provided

Limited to 25 people:

Calm the Mind and Open the Heart

Prepare:  good night’s sleep, eat breakfast, bring a cushion or blanket, chairs available, comfy clothing

Monday, October 10, 2011

Working With Feelings

Lectio for October 10th

The first noble truth is that life is difficult and painful, just by its nature…. -Sylvia Boorstein

Every moment of our sense experience has a feeling tone.                 -Jack Kornfield

The stream of primary feelings is always with us, but we often have the mistaken notion that ‘life is not supposed to be this way.’       JK

As we become wiser we realize that fixing the flow of feelings doesn't work. Primary feelings are simply feelings, and every day consists of thousands of pleasant, painful, and neutral moments. JK

How do we work with our emotions? First we have to recognize what is present. How do our feelings manifest in the body? What do they feel like in the mind? Are we confused, sad, angry, fearful, attached, or hopeful? Emotions can cluster together, so careful recognition may notice several at once. Often grief is present with our anger. There can be relief and happiness that come with letting go. Recognition requires a systematic and careful attention.  JK

Don’t be conformed to this world; but be re-formed in the newness of your mind, that you may discern what is the good, wise, and straight path of God.   -St. Paul
Sandcastling on a Rising Tide, by Melba Cooper
This lovely painting by Melba captures what the light was like by the time we five kids got back from our adventure on Hunting Island.

Friday, October 7, 2011


My friend Melba Cooper is doing a series of paintings of lovely old stumps that grow along the Carolina coast. She's named the series Sandcastles. The one here is from Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort, SC. It's such a lovely, interesting perspective. We see it from down low, right with it as the tide laps aound its tenacious old ribs.

A picture's worth a thousand words--and often a picture is better than a thousand words with what it can evoke. All at once we 'know' something, we 'see' or 'understand' or 'remember' almost at a gulp.

Melba tells me the places where these stumps remain are called 'bone yards.' These two words are pretty evocative too.


It just happens that a family vacation on Hunting Island is one of my earliest memories, part of my bone yard.

Two families went. I was the youngest of the five kids.Hunting Island is part 'jungle' (at least the south end is undeveloped and seems very jungly to little boys used to temperate forests). We were told than panthers were sometimes spotted on the island. And, worse than panthers, cane-breaker rattlesnakes. Sheesh, what a name for a kid to wrap his head around.

One evening after supper, the older kids took off to walk down to the south end of the island. "Not unless you take your younger brother," my mother insisted.

I slowed them down. Before we reached the channel it was near dark. A stray storm broke over us. We turned around and long before we got home it was genuinely night. Worse, the tide was at the flood, it was 'high,' right up to the very edge of the jungle. Not a smooth edge between see and land, but a right-angle drop of a couple of feet from where the roots of the dense plants held the sand. The choice was either to walk with the small waves or in the jungle. And though my small legs didn't work very well in the water, NOBODY wanted to walk in the jungle.

The big kids took turns carrying me, but I was a load (the oldest was only 13 or 14). Sometimes they just plopped me down, telling me "Keep up!"

We heard lots of animal sounds coming from deep in the tangled vegetation. Mosquitoes tormented us. As we finally reached the developed side of the island, there was flat, open sand, and the others began to run for the cabins. Of course, I was last to get there.

Our parents were really mad. They'd been looking for us. They sent us all to bed.

Later, I heard scraping noises downstairs. My brothers told me that Dad had gone out to get a spanking machine. It was heavy and he was dragging in. I believed them.

I heard somebody walking up the stairs, and then my door opened. It was Mom. She turned the light on. "Look at you," she said. "Those mosquitoes have eaten you up. Let me go get some lotion."

Our experiences are formative enough. We don't need imagination to make them scarier than they are, do we?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Navigating 'Stuckness'

"Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness that created them." –Albert Einstein

RAIN: Recognition/Acceptance/Investigation/Non-Identification is step (Recognition/Acceptance/Investigation/Non-Identification) is progressive, helpful, and the order makes sense. At the same time, remembering not to identify at every step keeps us from being swept up into old patterns or thoughts of feelings at every step. When we’re working with our own sticky stuff it’s necessary to remember and remember and remember not to identify with it. Our strong reactions and feelings come with stock narratives. Long rehearsed and rehashed narratives and familiar feelings feed off one another, energizing a loop. This is what being stuck is. 

Our most familiar narratives each came into being at a certain time in the past. Certain things, perhaps ‘powerful stuff,’ happened. Presumptions were made. Conclusions were reached that we’ve been inclined to accept as true ever since. We’ve identified with our stories so long that their truth seems self-evident. And for as long as we take them as self-evident, investigation, etc., seems pointless. We can’t attend to these stories unless we suspend our belief in them. Part of mindfulness is the practice of suspending old beliefs so we can get to fresh levels of consciousness which allow us to see old problems in fresh ways. 

“In practicing non-identification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, ‘Is this who I really am?’ We see the tentativeness of this identity. Then we are free to let go and rest in awareness itself.” -Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart

(For details on basic RAIN work, click here)