Thursday, May 31, 2012

Deconstructing Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is wrong, small-minded, stupid, and is ruining the world. I'm absolutely sure of it. Which, of course, makes me a fundamentalist.

Almost all of us are often fundamentalists. If you're convinced you're absolutely NOT one, that's a pretty good sign you're one too.

Mindfulness deconstructs Fundamentalism--simply by giving us each the best seat in the house to observe the fantastic dramas of our own minds and lives. If you're not mindful, you may disagree with this, which of course, is completely reasonable. To observe the truth about our selves takes...observation. You know?

Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis,

"...We are all, by nature hypocrites, and this is why it is so hard for us to follow the Golden Rule faithfully. Recent psychological research has uncovered the mental mechanisms that make us so good at seeing the slightest speck in our neighbor's eye, and so bad at seeing the log in our own. If you know what your mind is up to, and why you so easily see the world through a distorting lens of good and evil, you can take steps to reduce your self-righteousness. You can thereby reduce the frequency of conflicts with others who are equally convinced of their righteousness."

It's both painful and wonderful to "know what your mind is up to." Every time a  'log' is taken out of our own eye it can feel like a crowbar digging into us. Yet, to be free of the blindness and constriction of small-mindedness brings, as Haidt's title suggests, "Happiness." New found freedom to see the world more openly invites the deep joy of wisdom itself.

Taking contemplative time daily to sit non-judgmentally with our thoughts and feelings trains us as observers. Even 5 minutes a day makes a difference. Taking the practice 'on the road' is just as helpful. All it takes is a consistent intention to become more aware of what 'certainty' feels like. Each time we have a strong 'sense' that somebody else is wrong and we're right, we 'note' it.

Then we 'play' with it. What happens when I suspend my certainty? What happens if, in this one moment, I am an agnostic regarding my own Settled Truth? What's possible if, instead of entertaining judgment and working up a counterpoint, we choose to invite curiosity and kindness into the mix?

What happens? That 'log' in our eyes sometimes falls out painlessly. And we experience the opposite of fundamentalism--a rather delightful kind of openness.

I'm sure of it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Appetite for Life

Every moment, this one,
especially, we are on the cusp
of joy. The big kind. And peace,
the kind that passes understanding.
Follow this one prompt--take joy
in this house-body--and what is
near it now. Open to Life, Yours
and Others. Let your soul yawn
wide and loud as a lion. And
wake up.

What was it you were anxious about,
kvetching about, ten seconds ago?
Don't try to remember. Breathe in
forgetfulness like the smell of fresh bread.
Recite the grace you learned,
and knew, but lost: "For this,
and all your many blessings....

And then, with an appetite large
as that lion: Eat, child.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Emotional Intelligence

Lectio for this morning is another helpful snippet from Jack Kornfield (on working skillfully with our feelings, from The Wise Heart). Again--as with all awareness practices--it's only helpful when we regularly work with it. 

As we develop recognition, acceptance, and investigation of feelings, we can also recognize their impersonal and empty nature. We can notice how a feeling arises, how long it lasts, and what happens afterward. Usually we think that feelings and emotions last for a long time. We speak of a morning of anxiety, a day of irritability…. But as we investigate closely, we discover that most feelings last no longer than fifteen or thirty seconds.

Suppose we feel a state of anger or longing. If we sense it carefully in the body and mind, it will inevitably begin to change, to expand or intensify, dissolve or shift from one feeling to another.

Feelings arise like a series of waves in consciousness; each feeling can bring the sense of being young or old, spacious or contracted. As we learn to track our feelings, our emotional intelligence grows. With mindfulness, a natural intuition and discrimination begin to tell us which feelings call for action and which, if acted upon, will lead to unnecessary suffering.

Some feelings hold important messages, and we need to respond and address the conditions from which they arise. Equally often, feeling states are simply present, the atmosphere in which we live. Even when they are strong, we don’t need to suppress them, nor grasp and identify with them. Through all these permutations, we don’t have to worry: no emotion is final.

With mindfulness we can learn that even powerful feelings and emotions are not to be feared. They are simply energy…we can choose…we can act on those that need a response and let others become freed as the energy of life.

Friday, May 25, 2012

God's Frustration

I've been wondering lately if God gets frustrated. If I were God...I'd get frustrated. We humans have become so many and so distracted and destructive. God must have lot's to say to us. Lots of hard things to say to us. Yet God usually uses humans to communicate to humans--and we'd rather not hear God say hard things--so God's (often self-appointed) spokespeople are too often tuning out the more challenging stuff. Our small selves don't like difficult conversations with God. Most of us collude in this.

We Christians, if we even believe we have to be born again, tend to think it's a one time deal. But being born again is really just moment by moment life in God--a binary thing--on or off. Each moment finds us either on are off. Open or closed. Awake or asleep. Or perhaps somewhere in between--not exactly hot or cold but kind of lukewarm.

I sometimes say to my Christian friends (who think I've gone from left field to foul territory because I value Buddhist mindfulness training), "Mindfulness helps me follow Jesus." There's nothing like mindfulness to reveal our small selves. Consistent awareness tunes us into the small self broadcast network: "small talk all the time."

As I listen to my own small talk radio, sometimes I catch myself thinking, Who is this guy? OMG, this guy is ME. Or at least base-level-me. Sometimes "I" cut myself down. Sometimes "I" build myself up--but almost always in small defensive kinds of ways. And usually this 'broadcast stream' is far from accurate. Lots of old and unconvincing opinions that add up to my own not-very-well-tested theory of How-Everything-Works.

It's not like Jesus was unclear about how this life works. "If you're determined to save your self you'll end up losing your Self. If you don't figure out how to love your Self--and your neighbor like you love your Self--you'll never experience what God's Reality is all about."

Learning how small our small selves are can be unnerving and therefore hard.

Researchers in both neuroscience and human behavior are adding to the 'data' of how the small self operates. Here's a snippet from Andrew Haidt's very helpful book, The Happiness Hypothesis:

"The self is one of the great paradoxes of human evolution.... In The Curse of the Self, social psychologist Mark Leary points out that many other animals can think, but none, so far as we know, spend much time thinking about themselves. Only a few other primates (and perhaps dolphins) can even learn that the image in a mirror belongs to them. Only a creature with language ability has the mental apparatus to focus attention on the self, to think about the self's invisible attributes and long term goals, to create a narrative about that self, and then to react emotionally to thoughts about that narrative.

"Leary suggests that this ability to create a self gave our ancestors many useful skills, such as long-term planning, conscious decision making and self-control, and the ability to see other people's perspectives. Because these skills are all important to enabling human beings to work closely together on large projects the development of the self may have been crucial to the development of human untrasociability. But by giving each on of us an inner world, a world full of simulations, social comparisons, and reputational concerns, the self also gave each of us a personal tormentor. We all now live amid a whirlpool of inner chatter, much of which is negative (threats loom larger than opportunities), and most of which is useless."

"...Leary's analysis shows why the self is a problem for all major religions: The self is the main obstacle to spiritual advancement in three ways:

  • First, the constant stream of trivial conerns and egocentric thoughts keeps people locked in the material and profane world, unable to perceive sacredness and divinity. This is why Eastern relgions rely heavily on meditation, an effective means of quieting the chatter of the self.
  • Second, spiritual transformation is essentially the transformation of the self, weakening it, pruning it back...and often the self objects. Give up my possessions and the prestige they bring? No Way! Love my enemies, after what they did to me? Forget about it.
  • And third, following a spiritual path is invariably hard work, requiring years of meditation, prayer, self-control, and sometimes self-denial. The self does not like to be denied, and it is adept at finding reasons to bend the rules or cheat."

Sound familiar? That's good. Because it's when we begin to get intimate with how wrong and how  counterproductive our small selves are that we begin to find motivation for transformation. Small-self disappoint can be Big-Door opportunity.

After the initial shock and disappointment of seeing the small self in action and in detail, the bits and pieces of our theories (on How-Everything-Works and How-Important-I-Am) are not that hard to let go of. And as we let go, bit by bit, we start finding room for love and joy and peace and patience and a host of lots of other wonderful fruit. Also, God's less frustrated ;-)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Familiarity Without Contempt

I often quote William Stafford’s poem, “The Way It Is.” If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you may have seen it two or three times. Does that make you want to skip it?

Familiarity can feel boring. Sometimes our desire for knowledge makes us prefer novelty much more than familiarity. Yet Awareness Practice is grounded in familiarity.

The word ‘grounded’ points to rootedness, staying put, incremental growth. One of the graces of meditation is ‘growing’ an ability to experience familiarity as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘boring.’ When our ‘familiar’ is interesting, when it draws us in, we see everything in and around us in so much more detail. We even 'care' about it more. We see our habits, our likes and dislikes, our ‘ways’ more and more clearly--and it matters. We notice that our habits, likes and dislikes, our ‘ways’ are what constitute our ‘Way.’

AND (this is a big AND) for all of us who’ve been somehow opened up to a WAY that is bigger (in so many ways) than our own personal ways, mindfulness and contemplative practices allow us to notice more regularly when we've Lost our Way.

William Stafford calls this Way a thread--and creatively, powerfully describes the grace and discipline, the gift and participation of intentional (for many of us, spiritual) journey.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Working with Compulsions

The following quote from Gerald May's The Dark Night of the Soul is about our habitual way of 'doing' life. At some point, if we're really lucky, we notice that our habitual way of doing life doesn't work very well and doesn't make us (genuinely) happy.

Intentional awareness practices are so helpful because they both reveal our habitualness and give us healthy and effective ways of working with it. We slow down and cultivate ways of knowing ourselves better. We learn not just to bring attention to our 'problems' but wise, compassionate attention.

Here's the quote...

Some of our habits inevitably become choiceless. They turn into compulsions. Compulsions are not good for the soul.

Some, like racism or vengefulness, are clearly destructive. Others, like overwork or zealous self-sacrifice, may appear admirable on the surface, but devour us interiorly.

Regardless of how a compulsion appears externally, underneath it is always robbing us of our freedom. We act not because we have chosen to, but because we have to. We cling to things, people, beliefs, and behaviors not because we love them, but because we are terrified of losing them.

The classical spiritual term for this compulsive condition is attachment. The word comes from old European roots meaning “staked” or “nailed to.” All major spiritual traditions have long understood that attachment binds the energy of the human spirit to something other than love.

Each of us has countless attachments. We are attached to our daily routines, our environments, our relationships, and of course our possessions. We are also attached to our religious beliefs and to our images of ourselves, others, and God.

In May's context here, the opposite of compulsion is choice. And the opposite of attachment is freedom. Freedom to choose what's healthier and what keeps opening us to joy. This is good news. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Working with Brother Doubt

To be spiritually whole, we don't overcome doubt--we integrate it. Overcoming doubt is more like repressing something than solving something. Doubt is still 'down there' somewhere, lurking, niggling, threatening some cherished belief--some cherished belief perhaps in need of an update.

One of the ways we recognize where doubt has been repressed is by the way we react and respond to doubters. They must be repressed too, walled out--or run off. If somebody else's 'faith' of 'lack of it' is making us edgy, it may be less about the specks in their eyes and more about the planks in ours.

Doubt is usually a sign that we've glimpsed an inconvient truth. Inconvenient because it seems to contradict cherished notions. But as we learn and grow, we can begin to see that doubt is a conversation partner with 'faith-thus-far.' And the conversation is letting us know that 'thus far' is never the end of faith--and that 'thus far' we've left something out.

Though it usually seems counter-intuitive, doubt is one of faith's most faithful friends. It often points to the very place faith needs (and is ready) to grow. Doubt is often a sign of faith gone stagnant--a clue that 'faith' itself needs literally to 'repent,' to turn, to reorient toward the soul's true north. In this sense, doubt is also a harbinger of progress ahead.

I remember in my mid-thirties feeling some real queasiness about where faith and life seemed to be colliding. What I believed, or had believed, seemed at odds with what life was teaching me. It felt like I either had to let go of faith or stop letting life teach me. Neither option seemed wise--and yet something in me felt I had to do one or the other. I wrestled with this consciously (and mostly openly) for a long time.

And one night I had a dream.

I was standing at the entrance of a vast valley--huge round mountains like you see in Yosemite stretching on and on and on. Going into the valley felt both daunting and somehow attractive.

I turned to one side of the valley and looked up. There was a ladder. And where the ladder gave out, steps were carved into the granite. Farther up, much farther, another ladder led up to something that looked like a Pueblo dwelling--part natural shape of the mountain and part wood.

I began to climb. Dicey. But doable.

The top of the last ladder ended at the bottom of the floor of the dwelling. There was a hatch. I pushed it open and climbed far enough to poke my head in. It seemed like a charming little house. Two woman, short, round, skin the color of tea with a little milk, were smiling and saying something I didn't understand and yet understood by their animated gesturing that they were saying "Come in! Come In."

I did. They kept smiling. One held out a basket. In it was some sort of wholegrain bread, not quite flat, not quite round. They were saying, "Chabura! Chabura!" I understood, despite the language barrier, that they wanted me to eat, to share their bread.

I took some; broke off a piece and ate it. Tasted like-fresh-out-of-the-oven wholewheat bread. Yum.

As I was chewing I noticed windows and went over to one. This high up you could see much more of the valley. The mountains looked even bigger. The valley even longer--it went on and on and on, bending gently one way and then another. And the whole of it was bathed in rich, diffuse light--the quality of light that comes just after sunrise.

Suddenly I was awash in a mixture of hope and trust and gratitude. The possibility of exploring the valley ahead became decidedly more attractive than daunting.

Then I woke up.

Several days later, thinking about the dream, hearing those dear women saying "Chabura! Chabura!" and tasting that bread and feeling grateful all over again I suddenly realized I had come across chabura before. In the Bible. The upper room. The last supper. The Jewish word for the meal that Jesus was sharing (and had shared many times) with his friends was xabura, or anglicized chabura.

The bread those lovely women gave me was bread for the journey. And more.

Chabura is not the bread itself, but the meal itself--the bread of fellowship, good company, spiritual friends, many counselors, community, transformation, wisdom, energy--the sacred meal.

I knew at once I could let go of my niggling doubt and trust the journey ahead.

Often, very often, whenever faith and doubt interact in a way that makes me queasy, I remember and re-collect this dream. Chabura!

I've never had another dream like it. I guess once was enough.

This whole experience--the collision of faith and doubt, the queasiness, the dream--continue to be sacramental for me: a sign that doubt is sometimes the right yeast to make just the bread we need for the next part of the journey.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tolerance: The Ability to Ferment

I used to brew beer. You can buy different kinds of barley to brew different kinds of beer. If you're making a stout or porter, you get barley that's roasted like coffee beans. If you're making something blonder, you get barley that's barely roasted at all.

Yet all barely has to be roasted, at least a little, to keep its sweetness. Barley sugar is necessary for beer. It's what the yeast eats, digests, and transforms into alcohol and bubbles (carbon dioxide).

To 'invite' the barley to become its sweetest, you (somebody) soaks it in water to turn its 'come alive' switch on. The grain thinks it's in moist ground after spring rain--so it prepares to grow by releasing food to sustain its first sprout and root. That food is sugar. To sprout barely for beer is called spalting.

But in order to keep the barley grains sweet, the process has to be turned off. Roasting the spalted grain arrests the process at just the right time, keeping the sugar and adding just the right amount of roastiness for the style of beer you want to brew.

On Saturday I posted that 'tolerance' is as good as chocolate--because it allows us to endure the things that transform us. I guess what I'm saying today is that tolerance is also what makes good beer.

The Sufi poet Hafiz says it this way:

    Don't surrender your loneliness so quickly.
    Let it cut more deep.
    Let it ferment and season you
    As few human or
    Even divine ingredients can.

Trying to avoid life's unpleasant moments--the soaking, the swelling, the cracking, the heating, the roasting--keeps us from ever devoloping our richest flavors, our deepest potentials. Like the story of Jesus at the wedding feast, if we don't hang around till the end of the party, we'll never taste the really good wine.

We could use other words than the 'loneliness' Hafiz uses above. What words suit your situation, now or perhaps soon? Use those words in your poem.

Don't surrender your 'stuff' so quickly. Stay with it. Let it soak, sprout, roast and ferment.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Working with Primary Feelings

The lectio (slow, focused reading and savoring) for the Mindfulness group that meets at St. David's every Monday morning is printed below. The first section is by Jack Kornfield; the second by Jonathan Haidt.

Probably the best way to work with it on you own would be to copy it and read it several times slowly yourself--highlighting the bits that give you a glimpse of something helpful.

Then either take a few minutes to 'sit' with one of those bits contemplatively--or to work with it by journaling.

Ordinary Mindfulness, May 14, 2012: Primary Feelings

“Working with the primary feelings is a direct route to enlightenment,” explained one of my Burmese teachers. 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. We secretly believe that if we can act just right, then our stream of feelings will always be pleasant and there will be no pain, no loss.

So when a painful experience arises we often try to get rid of it, and when a pleasant experience arises we try to grasp it. When a neutral experience arises we tend to ignore it. We’re always wanting the right (pleasant) feelings and trying to avoid the wrong (painful) ones. And when they are unpleasant we react endlessly, struggling to get it right.

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…. Sylvia Boorstein, my colleague, writes, “What a relief it was for me to go to my first meditation retreat and hear people who seemed quite happy speak the truth so clearly—that life if difficult and painful, just by its nature, not because we’re doing it wrong.” –Jack Kornfield , The Wise Heart

Controlled processing (our conscious mind) requires language. You can have bits and pieces of thought through images, but to plan something complex, to weigh the pros and cons of different paths, or to analyze the causes of past successes and failures, you need words. Nobody knows how long ago human beings developed language, but most estimates range from around 2 million years ago, when hominid brains became much bigger, to as recently as 40,000 years ago, the time of cave paintings and other artifacts that reveal unmistakably modern human minds. Whichever end of that range you favor, language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. The language parts work well, but there are still a lot of bugs in the reasoning and planning programs. Automatic processes (like fear, anger, pleasure, passion), on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect.

The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.   –Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothosis

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tolerance: the Ability to Endure

'Tolerance' isn't most folks' favorite word. Tolerance: the ability to endure something we find unpleasant. Blah.

Yet when we get the least bit invested in mindful practice, tolerance is as good as chocolate. If we want to discover what makes us happy, tolerance is one of the doors.

Evolution has hardwired us to turn away from lots of stuff: stuff that scares, hurts, disappoints, confuses. For most of our lives we mostly go with how we're wired.

And then we begin to accumulate clues that life, as we've lived it so far, is smaller than we'd hoped--constricted, and for many of us, disappointing.

Yet over time, we'll glimpse something in others who have wider, deeper experience of life, and something in us finds it attractive. We're somehow 'pulled' toward it. But, no surprise, once we're pulled toward what our hardwiring has resisted, we'll also become uncomfortable.

Every doorway into deeper happiness has (in small print) an inscription: "This passage will make you uncomfortable." But this is where we learn to love tolerance. We never make it to the other side of uncomfortable passages without it.

One of the first gifts and challenges of contemplative practice is tolerance. What do we do with each thought or feeling that comes up in mindful practices? We accept it, we tolerate it. We even experiment with 'welcoming' it. This is big time training.

Over time, all kinds of 'crap' comes up. And what's the practice? "This too" is this practice. Tolerate, welcome this and this and this and THIS TOO. When we do, we see so much that we've never seen before simply because now we're no longer avoiding it just because it makes us squirm.

Cultivating tolerance in meditation carries over into the rest of our lives and makes a big difference. Whatever that inner muscle is (that learns to hold and welcome what makes us uncomfortable) 'volunteers' to hold all kinds of everyday stuff--challenges at work, hard conversations, bad news. Lots of important stuff we used to ignore, deflect, gloss over, deny--we now know how to work with (not always skillfully--but it's a promising start)!

Becoming familiar with any landscape makes it easier to navigate--whether the landscape is personal, social, professional, or (imagine this) political.

Tolerance: the ability to endure something we find unpleasant. Imagine...stuff that drives us crazy today over time leading to deeper happiness.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chore Mindfulness

Friday's my day off. It's a glorious day today in Western Norther Carolina. What shall I do?


I'd rather hike. Or read. Or learn how to use a new photo-editing app.

So...instead, maybe I should just hurry and get the 'necessary' stuff out of the way and then enjoy the 'good' stuff? What would you say to me about that?

What I often do on Friday's is to take the time I'd spend in formal meditation and commit to being mindful in chores. I'm reasonably lousy at it, but even as random as I am in coming into Presence in chore moments, it makes a real difference.

My main goal is to notice when I'm caught in wanting to get 'this' out of the way in order to get to 'that.' To pause. Chuckle. Breathe. Smile. Feel the broom or the hoe in my hand. Thank God for brooms and hoes and hands. Feel my feet on the floor or on the Earth. Catch a glimpse of how ironic it is to be wishing away any of my time on the Earth.

In five minutes (or less) I'll be doing this wishing-away again. At the first 'notice' that frustration is rising up, that I'm judging and begrudging my resistance to something as necessary as chores--those lovely contemplative habits will kick in again, and "I" will let these thoughts "go." And they will.

And then, if I'm lucky, I'll forget all about contemplative habits and resistance and judgment and once again take up my vacuum cleaner and follow Jesus ;-)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Even Trauma

Hope is a rich gift. Trust is life-sustaining. Hope and trust together are bread and water for our hardest journeys. Hope gets us going. Trust keeps us moving. Together they give us what we need in order to risk entering the Valley of the Shadow of Death where we meet Presence, our companion even on passages through hell. 

Below is another of Jack Kornfield's blessed stories. Hope and trust have big roles. 

But since this is a story about terrible trauma, it's also essential to balance hope and trust with patience and caution--and I think JK writes with this kind of sensibility. God-awful trauma is never something to breeze through or to see with the slightest bit of rose-tint in our glasses.

For Katie, a young woman who had been abducted and raped, mindfulness of the body was a delicate and painful journey. She came to a month-long meditation retreat to heal her trauma and find some inner peace. At first, the intensity of her painful memories kept her completely out of her body. Then, with a tenderhearted attention, Katie found that she could feel her feet when she walked. But sitting was too stressful for her. She had been tied up and the immobility was too similar to her abduction. So, instead of sitting practice, she walked and walked, learning to fully feel her feet on the earth, her legs, and her movement.

Next she used her breath as she walked to breathe compassion into the rigidity and terror, into the tension in her shoulders, arms, and torso. Periodically waves of fear, rage, and grief washed over her and she had to rest. Sometimes she would reestablish a sense of well-being by holding on to a tree or feeling her feet touching the earth.

When Katie felt stronger she began to sit—“immobilized,” as she called it—and little by little allow the memories of ropes and panic to arise. To support this practice, we sat together often, establishing a trusting field of compassion that could allow for her healing. Guiding her attention with kindness, she began to feel all the sensations she had avoided for so long. Her body wept and shook. Then she slowly opened to the feelings and images. By taking it a little at a time, she was gradually able to tolerate and release more and more of the memory.

After several weeks of practice she relaxed her grip on the story. Her experience became just sensation, just feelings, just a memory. She realized with relief that her abduction was not present anymore. All that was present was sensations, thoughts, feeling, and spacious release. Katie began to feel free.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Working With Brother Pain

Sometimes, ironically, one of our best spiritual teachers is Brother Pain. As long as we're happy and life is 'normal' we usually have little motivation to 'study' the way that leads to bigger life. This is just the way it is--and there's no need to seek pain--it comes when it does. But when IT does come, it's wise and helpful to recognize  pain's relatedness to LIFE.

The following is another of Jack Kornfield's rich story/quote passages. It's from The Wise Heart.

I particularly value the wisdom in JK's phrase 'more workable'--and the Anne Morrow Lindbergh passage he quotes dramatically brings 'workable' to life.

Last year, Malik, a man with a progressive form of rheumatoid arthritis, came to a practice at a retreat. He had done all he could medically for himself, but he was still frustrated and angry. We worked together as he learned to soften the anger and aversion around the pain, to breathe and hold his body, even the contractions, with kind attention. He used the traditional image of a parent holding and protecting a crying child. Equally important, Malik had to learn to relax his judgments, his frustration and anger and self-pity. He learned compassion practice for himself and extended it to all those whose bodies are in pain.

Gradually, Malik's physical pain and frustration became more workable. He discovered how to honor his crippled body with a tender attention. He recognized the lesson Anne Morrow Lindbergh discovered during the birth of her child. "Go with the the pain. Let it take your palms and your body to the pain. It comes in waves like a tide, and you must be open as a vessel lying on the beach, letting it fill you up and then, retreating, leaving you empty and clear.... With a deep breath--it has to be as deep as the pain--one reaches a kind of inner freedom from pain, as though the pain were not yours but your body's. The spirit lays the body on the altar."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Four years ago I drove my car after the engine warning light came on. I had to get to a meeting. After the meeting I noticed a loud clicking I'd never heard before. I was almost in Asheville anyway so I took the car to the dealer. The engine was practically 'frozen'--which meant part of the engine had gotten so hot that bits of it melted and were now stuck together.  $5,600.00 to repair (replace the engine).

I was so frustrated with myself. My feelings and their 'accusations' were so intense.

I called my wife and asked her to come pick me up--an hour's drive--so I had 60 minutes to stew in my own juices. And plenty of juices to stew in.

I begin to do mindful practices--and they were quite helpful. But I wish I'd had the rather comprehensive list posted below--Jack Kornfield's summary of the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness (found in The Wise Heart). They're much more detailed than most of us need most of the time. And they suggest working in ways that seem like overkill to many of us. Kind of like a child wanting to learn how to ride a bike and a grownup launching into the progression of the 30 gears to use climbing Mt Mitchell.

But one day, that child might want to bike up Mt. Mitchell. And then...curiosity and necessity may well open up a whole new area of interest and need.

I'd recommend making a copy of this. Then when something is really stewing in you, pull it out. Read it again. Then work with what's 'cooking' in some of the ways that JK suggests.

With recognition and acceptance we recognize our dilemma and accept the truth of the whole situation. Then we investigate more fully. Whenever we are stuck, it is because we have not looked deeply enough into the nature of the experience.

As we undertake the Investigation part of RAIN practice (here's a link), we focus on the four critical areas of experience: Body, Feelings, Mind, and Dharma. These are called the four foundations of mindfulness…here's a simple overview:

When we are investigating a difficulty and something is cooking inside, we want first to become aware of what's happening in our BODY. Can we locate where in the body the difficulties are held? Sometimes we find heat, contraction, hardness, or vibration. Sometimes we notice throbbing, numbness, or even a certain shape and color. Are we meeting this area with resistance or with mindfulness? What happens when we hold these sensations with mindfulness? Do they open? Are there other layers? Is there a center? Do they intensify, move, expand, change, repeat, dissolve, or transform?

Next we need to investigate which FEELINGS are part of this difficulty. Is the primary feeling tone pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? And then we ask—Are we meeting this particular feeling with mindfulness? And what are the secondary feelings associated with it? Often we discover a constellation of feelings.
A man remembering his divorce may feel sadness, anger, jealousy, loss, fear, and loneliness. A woman who was unable to help her addicted nephew can feel longing, aversion, guilt, desire, emptiness, and unworthiness.
With mindfulness, each feeling is recognized and accepted. We investigate whether it is pleasant or painful, contracted or relaxed, tense or sad. We notice where we feel the emotion in our body and what happens to it as it is held in awareness.

Looking next into the MIND, we notice what thoughts and images are associated with this difficulty. We become aware of all the stories, judgments, and beliefs we are holding. When we look more closely, we often discover that some of them are one-sided, fixed points of view, or outmoded, habitual perspectives. We see that they are only stories. With mindfulness we loosen their hold on us. We cling less to them.

The fourth foundation of mindfulness is the DHARMA. Dharma is an important and multifaceted word. It can mean the teachings and the path of Buddhism. It can mean the Truth, and in this case it can also mean the elements and patterns that make up experience. Investigating the Dharma, we look into the principles and laws that are operating. Is the experience actually as solid as it appears? Is it unchanging, or is it impermanent, moving, shifting, re-creating itself? Does the difficulty expand or contract the space in our mind? Is it under our control or does it seem to have a life of its own? We notice if it is self-constructed. We investigate whether we are clinging tight, resisting it, or simply letting it be. We see whether our relationship to it is a source of suffering or happiness. And finally, we notice how much we identify with. This leads us back to RAIN, and to the principle of non-identification.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Slogging in the Right Direction

I emphasize the commitment to embodied practice a lot--to myself and to others--because it's so helpful, because it's essential, and because our culture so often resists and dismisses the need for slow, slogging, drudge  work in favor of induced epiphanies and quick fixes.

Slow, slogging, drudge work in service of continued wise and healthy formation of body, mind, and soul is a wonderful thing.

Epiphanies feel decisive--yet they often aren't. We, our perspectives, the world (!) can seem fresh and transformed in epiphanal moments. Yet always we come back to the world as it's usually experienced: with one possible (and decisive) difference.

If before the epiphany we were headed in the 'wrong' direction, and after the epiphany we are headed in the 'right' direction, everything IS different.

What, in our deepest and truest experience of life and ourselves, do we love, recognize, and value most? Turning toward THAT is the wisest thing we'll ever do. Life in many ways will still be a slow and steady slog, but now it will be a slow and steady slog slowly and steadily taking us deeper and deeper into wholeness and our heart's desire.

After a decisive turn like this, it's just a matter of regularly checking the compass and reorienting--and our many ongoing epiphanies are mostly just delightful confirmations that we're slogging in the right direction. Alleluia.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Video in the Headroom

I like TV crime-solving shows. Just finished watching last season's 'The Killing'--a transplanted Danish series that AMC produced. Dark. Slow-but-fraught. Well done.

Like many other detective series, video cameras play a crucial role. Cops request past footage from parking garages, ATM's, toll booths--and what was thought to be hidden gets seen, becomes evidence. What was vehemently denied gets grudgingly acknowledged.

Practicing awareness is like detectives asking for video footage--except not in the past but in the present. Many things that were 'hidden' get 'seen.' Mysteries get solved. Really big ones. In some way the Biggest of them all.

  • Like the Buddha's: "Why do we suffer?"
  • Like Paul's: "The very things I most want to do I don't seem able to do--it's the stuff I don't want to do that I wind up doing. What's going on?"

Many theories describe the human dilemma. Which ones ring truest for us? Ah, why don't we review the footage so we can get a more accurate take on the Problem?

This is the first thing mindfulness does--invites us to see for ourselves how our 'selves' work. We become witnesses of our own lives (so much less intrusive than having witnesses called to testify for or against us later).

Recent psychological research tells us that in most arguments, the side we take usually has nothing to do with logic--though we try to argue 'logically' in order to win. The side we take is almost always instinctive, knee-jerk, dumb (see Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis).

Don't believe this? Simple--see for yourself (actually, see in yourself). Witness (deeply) the seed, the unfolding, the process of an argument you're in.

Not long ago I would have argued about what drives what we argue about. Not anymore. And this applies to everything. Seeing for ourselves, accurately, is foundational to becoming healthier, wiser, and happier.

Once we witness the stuff that's tripping us up, keeping us from doing what and being who we most value, the way forward has more light on it--and we have more energy for and trust in the process.