Warming Up for the Practice

I was teaching a workshop last week about cultivating a mindful classroom, and I had an interesting question posed to me by one of the attendees.  I had just led an introductory meditation.  Nothing fancy, following the breath, some body awareness, making space for whatever sensations found in a simple awareness meditation.  As is typical in such a setting, there was a mixture of experienced and novice meditators in the room, and several people who had never meditated at all.  After we were done the floor was opened up for discussion so people could talk about what it was like to use their minds that way.

One gentleman stated strongly that it was rather a waste of time.  “Nothing happened” he said, “it didn’t work.”  So we began to process what had actually happened when he heard my meditation guidance, but he interrupted me to ask this question: “Why didn’t you have us do preparation to be mindful before we did the meditation?  If you had done that then maybe it would have worked.”

At first I was a bit taken aback, as the teachings I was sharing were making clear that mindfulness isn’t something that “works” in the way he he seemed to mean.  But then I considered his actual question, his wondering if there’s something I should have done, in essence, to “warm up for the practice,” and I thought “what an excellent question!”

What do we do to prepare for a formal mindfulness practice, whether it’s breath-based sitting meditation, mindful yoga, walking meditation, or any number of the mindful practices available to us.  I began to think of my own preparation for a formal sitting session, and realized that I actually do prepare for meditation.  But the preparation is so implicit in my routine at this point, that I no longer notice it.  So I thought I would share how I prepare for meditation, in hopes that it might give readers some ideas as well.

When it’s time to get on a cushion, or walk mindfully, or do some yoga (my three preferred ways to engage in formal meditation), I become focused on my awareness that I am about to do the practice.  In becoming mindful of the intention to be mindful, I begin to slow down a bit.  The simple process of walking up the stairs to the meditation room is done with intentionality, placing attention on the sensations of stepping, climbing, the exertion of it all.  As I enter the room my mind is drawn to awareness of my breath, if it isn’t there already.  Steps are taken slowly; the cushion is placed carefully before my small shrine, or the yoga mat is put in place.  If I am walking through the gardens surrounding my home I begin by lacing my shoes or pulling a sweater over my head or striding toward the door with great focus.  In all cases, the moments leading up to the formal sitting become intense, with great moment to moment mindfulness.

I also have the great honor of leading different groups of meditators, most notably our group that meets monthly and shares deep fellowship founded in our mindfulness practices, and deepened by our conversations and communal meals (especially the meals!).  When preparing to meditate with this group, most of whom were meditation students with me at one time or another, I’ll often read literature that is directly about mindfulness or invokes a mindful quality.  Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes a podcast interview with a great teacher.  All of these resources are inspirational, and a great “warm up” again to leading our formal practice as a group.

I suppose what I am saying is that we can begin our meditation practice by becoming mindful moment to moment.  And the moment to begin being mindful is…..now!  The moment I rise from my cushion or mat or walk away from my garden, that is the moment to be mindful, and, in a way, that becomes the moment in which I am preparing for my next period of formal meditation.  What a beautiful way to live!

The issue, then, comes down to this:  It’s not “when do I start to warm up for my next formal practice period” but rather “why would I ever STOP warming up for my formal practice!”

So go out there and get ready to be meditative, be mindful, in every moment of every day.  Set the intention to live this way.  And learn from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous who say “we seek progress, not perfection.”  We all get mindless from time to time, but as long as your intention is true, you will find your mindless times shorter and shorter in duration.

Peace,

Jim

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Mindful Awareness: Stillness in Concentration

In the early stages of training in mindfulness meditation, the meditator is instructed to learn to focus the mind on a single object, most frequently the breath.  It doesn’t have to be the breath, of course, but the breath is omnipresent, and its regularity and easily-felt presence make it an ideal object of attention.  Why this emphasis on learning to keep the mind focused?  Let’s take a look at two ancient Buddhist metaphors that explain the importance of this kind of single mindedness.

First is the metaphor of the still lake.  Imagine that the water of this still lake is penetrated by a single stone, sending clearly visible ripples outward.  How obvious is the impact of this single stone!  Its weight, the force of its entry, the implication of the energy it has added to the lake are all easily apparent.  Imagine now that instead of a lake the body of water is a rushing stream, and the same stone, with the same weight, force of entry, and energy properties is tossed into the onrushing current.  The implication of its energy is impossible to discern, given the swirling energy already present.  In a similar way, the person whose mind is still can penetrate into the meaning of the entry of any stone, of any event, whether an internal thought, feeling, or sensation, as well as external events like social encounters, changes in job status, or even a simple shift in the weather.  When the mind is an onrushing stream, events, whether internal or external, enter into the stream but their impact is very difficult to discern.  The still mind notices all entries, and is open to responding with the greatest possible skill.

Second, the metaphor of the glass of muddy water.  Allow it to sit and be still for an extended period of time and the dirt within settles to the bottom, leaving crystal clear water above.  The clarity of this water, like clarity of mind, allows all to be seen and understood.  While the water is aswirl there is no clarity in the water, as there is no clarity in the mind that is overactive and troubled.  The still mind, able to concentrate and be at rest is able to abide in clarity, free to notice and discern with wisdom and sound judgment.

Learning to keep the mind focused is usually not easy for beginning meditators.  In truth I’ve been meditating for a long time and my mind still flies off into “popcorn brain” from time to time.  But the effort is worth it.  Having a peaceful mind is its own reward, but you will especially appreciate the still mind in those moments when life’s stream of events becomes an onrushing stream around you, or like a glass teeming with muddy water.  The historical Buddha’s fundamental insight, that unpleasant events inevitably arise, means that with cultivation of a tranquil, still mind we will always be able to respond with great skill to whatever perturbations come our way.  Our mindfulness practices open the gateway for living with great wisdom, able to endure difficulties with resilience and compassion.

Finding meditation training difficult?  Or ongoing practice a challenge to remain motivated?  Imagine your mind as a still lake, or a clear glass of water.  See those images in your mind as you settle onto your cushion, then allow your mind to absorb those images and simply be the stillness, be the clarity.

Peace,

Jim

Self Compassion

In our mindfulness practice we learn that the residue of being mindful is compassion.  One does not somehow “learn how to do compassion,” but rather in becoming mindful, one’s natural inclination, one’s “way of being” becomes compassionate.  The pathway to becoming compassionate is to be mindful in each moment, and you’ll notice the suffering in the world, and wish to relieve it.  In a like manner, setting the intention to be compassionate in the world will surely lead one to a mindful pathway.

How often do I, myself, need compassion?  Every day!  No, my suffering is not immense, and my life is truly a satisfying life.  But like all beings I have pain, I suffer, I need relief, the relief that the compassion of a good friend, family member, colleague, or, yes, a stranger can bring.  I count on the compassion of the people in the world, as I’m sure you do, too.

But how often do I lack compassion for myself?  Too often, it turns out. It is so easy to judge myself harshly, to see my errors as defects of character.  To know my innermost grouchy self and feel bad about the horrible man I imagine I am.  To remember my worst moments, when I truly hurt another human being, and wallow in an old shame.  I accuse myself, and without trial or judge the conviction occurs in record time.

Can I be compassionate to myself?  How can I not be!  If I stand accused and convicted of the dreadful ways I can think of myself, I would never be able to leave my home and do my errands and go to work and live in the world that invites me to live to the full.  If I cannot be compassionate to myself, then I cannot be truly compassionate to another, because I would then allow envy to interfere.  Envy for the love someone else feels but I don’t.  And that envy is poison to every relationship I have.

So I must be self compassionate if I am to live and to love and have a full life in the world.  Self compassion is a skill that can be practiced and learned.  It does not always come naturally.  My voice of self accusation is very convincing, telling me that I don’t deserve relief, that I deserve to suffer.  “For after all,” it says, “look at how you hurt other people!  Why should you feel better?”

Such a painful way to live!  But fortunately we have a great teacher today, Kristen Neff, who is helping us remember how to be compassionate to ourselves, and is doing wonderful research about how being self compassionate can help each of us to live more to the full, with greater satisfaction for our lives.  She has a wonderful website, which you can explore by following this link:

About the Book

In the meantime, if you would like to begin to learn the practice of self compassion, I’ve recorded a short guided meditation that can teach you a few of the basics.  I hope you will try this, as it truly brings you the relief you need to go out and make amends to those people you’ve hurt.

Oh, it also helps you to recognize the signs of a lack of self compassion in other people.  You know, if just might be that when another person isn’t nice to you that what you are experiencing is their own self loathing, their own non-self-compassion, their own suffering.  Maybe the antagonism of another person is just evidence that that person is hurting.  Maybe your own antagonism towards others is just evidence of your hurting self.  You might want to try some self compassion today.  Come on, the recording is only 6 minutes long!

Peace,

Jim

Three Minute Breathing Space

I’m too busy to meditate!  I don’t have time to sit on a cushion in the morning!  Or in the evening!

OK, we’re all too busy and though we desperately need to stop, slow down, tune in, and allow comfort and ease to return to our bodies and minds, we just don’t have the space in our schedule to do so.  It’s not easy out there, and some days are less easy than others.

To help you find a way to have a little bit of structured mindfulness practice I’ve recorded a 3-minute Breathing Space meditation, that ironically is 4 minutes long!  The first minute is a bit of “the basics” (e.g. basic posture, reminder to form the intention to pay attention without judgment), but the final 3 minutes are very simple: tune in to the body, tune in to the breath, then watch whatever is arising in body/mind with equanimity.  This first recording is in the m4a format used by Apple computers:

This second recording is in the mp3 format:

 

So give yourself a break!  You’ve been working so hard today, and you deserve to take at least 3 minutes off to allow your body/mind to rest.

Peace,

Jim

Religiousness, Part I

As much as I’ve practiced mindfulness, in formal and informal ways, I’ve struggled to understand how my practice relates to my religious life.  This struggle has been limited to my “understanding” of this interrelatedness, not to my visceral experiencing of spirituality.  To be spiritual is to be experiencing life and its ultimate questions, and mindfulness is fundamentally an experiential practice, not an intellectual exercise.  Despite the heightened spiritual experiencing that mindfulness brings, I still haven’t answered my fundamental questions of a religious nature.

It is not unusual these days to hear people say “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  While that may be true for a lot of people, I think it may be more accurate for most of these people to say “I seek spiritual experiences that help me to understand religious questions, but I do not want to be associated with religion and its dogma and practices.”  To make sense of this, a few definitions are in order.  First, the word “religious” can be related to different referents, such as a person who has been ordained or taken vows within a religion (e.g. a Catholic priest or nun, a Protestant minister, Jewish rabbi, Moslem imam are all considered by their religions to be “a religious,” which is a noun in this case) or to a particular religion to which a person belongs (e.g. “I am a religious Catholic”).  But in a broader sense “religious” refers to questions about ultimate concerns, such as “What is God?”, “Is there a God?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “What is my purpose?”.  The list of religious questions is pretty much endless.  These are the questions that are difficult to answer in a purely intellectual fashion, and today when we hear people say “I’m not religious” I think that they often mean “I’m not satisfied with the answers that dogmatic religions have for these kind of questions.”  In this sense “religion” is reduced to a system of beliefs (e.g. dogma) and practices (e.g. liturgical rites) that intend to answer religious questions, but provides answers to those questions that are in conformity to a particular set of answers, and limits the freedom of the individual to develop his/her own responses.

So I think we’ve seen the definitions of two words, religion and religious, but what of “spirituality”?  As mentioned above, spirituality always refers to an experience that a person or a group of people have.  But spiritual experiencing is quite particular, as opposed to our typical and mundane experiencing of traffic lights and tastes of food and tiredness and boredom and excitement and washing and folding clothes and brushing teeth and making beds in the morning and feeding the dog and listening to the radio and……….In other words, all of the experiences of a typical day.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written extensively on spirituality and its experiencing and has made this statement about mystics (people who seek out and value spiritual experiences): “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness,  contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity”  (from his book “I’m God, Your Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego”).  I love this definition of the mystic, the person who seeks spiritual experiencing.  It suggests that the spiritual experience is unlike mundane experiencing in that it is the moment in which we sense, that is truly feel, some hidden unity, rather than the broken and scattered reality that we usually apprehend.

I’d like to close out this essay on that thought, that spirituality is the experiencing of the hidden and very real unity of all of existence.  In another essay I’d like to discuss this more, but for now will leave you with a poem that I think captures something important about spiritual experiencing.

Oh friend,

Had I known you are in the breeze I would have walked more.

Had I known you are in the stillness of now I would have sat more.

Had I known you are everywhere in everything I would have lived more.

Had I known you are eternal I would have died more.

by Amir Hossein Imani

Peace,

Jim

Waves

I do not remember when I was first introduced to the haiku and prose of Matsuo Basho, the great Japanese poet from the 16th century.  I cannot claim any special knowledge or expertise when it comes to poetry in general or haiku in particular, but I have to acknowledge that on occasion a particular poem will transfix me, bringing a moment of sheer illumination and joy.  Here’s a bit of prose, and a haiku, from the opening of Basho’s classic “Narrow Road to the Interior:”

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. Coming home from a year’s walking tour of the coast last autumn, I swept the cobwebs from my hut on the banks of the Sumida just in time for New Year, but by the time spring mists began to rise from the fields, I longed to cross the Shirakawa Barrier into the Northern Interior. Drawn by the wanderer-spirit Dôsojin, I couldn’t concentrate on things. Mending my cotton pants, sewing a new strap on my bamboo hat, I daydreamed. Rubbing moxa into my legs to strengthen them, I dreamed a bright moon rising over Matsushima. So I placed my house in another’s hands and moved to my patron Mr. Sampû’s summer house in preparation for my journey. And I left a verse by my door:

Even this grass hut

may be transformed

into a doll’s house.

Translated by Sam Hamill

(Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, a.k.a. The Essential Bashô, 1998)

What captivates me about Basho is the immediacy he brings to every aspect of his writing.  He notices things.  He is alert, without tension or anxiety.  It is clearly a present moment awareness, very visceral, very much focused on sense experience.  It is not a surprise, of course, that Basho was a man of Zen, committed to living a mindful life.  In the reading of his haiku and prose I find myself easily drawn into a mindful state, sensing the experiences in which Basho abides seamlessly, as if it was my own sensing, my own experiencing.

Poetry of this sort has that effect when the mind is open and receptive.  In January I was traveling in California with my wife and friends when I came upon a collection of artwork done by young children of the Long Beach Unified School District.  The water colors were engaging, and it was easy to picture proud parents praising their children and encouraging them to “paint more, paint more!”

Several paintings I saw that day had poetry embedded someplace within the artwork.  The poems were all written in the present tense, and oriented toward descriptions of sensory experiences.  The students captured what they felt in their emotions, in their senses, in the moment and the natural places depicted.  All were lovely, and created with great attention and care.  But one in particular captured my attention, and I’d like to share it with you.  The watercolor painting was straightforward, picturing a beach, the ocean, palm trees and a breeze, and a girl laying on a beach blanket with a basket beside her.  And in the sea you see waves, which is the title of the picture and the poem.  It was written by Atzallana Quintana, a young student from a school in that district:

Waves

You slowly

look up and the

Sunset sets your

eyes as

beauty, your

feet are hard

and cold, with

the rough sand and

the cold salty water.

You can see boats

slowly moving, the

clouds forming together

to hide the sun and

bring out the moon.

And still…All you

hear is waves~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am not going to analyze this poem, for to do so would impose my way of experiencing it, my way of being with it, and may distort your experiencing, if you make the mistake of thinking I have any special knowledge.  I would only encourage you to feel the presence Atzallana brings to her writing.  How she is firmly grounded in awareness of body and senses.  Her awareness feels comfortable, at ease.  I believe that if you savor each syllable, you will find yourself experiencing Atzallana’s world for a few moments.

Well, I will make one brief analysis.  Atzallana’s use of the word “still,” her timing of that word, after so much visualizing has been presented, her decision to have you pause for three beats, before moving on to an auditory sensation: that is brilliant poetry, an illumination of the sheer joy to be found in the present moment.  Basho would be so proud of this young poet, Atzallana Quintana.

Peace,

Jim

Taking Care

Driving this morning I found myself in a left lane merge onto a high speed interstate highway.  Upon entry I saw a warning sign flashing about 500 yards ahead, warning drivers to merge to the right.  I signaled with my turn indicator and checked my right side rear view mirror.  The nearest car appeared to be 3 or 4 car lengths behind, so I began slowly to change lanes.  The driver of that car accelerated hard, preventing me from changing lanes.  I moved back to my left lane, applied the brakes and slowed so I could change lanes behind that driver.  Minor annoyance arose, but I’m so accustomed to the aggressiveness manifest in people’s driving habits that it passed nearly unnoticed, and certainly was not taken for anything worth remembering.

Then something interesting happened.  The aggressive driver suddenly changed lanes, moving into the left lane that I knew was blocked a short distance ahead.  Greed emerged in my body and mind; the thought of not allowing him back into the lane arose quickly and strongly.  Righteous anger triggered pleasure centers in my brain, and I could literally see the pathway of revenge ahead:  accelerate hard, give him a taste of his own medicine!  But in that same moment a voice of sanity, literally the voice of my mindfulness teaching partner, Shannon, spoke these words she so often quotes from Victor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to chose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”  So in that moment of righteous anger, the residue of the greed, hatred and ignorance that we all seem to struggle with, I found that space and returned to mindful practice.  I slowed and then gestured to the aggressive driver to move back over.

And then something wonderful happened: I began to laugh.  I laughed at myself.  All that meditation practice, and still so much dukkha, so much attachment to my desires.  I laughed at the human species: how we crave to be first on the highway, and how foolish our impatience and aggressiveness are.  I laughed about how wonderful life actually is, if only we can recognize our own contributions to our suffering, and just let go.  I laughed because I felt happy: happy that my day would have no residue from my old habits.

This practice is a wonderful practice, truly a pathway to freedom.  This is such a small and petty and simple event, but doesn’t it capture the type of experiences that we all have?  Have you ever felt yourself descend into a bad mood, and wonder why you were so irritable?  Could it be that in an ordinary day small, petty events that are not met mindfully may have added up to an irritable state?

Here’s another way to look at it. In an exchange with a contemporary named Pasenadi, who was the king of a nearby land, the historical Buddha was asked by the king “What, in the dharma, constitutes the highest good?”  Gotama answered “Things fall apart; tread the path with care.”

Care.  Care is a word that has more than one meaning.  Without going too deeply into scholarship concerning the derivation of the word attributed to Gotama, we can take “care” in this context to mean the opposite of being careless.  One must live with great care, which can be done when one brings a deep sense of caring to all sentient beings, beginning with the self.  When one has deep caring for all existence, one lives with great care.  Another way to see this is to think of “care” as the opposite of “squander.”  Each moment in each person’s life deserves great care; one must not squander the opportunity to live each moment fully.

In the moment of taking a mindful breath and allowing the wisdom of my colleague, friend, and teacher to fill my mind, I remembered that space between stimulus and response, and could exercise care in the moment.  As a result I did not do harm to another being, both the aggressive driver and myself.  As a result there was less opportunity to spread suffering further, by driving aggressively and, perhaps, recklessly, myself.  As a result I came away from this minor event with no painful emotional residue, only the joy from not taking myself and the world too seriously.  And as a result there was a moment of care brought to a world that is starving for care.

And all because of the wisdom of a skillful teacher, and the space in a single breath!

Peace,

Jim

Being Seen

Friday, Christmas Day, was a long day for my wife and me.  We traveled to southern California in order to visit with our son and his wife for two weeks, and had the full holiday travel experience.  A jammed plane, lots of crying children, and the usual airline food.  We had an hour delay due to weather, but most of our fellow travelers remained patient and pleasant, and eventually we made it into the warm embrace of our loving son and his gracious wife.

It is easy on a day like this to not notice things, especially the people who serve us.  At the airport there were so many people working on the holiday, and each person responded to our needs in the spirit of the Christmas season.  Even the men and women at the security check points were very hospitable.  My wife and I made it a point to express our gratitude to each of these people for working on Christmas Day.  As we did so there was an unmistakeable air of fellowship among us, a true sense of the spirit of the Christian Incarnation.

It is not enough to simply “see” what is going on in our immediate environment in order to fulfill some function, or complete some task.  This kind of sight is utilitarian, and while necessary it is hardly sufficient if it is our intention to live life abundantly.  Living a full life requires that we are mindful of seeing, an active process in which we engage with the seen with curiosity and openness, a state of mind that leads inexorably to acceptance and love.  It may sound odd to say that we were able to accept and love airport employees, but I think it is honest to say that we were accepting and loving toward the people we encountered on Friday.

Mindful curiosity is a pleasant state.  When we sit and simply notice our breathing, then allow our awareness to be open to all of the activity of mind, and then notice that activity with acceptance, our curiosity naturally arises.  Our mind becomes a source of wonder for us, and instead of being enslaved by its impulses and desires we learn to attend to its activity with skill, knowing when to follow the mind’s direction and when to recognize the mind’s desire for safety and control, conditions that may be quite unnecessary.  This practice of mindfulness, of being curious and open to all experiencing, leads to a fullness of life defined by acceptance and love.  And being accepting and loving translates to truly seeing all people, recognizing our inherent connectedness and shared humanity.

Being seen is a pleasant experience.  When I am truly seen by another I feel a stirring within, hard to define and describe, but quite palpable.  I feel known, as if my eyes were truly windows into my soul.  When I am seen I may feel some fear stir as well.  In that moment of being seen I become vulnerable.  That fear can lead to a flight to safety, to becoming unseen once again, or even to becoming frozen in place, unable and unwilling to face the risk inherent in true relationship.  But that fear is an energy, and if my practice is true and my mindfulness is one of curiosity and openness, then the energy of fear can be transformed skillfully into the courage I need to be accepted and loved.  And then something wonderful happens: this person who has truly seen me is seen in return.  And in the act of seeing, relationship arises, and now the spiritual ideal of agape, or charitable loving, the origin of the compassionate heart, comes into being.

“Being seen” is a curious phrase.  On the one hand, it seems to connote a passive quality, that I am seen by another, if “being” is taken to be a verb.  But what if we take “being” as a noun?  Then the phrase connotes another meaning, that the most essential aspect of our existence, our very being, can be seen and experienced by another, and another’s most essential aspect of existence can be experienced by me.  Imagine a world in which each person formed the intention to truly see and the willingness to be seen?  Gandhi had it right when he said “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”  It begins with each of us, and it begins with our simple act of practicing mindfulness in each moment of each day.

Lovingkindness

Paraphrasing Dickens, anger is the best of times and the worst of times.  Anger happens.  An event occurs, your mind/body perceives a violation in the event. At the speed of light, your body registers sensations, especially in your chest, jaw, perhaps in the small muscles around your eyes.  You begin to breathe more rapidly, more shallowly.  Impressions of behaviors come into awareness; perhaps you “feel” the urge to strike back, physically, verbally, ready to do damage to the perpetrator.  You begin to act, and now thoughts arise, thoughts that make sense, and maybe even justify your aggressive actions.  Later, you look back with regret, wishing you had moved more slowly, more thoughtfully, more mindfully.

Anger is a difficult emotion to manage, moving through a person with speed, intensity, and direction.  Our bodies are “wired” for anger, and its purpose is clearly in service of survival.  Don’t attempt to wish away your anger; you always have to careful about what you wish for.  Without anger, you might not survive.

What I’m describing up to here is “state” anger, an emotion that emerges in reaction to changes in the environment, and then gradually fades as the mind/body perceives resolution of the perpetrating events.  Maybe the wrong has been righted through your actions, or perhaps the originator of the wrong has repented with remorse and restoration.  Or, maybe you simply decided that the weight of the violation was not worthy of your energy, and you forgave the offense.

State anger is normal and natural, but trait anger is dangerous.  When I would try to look monstrous as a child, my mother would say “hold your face that way long enough and it will be permanent.”  That was incentive to look even more monstrous to my 7 year old self, but it was also a trenchant insight by my mother.  People who have experienced much violation in their life, especially if their anger response was invalidated by a parent or authority on some regular basis, can come to a point where anger is not only a state they experience, but actually has become a trait of their personality.  Anger that persists, anger which is never fully quenched by justice making or forgiveness giving, becomes embedded in the body and mind of the person, and is always present like a background program in a computer system.  We’ve all experienced the so-called “ear worm,” the song that runs in our head on autopilot for hours or days at a time.  In a similar fashion, unextinguished anger can become a kind of “body worm,” leaving the person vulnerable to outbursts of state anger much more easily than is healthy for one’s body, mind, and relationship life.

If you have found yourself in this sort of trap, consider the possibility that the fire of anger might be diminished through the regular practice of lovingkindness meditation, known to many as metta.  Making metta is an ancient practice, and has parallels in all religions.  The simple act of allowing the body/mind to enter into a state in which it experiences deep feelings of compassion, and then escorting the compassionate-active body/mind to images and memories of those who have hurt us, who may have kindled much anger in us, can be very healing.  It takes time and discipline; making metta is not a complex process, but like anything in life worth having it is worth working for.  I’ve embedded a guided metta that I recorded as part of a workshop I gave some time ago:

 

The practice of metta might help you, if you struggle with anger, to feel a softening of your heart.  The person (or people) who have caused harm to you may still be toxic; do not misinterpret making metta as a tacit admission of self blame.  To the contrary, the act of forgiving another is more complex than acting to soften your heart.  But an important first step in the act of forgiving is to realize the harm that comes to you by remaining angry: harm to your body, your mind, and your spirit.  So please enjoy this ancient practice, and if you are not plagued with anger, enjoy it all the more.  I don’t think that there is any greater pleasure than the act of feeling, expressing, and acting on love.

Peace,

Jim

Ordinary Mind

When we meditate we seek to focus the mind on the breath.  This takes great effort.  The mind wanders, necessarily, as the mind is conditioned to cling to aliveness, and must wander to assess for any potential threat to its continued existence, leading to a state of anxiety.  The anxiety of living is proportional to our history of exposure to threat, real or perceived.  This anxiety is omni-present, and the root of the wandering mind.  As we focus the mind this anxiety lessens of its own accord.  At the same time, as our anxiety lessens, whether through reason or experience, the capacity for the mind to remain focused strengthens.

When the mind is focused it has reached a state one can call ordinary mind.  As the mind nears this state, the diminishment of anxiety and its concomitant behavior, clinging, feels rather extraordinary, and the mind may even conjure up images and bodily feelings and suppositions that seem rather extraordinary in response to this progression.  Do not be deceived by these seemingly extraordinary occurrences, which are simply mental (neurobiological?) artifacts of the process of letting go.  An ordinary mind finds itself in a state of comfort and ease, and knows there is no need to pursue any other mind state.

When we meditate we often feel quite pleasant.  This is in large part due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system as our minds become more and more focused on a single object, whether the breath or some other object of attention (i.e. the sensation of stretch when doing yoga).  This pleasant body state in turn encourages the meditator to both formal and informal meditation practices with greater frequency and commitment.  However the process of meditation will often lead to realizations of the workings of the mind, which may include rather unpleasant memories, thoughts, and bodily affects.  All of these unpleasant mental objects can be worked with, but sometimes the meditator will experience these events as some kind of failure of the meditation session.  With this mindset the meditator may declare meditation itself a failure, or, perhaps worse yet, rededicate him/herself to having pleasant meditation experiences.  Neither alternative is helpful; to avoid meditation all together leaves one bereft of this pathway to the ordinary mind and freedom, and the pursuit of pleasant experiences in meditation builds new illusions about the nature of things and can actually become a form of servitude to another form of clinging.

The ordinary mind is free.  It knows no boundaries, as it can turn toward all experiences with equanimity, whether those experiences are pleasant or unpleasant.  The ordinary mind responds to living experiences with expansiveness, as it has seen all possibilities in the hours it spends in meditation and joined awareness with acceptance.  Stated more clearly in his “Asian Journal,” Thomas Merton spoke of ordinary mind when he wrote:

…There is no puzzle, no problem, and really no “mystery.”  All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear.  The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya*…everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.

Peace,

Jim

*Sanskrit for the “cosmical body of the Buddha,” interpreted as referring to that which is most essential in all beings.