29 July 2011

Embracing Suffering

“The human body at peace with itself is more precious than the rarest gem.”

So says the great 14th century sage Tsong Khapa.

Even if you know this, even if you know this with a large part of your heart, life is still difficult, at minimum, sometimes. It seems that we often don't want to be at peace, or we can't, either because our inside world or the outside world will not let us. ...however if you look at the 'outside obstacles' for long enough, you might find internal ones behind them.

So one problem is being tricked into thinking a problem is coming from outside. For example, my partner drives me bonkers. (Or dating. Or not dating.) Or something like what happened recently, a waiter spilled (a lot of) salad dressing on my leg. It's another kind of suffering to know that the primary cause cannot be outside, to see that and to lack the drive or discipline to act on that knowledge.

Sometimes knowledge is unable to serve it's function, it just tortures you, you cannot align with it, it cannot link with the core of your life, your soul says no. Then knowledge stays on the surface, making some experiences seem right and others wrong. It makes you want to do something with your life, improve things, be busy, tackle problems, gain insight. Or feel like you should. We build a castle of our desires - even spiritual ones - then lock ourselves inside it.

So there's the suffering of, say, my 78 year old mom, who is angry that her brain is shutting down. There's the suffering of witnessing seeing someone you love deny reality. There's the suffering of having the life that you want but being somehow or at least occasionally unable to move within it. There's the suffering of thinking there's something wrong. There's the suffering of looking around and feeling that you should be happy, or happier. The suffering of trying to compulsively think our way out of pain.

The most basic suffering perhaps is that, again and again and again, things are not how we think they are supposed to be. There aren't supposed to be long lines, people aren't supposed to disappoint us, death, cancer, depression definitely shouldn't happen. We get buyer's remorse, we rationalize, we do things we think we shouldn't and then explain to ourselves or others why...focused internally or externally. We tell ourselves why things don't match up. "I'll start tomorrow." "Traffic is bad - maybe there's a football game." "I could never do that." We explain to our friend why it's OK to lie in this case. We justify, blame, or deny. Not accepting the continuous reality of life is the ultimate addiction, the ultimate cognitive dissonance.

The thing I come back to over and over again: Whatever is happening now is how things are. It might be painful, but it is not a mistake, not an accident. It's life. The only appropriate response to how things are is an embrace.

It's appropriate because it means we will stop fighting. Rather, that we will accept and then in some way move toward positive change, but we put down the sword, we take off the blinders and the any-colored glasses and the veils. We shift the balance a little more toward what things are, what we are, and a little less toward what we simply wish them and ourselves to be.

Because we want to relieve suffering, because we want to progress - doesn't mean there is anything wrong. We must act and change things from the foundation of 'nothing is wrong'. And from that place we find - for at least that moment - the human body at peace with itself.
“A flower falls, though we love it; and a weed grows, though we do not love it.”

05 July 2011

Buddhafield Monthlong Retreat 2011

I returned from England last night. I spent some time in London, but mostly I was in Devon in a beautiful large field of long grass and buttercups, meditating with my friend Paramananda and about 30 other people, for a month. It was a wonderful experience.

Here are some beautiful mantras from the retreat. They are:
  • Amitabha (2)
  • Vajrasattva
  • Shakyamuni Buddha (Tibetan)
  • Invocation to Prajnaparamita or Perfect Wisdom (from the Heart Sutra)
  • Yeshe Tsogyel (said to be incarnation of Prajnaparamita)
The words to the last mantra, some of which is in Tibetan, are:

Om Ah Hum Benzra Guru Jnana Saghara Beim Hari Nisa Siddhi Hum

See Also

Buddhafield.com (Buddhist camping retreats)

Photo is an outdoor Vajrasattva puja toward the end of the retreat.

06 March 2011

Shame, Craving, Intoxication: Little Picture, Big Picture


Lying in bed last night kind of late I started watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix. And I kept watching it. I wanted to see what happened, how the mystery was solved. Still, I wondered why no one had told me it was so much about sadism, rape and murder. Lots of photographs of mutilated dead women. Some friends I talked to about it didn't even remember this. Maybe the effect was amplified because I was alone.

At some point the main character, Lisbeth, is asked if a particular person has secrets. She replies, "Everyone has secrets, it's just a matter of finding out what they are." In the past I might not have paid much notice to this statement. But this time the thought spontaneously surfaced...that I don't really have any secrets. I do have life details that I would not necessarily tell the stranger sitting next to me on an airplane. (Apparently Americans have something of a reputation for doing this.)

But secrets? Actual facts about me or my life or my past that I do not want anyone to know? I'm thinking of something kind of weird I did on the recent monthlong retreat that I told a few friends about, and we all laughed and laughed. Unfortunately sharing it here is out of the question! But the point is that I experience very little shame, at least of the debilitating variety. This is probably mostly to do with my childhood, and temperament. And also, currently, that I am part of an intimate, mostly sane community that understands me, shares my values, and is realistic about the activity of the human mind.

Drugs and Suffering

Speaking of things a normal person wouldn't necessarily want to post for any Random Sam to read...I discovered what you might think is kind of a basic thing recently. I found out that I can't in good conscience take LSD any more. I found out that acid is like a person, a person I used to know intimately and love very much but had forgotten about. A person who, though I hadn't seen them in a long time, never let me get too distant from my own love of life. I was reminded of this person recently and started plotting a reunion, but unfortunately I've been chanting precepts about not taking intoxicants for who knows how long, and there have been too many alcoholics and junkies in my bloodline to think of drugs as solely recreational anymore.

It might seem kind of an obvious conclusion, especially for a meditator, but I assure you it wasn't. Alternatively you may think it's stupid to bother about it. My preference would be for you not to have an opinion either way, but I know that's something I don't get to decide. In any case I have not taken it in a long time and as far as I know I am not addicted to it...but neither can I detach myself from the responsibility and suffering to which it seems to be inexorably linked.

The suffering caused by drugs and alcohol is astronomical. It's one of those things that we all know but is so easy to ignore. Like knowing that if we saw where the hamburgers or chicken we eat came from, it would not be physically possible for us to eat them. But sometimes certain facts come into focus, it would seem in their own time. It is hard for me, at least now, to ignore the dangers, the suffering of drugs, even when that particular brand of suffering doesn't even seem to be mine. But it is in my blood. The suffering, death and distress, so many people with access to drugs and alcohol inflict on themselves, and on other people. All the suffering.

I know that this is not a total picture. I have had spiritual experiences on drugs for which I am grateful, because they gave me an experience of something like a free mind. For some people this is therapeutic. Alcohol makes relaxing much easier sometimes. In some traditional cultures, plant-based, mind altering drugs provide the basis for spiritual experience, as they do for some people in western society today.

For me, at the moment, it's simply a gut feeling - a gut feeling of dread - not something it would be possible to talk me into or out of, even if I myself tried.

Human Addiction

Delving into my reflections on LSD seems to have sent other questions, other perspectives, other cravings, into relief. I've noticed that sometimes I feel a deep disturbance or imbalance on an energetic level that I want to - or must - get rid of, smother, cover. It's like being occasionally but regularly overcome, from inside, with a need to blunt experience. I'm wondering if these kinds of cravings for some kind of dullness or oblivion are happening much more often than I am noticing them. They reach toward stultifying computer games, red wine, cookies - variations on distraction or escape.

All the Buddhist precepts are variations on the theme of non-harm or, stated positively, loving kindness. The Fifth Precept of Buddhism encourages us to cultivate mindfulness, and cautions us against taking 'intoxicants that dull the mind'. The word intoxicant of course means poison (as in toxic.) The precept encourages us not to poison ourselves on a mental level, which is what we are doing every time we drift out of awareness, every time we set up conditions for ourselves that make being skifull more difficult and challenging. The Dhammapada says "Those who are not mindful are as if already dead." ...What's your poison?

It's useful for some of us anyway to look into our relationship to intoxicants such as alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs. We can also work out for ourselves on more subtle levels what is toxic. To do this we need to know ourselves to some degree. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need a clear heart and mind, unclouded by craving. What are the things we do, the things we crave even, that make us less aware? What is the craving to not be aware? We have addictive habitual patterns on the levels of body, speech and mind and we need to acknowledge them on all these levels. And we need patience and compassion for the inevitable suffering we cause ourselves and other people.

Using the example of a drink, Buddhist teacher Joan Tollifson suggests:
Pay attention to the first impulse for a drink -- what triggers it, how does it happen, what does it feel like, what goes on -- what is this urge itself actually like – what thoughts are showing up, what mental images, how does it feel in the body -- and then the whole process of "deciding" whether to give in and indulge, how does that unfold, what are your thoughts telling you -- and then buying the bottle, opening it up, pouring the drink -- what does each moment in this process feel like in the body – and then the first sip, what is that like – and how do you feel after one drink -- what is pleasurable about it, what isn't – what moves you to have a second drink, what is this urge, do you really want another drink or is something else going on – how do you feel after that second drink -- simply paying attention and observing. You'll learn a lot.
We can take this advice and apply it to every aspect our our momentary life. And we really need to, because our American world is full of intoxicants. It is engineered to make us want, to envy. We fill up our lives with things, with tasks, with modes of escape and denial. We crave the devices we carry with us that do not allow our minds to rest, or do just one thing. Our craving and restlessness increase as the world moves faster and faster. For me the biggest challenges are food and the internet, the two main things these days I have a hard time being moderate about. Others of us are clinging to...our iPhone, buying things, work, online sex, television, money, Facebook, gambling...we have to look at the unfolding of our relationship to these things. To know ourselves is to know our craving self, and it is very important knowledge indeed.

In Bare Bones Meditation, Joan Tollifson says:
"...there is the conflict, the battle between the desire to indulge, which is an escape from what is, and the desire to stop, which is also a movement away from what is."

However we conceive of addiction, we probably see it as a problem. And to some degree seeing it as a problem is also a problem. Which is to say, our poison is not really the booze or the hard on or the artisan bread. We poison ourselves by our unwillingness to be aware, by wanting to cover up, by not wanting to know what is real for us in each moment.

These are the layers of onion I continue to peel.

See Also

Here's a blog post about addiction to technology.

More excellent writing by Joan Tollifson on addiction.

Frog photo by Kulaprabha.
Plumeria flower from
Chimp photo not sure.

24 January 2011

Softening: Live Meditation

Thirty-two people from the San Francisco Buddhist Center and the wider Buddhist community spent a couple of weekends this month meditating around the corner from the SFBC -- in a display window facing a bustling part of Valencia street. And there was a bench for people to sit on, across from window. According to an observer who sat outside one day, in a couple of hours 30-40 of the people walking by took photographs. (Apparently one of them was Citisven, a writer for the Daily Kos - check out the article he wrote, How sitting in windows is making the planet cooler.)

For me, the experience of sitting was completely different than I thought it would be. That is, I thought the 'being looked at' part would be more prominent. I became deeply absorbed, just hearing the sounds of the city--cars passing, high heels clicking, dogs barking, conversations... and noticing the response in my body. There was incredible peace sitting in that window, somehow interspersed with moments of fear and wonder.

Another surprising thing was how many people walking by seemed to think we were statues or some kind of realistic art! True, as far as I know there has never been living beings in this window before. (It is the art display window at Artists Television Access or ATA.) There was a huge range of reactions, from awe, respect or curiosity, to disbelief, to suspicion or scorn. A lot of misunderstandings about meditation were expressed, too...and some seemed not to realize that we can hear, even if our eyes are closed!

The event included a screening of Matthew Flickstein's ecumenical documentary about mysticism called "With One Voice". Even though some sector of our culture seems to be rather attached to the idea that 'all religions are the same'...the approach of this film isn't like that. It simply documents the intersections of human spiritual experience through the voices of the people who are devoted to it in apparently very different ways--sufis, Buddhists, Hindus, Quakers, lay people, monastics... The screening was well attended and well enjoyed. By the way at the moment this excellent film is not available from Netflix or video stores. You can buy it at withonevoicedocumentary.org.

How Was It--Sitting in the Window?

"I had the experience of noticing my thoughts arise, then they would dissolve, even if I wanted to hold onto them! Usually there is the constant struggle to stay in the present but yesterday I was anchored to a larger, more still space. It was amazing. I was in a blissful state for the rest of the day."

"A couple of dudes passed by and I heard one tell the other, 'Hey, bang on the window!' I prepared myself for the thud, but I didn't hear anything. I wondered if they were cute."

"Many people wondered if we were real. In the second sit I sent loving-kindness to the people walking by on Valencia Street. At the end of the two sits I felt really energized and excited. I think the energy of Valencia Street affected my meditation a lot. I was glad to be part of it."

"I'm so glad we did this event!...It was impossible for me to feel anything but kindness and solidarity--different than what I thought it would be--this was a strong practice situation! Being visible while practicing is a wonderful thing to do for oneself and everyone who comes by, strangely intimate."

"It was pretty amazing. Where I thought I'd be all fidgety, worrying about losing my concentration I was actually quite still. Even when someone banged on the window I barely moved."

"It was a wonderful experience."

What Did You Hear?

"Holey f---, that's my cousin!"


"Are they real?"

"How long have they been there?"
"A long time."


"Estan meditando." [They are meditating.]

"I don't see anyone sitting in lotus position!"

"They look so real."

"Daddy, why are they sleeping?" (repeat a few times)
"They're not sleeping, they're concentrating."
"Why are they concentrating?" (repeat a few times)
"Let's let them concentrate."

"I wish I could do that."

"Passive aggressive, sitting in the window meditating."

"That's not a real person, is it?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure it is."
"Wow, that freaks me out."

"Oh my god."

"See look, there they are."

"Is she breathing?"
"No, people don't breathe when they meditate."
"Really? Are you sure she's not breathing?...See, that's why I can't meditate."

"Oh my god. Are those real people?"

"Is it art or is it meditation?"

More Info and Related Projects
Article about this project -and Obama's State of the Union Speech - from Citisven on the Daily Kos.
Window photos by Suvarnaprabha, IdentityTBD (Flickr), Acarasiddhi, and Ethan's cousin.
Softening (SFBC website)
Artists Television Access (992 Valencia Street @ 21st)
Marina Abramović at NY MOMA: "The artist is present."

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