Sometimes I am nearly overcome by the preciousness of life, so beautiful, so fascinating, so fragile. Over and over again I come back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of the relative dimension – the wave – and the ultimate dimension – water. As a wave, we are each different from each other, each subject to birth and death. As water, we are all of the same essence, infinite as the ceaseless cycle of clouds to rain to river to clouds. “The cloud can never be nothing,” he says. “That is the true nature of the cloud.”
I have composed a little gatha that lately I like to breathe with each morning. Gathas are new to my practice since coming to Thay’s tradition. I have slowly begun to embrace them; they are wonderful bells of mindfulness. Let me offer this one as a lotus for you, a Buddha-to-be.
At heart, I am a storyteller. I love the English language, whether spoken or written, though my particular passion is playing with written words. I’ve written a couple of books and co-written a couple more; I earn my living through mastery of a highly technical and precise form of writing that has little room for creativity and often feels like assembling a verbal puzzle. I get a lot of enjoyment from crafting a well-turned phrase.
Stories are a wonderful way to learn, teach, and share. Some truths penetrate the heart easier when they are clothed in fiction; a lesson may face less resistance when presented through a well-told story. I spent my childhood unashamedly in love with books and can still be enthralled by a good author who knows the craft.
Mary McCarthy wrote, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” As an inveterate storyteller, I occasionally catch myself doing something akin to narrating my own life through internal dialogue. There is always a danger that I will sensationalize, catastrophize, romanticize, or otherwise subconsciously alter my own experience in order to make a “better” story. Mindfulness practice reminds me to remain in the unvarnished present moment, accepting and embracing what actually is rather than trying to recast it into something else. Continue reading →
I had the good fortune earlier this month to attend the first day of a FACES Compassion and Wisdom conference here in DC. FACES conferences focus “on the integration of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ in the counseling field”. They are largely intended for mental health professionals and therapeutic service providers, though members of the public like myself may also attend. I attended one plenary session with Roshi Joan Halifax called “Inside Compassion” and two presentations/workshops by Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion: “The Proven Power of Kindness” and “Difficult Relationship Interactions”.
The talks I attended concerned compassion for self as well as others. There was a tangible atmosphere of caring in the audience, magnified by the feeling of proven compassion-in-action that radiated from the speakers. Before Roshi Joan began her talk, she asked the audience to identify themselves in terms of their roles, which was expressed here in terms of livelihood. Waves of people stood up to be counted as therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, physical therapists, and the like. A few proudly shouted out titles that didn’t neatly fit into the category of healing professions, like accountant and home contractor, to be met with good-natured laughter. Continue reading →
After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.
This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.
One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.
Some people feel that commitments are confining; I find them to be freeing. Commitments focus the mind so that it’s not scattered to distraction. To quote Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from The Path of Individual Liberation: The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Volume One, “Discipline may seem complicated, but it is actually very simple – it is what binds your life together. Without discipline, life is made up of successive indulgences and confusions based on aggression, passion, and ignorance.” Interestingly, that statement rings true in modern psychological studies relating to a phenomenon called decision fatigue. Continue reading →
Last blog I wrote about the major topics covered by the book Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy, namely the Four Messengers of aging, sickness, death, and spiritual attainment. My favorite part of the book, however, was actually the last half, which talks about how to bring one’s newly awakened or deepened commitment to practice into every moment of daily life.
Rosenberg says that we have to stop looking at meditation or any other aspect of our practice as being goal-oriented, because ironically, if we focus on a goal, we hinder our ability to attain it:
On the one hand, sitting is one of the most practical things you can do. It definitely has beneficial effects on your life, as anyone will tell you who does it. But when you sit in order to gain them . . . you undermine yourself. You limit what sitting can do. It is fine to have a sincere aspiration to be a free and sane person; that can give enthusiasm and direction to your practice. But very often we put something in front of us to run after, and that separates us from full and direct contact with the present moment. A corner of the mind is occupied with the goal and is unable to see what is right now.
I relate to this out of my own struggles to establish a regular sitting meditation practice, which took me nearly two decades. Continue reading →
I had intended to spend the last couple of weeks diving further into the Avatamsaka world by rereading one of my old college texts on Chinese Buddhist philosophy, Entry Into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, by Thomas Cleary. However on starting the book, I soon rediscovered how incredibly dense it is. My mind started spinning as I tried to grasp the interrelated aspects of phenomenon and noumenon (the latter defined as “a thing as it is in itself, as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses through phenomenal attributes”, derived from Kantian philosophy and used by Cleary to denote the principal of emptiness). In other words, Entry Into the Inconceivable is simply not something I can absorb on my metro commute! I will have to save it for more focused, quiet reading time. In the meantime, I turned to another book on my to-read list: Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy.
Rosenberg, who founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, has trained with a broad spectrum of Asian spiritual teachers, including those from several different Buddhist traditions. This book focuses on the Buddhist teachings on death: how awareness of the inevitability and inescapability of old age, sickness, and death leads to deepened spiritual practice (these are the Four Messengers said to have set the Buddha on his path to enlightenment). As Rosenberg writes, “We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live.”
When I think of the Four Messengers, I like to substitute ‘aging’ for ‘old age’. Old age is not something that all of us will be fortunate enough to face and it’s a pet peeve of mine when people say things along the lines of “believe me, you don’t want to get old”. I’ve known people who have died quite young and would have given much for more time. Unlike old age, however, aging is inevitable. Even children are aware that they’re different now when they were babies. Continue reading →