Surfing the Vicissitudes

There are a lot of numbers in Buddhism; the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the five/eight precepts, the five hindrances, the four foundations of mindfulness, the thirty-two parts of the body, etc. It's a lot to memorize, so much so that my friend and I laugh at the running joke between us regarding our own ability to always remember all but one! From my perspective, this doesn't make us "bad Buddhists", because the practice of being aware and careful of what's going on in the mind is most important, BUT these lists are helpful in making sense of what we're experiencing.

So lately I dedicated myself to commit to memory the Four Pairs of Vicissitudes:

  • Pleasure & Pain

  • Gain & Loss

  • Fame & Disrepute

  • Praise & Blame

Here we see four distinct pairs of polar opposites. The literary definition of vicissitudes is perfectly accurate: "alternation between opposite or contrasting things." The point isn't to perceive the things in the list as bad, but rather to understand that throughout our lives we're continuously oscillating between some combination of these extremes. Sometimes we meet with pain, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with gain, sometimes with loss, sometimes with fame, sometimes with disrepute, sometimes with praise, and sometimes with blame. Our natural tendency is to cherish and chase after pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, while we hate and avoid their opposites. We tend to cling to pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, so as to never want to let them go, and with great aversion we try our hardest to suppress all pain, loss, disrepute, and blame.

When we do this, in a very real way, we're not only entrusting our sense of happiness to very unreliable, inconstant external conditions, we're also putting ourselves on a very rough and erratic roller coaster ride of emotions; when the events of life go up, we go up with them, and when the events of life go down, we go down with them.

Obviously we can't control how every variable in every facet of our lives comes to be, so without that ability to influence the events of the world, our problem is really with how we relate to the vicissitudes. When we mistake them as permanent, whether desirable or undesirable, we begin to tell a story in our mind of how life is going to be like this seemingly forever. We might benefit from reminding ourselves that every thing is in flux, by simply stating "this too shall change" or "this too shall pass." It's all inconstant, and the amount that we suffer on account of the ups and downs of life is in direct relation to how much we cling to the idea that life needs to be a certain way for us to be happy.

And while the solution isn't necessarily to renounce all pleasure, gain, fame, and praise, it might be wise to consider sooner rather than later that the fruits of these pursuits are always fleeting, meaning their enjoyment is never going to be enduring. As such, our time and efforts might be best invested in finding happiness within, a happiness that arises independent of the randomly changing, at times favorable, and other times unfavorable, conditions of the world.

In order to do this, we must first understand what we're doing with our own minds, and we learn and develop the skills necessary through the practice of meditation.

Me First

Meditation isn't an escape. We meditate so as to face ourselves, to develop the skills necessary to be aware of and change our own behavior so as to cause less suffering to ourselves and others. The first step is coming to terms with the fact that we have work to do on ourself. For whatever reason it's very difficult to admit, so instead of looking inward at ourselves, we tend to look outward toward others.

It's so easy to point fingers at others, at what they have done and left undone. But while we're really good at pointing out their problems, we struggle with arriving at solutions. The reason being the only person we actually have any ability to change is ourself. Even if we encourage or inspire someone else to change, ultimately it is they themselves that make that change. They may make use of the inspiration to change themselves, but we cannot and do not change other people.

Therefore, if your desire is indeed to change the world, then we must first change ourselves, and then not only inspire other people to change, but can also show them the way.

The Love We Sow

All too often we "look for love", as if it's a noun, a phenomenon, a "thing" that seemingly happens without any effort. As the saying goes we fall in love, and this too, this idea that we're simply "falling", suggests that love is a thing that we simply stumble into without any effort of our own.

This way of thinking can be problematic because love is actually a verb. It's a continuous process. A difficult continuous practice. And being that its' a verb, we don't just get the thing and then the work is over, but rather, quite to the contrary, the only "thing" we really get is the opportunity to love, and in as much the work has really just begun.

But we actually don't have to wait until this apparent "beginning" to begin the work. In fact, if we do wait, we're at a disadvantage, as the "thing" we want to fall into actually requires two people who are actively working together to make that "thing" even possible. In other words, the love we seek to reap is grown out of the love we sow.

We have an entire world, our life, and everyone and everything in it to love unconditionally! So many opportunities each and every day to enjoy and express gratitude for simple pleasures, while extending kindness, understanding, generosity, friendliness, and forgiveness to countless others. Coming to be able to interact gently and kindly with the world doesn't just happen in place of intimate relationships, it rather can (and arguably should) be at the very foundation.

The loving-kindness that we cultivate through metta bhavana, through extending unconditional goodwill to the world, is a practice we directly use to develop our innate capacity to love ourselves and others unconditionally, in turn improving relationships with all of those in the world around us. But it too isn't just a "one and done", but rather an ongoing process we aim to maintain throughout our days; a process that we tend to each and every moment, being sure that our thoughts, words, and deeds are indeed in accord with our intention to love unconditionally.

Studying Mind Like Film

Apparently sports teams, prior to facing their next opponent, closely watch film of their adversary's past games in order to better understand their tendencies. Doing so allows for the opportunity to develop a more effective game plan that will ultimately allow them to overcome these tendencies, thus winning the match.

If we look at our mind as an opponent, and happiness as the goal of the game, then our "film" is the actual watching of our mind, understanding its tendencies, and then skillfully overcoming these tendencies in order to arrive at happiness.

From my perspective, no greater aim of a meditation practice exists beyond coming to clearly see the patterns of our minds and how these patterns decide whether or not we meet with suffering. Our happiness hinges on whether or not we are aware of what is going on within our own minds, and whether or not we have learned the skills necessary to let go of unhelpful thoughts and cultivate helpful thoughts. In a very real way, happiness is a learned skill.

The mind does an extraordinary job of looking for, finding, and relentlessly focusing on the worst possible thoughts; the worst thing that's happened that day, week, month, year, lifetime. Because thoughts are the forerunner to everything, we then speak and act out of the mental state created by dwelling on these less than happy thoughts. Thus begins the cycle of misery, and will continue on as such until we realize that this process is actually a choice.

Upon careful examination, and with a little bit of experimentation, we realize that these patterns of thought are just patterns; patterns that can be altered over time with continuously applied effort. Using mindfulness as a tool, in any given moment we can become aware of the contents of the mind and consider whether these thoughts are indeed worth repeating. If the answer is "no", we actively work to abandon them by cultivating their opposite. In order to prevent further unhelpful thoughts from arising, we actively work to maintain the helpful thoughts that we've just cultivated. 

But the first step is realizing what we're already doing! So the next time you catch yourself in a "bad mood", consider the contents of your mind:

What are the quality of these thoughts?
Do they match your mood?
What if you let them go?
What if you replace them with the best thought you can think, a thought of loving kindness?

Athletes also spend a lot of time training in a gym at which they fine tune the skills necessary to ensure their success. We train in quiet spaces where we can strengthen the skills of mindfulness and concentration through the practice of meditation. 

How a Fridge Gave Food for Thought

Making generalizations and seeking absolutes is a common and fascinating behavior that comes along with being human. It makes sense, as we're desperately reaching for something certain, unmovable and unchanging, so as to identify with as we move throughout an ever changing, uncertain, ephemeral world. We want something steady, something to hold onto, to know without a doubt, to count on as always being true. We so desperately want to be "right". As a result, we begin to mistake our beliefs and opinions as fact and quibble over our differences. We create category upon category of likes and dislikes, and react accordingly to the world as we experience it.

Well, this week one of my own categories was challenged and completely obliterated!

Have you ever worked with or supervised someone that did everything they could do to get out of doing their job? It can be quite frustrating, right? It seems to be a recurring theme for me that has stretched from group work in grade school all along the way well into work life as an adult. Certainly inspired by the incredible work ethic of my father, my brothers and I were bred to believe a strong, thorough work ethic was paramount, and in as much, its opposite was looked down upon with disapproval.

Enter the maintenance worker assigned to make the repairs on the refrigerator I had asked to be replaced on account of a persistent high frequency squeal that most likely would drive the dog-I-don't-own-because-I'm-allergic bonkers. He said he was asked to replace the gasket around the door, which he admitted of course would not heal the squeal. As he looked for the product information in order to order the proper parts, he complained how he didn't want to do the job, how big of a hassle it would be, how it would be easier and more cost effective to just get me a new fridge, etc. As he gave up on finding the product information, after communicating his findings (or lack thereof) back to base through his walkie talkie, he confidently assured me I was going to get a new fridge (because he would do anything so as to not have to replace that gasket.)

Here he was, my nemesis all of these years, the worker that doesn't want to work, the ethic of whom is now going to directly benefit me???

Mind = blown.

Why?  

Because even that seemingly simple and "solid" construct, that has led to so much unnecessary frustration throughout my life, in the end, was also completely subjective and subject to change! 

All that we need is to be honest and open in order to accept the reality that one single contrary experience can undermine the "absolute truth" of our previously cherished opinions. When we can see the world from a fresh alternative perspective, we're provided a new point of view that allows us to turn away from unhelpful, resentful, ingrained habitual reactions and turn toward making conscious decisions that are fueled by kindness, acceptance, and understanding.

But we can't come out of mental habits that we can't yet see, hence the importance of developing our faculties of mindfulness and loving kindness through the regular practice of meditation.

Setting Preferences Aside

I work a job at which we choose when we want to work. After choosing a shift, we can cancel up to 45 minutes beforehand, and arrive up to 59 minutes late, without any repercussions. We receive a flat rate of $54 for work that is estimated to take 3 hours; whether we finish earlier (which is common) or (on the rare occasion) later, we receive that same $54. There is absolutely no punishment for finishing late, with the only stipulation being that each route needs to be completed by 9 pm. Despite these amazingly fair conditions, I regularly hear my fellow drivers complaining while awaiting their workload at the dock. 

Surely, the majority of us would prefer the easiest amount of work to do in the same time frame. But in this instance, without any negative consequence coming from our employer for finishing the work later than our scheduled shift, the only thing that is punishing us is our own mind.

For instance, we could voluntarily move at a slower pace, take it easy, stop for a snack, nap, pause to enjoy a beautiful view, post a pic to social media, take a phone call, etc without any concern for our job security whatsoever. The only variable that is changing dependent on how much time we take is the rate per hour, which in this case is an entirely mental construct (it's a great construct when we finish early, but a horrible one if we finish late!) But it's mental constructs like these, if we focus on them and them alone, that actually give rise to our own suffering. 

So then, if along our route we should encounter a challenging delivery, if we haven't any hard deadlines or fear of repercussions, what, other than our own mind and preferences, could cause stress to arise? 

Of course these job conditions are rare, but how often do we allow ourselves to needlessly get worked up about things in our day to day lives, all because of how we mentally construct how things should be versus how they actually are?

When we can see how the way we think affects the way we feel, we are in the priceless position of being able to begin maneuvering our way out of suffering. We come to understand that we actually have a choice as to which thoughts we entertain and those that we don't. We also realize, perhaps to our surprise, that true happiness doesn't necessarily arise on account of all of our preferences being met, but rather, on many occasions, happiness results by setting them aside.

Mindfulness is the means, and meditation the means to mindfulness.

Watching Truth

If you haven't already heard it, Sam Harris and Jordan B. Peterson spent nearly TWO HOURS debating their perspectives on "what is true". While I applaud their ability to carry on such an interesting, intelligent, civilized conversation, neither places their focus on the one verifiable truth that matters most, the truth of how suffering arises within.

After we think something we feel something. Typically, after we feel something, in accord with that feeling, we either think, say, or do something. The consequences of these next thoughts, words, or actions then cycle back into the next thought, which gives rise to our next reaction. Like this, all day long, thinking, feeling, reacting, feeling, thinking, reacting...

When I think this, I feel this. When I think that, I feel that. Independently verifiable and indisputably true.

All too often, stress in life arises from rehashing the less than desirable details from past experiences. The mind spins in circles as we attempt to assert our sense of righteousness in the realm of subjective truth; our feelings, perspectives, and opinions versus that of another. Unfortunately, insisting that we can resolve these dilemmas by arriving at "I'm right to feel wronged" only exacerbates the problem, as we're clinging to the argument rather than letting it go, and ultimately, clinging to conclusions that are rooted in subjectivity!

Instead of all of our interpretations, we can focus on the raw data, which is completely objective, devoid of any sense of right or wrong. We just have to retrace the steps of how our thoughts gave rise to a feeling, then how that feeling determined our reaction, and then how that reaction determined whether we're creating suffering for ourselves or others. The details don't matter, we're just watching what we're doing in order to understand how the mind takes the raw data and shapes it into a story, the retelling of which causes us unnecessary problems.

When we can see this process clearly, empowered by the skills we garner through a regular meditation practice, we can interrupt and change the cycle, becoming skillful in choosing how we react to situations, leading to happier consequences.

Please feel welcome to join in meditation practice this evening from 6:15 - 7:30 upstairs at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library.

Tis the Season

Tis the season!...

...for striving relentlessly to meet the cultural standards and self made expectations of creating the absolute perfect holiday.

Gifts are being bought and wrapped, cards are written and sent, perfectly placed decorations abound, delicious meals and social gatherings are planned, the cookie plate is in order...but how is our mind? Is it peaceful? Is it joyful?

It's cliche to say, but the journey is just as important as the destination. If we're completely stressed throughout the process, how likely is it that we'll be relaxed when the day actually comes? We might liken it to running a long race and then expecting our heart to return to its resting rate the moment we cross the finish line; it doesn't happen. Similarly, our mind takes time to unwind, and more time the tighter we're wound.

For that reason, we can make time each day to just sit and breathe, letting go of thoughts and stored up tension in the body, allowing for some time to relax and simply be. Afterward, we can still see what needs done, but plan better with a clearer mind, and, because we're not so tight and rigid, can adapt and adjust when things might not go the way we had wished. 

Ultimately, our peaceful and joyful presence is the best present we can share with anyone. So please, make some time for you each day, so that you can deeply enjoy each step in the celebration of these beautiful holidays.

Imagination of Imagination

We all live life as we imagine life should be.  This construct has been shaped by the world around us since birth, formed first and foremost through the interaction with our caretakers.  They too were living life as they imagined it should be.  They were also shaped by the world around them since birth, their behaviors and personalities formed first through the interaction with their own caretakers.  And so it goes, on throughout time.

Some people's imaginations are much more far reaching than others.  For millennia, skillful, creative writers have shaped our view of how the world could be through carefully crafted screenplays.  They create worlds in which everything is seemingly perfect, or perfectly imperfect. Either way, the more time we spend entertaining the notion that the scenes in the pictures are desirable, or how reality should be, the more we unconsciously desire our own lives to resemble that of actors and actresses acting out someone else's imaginations on a big screen.

Have you said, or ever heard anyone else suggest that a real life story "sounds like it was straight out of a movie"?  Are we measuring reality by how much it resembles that which we see in tv and the movies?  How much are the interpersonal relationships we have, or the relationships we seek, being informed by how others have imagined they should be?

For instance, since childhood we've seen and heard stories in which the main character finds the love of their life and lives happily ever after.  Is it any wonder that this theme, one that was shared with us repeatedly from our youngest years onward, remains the single most important resolved (or unresolved) part of our lives?  And by now we all know that intimate relationships are far from easy, and are hardly on their own an instantaneous guarantee of living happily ever after.  Yet that seed, planted and regularly watered early in our consciousness, has greatly informed what we think we are to desire, and has motivated us to seek it out (this of course being but one example of an infinitude.)

It's quite the ride down a rabbit hole when we consider how much of life was we imagine it is actually based on the imaginations of others.  We spend our lives to trying to realize the imaginations of others.

So what's real then?

Watching ourselves act it out.  Catching ourselves in a moment reacting in a way that's "perfectly scripted", the collectively accepted expected reaction.  What's the standard reaction for when someone cuts you off?  Throw your hands in the air?  Form your hand into the perfect middle finger and shout an obscenity?  Why?  Because that's what we've seen, it's been repeated over and over again, and now it's what we do.  So long as it remains the standard accepted reaction, the behavior will be perpetuated throughout future generations.

Unless we break the chain.

Each time we catch ourselves in the midst of a knee jerk reaction and question "what am I doing right now?" and "is this really how I want to be in the world?" we begin to reshape our own imagination of how the world could be.  

If we look out into this world, and yearn for a more loving, kind, compassionate, peaceful existence, we ourselves must become the actors and actresses acting out the screenplay as we imagine it could/should be.  We cannot wait for others, nor expect that "they" should create a world we don't yet know is even plausible. Instead, we go about the business of proving first to ourselves, through the transformation our own thoughts, words, and actions, that it is indeed possible, and an endeavor worth undertaking, for our own wellbeing, and that of the world around us.
 
The key lies in being able to see, and that in-sight is gained through the practice of meditation.

 

Three Inevitable Realities

Gotama Buddha set out upon his journey to overcome suffering after understanding the three inevitable realities we all face as human beings; old age, sickness, and death.

While in Iceland, being nearly in constant touch with such astounding natural beauty, I began to contemplate how in human kind's pursuit of overcoming old age, sickness, and death, we've literally built up walls and boundaries to try to separate ourselves from the risks inherent in nature, and consequently nature itself. Unfortunately, humans and the natural world are inextricably interconnected, and I'm concerned of the implications this separation has on our general sense of well being.  It appears, in our efforts to avoid suffering, that we're in fact creating more suffering. 

My mom recently expressed, partially playfully, that if she could, she would advise God to make it such that our health at age 30 would be maintained until death, and death would be but a quick, painless moment.  Not a long, drawn out, painful decline, but rather healthy, healthy, healthy, dead (might this have been more possible in the days when you might have been randomly mauled by a predator?)  Again, this made me think, with all of the advances in science and medicine, despite our best efforts, suffering continues to arise on account of trying to avoid suffering. 

The practices that Gotama Buddha shared with humanity provide for the means to accept and navigate these inevitable realities, and the more mundane we face everyday, head on.  Each and every moment that we experience fully, without judgement, craving or aversion, clinging or pushing away, we're developing the skills necessary to accept reality as it is, not as we wish it would be.  These skills are directly developed in our meditation practice when we objectively experience the sensations of the body, or the sensation of the breath.  Essentially, in these practices we're learning the skills of how to accept life.

And by no means am I suggesting that we shouldn't seek out medical care when we're ill, nor should my statements be perceived as a lack of gratitude for the advances in life saving technology, but rather understood as calling attention to the inherent desire to be free from suffering, and to shine light on a path that leads to it.

Comforting Karma

When we aim to be kind, and are successfully operating out of that kindness, with a genuine wish to uplift everyone that we meet, the gentle waves we leave in our wake can be felt, appreciated, and remembered by others.  In as much, we begin to co-create comfortable, friendly environments wherever we go.  I call this creating comforting karma.

Human beings tend to want to stand out in some way or another, to be known, to be remembered.  Some want to be sexy, others want to be perceived as tough, some desire being seen as "crazy",  others as indifferent, and so on and so forth. Sometimes we identify with how we want to be perceived so much so that we view another person's tendencies as unique to them.  In other words, we mistakenly conclude "this is the way I am, and that is the way you are", when in fact we're able to choose our own tendencies.  So wonderful that we're able, as this ability allows us to change our personality however we see fit.

When we move through the world in such a way that we're not creating rifts and divides between ourselves others, but rather make others feel comfortable in our presence, we first enjoy the fruits of being in this calm, clear, kind mind, and then enjoy a second wave of comfort as we're being received by others.  

The question, then, is if we have the choice, why would we choose otherwise?

Just be kind.

 

 

Forgiveness is a Process

Past hurts that co-arise on account of the words or actions of others leave traces within our consciousness.  Despite being behind us, even if we feel that we're "over it", when given the perfect set of conditions, the pain might rise again.  The suffering that follows could be likened to an uninvited guest; the longer we entertain it, the longer it will feel inclined to stay.

When we have dialogues with ourselves, whether silently or aloud, retracing the steps of why we feel justified in our anger, we're in essence asking the suffering to stay as long as it likes.  It's as if we've asked it to stay for dinner, fed it, and invited it to post up indefinitely in the spare bedroom!  Enticing indeed, but not the best company to keep.

Being that the original circumstances that gave rise to the initial pain are in the past, the pain we're experiencing in this moment exists entirely within ourselves, and will only cease when we cease to feed it.  Knowing that anger hurts us first, we might ask the question "why do I keep retelling a story that causes me pain?"

Through the regular practice of meditation, as we familiarize ourselves with the nature of the mind, we naturally come to see this knack of storytelling as a choice. We're choosing to mentally relive past experiences over and over again, and by doing so, we never allow forgiveness to come.  

In the midst of this painful storytelling we might witness a critical moment in which we realize that our mind, holding onto the pain, conspires to retaliate by wanting the "perpetrator" to also feel pain.  This directly and totally conflicts with the practice of loving kindness, through which we wish ourselves first, then all others, to be well and happy.

The way out is to be aware, to be vigilant, to notice when the mind descends into these stories and the ill feelings that accompany them, mentally noting "I'm doing it again."  Then, knowing that we're the author, through mindfulness and loving kindness, we can abandon thoughts of ill will, cultivate thoughts of goodwill, and intentionally go about the work of the next chapter, writing toward a happy ending.

Time Between Meditations

When I was a child, as we pulled away from mass on Sunday mornings, I would often hear my father point out the irony in witnessing the less than loving and kind behavior (measured principally through driving) of the very people that just walked out of a sermon on how to be better Christians.  He perceived a disconnect, between our behavior in daily life, and the practices and teachings of our religion.

Similarly, while the practice of meditation is certainly a separate, very intentional activity that has tremendous importance, so too does the time between meditations. We help develop our mindfulness through the practice of meditation, then try to maintain that mindfulness between meditations.  

While a formal seated practice serves as a reboot button of sorts, we aren't fully benefitting from our meditation if we surrender all effort to focus the mind at the end of our sit.  Actually, when we no longer make an effort, then at best we're running in place, or even perhaps setting ourselves backward, for unmindful behavior leads to an even more agitated mind, a mind even more stubborn to tame the next time we sit to face it.

Therefore, meditation can inform our time in between, and our time in between, for better or worse, certainly informs our meditation.

So when we use this word "practice", I encourage broadening the scope to instead consider that our moment to moment existence itself becomes our practice.  While we can measure our meditation by minutes and hours, our practice is 24/7/365, and we can measure its efficacy by the healthy changes in the mental habits of our daily lives.

Return on Investment

Whether hurting ourselves or helping ourselves, both require effort.  Consider the amount of energy that goes into a bar tab, how many hours of labor and stress precede it.  That investment of time and energy gets poured directly into clouding and disorienting the mind, making ourselves less aware.  Our faculty of decision making then becomes impaired, potentially leading to an even greater expenditure of energy in trying to sort out the further problems we've caused ourselves in that unclear state of mind.

There's a big difference between knowing what's good for us and doing what's good for us.  The mind, too clever for its own good, often presents a myriad of reasons as to why we can't change for the better, and most commonly justifies stagnation through claiming that we don't have enough time or energy.

Certainly, changing habits is hard.  The process requires a lot of time and energy, but so does remaining the same.  So it's more a redistribution of the energy we're already investing.  And as we see in the example above, in the long run, an unhealthy habit we refuse to change will actually consume more energy than it can ever give back.

Realizing that where we invest our energy matters, in regard to our own quality of living, and the quality of our relationship to others, we must expend our energy wisely. We make time to meditate daily in order to familiarize ourselves with the patterns of the mind, to witness firsthand which thoughts lead to unhealthy states of mind, and which lead to healthy states of mind.  The practice also yields the skill, whether on the cushion or in the world, of being able to guide the mind away from these unhealthy thoughts, instead channeling it toward healthy thoughts.

This effort, when applied evenly, comes with an invaluable return on investment. 

Awareness Without Criticism

Personal growth requires the skill of being able to look at ones own behavior in order to come to understand which behaviors lead to wholesome states of mind, and which do not. We make use of objective discernment, rather than harsh judgment, so as to not fall into the deeper trap of creating suffering for ourselves through undue self criticism.  Instead, we simply watch and learn, connecting the dots of how our experience arises through the confluence of different streams of thought.

For instance, if we feel agitated, we can pause to reflect by checking in on the contents of the mind.  What kind of thoughts have led me into this agitated state?  Looking closely, we connect the dots, coming to understand how states of mind come to be.  We don't criticize or inflict harsh judgement on ourselves, we simply notice.

Throughout this process, we're aiming to accept ourselves as we are while simultaneously recognizing room for improvement.  Similar to the work of a visual artist, we can regard our own lives as works of art, from which we're always stepping back, looking closely, seeing clearly what can be improved upon, then make those changes without any anguish.

 We strengthen this skill of being able to see clearly through the regular practice of meditation, developing our mindfulness so that we can be continually aware of the movements of the mind, and where they're leading us.

Understanding Life Through Understanding the Mind

This past Saturday, I received a request for an Uber ride from a grandmother who wanted to coordinate me picking up her teenage granddaughter from the convention center. Despite the granddaughters dying cell phone, we connected with ease, and without a hitch, we were on our way toward a destination in the south hills.

Traffic was a bit thick on account of the convention, so it only took until the end of 10th street for the conversation to go deep.

In that 100 yards I learned that this young girl's parents both passed away as a result of drug addiction. Neither of her separated grandparents had enough room to take both her and her brother in, so the siblings now live separated from one another. She admits that she has anger issues, and freely shares stories of being raped, her own drug use, and a recent stroke she suffered as a result. The story was/is heartbreaking.

Our exchange led to the question of whether or not she felt like life was worth living. She responded that she doesn't care if she lives, only stays alive for her brother, and how it's all on account of her not understanding life. She then asked me if I understood, if I had life figured out...

It felt new, yet I felt confident, in being able to say "yes."

I explained to her that understanding how the mind work is the key to understanding our own life. I shared how if we watch our thoughts carefully like a scientist in a laboratory, we come to understand how and why we come to feel and act the way we do. I explained how through this process we learn which thoughts are helpful, and which are unhelpful. She listened attentively, and responded enthusiastically, expressing that it made sense to her.

With only a few minutes left in the trip, I illustrated the point by using her relationship with her grandmother as an example. She then conceded that the authority her grandmother imposes on her, that she despises so much, comes from her grandmother's fear of losing her. And by the time the trip ended, instead of planning to intentionally come home after curfew just to spite her grandmother, she now expressed that she was considering coming home when she was expected.

Who knows how this story will go from here. And who knows how many similar or more troubling stories like these could be told each and every day. What we do know is the process of meditation familiarizes ourselves with the nature of our own mind, so that we can better understand how we shape the life we live, and how to grow compassion for the lives of others.

Open Hand, Open Mind

The majority of yoga classes conclude with a final relaxation, called savasana in Sanskrit, which has been translated to mean corpse pose.  Participants lay on their back, palms to the sky, toes falling out and away from the body, eyes gently closed, with the aim of releasing all tension in the body.   

Class after class I lead different groups of people through the process.  While the approach to the pose remains the same, the ideas surrounding its practice are always changing.  This past week, as the class settled into stillness, I found myself speaking to the paradoxical effort of letting go.

We're always doing.  From our earliest years onward, we measure ourselves by what we do, often assessing the quality of our day, whether at work or home,  based on the level of our productivity.  All of this activity requires the mind to move, and when we make time for "relaxing", again we most often resort to more doing.  Even with our body completely supported by the floor, we still affirm our sense of doership, engaging the muscles as if we need to actively resist gravity.  Ironically, we find our selves subtly doing something even when given the opportunity to do nothing.

The physical and mental tensions of the body are intimately interconnected.  They are often manifestations of one another; physical stress arising on account of mental stress, and mental stress arising on account of physical stress.  We become so accustomed to this constant state of tension that it now requires effort and the development of a new skill to let it go; to be able to release the mind like we do the fingers of a tightly clutched hand.  

When we detect mental tension, we can direct our attention to the contents of the mind. Watching the thoughts responsible, we can honestly assess whether or not they're worth continuing.  If they're destined for suffering, we can apply the mental effort to let them go. We remain vigilant, keeping a close watch, at times encouraging ourselves to consider various valid, antipodal points that counter the troublesome point of view trying to take root (open minds drop thoughts!)  Throughout this process we realize that we're only prone to settle on a default point of view, that it's not necessarily true, and that ultimately, we have the ability to choose.  Intermittently, we can scan and release tensions in the body, while also deepening the breath in order to breathe relaxation into both our body and mind.

Through regular practice, we can catch the "hand of mind" in the act of reaching for troublesome thoughts, pulling it back just before it catches hold.  Regularly applying this effort to let go of habitual, unskillful thoughts, we not only can eliminate unwholesome mental states that have arisen, but also prevent future unwholesome mental states from arising.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Have you ever traveled home from a fantastic vacation and then found yourself stuck in the doldrums?  While Sir Isaac Newton might have been looking at the nature of falling apples, he might as well had been describing the fragile, fickle nature of mind.  

So long as our sense of happiness depends on external circumstances, we're willfully remaining on a wild rollercoaster ride; up and down, up and down, twisting and turning, and sometimes altogether upside down!

We might say that we're all, in a sense, addicted to this thrill ride.  We easily become attached to the good times, and when conditions change, often find ourselves resenting what comes along with those changes, in turn yearning for conditions to return to the way they once were, or how we imagine they could be.  We might even go so far to think that if we just could move to that special place then everything would be ok.  While a sense of contentment might temporarily arise, ultimately, any change with lasting benefit must occur in the mind.

When we were children, at as early an age that most of us cannot recall, when we liked something, we'd beg for it to be repeated again and again and again.  These wishes were often met by adults who would gleefully indulge us, over and over and over again.  If the adult stopped prematurely, the severity of our reaction (and their own stamina) would determine if it was safe to stop, or if they needed to resume quickly!  If we liked something, then we wanted it repeated.  The question is, now knowing the repercussions of this mental habit, have we ever consciously worked on freeing ourselves of this tendency?

We can use the insights we glean from our meditation practice to help cultivate a more balanced state of mind.  Every breath that comes and goes, every sensation that we experience in the body, arises as a result of a process, and processes indicate change. Regular reflection on anicca, this ever constant changing nature of every thing, works wonders in our ability to resist clinging to that which we know is destined to change.  Whether times are good or bad, we can remind ourselves "this too shall pass".

As we continue with our practice, wherever we are, our burgeoning skill of being able to let go of thoughts so that we may focus on our object of meditation aids in being able to reorient our mind in the present moment, letting go of thoughts that would lead to yearning and resentment.  We develop the mental quality of equipoise, maintaining a delicate balance of mind, resting it atop the fulcrum of this moment, that is right here, right now.

As funny as it might sound to say, we're aiming to be super-natural, in that we're working toward transcending that which we've come to consider "natural".  In this case, we're overcoming Newtons Law of Gravity, by being careful as to how high we climb, so that we don't fall down too low.

Meditation: An Exercise in Love

It was probably 6 years ago when Bhante Pema and I were traveling back from a program in Ohio, and I shared the thought, that in order to promote teachings on love, we best define what love is.  We sat silently, driving along, while he took the time to gather his thoughts.  He replied, "acceptance without conditions".

When we practice meditation, we're learning the art of unconditional acceptance.  When we move along our outline during a body scan meditation, we're not looking for particular sensations, favoring particular sensations, pushing some sensations away while clinging to others.  We're objectively experiencing whatever's occurring in the body at the moment, then moving on, accepting reality as it is.

The same holds true for the breath.  We're not pining over a past breath or dreading the coming of a future breath.  Sure, we might deepen our breathing, or make it more shallow, but most often we're just watching it happen, objectively.

These concentrated periods of practice are antipodal to our normal mode of operation; of liking this, not liking that, craving this, being averse to that.  The peace of mind that arises during the practice does so partly on account of the temporary suspension of preference.  Usually, when we're clinging to our preferences, and we meet with what we don't like, most often, before we know it, we become agitated.  When we're meditating, and happen upon an unpleasant sensation, if we're putting forth the right effort, we'll watch for and resist any urges to push it away, instead bearing witness to its temporary nature, moving on, unagitated, to the next sensation.

When we're moving through the world throughout our day, we're constantly coming into contact with that which we've developed likes and dislikes.  Through this facet of meditation, rather than being knocked around and set off kilter, we're culturing our minds to accept these experiences with a greater sense of balance and ease.  In this way we're slowly training in the art of acceptance without conditions, not of just one person, but life as a whole. 

We're learning the art of love.

Reflecting on Reflections

Some years ago, as I reclined upon the grassy hillside of St. Clair Park, enjoying an evening concert at the Robertshaw Amphitheater in Greensburg, my attention wandered to parents interacting with their young children.  The thought occurred to me "the only thing that makes us crazier than not being able to control ourselves is not being able to control others."

Reflecting today, while giving past tense Tim credit for arriving at a clever way to make the point, ultimately, nothing makes us crazier than not being able to control ourselves.

I'd Be Fine if Everything was Just as I Wanted it to Be.

Unfortunately, external conditions are only so much within our control.  Even when all of the stars and planets align, and everything is just as we want it to be, the changing nature of reality will, whether gently or harshly, tip the scales away from our perception of a perfect balance. That's when the beautiful "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference" comes into play.

When others behave in a way that we'd rather them not, it's common to become frustrated, angry, then start blaming them, accusing them of being the source of our anger, when in fact, we are solely responsible for the arising of our own emotions.  At most, their behavior serves as a catalyst, but everything from that point onward arises within ourselves.  The one variable, in any situation, over which we have any real control, is how we react to the situation.

Mindfulness provides the skill necessary to witness when the mind becomes discontented on account of reality not being just as we want it to be.  We investigate our own thoughts to see what we're struggling to accept, discerning whether or not the issue lies within our capability to change.  If so, we act accordingly.  If not, we practice the art of letting the thought go, just like we do in our meditation practice; the mind wanders and we bring it back, as often as necessary, until the thought lapses.

If we're always aiming to keep our center of attention on what we're doing, we can clearly see that getting crazy about not being able to control others really translates right back into not being able to control ourselves.

And just as importantly, the serenity we seek arises in our acceptance of reality as it is, not as we wish it would be.