Right Understanding

This week I corresponded with one of my dearest friends who has been studying overseas at a Buddhist University in Myanmar.  As we've come to do over the years, we regularly inquire about each other's practice, which allows ourselves the opportunity to reflect, to be honest with how we're really doing.  It's a kind way to help each other hold ourselves accountable. 

His most recent response:

"My practice, it is benefitting from my being here. It seems every time I have visited this country, certainly none more so than the first visit, right view has been strengthened, which everything else seems to follow."

Right View, also translated as Right Understanding, is one of the 8 factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

One day, years ago, walking toward the cardboard bailer on the loading dock of Whole Foods East Liberty, my co-worker/assistant team leader asked "why is the Buddha always so calm?"  I paused for a moment, then answered "because he understood."

We begin to understand by having the first hand experience, by bearing witness to the mechanics of how we allow ourselves to add mental suffering to our experiences.  At first, because we haven't yet cultivated the presence of mind necessary to prevent problems from arising, the process requires a lot of retrospection, tracing our steps back to see how we arrived at where we're at.  Through repetitive analysis, we come to understand the mechanics of suffering.

When I allow the mind to do this, that happens.  
When I allow the mind to do that, this happens.

Those who understand how a game is played, play it best.   

Eventually, once we're well practiced, we'll be able to catch ourselves quicker, sometimes just a moment after, or the moment right before, the mind leads us in the direction of unnecessary problems.

As Right View is strengthened through the practice of all other 7 factors of the Noble Eightfold Path (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Intention, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration), so too each factor is strengthened by Right View. For instance, when we witness (through mindfulness) how certain words lead to suffering, we're witnessing the mechanics of how unnecessary suffering comes to be.  Now that we've been afforded the view/see clearly/understand, we choose our words more wisely.  

It's through this understanding that we continue put forth the effort to cultivate the wholesome intentions that give rise to right speech and action, which are discerned through concentration and mindfulness, with the entire practice supported by a healthy livelihood, one that helps us maintain our practice on and off the clock. These 8 spokes coalesce to form a perfectly balanced wheel (Dharma/Dhamma Wheel), that once set in motion, will carry us along, unencumbered, traveling lighter and lighter (en-lightened so to speak), freeing ourselves of the burdens of unnecessary suffering.

Whether 20, or 7 Billion

Three Fridays ago marked the beginnings of a mindfulness program with the juveniles at the Allegheny County Jail.  Each week I'm greeted with a mix of head nods and handshakes, as those who choose to come to group move to grab a thick, blue, plastic chair, and those who choose not to come shout out to the corrections officer to remotely grant them entry to their cells.  

The roughly fifteen teens and I form a circle in the center of the common area, a large, gray, semicircular room with cells lining the back and sides, the monotone being briefly interrupted by separate large Steelers and Penguins emblems painted on the floor, and the bright orange crocs upon the inmate's feet.  I face the exit, in clear line of sight with the corrections officers sitting at the control desk 10 yards away. Like walking into a recently shaken snow globe, the room takes time to settle, and then we begin.

The program has been and continues to be a challenge.  I've been serving the elder population at the jail for 8 months, and sense their genuine acceptance of the role their own actions play into how they've come to be where they're at, and for some, a sincere determination to change.  The younger population, well, they're teenagers, in jail.  Still in the most formative years of their life, they seem weary and slow to accept advice that contradicts their own understanding of the world, reluctant to change, potentially because they have yet to realize that possibility.

Our interactions keep me on my toes.  Outside of the routine of our mindfulness practices, when it opens up into discussion, their minds bob and weave around the topic, demanding from me quick, succinct responses to their statements and enquiries. Outwardly, they cannot sense any disruption to what they perceive as a calm state of mind, leaving me the only one aware of the heat, perspiration, and tension within my own body. The reason?...the awareness of the delicate and tenuous nature of the relative peace we're achieving in the room.

On account of these conditions, I find it difficult to plan how the session will unfold. On occasion, though, they incidentally open the doors to the greater point I was aiming to make.  This past week was the introduction of the concept of loving kindness. 

The juveniles are separated from the rest of the jail population.  That means these roughly 20 teens live together all of the time, with one or two new inmates occasionally coming, and hopefully, in time, going.  

Being in the middle of the banter that comes with the familiarity in the community, we talked about the words we choose, how paradoxically we have to be so very careful with their use, while at the same time remembering that they're "just words" when we're on the receiving end of those we'd rather not.  We talked about the Golden Rule.  We talked about how, in jail, kindness and showing emotion are perceived as weaknesses, which become an obstacle to establishing inner and outer harmony. We talked about how despite what we might have been told about ourselves, these seeds of kindness are within each and every one of us.  

The door then opened, forcing us to consider, that if each of us committed to abandoning the idea of kindness as weakness, only then can we change the world in which we live.

MLK Interpretation

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." - MLK

It can be easier to smile, laugh, say and do nice things when everything's going our way.  But that happy go lucky state of being is very tenuous, subject to change the moment things stop going our way.

Unless we've trained the mind.

Losing our balance of mind when we meet with what we don't want can be a waste of precious time.  The more time we spend wallowing in any resentment that might arise, the longer it takes to arrive at a resolution.  The trick lies in not letting the initial reaction stick (if steeped in aversion).

Say we go to pick up a catering order just hours before the event.  We arrive, the associate looks for our order for some time, returns, then apologizes, informing us that the order isn't there.  It's very natural for disappointment and stress to arise, but we're aiming to be supernatural, in that we're training ourselves to transcend habitual reaction. In this example, we could lash out, yell at the employee, demand to speak to the manager, cause a big scene, and stew in our misery.  But what a waste of time and energy!  Our coarseness might even burn a bridge between ourselves and the associate, severing their willingness to go the extra mile to satisfy our needs.  Then, in addition to losing time in seeking an alternative food solution, we'd be carrying the resentment with us to the party, regurgitating the story to one guest after the next, leaving us unable to enjoy the event itself.

Instead, practicing mindfulness, we recognize the changes that arise within the body and mind on account of encountering the unexpected.  Watching them objectively, we can turn our awareness toward relaxing the body, then relaxing the mind through the breath.  We carefully choose our words and actions in order to reach our goal, letting go of the disappointment, perhaps not even making mention of what had transpired, unless we're celebrating the happy ending,  sharing how everything worked out.

It's in these instances, when we're challenged, that we can truly measure our growth along the path of transformation, from being led by the base impulses of the mind, to guiding the mind and our lives in the direction of the peace that arises through understanding.


Origins of Hate

This weekend I unexpectedly participated in a civil online debate about hate, the conclusion of which yielded a better understanding of how others perceive hatred as a phenomena originating outside of themselves.  This concept can be subtly detected in the use of the phrase "hatred exists in the world".  This statement postulates that hatred has an independent existence and exists outside of ourselves.  Perhaps because we take the phenomena for granted, never having examined the process closely ourselves, we believe that hate comes in atop the different stimuli that impinge upon all of our senses.  We hear something we don't like, hate must ride in on the sound waves.  We see something we don't like, hate must ride in on the light rays.  We might also consider that we don't want to accept responsibility for our own actions, that we find it difficult to accept that we're being hateful.  So if we're not blaming someone else for our anger (i.e. you make me so angry!), we blame something else (the "force" of hatred that we perceive as separate from ourselves).

Now, when we consider closely, we can comprehend how sound waves meet with the ears, are then categorized as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, a perception of what we're hearing is created, to which we react accordingly (the same with every sense).  These reactions always come from within.  The sensations that arise haven't any inherent value as to whether they are good or bad, right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant, which can be understood when we take into account the general lack of universal agreeance as to what individuals each find to be agreeable and disagreeable.  To use the parlance of our times, everything "is what it is" and we are assigning the value.

Our reactions are learned.  We are born with the tendency to like and dislike, but what we crave and hate is learned and changes with time.  The fact that it changes means it can be changed.  The fact that it is learned means it can be unlearned.  Hatred has no separate, independent source or existence.  It arises within ourselves dependent on the interpretation of external conditions.  So instead of saying hatred exists in the world, we can say the potential for hatred exists, but whether that potential is realized or not depends on how skillful we are with our own reactions.
While laws can (and should) be written and enforced to protect us from hateful acts, because hatred arises within the hearts and minds of individuals, we cannot legislate an end to hate.  Therefore, the first step in reducing the incidence of hatred is taking personal responsibility for and abandoning our own hateful reactions. 


By the same means we use to return to our object of meditation throughout our formal, seated meditation practice.  Practicing mindfulness, the moment we become aware that our mind has drifted and descended into less than loving thoughts, we drop the thoughts by redirecting our mind back to the breath.  We repeat as often as necessary, noting, with persistence and determination, how the irritated, unskillful, hateful state, along with the thoughts that gave rise to it, gradually, eventually, completely pass by.  And then, in their wake, we can fill the mind with thoughts that are loving, compassionate, and kind.

Kindness is Polenta-ful

When at Wat Metta, a Thai forest monastery in California, every day at 4:00 in the afternoon, all residents, visitors, and monastics gather outside of the meditation hall for a brief question and answer session with the abbott, Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  His graciousness makes for such a rare and precious opportunity, allowing access to the mind of a senior master with such experiential wisdom...it's truly priceless.

During my first visit in May, each day I would make my way to the sala in time to observe the residents as they set up numerous folding chairs in order to accommodate the size of the group.  On one occasion, when I was the first to arrive, I took it upon myself to set up the chairs just as I had observed each day prior.  As I happily set up each chair, a woman arrived who I had not yet met.  She didn't say hello, nor introduce herself, but rather interjected, criticizing how I was setting up the chairs, to the point that I eventually stopped and asked if she would like me to set them up otherwise.  She responded with a stern "yes", then huffed and puffed as she rearranged the chairs. Our interaction was tense, so much so that I avoided interacting with her for the majority of the rest of my stay.

But, on one day in particular that May, I had noticed that she had been the cook, and she had prepared a wonderful baked polenta dish, filled with pesto, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, and feta cheese!  It was memorable enough for me, that when I saw her on this most recent trip, that I thought, rather than focusing on our first interaction, the moment the opportunity would arise, I was instead going to start "on the good foot" by complimenting her cooking.

There we were, under the overhang of the outdoor kitchen, when I looked her in the eyes and asked if we were going to have polenta that week.  Her entire demeanor softened. She was impressed that the dish had been so memorable, smiled as I went on about how delicious it was, then shared how much she loves working with polenta and promised we would have some later in the week.  From that moment onward, whether simply exchanging smiles throughout the day, or working together in the kitchen, our relationship was AMAZING.

This was a choice, between holding onto the past or moving forward, between building up or knocking down walls, between carrying a burden or traveling unencumbered.  We make these choices nearly every single day.  When we see people as a conglomeration of different behaviors rather than a fixed, permanent being, and knowing that behavior is malleable, we can safely (in most cases) entertain the possibility that individuals are not defined by the worst thing they've ever done.  

Before we enter into interactions with those with whom we've struggled in the past, I suggest being on the lookout for any memories that might creep in, being sure to not get caught up in them. The tendency of wanting to feel right about being wronged can be very sticky and challenging to overcome.  Mental self coaching can be very helpful, asking questions like "why do I want to feel this way?" and/or "do I really know what's about to happen?"  Answering these questions honestly can interrupt our own mental habits, allowing ourselves to enter into situations with a clean(er) slate.  These sorts of intentional thoughts coupled with smooth, deep, mindful breathing work together as wonderful, mind soothing medicine, that leaves us best prepared no matter what circumstances should arise.

And as for the last meal I enjoyed at the monastery...she served polenta.

Higher Ground

This past Tuesday evening I watched the following short, extraordinary video that captures the incredible efforts of an iguana fighting for its survival.

In some sects of Buddhism, hatred, delusion, and greed are referred to as the 3 poisons. Like the venom of these snakes, the poisons enter into our hearts and minds, and when left unattended, gradually bring about a sort of slow, spiritual death.  In our case the "snakes" symbolize the conditions of the external world that trigger the release of the venom that already lies within.

Like the iguana, we must make use of the skills we have in order to not let the "snakes" get to us.  As illustrated in the video, at times it can feel like they are attacking from all sides, coming at us from every direction, presenting a daunting challenge to navigate.

Symbolically, notice that it was in the middle of this iguana's attempts to escape that it became still, seemingly assessing the situation.  But being still wasn't enough; it also had to carefully and quickly make use of its nimble, agile skills to narrowly escape the clutches of the snakes.  It took a lot of effort to make its way to higher ground.

Now will be a good time to be still.  To recall the teachings as we know them thus far.  To remember that suffering arises in our struggle to accept:

1. Not getting what we want
2. Meeting with what we don't want
3. Getting then losing what we want

We also know that suffering arises from the uncertainty of the future, worries yet to be substantiated, and from the past, that which we haven't any control over changing.  We can make use of our burgeoning skill of concentration, to find presence of mind in the here and now, abandoning thoughts that lead to fear, hopelessness, and despair, instead replacing them with a cautious optimism, knowing that the future has yet to be written.

Using our developing skills of mindfulness, we remain vigilant, guarding our fragile, vulnerable minds, being sure to not let more venom in, by exercising restraint in choosing what quality of information we entertain, asking ourselves "to what state of mind is the rumination of this information leading?"  Not fixating on the shortcomings of others, but rather focusing on our own contributions to the interdependent whole, we strengthen our resolve to think, speak, and act with unconditional loving kindness for all.

When we perceive hatred, intolerance, and discrimination in the color red, we must be sure not to simply paint them in the hue of blue (and vice versa).  When the world around us appears to be devoid of loving kindness, wisdom, and compassion, we must be the well from whence they may still spring forth.

With best wishes of peace of mind amidst transitional times...

Alive While I'm Here

As I lay in bed listening to the pigeons early morning at the hostel in San Diego, a roommate's alarm went off, an alarm set to a song in which the artist repeats the line "I don't want a never ending life, I just want to be alive while I'm here."  I find it difficult to relate to the majority of song lyrics, and in some cases have to rely on my own interpretations in order for the music to not only be enjoyable, but also meaningful.

So while contextually the artist might be suggesting that we're to "live it up" while we're here, partying, indulging, doing whatever feels "good" without regard to consequence, I instead interpreted it as an earnest call to strive to live an upright life.  

From both my personal past experience, and observations made while chauffeuring drunk folks around the city on Saturday nights, culturally we celebrate life by numbing our senses, weakening our inhibitions, surrendering what little control we have over our own behavior.  We confuse these losses with freedom, when in fact, paradoxically, freedom comes through restraint, through strong self discipline. 

"To be alive" then would mean that we're not living with our heads down, eyes closed, blindly acting as a slave to tendency, but rather living with our heads up, awake, aware of our tendencies, acting very deliberately and with good intention.  We're present, choosing, experiencing life fully because we're really here, not lost in the imaginations of the past and future, but rather fully engaged in what's happening in this moment right now.  

Each and every moment we're making choices, choices that carry both immediate and long term consequences.  We can do so either unknowingly or knowingly.  It's through meditation that we develop the presence of mind and skills necessary to make better choices, choices that not only uplift ourselves, but also the world around us.  It's a tried and true way of truly being alive while we're here.

Focusing on Our Goodness

I fortunately listened to an inspiring Dhamma talk by Thanissaro Bhikku (you_can_listen_here) along my way to the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center for meditation this past Wednesday.  In these wonderful 12 minutes he calls to mind the importance of recognizing that we have both bad and good seeds of karma, and that all too often we get hung up on focusing on only the bad seeds, forgetting about our potential for good.

The topic of the talk was timely being that two mornings later a thought had crept into my mind, the quality of which I do not approve.  I entertained it for a few moments, but it didn't have all that much of an opportunity to build due to my becoming aware the direction the mind was headed, becoming present, thus shaking off the thought. Regardless, for just a moment, I felt a sense of shame, disappointed that the thought had even arisen.  This was me focusing on my bad karma, that feeling of "I'm a bad person."  It was in the next moment, recalling Thanissaro Bhikku's words of wisdom, that I thought to consider a good quality, a wholesome tendency, as the antidote.

It was then that I realized it was good seeds of karma that had allowed me to abandon the thought.

How can we continue to feel ashamed once we recognize our penchant to be better?  It was like flipping a switch...I smiled as my heart rejoiced.

Some people might call this our "conscience", which we might construe as a field full of good seeds of karma informing our decision making.  Sure, bad seeds might sprout a little or come to fruition from time to time, but as we strengthen our resolve, we'll eventually crowd out the weeds by focusing on and growing the good seeds.

So anytime you find yourself stuck in a rut of self ridicule, try calling to mind any and all good deeds that demonstrate your desire to be more loving, compassionate, and kind.  

Surely we still have to acknowledge our transgressions, but only as a means to pull these weeds, so we may continue to grow the goodness in the garden of our hearts.

Focus on your goodness.

Free Will is a Skill

Prior to realizing otherwise, we're pushed and pulled about the world by the whims of our likes and dislikes, reacting habitually without forethought or a moment's hesitation.  We instantly become infatuated with what we like, feel repulsed by what we dislike, and then react accordingly. As such, while from the outside looking in it appears as though we're each making choices, little to no actual deliberation has occurred in our decision making process.  In this way, we're living in an absence of free will.  Rather than acting freely, we can say that we're tethered to our past tendencies.

Meditation practice leads to the development of the skills necessary to witness these habitual tendencies.  We begin to see firsthand how reactions arise without our consent.  We see how seldom we have consciously agreed to our ensuing reactions.  We can see that we're not acting intentionally.  As such, in a very literal way, one can say that our reactions are currently beyond our own control.

But now we can see the problem.  And we can see how we're complicit when we just follow along as we always have.  And then we realize that we don't have to follow along as we always have, that we can make a choice.  

During formal meditation practice, this process of the mind wandering off somewhere we never intended, becoming aware of its wandering, then redirecting the mind back to the intended point, develops the same skill necessary "off the cushion" to become aware of when our mind wanders off in a direction we never intended, and then redirect it to an action of our choosing.  We can see how we want to react but choose to react otherwise...this is free will.

With dedicated practice, over a long enough time line, we develop the skill of exercising free will throughout the moment to moment choices we make in regard to how we interact with life and the world around us.  We become skillful in choosing how we behave so as to ease our own burdens and those of all other beings.

Vacation is a State of Mind

Ever get to where you're going only to find that you have a difficult time enjoying where you are on account of your mind being drawn into drama thinking of somewhere else?  Or, despite circumstances proportionally and continually being more favorable, find yourself fixated on the less favorable moments?  An untamed mind can bring us down from the most favorable of circumstances.  In this way we can still suffer in the most beautiful corners of the world.

It's hard to say why exactly, though through observation one can see that human beings delight in being entertained by drama.  Just look at all forms of media, from the lyrical content of most poetry and songs, to books, screenplays, and film, we are consistently and constantly drawn to drama. The question arises; does our propensity for seeking drama stop at the end of the song, the end of the chapter, or at the end of the show?  Or does it persist as a result of our minds being entrained to entertain such thoughts as a means of enjoyment?  

Have we confused drama with enjoyment?

Watch, when you go to speak, for the tendency to share the worst thing that has happened.  We can see if we're cherry picking and sharing the worst events of our day/week/month/year/life.  If we are, it begs the question; if we're so ready and quick to share what's the worst, how much time do we actually allocate to focusing on, appreciating, and sharing what's going good?

Through the practice of meditation, we strengthen our skill to keep the mind present, focusing on that which is directly in front of us, whether it be an ocean, a mountain, a forest, a desert, or a city, we are here. And just as we sit with the intent to focus then find the mind wandering off into places we never intended to go, we catch when our minds grasping at the negative, keeping us from enjoying what's going good.  We can then, as a means to redirect our stream of thoughts, intentionally guide the mind to consider, reflect on, and be grateful for the good things. Every time we do so we encourage a positive stream of thought, and with every repetition, we reinforce the habit of focusing on what's good.

In this way, whether traveling thousands of miles around the globe, or within our own homes, we cultivate a state of mind in which we find beauty, comfort, and ease.

What Goes In Comes Out

Meditation practice can be quite the reprieve from our busy lives, a quiet time to find a bit of peace of mind.  It never really loses that effect, but as we become more familiar with the nature of the mind, the reasons as to why and how we practice begin to broaden.

As we think, so we become.  Being as such, whatever we put into the mind, whatever we entertain, comes in through our senses and inevitably comes out through thought, words, or actions.  Every state of mind is preceded by a thought.  Thoughts are the causal seed for the resultant state of mind.  In this way, a thought becomes a state of mind. Therefore, whatever state of mind we experience is dependent on the thoughts we entertain.

Knowing this, how we practice changes in that we become increasingly more aware and exercise more care in choosing what we willfully let in.  We start to understand that everything that enters the mind through our senses affects our state of being.  What we watch, read, hear, put into our bodies, etc., all for the duration of our exposure and for an immeasurable time thereafter, are affecting our quality of mind.  Becoming wise through prior experience, we begin to question whether we want to inherit the consequent state of mind that will arise from our present actions.

Knowing better becomes doing better. 

So the why as to why we practice changes.  Knowing that what we're seeing in the mind during our seated meditation practice is a direct result of how we're using our minds throughout the day, we now are more inspired not just to seek that peace of mind "on the cushion", but also to make choices that will help better maintain it throughout the day.  The reason we practice changes from seeking a temporary reprieve to finding an enduring freedom through willful and kind self discipline both on and off of the cushion.

Get Real

At this weekend's retreat Bhante G spoke to the meaning of Vipassana meditation.  He summed it up as "seeing things as they really are."

Similar to how we can gain physical benefits from acting on the information we glean from the study of the human body through biology, anatomy, nutrition, etc., we gain incredible mental benefits through the study and observation of our own mind.

Suffering is a problem.  In order to solve a problem we must first understand what's causing the problem to arise.  The Buddha didn't teach a path to happiness per se, but rather a path that leads to the end of suffering.  To come out we have to understand, experientially, how it comes up.  The only way to become acquainted is to be fully present when we meet with it.

At first, when our mindfulness is not yet strong, we catch suffering while it's arising or some time after it has already arisen.  Eventually, through steady practice, our mindfulness becomes continuous so that we may prevent it from arising at all.

How we interact with phenomena has been summed up in 5 steps:

1. We meet with a phenomenon
2. We like, dislike, or remain neutral once in contact with the phenomenon
3. We then categorize the phenomenon
4. We react to the phenomenon
5. Our consciousness is affected by the phenomenon

The actual suffering arises in step 4, the reaction, which then bolsters step 2.  The degree to which we develop an aversion to the phenomenon depends on how often we default to a strong negative reaction, which in turn deepens our well of dislike.

But if we are able to retreat from our habitual reaction, we begin to reprogram how we'll behave the next time we come in contact with this particular phenomenon.  Remember, the more we dislike, the harder to be happy.  So each time we go through this process with different phenomena, we're generally lessening our dislikes in the world, allowing for more opportunities of unencumbered happiness. 

Being in touch with the mind throughout the process allows us to see things as they really are. When we're being mindful, we can see that it isn't the phenomenon itself that is giving rise to suffering, but rather our reaction to it.  Once we realize our role in creating our own suffering, we can then begin the process of our liberation from it.

The practice demands honest discernment; without shame or guilt, being able to clearly see and accept our own role in creating suffering for ourselves (and others) so that we can continue the process of coming out.


When my brothers and I were children, my grandmother would catch us in the act of stating "I hate _____".  She wouldn't allow us the use of the "h" word, and would regularly be heard replying "you don't hate anything."

How many times a day do we say it?

Samma Vaca, or Right Speech, like the other branches of the Noble Eightfold Path, plays an important and supportive part in our meditation practice.  What we think, we become. If we think about what we hate, we become hateful. When we speak out of a hateful state, we feed the hateful thinking, exacerbating the cycle.

If we're speaking about something we "hate", the mind is dwelling on something it doesn't like, which in turn gives rise to an unpleasant state of mind.

Who wants that?

If we truly aim to eradicate our hearts and minds of hate, we can't allow it any space.  So as we move through our day, we can practice being mindful of how we speak by keeping an ear out for this one word. The practice of aiming to eliminate an unbeneficial word from our vocabulary can be very interesting and challenging, as it illuminates our habitual patterns of speaking, which point towards our habitual patterns of thinking.

As in meditation, when we are able to bring our awareness back after the mind has wandered, each time we catch ourselves about to speak, or just after speaking this unwelcome word, we strengthen our awareness and resolve.

Like this, over time, we gradually clean up our hearts and minds, leaving no space for hate.

Mind Remodel

I recently moved into a new apartment.  I find myself investing a lot of time, energy, and resources into making the space comfortable, aiming to shape the space into a place I enjoy being.

I've come to view the mind similarly.

For the rest of this life, we will abide in this mind.  We can't move out, but we can remodel. So if it's not comfortable, if it's not beautiful, lovely, or peaceful, we can invest time, energy, and resources into shaping it into a place we'd much rather enjoy being.

Through meditation, over time we can move from residing in an unpleasant mind, to residing within a bright, beautiful, cheery mind.


By strengthening our faculty of mindfulness, we're quicker to become aware of when the mind wanders off and where it wanders off to.  By strengthening our faculty of concentration, we develop staying power, the ability to keep the mind focused on where we want it to be.  So we use mindfulness to be aware of where the mind wants to go, and concentration to keep it where we want it. 

Using these 2 skills together, we can shape our mind into the space in which we want to live, decorated in beautiful thoughts of loving kindness.

A Happiness that Doesn't Hurt

"Do unto others as you would want done unto you" only works so long as we can already discern between being kind or unkind to ourselves.  The kindness we extend to ourselves is not only measured by the quality of thoughts we have about ourselves, but also by the quality (and quantity) of the thoughts we entertain about others.

When we abandon unkind thoughts of others, we first and foremost extend kindness to ourselves.

The quagmire of entertaining less than kind thoughts sinks the mind into the quicksands of suffering..."entertaining" is the pivotal word.  

Most of the day we're not thinking intentionally, meaning that we're not directing the mind to think in a particular manner or solve a particular problem.  Invited or not, thoughts just keep coming into the mind.  Where we have a say is in whether or not we entertain them.  

Thoughts are very much like a movie, in that if they are of the slightest bit of interest to us, we'll become so engaged that are moods will move with them.  While we might not yet be able to prevent certain thoughts from entering into the mind, it's through the practice of meditation, practicing mindfulness, that we are able to choose whether we engage with them or not.  When we engage, we proliferate, and when we proliferate, the accompanying mood stays.

So being kind to ourselves first and foremost begins with not entertaining the thoughts that create suffering in the mind.  When we're being kind to ourselves as such, we're interacting kindly with the world around us, thus not bringing suffering to ourselves or others.

It's a happiness that doesn't hurt.

Abiding in Truth

It's become quite popular to use the phrase "my truth".  Whether intended or not, its use implies that truth is somehow relative.  

But truth is always true.

And how can we find it?  By keeping our awareness within the framework of our own 6 senses, namely seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking.  Every moment we experience the sensations of the body, without mentally adding anything to them, we're experiencing the truth, reality as it is.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

When we're able to keep the mind rooted in what's really happening in the moment, instead of speculating and dwelling within unfounded opinion, we free ourselves from the process of creating suffering that would have otherwise arisen.

For example, it's common, when listening to or reading another's words, that we begin to think something along the lines of "I know what you're really saying" or "what you really mean."  These of course we call projections.  They're formed through rushing hastily into unfounded opinion, their accuracy skewed by the bias of our own perceptions.

So rather than allowing the mind to carry us into these rash, far reaching conclusions, we instead turn our awareness inward to watch the process and see for ourselves where these processes lead.  We can ask one simple question..."do I know this to be true?" When we're being honest with ourselves, most often the answer is "no."

Meditators are like scientists working in the laboratory of the mind, the experiment being the observation of different tendencies and where they lead.  The more familiar we become with these tendencies, the better we can circumnavigate the suffering that would otherwise arise through their entertainment. 

In other words, over time, instead of holding onto opinions that give rise to pain, we first learn how to let them go, then learn how not to form them in the first place.

We learn to abide in truth, and truth sets us free.

Growing Steady

While beginning to pack for my move across town, I found and reread a greeting card that was sent from the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center that reads:

"Meditation allows our spirituality to keep growing when every other thing is falling apart."

All conditioned things have a lifecycle; there are conditions that give rise to things, conditions that maintain things, and conditions that ultimately lead to things falling apart.

This cycle is what makes conditioned things an unreliable source of lasting happiness.

For instance, if we gain something, then lose it, and can't have it back, our happiness is lost with the object.  The same holds true for pain and pleasure, blame and praise, and disrepute and fame...they come and go.

The breath, while it also comes and goes, isn't accompanied by the same clinging and aversion as do other conditioned things.  How often do you think "darn, I lost that breath" or "gee, I'm gonna miss that breath" or "gimmee that breath back"?

The breath is an anomaly! It goes out and comes right back in, making it a steady point upon which we can rest our mind.  So long as we're alive, the breath is always there for us. The more comfortable we become with it, the more we grow our peace of mind.

While this peace of mind that we're cultivating through our meditation practice might not yet be steady, over time, through consistent practice and dedication to moral behavior, it will certainly continue to grow.  A moment then will arise in which the world around is falling apart around us but we notice that our mind isn't crumbling with it.  Instead, it remains untouched, clear and balanced.

This isn't to say we become numb to the world, but rather immune to the dis-ease usually brought about by the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

It's a good place to be.

Service Comes First

After a late night of "Ubering", Saturday morning I awoke in a not-the-most-pleasant of mind states.  So I meditated, practiced yoga, cooked a healthy lunch, but could still feel a lingering sense of fatigue and irritability (we have to be vigilant as this is when our minds can be most vulnerable.)  At the same time I was receiving texts from a musician friend who was asking for a ride for himself and his drummer (and all of their gear) to a show they had that evening in the Southside.  I noticed my reluctance in wanting to help, coming up with this reason and that reason why it wouldn't work out.  It all arose out of this misconception that I was suddenly limited in what I could give, unable to do so because I didn't feel my best.

So, fully aware of what was going on, overcoming my initial resistance I said "yes".

And wouldn't you know that my spirit lifted the moment I saw my friend, and my heart rejoiced in lending a hand in toting their gear to the car.

Isn't it interesting that when we're suffering we perceive the antidote as part of the problem rather than the solution?

I feel fortunate to have trained in a lineage of Yoga that teaches:

Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize.

Service comes first.

Next time you're not feeling your best I encourage you to try to act selflessly for someone else.  While it's not the aim to receive anything in return, just see if helping others helps you.

It does me.

On Not Aiming to Clear the Mind

It's commonly thought that in order to meditate one must clear their mind.  The misconception is that we sit down, close our eyes, and then suddenly stop all thought.

Not very likely going to happen.

Instead of aiming to clear the mind of all thought, we aim to become increasingly more interested in the breath, allowing the breath to become more and more comfortable, more and more pleasant, more and more enjoyable.  

Breathing is our most fundamental nature.  Consider that when we strip away all earthly responsibilities, concerns, and worries, all we're left with is the simplicity of breathing.  

Breathing in, breathing out...what a relief.  

The better acquainted we become with the process of breathing, finding the breath that brings most comfort to the body in a given moment, the more at ease we become, and the easier it becomes for the mind to rest.

Perhaps then, one might find the mind temporarily free of thought, but it was never the aim, simply a byproduct of the practice.

So, please, don't try to clear the mind, just follow the breath and see where that leads.


Some years ago, just before a meditation practice, the Buddhist nun conducting a retreat I was attending stated, as a means to inspire effort and determination, that the relative peace in this country is fragile, delicate, one when given the proper conditions could change without a moment's notice. 

The statement led me to reflect upon and stirred gratitude for the freedoms and comforts afforded me, those fought for by military and social activists now and from generations past.  It helped me appreciate even more the freedom to practice the religion of my choosing, allowing me to practice it (through meditation) relatively undisturbed, without the looming threat of unimaginable violence. 

This is certainly one sense of freedom worth celebrating.

Another has to do with the fruits of the practice itself.  

As we lift the veil of ignorance through insight, we come to understand the mechanics of how suffering arises, we begin to free ourselves from troublesome habitual patterns of the mind that lead to added, unnecessary pain and suffering. The practice provides a unique opportunity to reach an incomparable freedom, one that relies heavily on our ability to practice within this mundane, relative peace, but eventually leads to a balanced state of mind better equipped to navigate the inevitably choppy seas of life, ultimately reaching the shore of a more lasting, undisturbed peace.

So as we celebrate the mundane freedoms and the lives of those that defended and defend them, let us also be determined to keep our practice steady so as to experience the promised supramundane freedoms that lie ahead.