Open Your Eyes…

If you’ve been watching any of my videos you know that I’ve been meditating for quite some time, and over the past several months I’ve been studying Zen, and trying to go deeper into Zen practice. But, here lately, I’ve been having a really hard time, I’ve been specifically struggling with my meditation practice. So let’s talk about it right, come on, lets go.
 
Now, Zen meditation, or zazen, shares a lot of commonalities with other forms of meditation, like mindfulness meditation or vipassana, but, there’s also some notable differences. One of those small differences is kind of the source of my current meditation struggles.
 
I know how petty and insignificant this going to sound but, one of the things that I’m having a really hard time with in my zazen practice is that in zazen your instructed to keep you eyes open during meditation. See Brad Warner explains that “unlike most other forms of meditation, [in zazen] we keep our eyes open. This is a way of acknowledging the outside world as part of our practice and as a part of us.” Warner goes on to say that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that…we should shine inward. So although we are shining our light inward, we also accept that there is no hard line that divides ourselves from the outside world, or the rest of the universe.”
 
I love the idea behind keeping your eyes open during zazen, during meditation. I love the idea of acknowledging the entirety of the world and the entirety of everything within the present moment as part of my practice, and that’s exactly why I want to do it but, the simple fact of the matter is that its been really difficult to do.
 
So since I’ve adopted this eye’s open method of zazen, I feel like I’m getting more lost in thought and more distracted than usual. I especially find myself getting caught-up in ‘planning’ more than anything else, plans for the day, planning everything on my to-do list, plans for the future, planning, planning, planning. It kind of feels like its not working.
 
Alright, I know this seems silly, and it probably seems like I’m making a mountain out of a meditative mole mill, and well, maybe you’re right. I mean you’re probably saying to yourself “if its not working, just let it go, why keeping trying to make it work?” I’ve been thinking the same thing in all honesty, that is until I heard something that made me realize that maybe its so difficult, and maybe it feels like its not working precisely because it is working.
 
Let me try to explain. I was watching a video of a talk by a Zen teacher named David Peters. Towards the end of that talk Peters said something that made it all make sense to me. Peters was beginning to give instructions for Zen meditation and said that “eyes remain open, we’re not trying to go any place different, we’re trying to stay in our body in this room”. When he said “eyes remain open” because “we’re not trying to go any place different”, that’s when it hit and the light bulb came on. I had been feeling like I had hit a wall  in my practice but once I heard – I began to see that this wall wasn’t something new, it didn’t just pop up, it didn’t just appear out of no where, its a wall that had actually been there the whole time. I just couldn’t see it, at least until I opened my eyes.
 
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness” found in meditation. Up to this point in my meditation practice I had unknowingly succumb to this temptation of tranquil peace and stillness. With my eyes closed I had found a way to block out and avoid the messiness of my daily life, I had unconsciously found a way to escape from the reality of the present moment, the reality of where I am at this moment. I think with my eyes closed I had managed to keep the world at bay but, when I opened my eyes, the floods gates opened, everything came rushing in, and my mind started getting so caught-up in the plans for another time and and another place because it wanted desperately to be some place different, it wanted to be anywhere other then right here, right now.
 
Jon Kabat Zinn goes on to say that “Mindful sitting meditation is not an attempt to escape from problems or difficulties into some cut-off ‘meditative’ state of absorption or denial.” Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Meditation is not a drug to make us oblivious to our real problems”. It’s not intended to be an escape, or a sedative. “On the contrary,” Jon Kabat Zinn explains that meditation “is a willingness to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, and loss, if that is what is dominating the present moment” It’s an attempt to be fully awake to the reality of whatever is going on around and inside us here and now. Being present, being fully present, means being fully present to ‘what is’ -sometimes ‘what is’ sucks and that means being fully present even and especially when it sucks.
 
You’re never going to get anywhere by trying to get away from it.
 
I think most of us would have to admit that we spend most of our time trying to get somewhere else, wanting to be some place else, unintentionally and sometimes intentionally closing our eyes to where we are. Thich Nhat Hanh says that when we do this “we postpone being alive to the future” and as a result, he says that not only are we “not capable of being alive in the present moment,” we may “never be truly alive in our entire life”. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh stresses “the only moment to be alive is the present moment.”
 
I’d love to tell you since I had this realization that my practice and my attitude has dramatically improved, and that I’m out of the woods of this rough patch. But, that just wouldn’t be true. I’m still getting pretty distracted. I’m still getting pretty lost in thought, and I’m still getting caught-up in ‘planning’. When these distractions of thought and planning occur most meditation practices instruct you to come back to the breath, to come back to breathing. We practice this conscious breathing because, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, it helps to make us “aware of each thought and each act,” and “we are reborn, fully alive, in the present moment.”  And so, that’s what I try to do. I try to come back to the breath again and again. But, sometimes I’m pretty hard on myself when I have to keep coming back to the breath. A lot of the time, I come back with shame, I come back with guilt, I come back with so much judgement. But, someone told me recently, that the moment you come back to the breath is actually the most sacred moment. I don’t know about you but, I really needed to hear that.
 
It reminded me that coming back needn’t be laced with shame, guilt, judgement, and negativity. Coming back to the present is a beautiful simplicity. I’m trying to come back with more kindness and care. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Our true home is in the present moment”. So, I’m trying to think of coming back to the breath as a kind of home coming, as a welcoming back.
 
There’s nothing wrong with getting distracted. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost. Because the moment you realize you’ve lost you way is the sacred moment that you get to come back home You just have to open your eyes to see it.
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Think like a beginner…

In this video we talk about an Essay in the book “Manage Your Day-To-Day” by Steven Pressfield, an interview with Ian Leslie, and the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind. Rough transcript below. Enjoy!

Hey I’m glad you’re here. One of the books I just finished reading is a book called Manage Your Day-To-Day. As I was thinking about that book and as I was weeding through some old articles I had clipped into my Evernote account I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious”. So as I was thinking about some of the passages in Manage Your Day-to-Day and as I was thinking “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious” I started thinking about this Zen Buddhist idea called ‘Beginner’s Mind’…again. If you follow this channel at all I’ve done a couple videos on beginners mind already, so let’s talk about it…again.

In one of the last essays towards the end of the book Manage You Day-To-Day, called “How Pro Can You Go?” Steven Pressfield says the following:
* “A professional is someone who can keep working at a high level of effort and ethics, no matter what is going on—for good or ill—around him or inside him.”* “A professional shows up every day.”
* “A professional plays hurt.”
* “A professional takes neither success nor failure personally.”
* Here’s the best part – “A pro gets younger and more innocent as he or she ascends through the levels. It’s a paradox. We get salty and cynical, but we creep closer, too, to the wonder. You have to or you can’t keep going.”

I love this idea of continually creeping closer and closer to wonder, despite the possibilities of being jaded and despite the possibilities of cynicism, and a persisting youthful innocence that actually continues to increase as we progress instead of decreasing as we move forward. This is what made me think about “Beginner’s Mind” …again…

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind , Suzuki Roshi writes that “In the beginner’s mind there is no thought ‘I have attained something'” Beginner’s mind isn’t primarily concerned with achievement or attainment, it’s free of attachments, expectations, judgments, and prejudices. Suzuki Roshi goes on to say that “Because your attainment is always ahead you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future”. In other words, beginner’s mind is so concerned with the wonder and the curiosity of this present moment that it refuses to relinquish anything that exists within this present moment for something that may or may not be there in future.

In my opinion, I think there’s something actually kind of punk rock about beginner’s mind, there’s something kind of guerrilla about this approach. The Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov said that “Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.” I love that! I think there is something very insubordinate about the wonder and curiosity found in Beginner’s Mind; it refuses to see anything as average, mediocre, or mundane. It refuses to let anything become routine. It refuses to let anything slip into the status quo. It finds an element of newness and freshness in everything it encounters. And that’s because everything in every moment is new, fresh, and different if you really think about it.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Everything is different. Everything is always different. The river is constantly changing. The man that steps into the river is constantly changing. Beginner’s mind recognizes the newness of every moment. I think this is why Suzuki Roshi says that the “real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”

So, like I said earlier, I was going through some old articles that I had saved in Evernote and I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious“. It’s an interview with a writer named Ian Leslie. In the article Leslie explains that there are two different kinds of curiosity; Diversive Curiosity and Epistemic Curiosity. Leslie says that everyone is born with Diversive curiosity. It is curiosity at its most basic. Its a child like craving for bright shiny newness. But, he say that “The trouble with diversive curiosity is, unless it matures into something deeper, it just continues as a futile search for the next shiny thing.”

And, then there’s Epistemic Curiosity. “‘Epistemic curiosity’ is what happens when curiosity grows up.” Leslie say that “The more we learn, the easier it is to be curious, and the more powerful our sense of epistemic curiosity can become, because new knowledge hooks onto the networks of existing knowledge in our brains.” He goes on to say that “It’s all-too easy to fall back on old routines and habits and not to bother learning. Epistemic curiosity encourages you to work at it and learn new things.”

I think the way Leslie talks about Epistemic Curiosity is exactly what I mean when I talk about the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind. Like I said this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about Beginner’s Mind. I’ve mentioned it in two previous videos; one is titled “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” and the other is kind of a follow-up to that video called “Congruence“.

Maybe I keep thinking about beginner’s mind because I’m still a beginner on a lot of levels. Even though I’ve studied Buddhism academically, I’m still a beginner when it comes to Zen and Buddhism on a personal level. Even though I’ve been meditating for the past couple years, I’m still a beginner. i still have a lot to learn about it. When it comes to YouTube, and making videos – shooting, editing all that, I’m definitely still a beginner. I have no idea what I’m doing. But, If I’m being honest, over the past few weeks I’ve been going through something of a dry spell. I can feel myself getting a little dull, a little cynical, a little jaded. If nothing else maybe this video is a reminder for me to remember Beginner’s Mind, to remember to capture that attitude of thinking like a beginner, to remember to utilize that approach of Beginner’s Mind, and see the freshness and newness in everything, to keep my wonder and curiosity alive.

Maybe you needed to hear that too…

I want to encourage you to creep closer, and close, and ever closer to your curiosity, welcome home you’re wonder, and think like a beginner…

Questioning Religion?

In this video, as a pretty skeptical dude studying Zen, I try to talk about ‘religion’, what it is and what it means. Transcript Below! Enjoy!

What is religion? Why do religions exist? What characteristically typifies religion? Every analytical study or examination of religion begins with such questions. Yet, in many ways, such questions implicitly, always-already, contain the answer within them. Perhaps, one could say that the question is, itself, the answer, or that the answer is, itself, the question. That sounded kinda deep and cryptic didn’t it? Pretty Zen right? Just me…Anyway, lets talk about it right now, come one let’s go!
As I’ve mentioned in a few of my other videos, even though I’m a Zen student, and even though I have Bachelors in religion, I still have a fairly tenuous relationship with religion, and even the word ‘religion’ still makes me a little uncomfortable. Jacques Derrida once said “I rightly pass for an atheist”. I love that quote because I think it describes me pretty well.

This isn’t my way of launching into the “I’m spiritual, not religious'” cliche, to be honest I think I’m probably even more uncomfortable with the word ‘spirituality’.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with that “spiritual, not religious” stance. If that’s you, if that works for you – awesome – own it. I’m just saying its not me.

Regardless, the brute facticity of the matter is that Zen and Buddhism are considered religions, and meditation is considered a spiritual practice. I’m involved in all three and if you are too, well we’re going to have to deal with ‘religion’, we need to look at and talk about honestly, and, maybe even find a way to get comfortable with it.

I’m in the process of finishing my Master’s degree, and I just started a new class this semester on the History of Religion. Any good study of Religion, before it can get its hands dirty in the detailed particularities of each specific religion, has to begin with the type of questions raised in the intro of this video – ‘what religion is’? “what are its characteristics?’ etc. In other words, the study of religion begins with questions…

The study of religion begins with questions because religion and the religious life begins with questions, because to be human is to be full of questions. This is why most of my videos begin with a question, not because I have the answer, or because I’ve found the answer but, because I have questions, and usually in the process of researching and examining a question what I actually find are more questions.

In his book What is Zen? Norman Fischer explains that “Religion engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” (59). According to Fischer religion is the emergent result of existential questioning. As such, Fischer goes on to say that “Religion provides practices…that help us cement our hearts to such questions, giving our lives a sense of ultimate grounding” (59). Religion is what William James calls humanity’s “total reaction” to life’s big questions (James, 35). In other words, religion is the name given to the set of varying strategies systematically utilized in humanity’s phenomenological absorption with the large questions of existence.

Yet, Fischer makes another pivotal point to consider, he says that “Religion cannot actually give us answers to such questions; rather, it gives us ways to grapple with them together, in communities that include not only living friends, but practitioners from the past, whose words and deeds still inspire us” (59). Said another way, religion’s modus operandi is in providing one with techniques for living in engagement with the questions, strategies and practices for mindfully sitting with these questions. Here, the emphasis seems to be placed on the ‘question’ rather than on the ‘answer’, or, more specifically, the process of actively wrestling with the questions is of greater import than the answers.

In his book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark says:

I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked…When we’re exposed to the liveliness of holding everything up to the light of good questions…we discover that redemption is creeping into the way we think, believe, and see the world…a redemption that perhaps begins with the insertion of a question mark beside whatever feels final and absolute and beyond questioning, gives our souls a bit of elbow room, a space in which to breathe again, as if for the first time (14).

What does it mean to study religion? What is it that one studies when one studies religion? In many ways, it seems that the study of religion is the anthropological and sociological study of the specific ways in which various cultures at various points in history have grappled with the big questions. And what does it mean to be religious? Maybe part of what it means to be religious is being devoted to the practice of mindfully asking and grappling with ever bigger questions…

Authority?

Hey I’m glad you’re here. So, last week I posted a video called “Tradition?“. In that video we tried to talk a little bit about what it means to be faithful to tradition, what it means to honor tradition, and what it means to betray tradition or to rebel against tradition.

We talked about how Buddhism is founded upon a kind of rejection of tradition, that it’s a tradition of rebelling against tradition, a tradition opposing tradition. And thus, one of the ways in which to faithfully honor the Buddhist tradition is to continue the work questioning tradition and rebelling against tradition when and where it’s necessary, even and especially when it’s in regards to the tradition of Buddhism itself.

With that in mind I can’t help but think about the question of ‘Authority’ in the same way – what does it mean to respect authority and what does it mean to reject authority? So let’s talk about it right now, come on let’s go.

So, to recap just little bit, as I mentioned in last week’s video I just finished reading Huston Smith’s book Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. In the book Smith highlights that “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition” and thus “He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.” The Buddha said:

“Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.” When it came to tradition and even when it came to his own teachings the Buddha seemed to emphasize a kind of provisional pragmatism rather than the staunch rigidity of traditionalism.

What’s interesting as that not only addresses the Buddha’s relationship to tradition but, it also implicitly addresses the Buddha’s relationship to authority. In other words, the Buddha not only said to Question tradition but, also to question authority. In this regard, Hustom Smith points out that, just as the Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition, in the same way “Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.”

Smith goes on to say that “Buddha challenged each individual to do his or her own religious seeking and rational investigation.” He didn’t expect anyone to take him at his word. He didn’t want or expect to be viewed as a figure of absolute authority, nor did he want his teachings to be seen as unquestionably authoritative. He wanted to be questioned, he wanted his teachings to be probed, to be tested, to be investigated, and he encouraged his followers to do so based upon their own authority rather than anyone else’s.

Elsewhere the Buddha said, “When you yourself know [these teachings] lead to harm or ill, abandon them; when you yourself know [these teachings] lead to benefit and happiness, adopt them.” Do what works, throw away what doesn’t.

The Buddha said “Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”

A few weeks ago I posted I video called “Zen Teachers?” and in that video we talked about the role of a Zen teacher. We often think of Zen and/or Buddhist teachers as authoritative figures, yet, as my Zen teacher suggests “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”. Similarly, Brad Warner writes that “A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror.” Perhaps, then, you could say that if a Zen teacher is authoritative it is only to the extent that they are a reflection of your own authority, or that they reflect your authority back to you rather demonstrate their own.

In my opinion, what the Buddha taught and what I’ve learned from studying and practicing Zen is that, they provide us with guidelines not rules. In other words, the aim is guidance not indoctrination. They act out of advisement and aid rather than authoritarianism. They provide counsel rather than control, and direction rather than dominance. It’s so easy to get caught up in the supposed sovereignty and supremacy of teachers and teachings, to try and follow them to the letter, to try and do exactly what Bodhidharma said, or to try and do precisely what Dogen said to do but, as my Zen teacher recently pointed out to me “we aren’t pursuing Bodhidharma’s awakening or Dogen’s awakening. We’re each pursuing our own.” “Just do whatever works”

The Buddha, himself, said that “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.”

Perhaps, this is where my religious studies background is going to show itself some but, when I read the Buddha’s instruction to diligently work out your salvation for yourself, I can’t help but think of a passage from the New Testament that says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Greek word phobos translated as ‘Fear’ doesn’t just mean terror or dread. It also means reverence and respect. But, what about “trembling?” This comes from the Greek word tromos which is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts. In this verse, the instruction is to Work out your salvation with Fear and trembling, with reverence and distrust. Perhaps one could say that here Reverence is demonstrated through distrust, respect is given through skepticism, and honor given through doubt.This salvation is worked out with a reverent distrust, a skeptical submission, a questioning surrender, and a doubting devotion. this seems to be that same kind of pragmatic provisionality that the Buddha advocated.

I’ve been reading a book called “Manage You Day-to-Day“, in one of the essays in that book, Scott Belsky writes “Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others…don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your own intuition.”

Perhaps the best way in which to faithfully honor tradition is to recognize that you are not strictly beholden to it, and perhaps the best way in which to respect authority is to realize that its ultimate source is your own.

Congruence…

So a couple days ago I posted a video on my YouTube channel called ” Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind.”

In that video I talk about how exploring your curiosities is an expression of authenticity and that this kind of authentic open-mindedness geared towards the exploration of wonder and discovery is synonymous with the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind.

I won’t rehash the whole video here. I’ll include a link and you can check it out for yourself.

Anyway, sometimes after I release a video I read something or I hear something that connects to what I was trying to say in that already released video, and I wish I would have read it or heard it before I released the video so that I could have included that little nugget in the video.

Well, yesterday that happened. I was listening to an episode of the Office Hours podcast with T.K. Coleman and Isaac Morehouse. The episode was called “Results Matter More Than Status and Rules.” In the conversation between Morehouse and Coleman, Coleman says something that I think poignantly conveys what I was getting at in my recent YouTube Video.

Coleman says: “It doesn’t matter if I’m like everyone else, it doesn’t even matter if I’m different, what matters is that I’m congruent with what I’m doing.”

What Coleman’s getting at is that sometimes we wax and wane between two fearful poles when it comes to exploring our interests and curiosities.

Sometimes we’re afraid to explore an interest because its something that everyone else is doing, and we don’t want to be just like everyone else.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, and we’re afraid to explore our curiosities if they are dramatically different than everyone else’s.

Both positions are obstacles and obstructions blocking our authenticity and impeding exploration, innovation, and discovery.

It doesn’t matter if you’re congruent or in-congruent with what ever social or cultural group you may find yourself a part of. What matters is if you are congruent with yourself.

As I say towards the conclusion of my video “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” –

Sometimes we get so rooted to a specific tradition,a particular school of thought, a particular way of being, or a particular way of doing things that we cease to examine anything at or outside the periphery of who or what we think we are or should be.

But, Beginner’s Mind is what beckons us to explore our curiosity no matter what it is. It calls us to give voice to these curiosities regardless of whether it is an interest shared by everyone else, or whether it is something directly related to whatever traditions or groups we belong to. In this regard, Beginner’s Mind calls us to explore these curiosities even and especially when it is starkly different. The most important thing to ask ourselves is, are we being authentically congruent with who we are, with what we’re doing, with what we believe, and with what we value?

The curiosity and wonder expressed within Beginner’s Mind is the active expression of one’s emerging congruence with one’s authentic nature.

My Sangha…

In this video talk about what’s known in Buddhism as the Sangha, or the ‘community’, and what it means to take refuge in the sangha if you don’t have a local Buddhist community or when you just don’t have time to go to your local Buddhist community. Below is a rough transcript. Enjoy!

So, if you’re a Buddhist or if you’ve studied Buddhism at all you may have come across the term Sangha. A Sangha is a Buddhist community of practice, in other words, a temple, meditation center, or a Zen center. But, what if you don’t live near a temple or Zen center? Or, if you’re like me and you don’t always have time to get your local Zen center, what is a sangha for you then. That’s what we’re going to talk about right now.

In Buddhism there’s something called the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). I know this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Three Jewels. I briefly discussed them in part four of my “Montaigne & Buddhism” titled “Why Should Buddhists Care?” But, today I wanted to focus on the refuge of the sangha a little more. Maybe you’re like me in that I’m a predominately a kind of self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, and dharma talks etc. So, for me the endeavor into Zen and Buddhism was not one primarily of community orientation. At the time I wasn’t even aware if there was a Zen center near. I’ve since discovered that there is. I have visited my local Zen center more than once and I have greatly enjoyed it each time. However, between hectic-ness of work and family life I don’t get to go as often as I would like. But, as I said in the intro maybe you live in an area with out any kind of official sangha, without an actual temple or Zen center. How does one, then, take refuge in the community, the sangha?

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that “In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and especially in Zen. There is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. They are one and the same. If one’s practice and the activities of one’s everyday life are not separate spheres, then, it also stand to reason that the idea of a sangha  cannot be separately demarcated sphere. In other words, perhaps, one could say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.

I just wrote an Article for The Tattooed Buddha Website that was published a few days ago. The title of the article is “Barking Dogs & Meowing Cats: Samatha Meditation Between the Pauses”. In the article I talk about what my daily meditation practice is like and what the environment of my daily meditation practice is like.

Every morning I get up early, I grab my cushion, I let the dogs out, I set my timer, and I meditate on my patio for about 45 minutes. On paper, that sounds more serene than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, some mornings, when I have enough awareness, or when I’ve gotten enough sleep the previous night, the sound of birdsong and the whispers of a slight breeze softly pirouetting through the trees in my backyard is meditation gold. Picking an object of concentration in such a setting is like being at a buffet. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the most accurate portrayal of the soundscape. Remember those dogs I let out? Yeah…let’s talk about them for a minute. I have a Chiweenie who has made it his personal mission, his quest, to vigilantly defend the yard against every rustling bush, viciously hunting down every intruding lizard, and barking vehemently as if sounding the alarm against the evils of the squirrel menace. I also have a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier mutt, who noisily and aggressively rushes to the aid of her pint sized comrade in arms, unquestioningly seconding the commotion, yelping without ever having a clue as to what is being yelped at. She quickly grows tired of the traumas found in the backyard battlefield. Whining, panic stricken, and in a state of utter despair, she scratches at the patio screen door seeking asylum, calling for canine sanctuary. If that wasn’t enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it?

I’ve begun to see that regardless of the torrent of external and internal activity, I can physically locate a stillness, a quiet, somewhere within myself. Often while I’m watching the breath and becoming distracted by the cacophony of diversions that both my mind and my environment elicit, I search for that stillness. I try to see if I can I touch this stillness, even if but for a moment. Sometimes I find it in the still stability of my hands as they rest together on my lap. Sometimes I find it in the brief pause between breaths.

I don’t always find this quiet, I can’t always see the stillness, and I don’t always have the ability to touch it, but, when it happens, when I can manage to touch that ever-present stillness within myself, I simultaneously touch the stillness that is present in everything else around me. There is a stillness in the tress as the wind caresses the leaves. There is a calm in the chirping of the birds. There is even a quiet stillness found present in a barking Chiweenie, a whining Jack Russell, and an incessantly meowing cat.

Zen Meditation, or zazen, is at its best when it welcomes in, embraces, and sits with the present moment of the world around us, whatever it may be, whatever may be happening, and whatever it may contain. In Brad Warner‘s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japean’s Greatest Zen Master, he writes that “unlike most other forms of meditation, [in zazen] we keep our eyes open. This is a way of acknowledging the outside world as part of our practice and as a part of us.” Warner says that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that Dōgen says we should shine inward. So although we are shining our light inward, we also accept that there is no hard line that divides ourselves from the outside world, or the rest of the universe.”

You may be thinking, that all sounds great, but, what about the sangha? what does any of this have to do with the sangha?

I’m getting there, I promise. I just read a great blog post by Sensei Alex Kakuyo called 3 Things I learned from my Outdoor Meditation Retreat. In the blog post he writes about a time he was working as Farmer, and not only did he not have access to a local sangha but, virtual or online access to a sangha and such dharma related resources was limited. So he would do self-led meditation retreats, autonomously exploring outdoor meditation. He writes about the experience stating “I wanted to sit in a beautiful park with birds singing in the trees.  But you can’t enjoy those things without dealing grass stains and bird poop.  They’re part of the process, and expecting anything else is a cause of suffering.” I can relate. For me to sit zazen in the morning on my patio means I also have to deal my dogs barking and whining, and one of my cats meowing. Sensei Alex highlights the fact that “The world will always be there, banging at the front door.  The best way to deal with it is by letting it in.” This next part of his essay was the light bulb moment for me and it drives home the point I’ve been trying to get it in this video. He says that as he was meditation in these outdoor areas, observing and “letting-in” the contents of the environment he began to recognize that “The birds, the ants, and the people at the park had all been supporting me like a traditional Buddhist sangha”. All of these various elements of the outside world became so apart of his practice that they were actually supporting and upholding his practice, they became his sangha. He says that “Everyone and everything on the planet is working hard to help us in our walk toward awakening.  We just need to open our eyes and notice the gifts that we’re given.”

in a weird kind of way, my sangha is made of up my of these dogs and cats, and the whole conglomeration of what is present at the time and place of my practice. The sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, any thing or anyone that somehow contributes to your Zen practice.

As Max Erdstein says “The Whole world is the monastery”.

This may sound strange but, this really isn’t a foreign concept to Zen. I just recently finished reading The Essential Dogen. Dogen, who I mentioned earlier and who I’ve quoted in a past video, was a 13th century Zen Buddhist priest, who has not only been credited with bringing Zen to Japan but, also founded the Soto school of Zen. In Dogen’s voluminous writings he talks about ‘insentient beings speaking the dharma’.

Dogen writes the following:

“Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”

“Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles of the world of phenomena…all engage in buddha activity, those who receive the benefits of the wind and water are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s transformation…and intimately manifest enlightenment.”

“The sutras are the entire world… There is no moment or place that is not sutras.”

“The sutras are written in letters of heavenly beings, human beings, animals, fighting spirits, one hundred grasses, or ten thousand trees. This being so, what is long, short, square, and round, as well as what is blue, yellow, red, and white, arrayed densely in the entire world… is no other than letters of the sutras and the surface of the sutras. Regard them as the instruments of the great way and as the sutras of the buddha house.”

Everything that you encounter on the path of your practice is the dharma. The entirety of the phenomenal world forms the letters of the sutras. Everything is your sangha. As you begin to practice and as you continue to practice take a deep look at everything and everyone in your world, that is your sangha.

I Suck at Meditating…

If you’ve ever felt frustrated or disappointed about meditating, well…you’re in good company. In this video I talk about about my meditation frustrations and what meditation is really all about. I hope you find it helpful! Enjoy!

 

I suck at meditating. Maybe you think you do too. So let’s talk about it.
I suck at meditating. It’s true. I’m a bad meditator, a committed and disciplined meditator but a bad one none the less. I get up early every morning, or at least 6 days out of the week, sit on my cushion, and meditate for 30-45 minutes. The problem I have with my practice is my progress…
I am constantly getting unknowingly lost in thought – getting lost in thought without even realizing its happening.  Now, I know that the misnomer of a ‘clear mind’, or ‘clearing the mind’, or a mind free from all thoughts is something of a meditation myth. To some extent the mind can never be clear, it can never be free from all thought. You can’t stop thinking, specifically because you are not the author of your thoughts, the mind is a ‘thought’ producing machine, a ‘thought’ creating machine, all ‘thoughts’ are ‘thoughts’ without a ‘thinker’. But, one of the suggestions I often here in meditation instructions is to try and see the thought arise as it arises. Well…I suck at that. By the time I recognize ‘thinking’ I have already been overtaken by it. I don’t see it until I’m already in the thick of it.
I slip-away, black out, I doze off – sometimes this dozing isn’t really sleep so much as a sleep-like haze – I guess that’s why the aspiration of meditation is ‘awakening’, to ‘wake-up’
I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated with my meditation practice – or more specifically increasingly frustrated with myself for not being able to meditate up to the standards I think that I should be.
I’ve also been getting increasingly frustrated with the results of meditation practice, or more specifically the lack of results, which I have masochistically categorized and listed: (Maybe you’ve experienced some these yourself if you’ve tried meditating)
  • Meditation is supposed to help with focus but I find myself getting distracted so often
  • Meditation is supposed to increase memory but I’m noticing how forgetful I am and how often I forget things
  • Meditation is supposed to aid in making one less of an asshole but I am seeing how much of a dick I can be
  • I am seeing how frustrated I get with people, with situations, how annoyed I get with things I don’t like, whether its doing things I don’t like, or being places I don’t want to be
  • Meditation is supposed to help calm or regulate one’s mood and overall demeanor but damn am I one moody mother fucker.
  • Just recently I really lost my temper with my daughter and one of the first things that I felt was disappointment and resentment with myself. I was even more angry with myself when I started thinking about the fact that I meditate regularly, thinking why isn’t this meditation paying off? why isn’t it working? Why am I still losing my temper? What am I doing wrong? What’s the point of getting up so early, sitting, sometimes uncomfortably, for 30 minutes at a time, if i’m still just as much of a jerk.
From time to time I write after my sitting practice – as a kind of extension of the practice. I was writing after a particularly ‘bad’ sitting. My mind had been racing around like a toddler hyped up on mountain dew and pixie sticks. I don’t think I had a moments peace for the entire 30 minute sitting. I was getting exhausted just trying to watch my mind, and I kept almost slipping into sleep, and unconsciously dropping into the cloud of thoughts, spacing out, without even realizing it had happened, coming out of with an almost confused disorientation, “What happened?” Where did I go? How long was I out for? Dude, where’s my car? As I was airing my meditation grievances in written form, something occurred to me: isn’t it interesting that we can so clearly define what is a bad sitting? We can so clearly describe what constitutes a bad meditation session. We can so easily articulate what failure looks like, what fucking up looks like? What being wrong is? But, what is a good sitting? What does a good sitting feel like? What does a good meditation session look like? What would succeeding look like? Well…damn…I don’t know, I don’t know how to answer those questions, We might instinctively feel like we know the answers but stop, take a minute, and genuinely try to answer those kinds of questions, if you’re like me its like trying to hit a moving target , its like trying to catch that toddle high on sugar and cracked out on caffeine. I also had another realization: I am noticing that I am noticing these things. I am seeing that I am seeing these things. Things about myself are becoming more clearly visible
Well…Maybe this is a win. It’s an anti-climactic win. Perhaps a kind of disappointing win, a melancholy win, but, maybe a win none-the-less.
In episode 135 of the 10% Happier Podcast, Dan Harris and his guest Paul Gilmartin discuss this precise situation and these exact ideas. Paul Gilmartin says that “nothing degrades the quality of my life like obsessing about the quality of my life” and Gilmartin goes on to say that “Meditation is good at introducing yourself to what you’re obsessing about”.
I’m not only obsessively noticing my lack of focus, my tendency to be distracted, my forgetfulness, and my general proclivity toward being an asshole. I’m also seeing how much judgement I have, or how much I’m judging myself. I’m noticing all my expectations for myself, for my meditation practice, and all my expectations for everything else that I do for that matter. I’m seeing how much I cling to those expectations. I’m noticing how attached I am to those expectations, how caught up in those expectations I am.
I just recently finished reading Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye Adler. It’s an easy and insightful read, about beginning, cultivating, and continuing the habituation of a meditation practice. In the book Harris points out that  “Expectations are the most noxious ingredient you can add to the meditation stew.” Harris goes on to say that “Ambition and striving—the assets that often help us so much in the rest of our lives—can work against us on the cushion.”
In this regard, the Harris’ book highlights the fact that “Meditation is unlike anything else you do in life, in that here, “failing”—that is, noticing you’ve gotten distracted and starting again—is succeeding.” Harris writes that “When you wake up from distraction, that is the magic moment, the victory.” There’s no way to fail, failure vanishes into success the moment a ‘failing’ is attentively recognized with a keen and observant awareness. In his book, Wherever You Go There you Are, Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” Jon Kabat Zinn goes on to say that “in meditation practice, the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all.”
 In this regard, there’s no bad meditation, there’s no such thing as a bad sitting.
Returning to Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, He goes on to say that “One of the learning curves of this practice is maintaining your intention without being attached to a particular outcome, including the outcome of feeling better.” As Harris notes, “The goal is to be open to whatever comes up, and to approach it all with mindfulness, friendliness, and interest.” It’s not about being good at meditating or getting good at meditation or being a good meditator. I came across a great tweet from Ethan Nichtern. Nichtern is a senior teacher for the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. He tweeted the following:
Ethan_Tweet
It’s not about the outcome, it’s not about the results, its not about meeting expectations, yours or anyone else’s, instead its simply about doing the work and being present.
With that in mind not only is there no such thing as a bad sitting, there’s also no such thing as a good sitting. In his book, What is Zen?, Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer explains that when it comes to meditation “There’s no such things a ‘good, better, or best'”. In fact, it’s Meditation that can help one to let go of one’s ideas of how things should be.
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel. It’s not about making the mind empty or still…meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are.”
If you feel good while you’re meditating allow yourself to feel good. Notice what its like to feel that way. If you feel bored or frustrated or anxious or distracted while your on the cushion allow yourself to feel that way, and pay attention to the way that feels.
I think Jon Kabat Zinn makes an important point when he says:
There is nothing wrong with feelings of boredom or staleness, or of not getting anywhere, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling that you are getting somewhere and in fact, your practice may well be showing signs of becoming deeper and more robust. The pitfall is when you inflate such experiences or thoughts and you start believing in them as special. It’s when you get attached to your experience that the practice arrests, and your development along with it.
Boredom can be fascinating when you have awareness enough to objectively observe it. Staleness can be incredibly fresh when you can mindfully open yourself up to the full experience of it. What does boredom feel like? What does the staleness of meditation feel like? Can you locate the feeling of boredom and/or staleness in your physicality? The same could be said of frustration, anger, annoyance, disappointment, there are observably physical components to each. You can learn a lot by just letting them be, letting them be what they are, letting yourself be where you are.
Maybe you’ve tried meditation and gave up because you thought you sucked at it or because you thought you failed at it. But, Meditation is about learning to fall, learning to fail, learning to let go of it all, and learning to be right where you are, wherever it is that you are.