20 Jan
2020
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Even When You Are Not Aware of It

“Like everyone else, you do what you can to try to prolong, enhance, and increase the number of pleasurable moments in your life, but nothing consistently works…

“No matter how much you attempt to distract yourself (and you may be one of those people who are great at creating distractions), your nervous system still perceives the changing dance, even when you are not aware of it, and it suffers, oftentimes even more so because you are trying to ignore it.”

***

Text from Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering, by Phillip Moffitt.

Photo by Dim 7 on Unsplash

17 Jan
2020
Posted in: Practice
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Practice Turning People into Trees

Ram Dass famously said:

“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens and whatever. You look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all that emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

“The minute you get near humans you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, You are too this, or I’m too this. That judgement mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees.”

***

(Thanks, Carolyn.)

***

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

16 Jan
2020
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Both Known and Deeply Unfamiliar

I’m reading a lot of books right now, but before I move on, I just have to post a little bit more from Hisham Matar’s lovely (and mysterious) meditation on memory and place in A Month in Siena:

“Back in the early 1960s Siena became the first Italian metropolis to restrict access to motor vehicles. The bus deposited us at the edge of the city. We pulled our suitcases into the dimly lit web of alleyways…

“The sharp turns of the passageways and the closeness of the buildings gave me the sense that I was entering a living organism. With every step I pressed deeper into it and, as though in response, it made room. I was inside a place both known and deeply unfamiliar.

“The flat I had rented turned out to be part of an old palazzo. It had frescoed ceilings and perfectly proportioned rooms. The modest exterior of the building made the beauty of these private spaces even more acute. Over the coming days, and whenever I left the house, I was often conscious, even without looking back, of the sober facade. It was like an ally to whom I wanted to unburden all sorts of secrets.

“The place reminded me how the buildings we encounter, like new people we may meet, can excite passions that had up to then laid dormant. Most of the time we are not even aware of such adjustments. They happen mid-stride, and are often mutual, for, just as we influence and are influenced by others, the atmosphere of a room too is marked by what we do in it. And most of what we do vanishes, but a slight and shadowy remnant remains.

“How else then to account for why we can perceive awfulness where awful things have occurred, or be quietly inspired by a room where for a long time attention had been given to what is beautiful and kind.

“Every time I returned to the flat I felt my anticipation grow. And over the coming days, everywhere I went in Sienna, I did, in effect, carry with me, like a private song, the pleasure of those rooms.”

***

Photo by Charlie on Unsplash

15 Jan
2020
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Then What Happens, Happens

Last night at Tuesday Night Insight, I read a few lines from Teach Us to Sit Still, by Tim Parks, (from the excerpt I’d posted here). There seemed to be a lot of interest in the book, so for today I’m posting a longer excerpt, this time from the Afterword:

“Let me sign off with a few words about this morning…

“After a moderately interrupted night, I rose before six and went down in the dark to the bedroom that used to be my son’s. Since the days are growing chill, I pulled on a sweater and tracksuit trousers, then set the alarm on my cell phone for seven. One can’t always have a Tibetan gong.

“There’s not much space here. I keep a blanket folded on the floor, a cushion to sit on, a couple of beanbags to slip under the knees. One day the left leg tucks in first, the next day the right; for symmetry. Careful not to hurry, I wrap a shawl round my shoulders, switch off the lamp and sit.

“The room is pitch dark now. The shutters are closed. The Iron Maiden poster beside the door is invisible. In the silence I say no formulas; I do not take refuge in the Dhamma or wish for all beings to experience sympathetic joy. I am not prayerful. But taking a deep breath, I am aware of the sleeping house around me: of Lucy in the next room, Rita under the quilt upstairs, the dog curled in his basket, all of us up here on the hill, looking south across the Italian plain.

“Morning thoughts rise like bubbles. I concentrate on the breath in my nostrils, on my lips. Only steady awareness of the body will still that mental fizz. I’m not concerned when I don’t success. The aim is quiet, but I will not crave it. Now I catch myself composing an e-mail: Dear Prof. Proietti, although… Now I’m replaying Torres’s goal last nigh against Man U. Where was Rio? Stop. I take the mind back to the breath. Back and back again, again and again, until eventually the two fuse in a whispery stream on the upper lip. A warm tide swells in my chest. My wrists are pulsing.

“There is nothing mystical about this…

“But as words and thoughts are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it. When the words are gone, whether you are in Verona or Varanasi hardly matters. Whether it is morning or evening, whether you are young or old, man or woman, poor or rich isn’t, in the silence, in the darkness, in the stillness, so important. Like ghosts, angels, gods, ‘self,’ it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative.

“But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.

“So if I can recount the first minutes, I can’t tell the rest. There are deepenings. There is a liquefaction of some kind, the thighs flowing into the calves, the head into the breast. And there are resistances: stones, obstructions, pains. The mind goes back and back to them. An ankle. A shoulder. Maybe they will shift, and maybe not. I am absolutely awake. I hear Rita pad downstairs with the dog behind her. I hear a motor scooter straining up the hill. And I am not there. I am in the stream.

“Then the alarm sounds and I must move. I’m up, dressed and getting Lucy into the car in just a few minutes. By ten past seven we are speeding down the hill, trying to beat the traffic light at San Felice. Lucy is anxious about some homework, a possible low grade. I repeat the parents’ mantra: you do your best, then what happens happens.”

***

Indeed.

***

(photo by Kevin Ortiz on Unsplash)

13 Jan
2020
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The Opposite of Suffering is Not Happiness

At tomorrow’s Tuesday Night Insight group, I’m going to be talking about the First Noble Truth, which Phillip Moffitt describes in Dancing with Life as the Buddha’s proclamation that “suffering is an unavoidable reality of ordinary human existence that is to be known and responded to wisely.”

“When you collapse into suffering,” Phillip writes, “it is because your ego sees suffering as a personal failure and feels humiliated. This sense of failure is based on the ego’s mistaken idea that winning in life means no suffering.

“Your ego may well be under the delusion that the opposite of suffering is happiness. When your ego believes this, then every moment of suffering is felt as a personal defeat, insult, indignity, or proof of your inadequacy or of life being unfair. This is subjective suffering, self-centered and neurotic…

“Your ego isn’t bad, nor are you a bad person because you have an ego. The ego is a result of causes and conditions and, in my view, is necessary for a healthy, whole life. I tell students: don’t leave home without it, but don’t let it drive the vehicle on your spiritual journey…

But if the opposite of your suffering isn’t happiness, then what is it?

“Non-suffering is having a relaxed, composed mind that is fully present with whatever is occurring in the moment. And it is the capacity to be in relationship to whatever is arising such that you’re able to respond from your deepest intentions. And it is a feeling of relatedness in your life that is free from aversion to suffering.”

***

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12 Jan
2020
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It Seemed a Tedious Exercise at First

I had such fun reading Out of My Head by Tim Parks (in which he writes of his fascination with theories of consciousness after learning to meditate, and about which I posted here) that I immediately followed up with another marathon reading of another of his books, Teach Us to Still, which tells how he came to be meditating in the first place.

From the Forward:
“I never expected to write a book about the body. Least of all my body. How indiscreet. But then I never expected to be ill in the mysterious, infuriating way I have…

“I had no desire to tell anyone about my malady, let alone write about it. These were precisely the pains and humiliations one learns early on not to mention. You need only look at the words medicine uses — intestines, feces, urethra, bladder, sphincter, prostate — to appreciate that this vocabulary was never meant to be spoken in company. We just don’t want to go there. My plan, like anyone else’s, was to confide in doctors and pretend it wasn’t happening.

“On the other hand, this is reality, and in my case there was the happy truth that just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain, someone proposed a bizarre way out: sit still, they said, and breathe.

“I sat still. I breathed.

“It seemed a tedious exercise at first, rather painful, not immediately effective. Eventually it proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck.”

***

The book is quite a read. Especially when it (finally) gets to the part about learning to meditate:

“I felt I knew what he [the meditation teacher] meant when he spoke of everything flowing, mind and material dissolving into energy. Nor was it unthinkable that the strange pains I had been feeling had in some way to do with all those years of sitting tensely, racking my brains over sheets of empty paper, building up hopes, rejoicing over some small achievement, overreacting to setbacks and disappointments.

“And it was true that if you placed yourself, or your attention, as it were beside the pains, if you just sat together with them and let them be, not reacting or wishing them away, they did in the end subside.

“Likewise the thoughts: if you let them bubble up without judging them, or engaging them in any way, they gradually fizzled out. What’s more, you felt that a certain serenity had been acquired in this process, an understanding that much of the pain we feel comes from our reaction to pain, much of our agitation from our excitement with agitation.

“…paradoxically, letting go, you actually gained control, albeit of a different kind from the control you’d spent your life seeking.”

***

Bingo.

6 Jan
2020
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Not Entirely Certain

Note: There’s a recall for my computer, so I have to take it in tomorrow to get the battery replaced — which they say will require 3 to 5 days (!!!) — so I guess I won’t be posting again until next week. Unless I get my computer back sooner. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, I leave you with another excerpt from my new, favorite “dharma” book: A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar.

“It was late spring. The Roman sun was out. Around noon we looked for shade. Diana spotted a green beside the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. We lay under the canopy of a high pine. The grass was cool and accepting against my back. My head was now lower than my chest and I could feel the blood gather between the temples. Diana lay beside me, resting her head on my chest.

“I remember getting that odd feeling, a sort of mystery toward my own anatomy, not entirely certain of what was contained beneath my ribcage. I felt then what I felt now standing in the Sala dei Nove: that an independent will operated these secret clocks inside of me, that the operations and very texture of my organs and the blood that ran through them belonged to some other order of existence that stood apart from my sense of my self, from my ideas and emotions.”

***

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

5 Jan
2020
Posted in: Art, Books, Mystery
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What It Might Mean to Truly See

Yesterday I started reading A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar, and I’m already loving it so much that I’m feeling a little giddy! Not just because there was a time when I spent quite a lot of time in Siena, but also because he writes about looking at the same piece of art, over and over, for an hour or more each time, which is what I do when I really want to “see” a piece of art.

Matar says, “A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life.”

It’s like that for me too!

Matar is fascinated is with certain works from the Sienese School of painting. He writes, “I cannot say that they gave me pleasure. Yet I kept, almost against my own intentions, returning to them. I would often look and quickly pass. They left me feeling unprepared and in need of translation. They stood alone, neither Byzantine nor of the Renaissance, an anomaly between chapters, like the orchestra tuning its strings in the interval.

“This curiosity has deepened over the past two and a half decades. The colors, delicate patterns and suspended drama of these pictures gradually became necessary to me. Every few months I go to the National Gallery in order to look once more at Duccio di Buoninsegna’s The Annunciation or The Healing of the Man Born Blind.

“The seeing, who include Jesus, his audience and the version of the blind man now healed, sedately occupy the lower half of the painting. They are contrasted by the playful and brightly crisp activity in the upper half of the picture, where a hopscotch of arches and windows, peering into empty spaces, stare openly. They seem to be deliberately leading one’s gaze away from the human activity below.

“It is in that direction, upward, that the second representation of the blind man, the one still visually impaired, is facing. It is a painting that is questioning and ironic about what it might mean to truly see. It is not definite about the answer. It has always, and throughout all the many years that I have been returning to The Healing of the Man Born Blind, seemed to be a space of doubt.

“If I am away from London for any significant period of time, there inevitably comes the moment when I must search in the local museums for something from the Sienese School…

“To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger.”

Ah, another mystery!

***

The Healing of the Man Born Blind, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, courtesy of The National Gallery, London.

2 Jan
2020
Posted in: Mystery, Teachers
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Home is Not Somewhere Else

In the most recent newsletter from Spirit Rock, Jack Kornfield writes:
“After I got the call that Ram Dass had died, I closed my eyes. He is still here.

“I could feel the vast field of love that was shining from Ram Dass when Trudy and I taught with him just a couple of weeks ago. And I always will. On the final day of this last retreat, called Open Your Heart in Paradise, Ram Dass was frail and didn’t have access to many words. But he was there in the most powerful way. He swam delightedly with the group in the ocean, chanting ‘Oh Joy, Oh Joy.’

“And on the retreat’s last morning, he put his hands on a basket of 350 wrist malas, each tied with a thread of his gurus blanket, to tenderly bless them. Then, as participants came by slowly to receive their malas, he silently looked into each face, offering to all what is sometimes called “the glance of mercy”, a gaze so full of love that it left many of us speechless and weeping, drunk with blessing…

“For me he is family and Sangha, even now still spreading his playful tough delicious love everywhere, connecting with our hearts, “yum, yum” as he would say. He was so ready to leave the wheelchair and his skinny and broken body, to go home.

“Home is not somewhere else. It is here, in life and death, in the eternal dance of consciousness, weaving together form and the formless mystery from which it all comes.”

***

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

29 Dec
2019
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You Are a River of Transforming Whims

Excerpt from Sparrow’s Guide to Meditation, by Sparrow, featured in the January 2020 issue of The Sun magazine:

“…Sit comfortably, either in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. (You may wish to use a firm cushion.) Try to keep your spine straight as possible, without being rigid. Close your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing, noticing the breath entering and leaving your nostrils (or your mouth, if that’s how your breathe.) You’re not trying to breathe slowly — or quickly, for that matter — just noticing the flow of air in and out. After three or four minutes, stop. Unless you’re desperate to keep meditating; then go on for as long as you like…

“Meditation teaches that change is constant. You fool yourself into believing that you are a fixed entity, but you are not. You are a river of transforming whims. This sounds like some Buddhist abstraction, but if you actually try to meditate, even for three minutes, you’ll discover that it’s true…

“Around fifteen years ago trees began speaking to me. I don’t usually hear words — I just have a sense of consolation and guidance — but sometimes there is a distinct message. A tree in Brooklyn said to me today: Most of the time we seek what we don’t have, but sometimes we seek what we already have. This tree is describing meditation…

“Meditation is an optimistic practice. The theory is that, by closing your eyes (or leaving them half open) and doing nothing, you can change your consciousness. Most people are too pragmatic to accept this harebrained notion, but scientific studies suggest that it’s true…

“Meditation is like practicing the guitar, but without the guitar….

“At some point your practice will be threatened — by a sudden emergency, a family crisis, a crucial deadline. Feel free to stop meditating or, conversely, to charge into the face of the enemy and meditate twice as long…

“If you offer your meditation to God, it becomes a prayer. If you offer your meditation to the universe, it becomes an affirmation. If you offer your meditation to humanity, it becomes activism.

“Don’t be afraid of the word God, but don’t get too excited about it either.”

***

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash