Archive | Reflections on Practice

So You Want to Be Happy?

According to Mahatma Gandhi, happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. Such wise assertions often lead to our saying to ourselves, “Oh no, not another  unasked-for growth opportunity!” or “I don’t want any more spiritual challenges.” These are usually negative reactions to times in our everyday lives when we’re not in harmony. But those situations can be learning experiences and growth opportunities – even cornerstones of our spiritual life and happiness. In fact, every aspect of our lives, even the most mundane, can be part of our spiritual practice.

Let me share a very old story with you. Thousands of years ago two young men who had grown up together decided to go their separate ways in adulthood. Unknown to the younger one, the older sewed a precious jewel into the lining of the younger’s coat. Years later they met again. The older man had prospered and was doing well, but the younger had fallen on hard times, and his clothing was in tatters. The older man shocked him by showing him the hidden jewel and telling him that this wealth had always been available to him, had he but known of it. Each one of us carries such precious stones. They are sacred jewels of purity in our hearts. We need only to know that they are there and bring them to the light of our everyday life if we want this everyday life to be one of spiritual reward to ourselves and others. The “performance” of our practice is making our lives into the basis of spiritual practice, an endeavor that can lead us to freedom and happiness and a way of living that does not harm others or our world.

–© Jean Smith, Life as Spiritual Practice: Mindfulness and the Paramis, Wisdom Publications 2014

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Gentleness of Mind

White Hollyhock closer 2In June 2009 Sayadaw Vivekananda gave a talk on the first part of the Metta Sutta where the Buddha lists 14 Qualities a person should possess who wishes to attain the state of peace.  Below is an excerpt from that talk on the quality of gentleness of mind.

It is useful to remind meditators to take a friendly attitude toward themselves and their meditation practices.  Often we get tough on ourselves, thinking our meditation experiences are not up to the mark. Or we may think we shouldn’t be having unwholesome mental states and scold ourselves for this.  The Buddha disagreed with this harsh attitude and instead said that one should be gentle – the fifth of the 14 qualities, ‘mudu‘ in Pali.

If a person were to cherish mental states like wrong view, pride and conceit, that person might hold a view such as “I’m the most important thing in the world.” If a person held that view and on top of that were highly conceited, this would create rigidity of the mind rather than gentleness. What mental qualities and activities would make for gentleness of the mind? We might name wholesome states and activities such as kindness, compassion, patience and humility.

As neuroscientists are discovering, the mind can be changed and shaped.  What happens to the mind depends on us. The Buddha says that as meditators we should have a mind that is gentle – a mind that is soft and pliable. In fact, there is even a mental state known in the Abhidhamma as malleability (muduta in Pali). This malleability dissolves rigidity in the mental body and consciousness and manifests as non-resistance. This mudutu is opposed to defilements like wrong view and conceit, which create rigidity of the mind.

When we practice and try to understand the Dhamma, the mind needs to be in congruence with the Dhamma, which is not rigid but is extremely subtle. We cannot attempt to gain the Dhamma with a rigid mind, which is tense and rough through unwholesome states. We need instead a mind that is malleable, brought about by wholesome mental states such as faith, wholesome intentions and other qualities mentioned above.

A soft and malleable mind also needs to be sharp, cherishing the meditation practice and holding it in high esteem. The Buddha’s teachings are very much characterized by causality, so if we wish to attain a state of peace, the necessary conditions need to be present. The gentleness of the mind is one of these conditions. If it is possible to turn something as hard as iron ore into a really flexible thin blade of stainless steel, it should be equally possible to turn a hard and rigid mind into a mind that is sharp and yet also gentle and malleable.

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Anicca/Impermanence

Thistle 5
“So you should view this fleeting world, a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.”
— Buddha

Daily reflections on the universal truth of impermanence have been inspired with the recent deaths of two close people, my good friend and sister-in-law Karen, and Kate Krasin who was one of our deeply dedicated Mountain Hermitage yogis, and by the fact that my 70th birthday is coming very soon. I am deeply appreciative of and grateful for the liberating clarity that these reflections offer.

One of the only things we can know for sure is that everything changes. In light of this truth, the only thing we can hold onto is the realization, the intuitive insight of impermanence (Anicca in Pali). The deep knowing, the deep living with impermanence is a gateway to liberation, a gateway to freeing the heart and  mind.

One of the most prevalent myths we live with, often quite unconsciously, is the myth that we can control this changing experience we call life, even though everything in this world, everything in the universe begins and ends, is born and dies, is continually changing form – every form of life, every object, every relationship, every sensation, every thought, every feeling, every mind state, every perception, every experience, every breath.

For most of us the word form implies solidity.  But in reality, all forms are forming and unforming, coming together and coming apart, constantly and without end.  Consequently, our world can’t be solidly objectified.  Our world isn’t a noun.  It’s a verb. It is incessant activity.  Most of the time we only know this conceptually.  And perhaps more often we forget or ignore it, or are busy distracting ourselves by accumulating, planning, living in and out of memories, fantasizing, hoping, expecting, coveting, fearing.  If we tightly cling to the imagined future or the evaporated past, inevitably we will experience disappointment, anger, judgment or grief, and we will have missed the fullness of the present moment, missed our “appointment with life” as well as reinforcing the delusion of control and permanence.  So, much of the time we’re actually practicing permanence.

As we learn through our practice to pay a kind of extra-ordinary attention to our experiences of body, heart and mind, we begin to directly touch, to experientially know the constant rapidity of change – from the apparent solid substantiality of form, to the smaller, perhaps micro-changes in bodily sensation, to the seeming substantiality of thoughts that fly through the mind.  A Tibetan teaching tells us:  “All thoughts, good, bad, happy, sad vanish into emptiness, as the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

And so our relationship to all the forms, both inner and outer, begins to change. The compulsive, addictive grasping onto the ‘passing show’ begins to loosen. Trying to control what is actually uncontrollable and ungovernable – this ongoing miracle of constant change we call life – begins to soften as we open our hearts and begin to clearly ‘see and know’. We begin to recognize the fear that is beneath the impetus to control and we see how excruciating it is to grasp on so tightly. With this blossoming recognition, the fear of being in and with life just as it is begins to relax, open and dissolve as we surrender more deeply to the truth of the moment. So now we are practicing impermanence.

As the understanding/the wisdom of Annicca/impermanence deepens, it brings great relief and lightness into our lives. We no longer need to haul around such a heavy load and there is time and energy available to live to our heart’s content.

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On Renunciation

The word renunciation doesn’t have a particularly positive connotation in our culture. It might be interesting to sit with this word and see what your response to it is; how does it sit in your heart? Often we see renunciation as a kind of self-inflicted punishment. We mistakenly think renunciation means that we will no longer enjoy anything, that our lives will become a gray, bland, dullness. At best we might regard it as something that might be good for us – like bad-tasting medicine. If we really look at our practice, we’ll see that as we bring mindfulness to our unfolding experience, we are exploring the landscape of renunciation, learning, moment by moment to let go. As Ajahn Sumedho says: “The way of spiritual life is a movement away from the distraction of attaining or acquiring. It is a relinquishing, a letting go. It simplifies our lives, freeing us from that which is unnecessary. There’s no judgment or rejection, it is pure mindfulness developing in the present moment – the only place truth can be found.”

In our lives, within the terrain of our own hearts & minds, and in our relationships to others, we see over & over how suffering arises. If we strip away our stories and explanations we see that clinging to anything at all leads to suffering, to struggle. Renunciation is really the response of wisdom & compassion in the face of that. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the things of the world. The Buddha does not judge happiness born of the enjoyment of worldly pleasures but he does point to its limitations, uncovering a fundamental misunderstanding: It is the energy of grasping and craving  that is the root cause of suffering, not anything inherent in the objects of worldly pleasure and happiness.

The Buddha offers us the chance to make a trade. From the Dhammapada: “If by giving up a lesser happiness, one could experience a greater happiness, a wise person would renounce the lesser to behold the greater.” Moving from the endless pursuit of desire to a meaningful relationship with renunciation is not to move from happiness to grief, from a state of abundance to one of lack. Instead as Bhikkhu Bodhi says: ” It is to pass from gross, entangling pleasures to an exalted happiness and peace, from a condition of servitude to one of self-mastery. Desire ultimately breeds fear and sorrow, but renunciation gives fearlessness and joy.” This is quite a powerful statement – that renunciation might actually lead us to fearlessness and joy! Who wouldn’t want to make that kind of trade? Renunciation is seen as so important in this tradition because it is held as the very practice of freedom. Rather than being presented as something dismal or bleak, renunciation is seen & described as a practice of joy and happiness and its ultimate fruition is the greatest happiness, that of peace.

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Cultivating Beautiful Mental Qualities

In mindfulness practice, we often notice the particulars of an experience that we are observing, and we may not consciously recognize that beautiful mental qualities such as kindness and balance of mind are being cultivated. The practice of mindfulness cultivates a non-reactive attention to whatever happens to us, be it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When our minds are neither for nor against experience, there can be a natural openness, curiosity, and a kind and balanced attention that meet any experience. Recognizing that these beautiful mental qualities are present actually further supports their cultivation.

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Compassion Essence

The very starting point of spiritual practice is empathy, sensing the pain and vulnerability of others. We have a stunning insight that we can cause harm and that it is extremely important for us to bring our aggression under control. The moment we become willing to sacrifice something of ourselves for the comfort and safety of others, we become “a person who can be tamed by Dharma practice.” Consider this: our resolve to refrain from harming is the urge to gain mastery over our minds and the determination to tame impulsive, destructive moods. What a powerful karmic moment this is! From this intention arises our ethical discipline. When we feel pushed to react negatively it is a signal that we must take hold of something inwardly to check that harmful urge.

A mind is not an easy thing to train, however. Part of the work of mindfulness is to bring to mind what is wholesome and to promote it, and to remind us of what is unwholesome and to remove it. So we practice to observe and reflect again and again on the fact that unwholesome actions bring pain and wholesome actions bring self-respect and peace of mind, in order to become certain of this in our hearts. Skill in the art of restraint saves us from being inflamed by self-blame and establishes us in the firm footing in self-respect. This kind of self-respect is like a bright ornament that beautifies us and brings a special joy and delight. All of these qualities make the mind soft and receptive to truth, and we come to understand that compassion is both the beginning and the essence of the spiritual path.

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Controlling Anger

“Conquer the angry by loving-kindness; conquer the wicked by
goodness; conquer the stingy by generosity, and the liar by
speaking the truth.” (Dhammapada, verse 223)

As human beings we are likely to experience anger on occasion. What to do with it? First, try to be mindful of it’s arising, it’s occurrence, and it’s dissolution. Furthermore, try to know the conditions that lead to it’s arising, such as seeing an undesirable animate or inanimate object. Be aware of the seeing (hearing, smelling etc.) process and pay attention to how this generates disliking in the mind. In the absence of mindfulness disliking can easily turn into anger. Notice what kind of objects frequently lead to the arising of anger and watch your reactions around those objects.

More important than knowing which object triggers anger is to watch the mind in a detached manner when it is in an ‘angry mode.’ The problem is less the object than the anger itself. Pay close attention to the qualities of the angry mind, such as its boiling, non-peaceful, ferocious, revengeful nature. An angry mind is agitated, tense, and
tormenting. Be aware of the justification of one’s own anger. Ultimately, anger is never justified. Watch how the anger easily spreads, gains momentum, and gets out of control.
Pay attention to how quickly this can happen. Anger may manifest in many different ways, such as aversion, irritation, feeling grouchy, disliking, getting upset, going into a rage, blowing up, and giving some one the silent treatment. You might also watch for the manifestations of anger in the body such as tension building up, the heart pounding, the face turning red, and sweat forming.

Never act out of anger. Let the anger first subside and then act. Acting out of anger is dangerous for the other person but first of all for yourself. Before harming another person the anger present in one’s own mind is already tormenting one’s own mind. Regular loving kindness meditation will help to weaken anger and smooth relations with ‘difficult‘ people. When anger comes up radiate loving kindness (metta) to yourself and others. Schedule a metta session for one or two hours at home. Loving-kindness meditation can bring about miracle changes when relating to a ‘difficult‘ person. The proximate cause of loving-kindness is seeing the good points in others rather than focusing, as we often do, on the flaws or shortcomings of others.

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Aspiration

Some time before the Buddha was about to die, he gave his disciples a word of encouragement and advice. He said this – and I’m putting it into my own words: “Freedom
from suffering is available to you if you practice by the proper means of mindfulness, but not without having the aspiration to learn and that will bring freedom.”

Like any undertaking in the world, it is helpful to know why we are doing it. For example, if we exercise we know what our purpose is – to get fit. That is our aspiration. Similarly with our dharma practice. Aspiration is the wholesome wish to free ourselves from suffering by diminishing the unwholesome and strengthening the wholesome qualities of mind. This is our purpose in the dharma.

The downfall comes when we misunderstand this word to mean striving and grasping for freedom. This is not aspiration, but the unwholesome aspect of craving, the very source of suffering. Notice the tightness and contractedness in the body when there is craving and how open hearted, light and uplifted the body feels when there is genuine aspiration.

Many of us live busy lives out in the world. We have families, jobs, homes to tend and sometimes we can begin to feel that we have lost touch with the dharma or that we “should” be doing something else to realize our aspiration. Right here we can remind ourselves that our job is to do what the teachings require of us, working with mindfulness in this moment. Anything more than sincerely doing the practice is a hindrance to it’s unfolding. The wondering when, if, how soon and what else we can do to speed up the process – this is all worry and agitation.

So we put it down, relax and simply do the practice right here, there isn’t anywhere else to do it. When we have this deep aspiration for freedom we find the willingness to bring mindfulness to all situations, using what life has offered us as a path to awakening – to stretch and train the heart not to react, but to slowly come to understand what our human existence is all about.

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Finding True Freedom

One of the hardest things for us to learn in meditation is that our practice is not about having certain kinds of experiences. The path is not just about having good feelings or attaining some kind of special, blissful state. It’s actually not about having any particular experience at all. Sometimes of course, we do have powerful experiences in meditation. They may bring energy, inspiration, and serve to bolster our faith. We feel like something is happening, that the practice is “working”. And, ultimately, the path is about freedom in any moment regardless of what’s happening in our experience.

True freedom is not about having things be a certain way but about non-clinging in the moment to any state or experience. If we make freedom dependent on having special experiences or achieving some sublime state, we’ll never find a true happiness or freedom because these states don’t last. Conditions are always changing, and when conditions change, we’re back where we started. There’s no real freedom there. Freedom is to be found in our relationship to experience no matter what might be happening in the moment.
We often come to practice with some kind of an agenda, something we want to work on or fix in our lives. We want to get something out of it, something to show for our efforts. Perhaps we’re hoping to find some ease in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs. Maybe we want to get enlightened. At times we may feel frustrated or dissatisfied: we’re not getting anywhere; we haven’t gotten any calmer or more peaceful. We fall into evaluating, assessing and judging our practice, looking for evidence of progress. Am I doing it right? Am I getting it? Everyone else seems to be getting it. We judge our experience & then judge ourselves based on our perception of that experience. If we notice this happening, a very useful question to ask is: how am I relating to this experience?

It’s also useful to remind ourselves that whatever value we might get from meditation will be the result of what we let go of, abandon, and relinquish. We realize the end of suffering by abandoning the cause of suffering, not by getting to some sublime state of mind – not by getting anything at all.

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The Conceit of Self

One of the most prevalent and pervasive ways that the deeply rooted habit of conceit, the ‘conceit of self’, binds us and is perpetuated is through the comparing mind. What a great gift  it is to ourself to wake up to seeing that the process of comparing oneself with others perpetuates one’s learned feeling of being deficient or inadequate, or the learned self identification of being better than or the very best.  It’s then that we begin to understand one of the primary reasons that we live with an underlying or not so underlying feeling of uncertainty, tension and stress.

The ‘conceit of self’ is what usurps the vitality and power of being fully present, blocking mindful awareness of simply and clearly being with what is.  With ‘conceit’ we separate ourself – set ourself apart which is an endlessly unsatisfying and painful experience and a major source of suffering in this human realm.

Another way that ‘conceit of self’ may show up in our practice is that often one’s idea of what it means to be really honest with ourself about ourself, is understood as admitting our weaknesses, faults, and all the unskillful ‘bad’ things we’ve done.  This is another facet of the ‘conceit of self’.  Identifying and dwelling in this negative idea and image of who we think we are is how guilt, sorrow and anguish are nurtured.

The Buddha instructs us to recognize, acknowledge and rejoice in our healthy humanbeingness through reflecting on ways we’ve been of service and cared for others and on the choices we’ve made that have been absolutely appropriate and wise at any given time.  We can reflect on and rejoice in the times when our mind/our heart has been clearly present and connected, emanating loving-kindness, compassion and joy in relationship to others. And we can of course rejoice in the fact that we’ve had the great good fortune to  connect with the teaching and practices of the Buddha and are practicing!

Taking the Buddha’s instruction to heart by rejoicing in oneself isn’t a call for arrogance or self-centeredness, but rather just the simple recognition and acknowledgment of our goodness, success, and compassionate heart.  To be able to rejoice in ourself is essential, not in a prideful or conceited way, but as a means of generating the self respect, love, confidence, joy and sense of well-being that is fundamental and natural for the cultivation of the wholesome mind and heart which are vital for our practice to deepen and blossom.

Until we are liberated/awakened…in the Buddha’s words: “tis the self by which we suffer”.

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