Archive | Reflections on Practice

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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Attitude Toward Practice

Marcia's garden 2
“A good question to ask yourself now and then is: How am I holding my practice? What is my attitude, my frame of mind in relation to my practice?

It is essential to be relaxed and in the right frame of mind in relation to your practice. Everything else blossoms out of this. Holding your practice with the ‘right attitude’ means that you acknowledge, accept, observe, and bring mindfulness to whatever is happening, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in a relaxed and alert way. It’s vital to check in with yourself to see whether you are in the right frame of mind or not, which is even more important than experiencing peaceful states or having a ‘good sit’. The particular object of attention in your meditation is not really the most important aspect of your practice. Of prime importance is the observing mind working in the background to be mindful of whatever the experience is in the moment. If observation and mindfulness are done with the right attitude, any object is the right object. It’s important to know when you have the right frame of mind– but it’s equally important to recognize and mindfully investigate your wrong attitudes to see how they affect your practice and how you feel in the midst of these attitudes.

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On Recognizing the Feeling of Awareness

As we engage in a daily life practice, it is helpful to become familiar with what it feels like to be mindful and present. At times throughout our day, we come into mindfulness; it happens spontaneously, effortlessly, for just a moment. This actually happens to us more than we realize, but it’s like the air we breathe: we don’t notice it. Typically we get a split second of knowing what is happening, and then we start thinking about what we noticed, or planning about it, or remembering something we did yesterday that was similar to what we’re doing now. We usually simply use awareness to navigate our lives. We have an experience: the water is hot, we know it is hot, and we jerk our hand out. We notice a stain the linoleum, so we go down to clean it. We use the recognition of what is going on to plan, to further our lives. We rarely recognize the quality of
mindfulness itself.

While the feeling of knowing that you are aware can seem like a subtle feeling, actually, it is a feeling that is very familiar to us, but we rarely pay attention to the feeling. If you know that you are reading this article, then the feeling of awareness is there in your experience. Don’t look too hard for it. Just explore how your experience feels when you know that you are aware. Over time, you will begin to recognize the feeling of awareness. As you become familiar with this feeling, you will notice yourself coming back into mindfulness many, many times throughout the day. In the midst of an activity, you will suddenly recognize that you are aware of what is happening. You might be reaching for something, walking across the street, finishing a meal, or driving the car. Appreciating these moments creates the conditions for you to recognize these moments even more frequently.

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The Four Noble Truths

Red & white poppy with grain (1)Of course, it’s true that mindfulness holds the presently arising moment with an attitude of non-judgment.  In order to learn we have to bear with undesirable experience without condemning— and desirable experience without becoming fixated. Condemnation and fixation are kinds of judgments we make about what is worth experiencing.

The path of practice is not merely non-judgment. Mindfulness has a view. Right view guides mindfulness. This means there is discernment regarding what is dukkha, where it comes from, and how to escape from its oppression. There is a simile from The Questions of King Milinda, “Grasping a handful of barley in the left hand and a sickle in the right, the reapers cut the barley. Even so does one who is devoted to mental training take hold of the mind with wise attention and cut off the defilements with wisdom.”

Throughout the entirety of our lives we continue to review and refine our practice in the light of the Four Noble Truths. Those with an excellent understanding of these truths are likewise possessed of unhesitating energy, resolve, and fearlessness in the face of the sufferings of the world.

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Buddha-faceUpekkha in the Pali spiritual language (the language that the Buddha’s original teachings were first transcribed into) is a powerful force in our practice, a powerful force in the whole of our life. It manifests as the equipoise, the balance or equilibrium between the opposing forces in the mind of the desired and the undesired. The equipoise of equanimity offsets the weightiness of greed and aversion. It’s that point of balance in the middle of the see-saw of life.

As Equanimity blossoms it shows up in our practice and our lives as fearlessness, great strength, and ease within the mind and heart, keeping us balanced and impartial in the midst of it all.

As awakening beings, one way you can practice this essential quality of mind/heart is as one of the Brahma Viharas/Divine Abidings. The classical Theravada phrase used in this form of Equanimity practice is this:

‘I am/you are the heir or owner of my/your karma (my/your ‘deeds’ of thought, speech, and bodily actions). My/your happiness or suffering depends upon my/your actions (of thought, speech, and body), not upon my wishes.’

As it is done in the Brahma Vihara practice, one silently repeats this phrase over and over to oneself, staying very present and mindfully aware, but not getting caught or seduced into the stories that may show up. After directing the phrase to yourself for a few days, you can then slowly over time begin to bring in other individuals, such as someone who has been of benefit to you in your life, a dear friend, a family member, and even a difficult person. As we go on with this practice a very natural reflection and understanding will begin to blossom, not through discursive thought but simply through the process of the practice itself and your growing trust in its power.

You might consider trying this practice for 10 or 15 minutes each day keeping an open mind and heart towards the process and its fruits.

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Patience is a blessing to human beings and is the best moral practice.
–The Buddha (Mangala Sutta; Dhp. v. 184)

Patience leads to Nibbana
— Burmese saying

Thistle 2Patience is required in performing acts of generosity, in observing precepts, and in the field of mental development (bhavana).   In meditation when we observe a pain that is gradually intensifying we tend to get annoyed.  This annoyance may easily turn into irritation and restlessness.   We start fidgeting, we change our posture.  We might even ask ourselves: Why do we have to sit still in meditation and observe this pain?  This seems like a futile exercise.  With this we have just missed a wonderful opportunity to gain intuitive wisdom.  If we were to observe that same pain with some patience we could learn many things from it, such as seeing its inherent quality, its fascinating changes, and even its eventual dissolution.  When we are remembering some undesirable event of the past we may want to push it away and rather not observe it.  Once again, wisdom cannot arise.  Here, too, patience will make a big difference.  When we accept and observe the undesirable event of the past as an object of observation we get to know it, what it feels like in the mind, and eventually we might even come to terms with it.

Satipatthana mediation could be described as a process of developing ever greater levels of patience.  At the outset of our meditation journey we easily get impatient with undesirable, and times even desirable objects.  As the meditation practice is full of challenges this will give us ample opportunity to grow more and more patient.  After being very diligent for quite some time, on occasion our meditation practice may collapse.  At such a point again we need patience with the situation and just accept what has happened and start all over again.  Sooner or later, in the presence of mindfulness and patience, we are bound to succeed and gain nibbana.  Hence , the Burmese saying “Patience leads to Nibbana” very much applies to the meditation practice.

The patience gained from intensive or regular meditation at home will come in good stead in our daily life when we have to deal with the imperfections of ourselves and others.  Others’ speech may be timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, spoken with a mind of loving-kindness or with inner hate.  Whatever others might be saying, we need to abide in patience, compassion, and loving-kindness.

In the context of the Abhidhamma patience and other positive mental qualities like loving-kindness, gentleness, and amity are various aspects of the mental state of non-hatred (adosa).  The commentary to the Cariyapitaka defines patience as follows: It has the characteristic of acceptance; its function is to endure the desirable and the undesirable; its manifestation is tolerance or non-opposition; seeing things as they really are is its proximate cause.  In the texts patience is much extolled as a blessing to human beings and as the best moral practice (Mangala Sutta; Dhp. v.184).

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Finding No ‘Self’ Through the Creative Process as Practice

In exploring the creative process as practice, with mindfulness and investigation being the root from which stem the beautiful blossoms of wisdom and creative expression in its myriad manifestations, we find that creative process can be a vehicle for peeling away layers of our habitual conditioned perceptions and reactions, thus a vehicle with great potential for revealing the interdependent and selfless nature of all physical and mental phenomena.

3Red poppy on wallWhether it be the spontaneity of a moment to moment creative visceral response through the moving body, or seeing with the eye without interposing the ‘self’, meaning contacting things directly… letting the hand and pencil follow what the eye sees without the thought of ‘making’ a picture or ‘being’ creative…or trusting thoughts/words arising as though from nowhere, from no-one… allowing the immediacy and spontaneity of writing to flow from this ’empty space’–we could say that the creative process is about forgetting what we’ve previously learned which is a necessary step in responding and seeing more directly and precisely.

Part of moving, seeing and writing is forgetting – meaning forgetting what we think we know about the subject, which includes what we may have been taught about drawing or writing or how we should or should not move the body. ‘Forgetting’ in this way stops the mind from knowing in its conditioned habitual ways. Consequently one is confronted with the object itself and one’s usual way of knowing is arrested. The heart, the mind is open, receptive, appreciative and able to respond to the inner voice, the tone, shape or texture with genuine authority and autonomy.

What keeps this openhearted “being in the presence” from happening? A common response is, “the fear of losing control.” Though without a doubt there is an ancient and subconscious urge for inventiveness and creative life in every one of us from our very beginnings, it is not so easy to be unarmed–to be without our habitual ways and self-centered identifications. Fear sometimes leaps up in us, and so we train the heart/the mind slowly and with great care to clearly see the nature of our constraints, and let go.

In our practice, including the creative process as practice, until we can suspend the need for meaning we can’t experience direct revelation/insight/wisdom. The way to returning to things themselves can be difficult as we are faced with our ‘self’–our seemingly set solid ‘self’. At times many of us may experience the simple direct presence of ‘not knowing’ as feeling stupid, but the most extraordinary insightful experiences I’ve had all had a quality of ‘bearing witness’–of being fully present with tremendous and yet relaxed interest, an openhearted mindful attention and discernment, along with the innocence of humility and no impulse to make meaning.

Engaging in the creative process with joyful interest and openhearted mindfulness can be a wonderful vehicle for freeing up honesty, authenticity and the essence energy of creativity, all of which help to create the conditions that allow for a direct revelation of insight into the not-self nature of all things.

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On Compassion

My continuing passion is to part a curtain — that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”  — Eudora Welty,  American author and photographer

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  — Dalai Lama

There is an image in Tibetan Buddhism that represents the awakened energy of unconditional, boundless compassion. It is an image of a Bodhisattva often depicted as having 1,000 arms outstretched and 1,000 eyes — an eye painted in the palm of each outstretched hand, 1,000 eyes to see all the suffering in the world, and 1,000 arms reaching out to help.

Compassion is the heart beat of the Buddha’s teaching. It may be experienced as the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to pain -one’s own pain or another’s. Compassion is a very tender, open state and at the same time a place within us of great strength — tenderness, openness and strength — enabling us to stay present with whatever is happening within our own bodies and minds and with what is going on around us without becoming overwhelmed.

The practice and the unfolding of compassion are challenging, which means that we take to heart the Buddha’s words, “I teach one thing and one thing only – suffering and the end of suffering.” The practice of compassion asks us to gently maintain our awareness of suffering. Most of us are strongly habituated to sweep discomfort away, to sweep dis-ease “under the rug“, to hide it away in a metaphoric closet. Or, we hide ourselves away by shutting off, going to sleep or distracting ourselves. We might ignore or trivialize suffering so we don’t see the pain of others in the world — or experience our own pain and suffering.

Through the purification of the heart and mind that practice brings, we gradually turn our developing capacity for heart-full, unconditional acceptance towards suffering. We are then able to open to it with understanding and courage and move towards its alleviation. Unconditional compassion, our heartfelt connection to beings and our way of being in this world, arises out of a clear, deep seeing and understanding of suffering, its root cause and the way of its end.

Unconditional, boundless compassion is one of the wings of awakening with which we fly free.

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Wisdom and Faith

There is a very simple connection between wisdom and faith.

Wisdom is bound to arise as we keep being mindful from moment to moment, exerting effort with concentration building.

At first, wisdom arises in simple ways: just knowing the nature of one rising movement, knowing the nature of a falling movement; knowing the specific nature of some pain, some ache, some hardness, some softness; gradually getting to know the different mental states; discerning the specifics of mind and matter and their relationship to each other, and other insight knowledges.

Every time a meditator intuitively (not just intellectually) realizes a new insight knowledge the meditator understands “Wow, I’m seeing something that I’ve never seen before. There really seems to be something to this path. Something is really happening.” One begins to find that their experience is in accord with what has been said in Dhamma talks or written in the texts. As a result of this, one’s faith increases.

And as our wisdom increases stage by stage, the wholesome mental state of faith is strengthened.

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