Category Archives: Buddhism

The Difficult

Next weekend I am going to run a marathon. My friend and I have been training for four months and after completing the last of the long runs – 19 and 22 miles – I feel ready. I also know that the end of the run is probably going to be painful. I’m just going to run right into that pain.

When runners talk about marathons, they talk about hitting the wall. This is the point in the run where the mind reacts to the pain in the body by saying a whole bunch of unhelpful things like maybe the runner should just quit and wouldn’t it be better to be watching a movie right now. So then not only is the runner dealing with physical pain, she has to provide counterarguments.

Or not. As a meditator, I’ve got some practice at dropping thoughts. After many, many occasions of sitting on my cushion supposedly following my breath and then realizing I’m planning which snacks to pack for the kids between picking them up from school and going to soccer practice, I’ve learned how to drop it and come back to the present moment.

With the pain of running, the thoughts are centered on ending this unpleasant experience and starting one that is more enjoyable. In the midst of that it is good practice to keep running. You learn how to deal with pain. In his book Running with the Mind of Meditation, Tibetan Buddhist Sakyong Mipham says not to ignore the feelings.

One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy.

Over the last two weeks my husband and I have learned that a beloved friend is sick. We hope and care deeply that she will become well.

I see my mind trying to escape the feelings I have about this. The dread, the fear, and the worry. My mind keeps jumping from one thing to the next, trying to land on something that might make the truth not what it is.

This morning I found some comfort in an essay by Norman Fischer, a Zen priest and poet.

Primarily, fundamentally, to live is to embrace each moment as if it were the first, last, and all moments of time. Whether you like this moment or not is not the point: in fact liking it or not liking it, being willing or unwilling to accept it, depending on whether or not you like it, is to sit on the fence of your life, waiting to decide whether or not to live, and so never actually living.

I find it impressive how thoroughly normal it is be so tentative about the time of our lives, or so asleep within it, that we miss it entirely. Most of us don’t know what it actually feels like to be alive. We know about our problems, our desires, our goals and accomplishments, but we don’t know much about our lives. It generally takes a huge event, the equivalent of a birth or a death, to wake up our sense of living this moment we are given – this moment that is just for the time being, because it passes even as it arrives. Meditation is feeling the feeling of being alive for the time being. Life is more poignant than we know.

Do I have the courage to get off the fence and be there even when it hurts? This weekend’s marathon will give me a chance to practice.

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Beginner’s Mind

When my yoga teacher asked the class to set an intention for the day’s practice yesterday, the words “beginner’s mind,” floated into my head. It’s a phrase I have heard a few times since I began mindfulness meditation a year-and-a-half ago, but being a meditation novice, it hadn’t meant very much to me. Here it was making an appearance on my yoga mat, a place where I have spent many hours and developed more than a beginner’s mentality.

Beginner’s mind is a Buddhist notion that encourages a person to constantly look with fresh eyes. The famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Suzuki Roshi seen above, opens with this saying: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

While trying out beginner’s mind, I experienced a different yoga class than I expected. I practiced as if I had never done it before, asking myself questions like, “What is this pose trying to get me to do with my body? Where should my foot really be? How is my breathing now? What does this feel like?” At one point I looked over to the clock and the 75 minute class was almost over. It felt like I had been there for half the time.

From Suzuki Roshi’s book:

In the beginner’s mind, there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

To my surprise, the intention carried forth outside the yoga studio and throughout the rest of my day. When it came time to cook dinner, I considered ordering Chinese food because I felt fresh out of ideas and inspiration. Then “beginner’s mind” popped up and I went to the pantry, pulled out a jar filled with orzo, and decided to make something with it precisely because it was an ingredient I had not used much before.

Forty minutes later I sat at the table with my two kids eating steaming bowls of orzo risotto and peas. I like this beginner’s mind. It feels spontaneous, open, and curious. Suzuki Roshi says the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner,” he writes. “Be very, very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.”


Resolving resolutions

As my optimistic intentions for the new year start to sink or swim, I am drawn to the concept of resolve. Different from willpower, which scientists now say is actually a mental energy determined by how much glucose is in the bloodstream, resolve has its own quality, with less force or tension when it comes to making changes.

I recently attended a talk by Kamala Masters, a Vispassana Buddhist teacher, on this topic. She described resolve as steadfast and balanced determination, unwavering clarity of purpose.

Instead of teetering on the edge of failure, which relying on willpower always implies to me, resolve comes with a deep sense of stability. “It is not a strident oomph, but a gentle persevering energy,” she said. “It is really paying attention to the energy behind the aspiration.” When that energy starts to falter, she says, you notice and bring some strength to it.

One of my aspirations for the year is to spend more time writing. In my busy, time-strapped life it is a challenge for me to create the quiet, slowed down space I need to do this. But it is a goal that continually arises when I think of my long-term hopes and dreams. Willpower experts will tell me to set clear writing goals and plan for my writing time. These are not bad ideas and may prove to be helpful. But it may also be a set up. If I don’t achieve my goals or if I miss my writing time, does it mean I failed?

Resolve, in the Buddhist sense, allows for a more gentle way. I can set an intention without knowing exactly what the results will be. I will just commit to go in a certain direction. I will trust that this aspiration is heartfelt and I will try to honor that in some way, each day, whether by reading, writing, or paying attention to the details of my life. Wish me luck.


Being There

As a parent, I often feel my children’s pain. They come to me crying and suddenly I feel myself getting teary too. It might be hurt feelings or a bonked head on the corner of the kitchen counter. (Damn that age when they’re just the right height for that!) My response in those moments makes a difference. If I dismiss their feelings – “You’re fine!” – they are left alone. But if I feel it too, they know that someone cares. I don’t necessarily have to fix it.

This is one way of looking at compassion, a trait we have been studying in my Mussar class and one that is also important in Buddhist teachings. Compassion is a sympathetic response to another.

While a parent’s love readily sets the stage for compassion to occur, it is not so easily accessed in other relationships. In the book Everyday Holiness, the primary text we are using for my class on Mussar, it says: “The moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul.”

In our class the other night, we puzzled over what compassion really is. Some thought it meant the ability to feel what another is feeling, to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Another thought that compassion meant to have pity on other people. Many of us were not quite sure. How does it differ from love? When is my desire to help another person compassion and when is it generosity?

According to Jewish teachings, compassion has everything to do with how we relate to others. “Compassion is an inner quality that grows within us out of the perception that we are not really separate from the other,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “We have a commonsense appreciation that we are all separate beings but the truth is that we are very much connected at several levels.” When connectedness resonates within us, we are able to feel another’s pain (and happiness) as if it were our own.

Mussar teachings say that is not enough to feel compassion. One must also act on it. “Compassion does not come into being just by feeling empathy,” the book says. “The depth and richness of the emotional connection must be translated into action that expresses concretely how truly moved you are to take care of the other. It is the action you take that turns a relationship or a shared emotion into compassion.”

I am thinking now of the people in Japan who have suffered such sudden and catastrophic disasters in the past week. I feel for the loss of human life, of homes, and of their sense of safety. I worry about the ongoing threat from the nuclear reactors. But what will I do to express that concern? According to these teachings, that is what matters.

Buddhist teachings on compassion also emphasize the call to action. “Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world,” it says in the book, Lovingkindness, by Sharon Salzberg. “Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion, is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

The goal of our spiritual practice is to be able to understand, to be able to look without illusion at what is natural in this life, at what is actually happening for others and for ourselves. This willingness to see what is true is the first step in developing compassion. More difficult than acknowledging pain, however, is opening to it. This is the second step in developing compassion: opening to pain and establishing an appropriate relationship to it. We may have to do this a little bit at a time.

Salzberg says even very simple actions can make a big difference. “We may not be able to take away the mass of somebody’s suffering, but we can be present for them. Even if through our small act of being present, somebody does not feel as alone in their suffering as they once did, this will be a very great offering.”

I think it is interesting that the presence of another, in and of itself, can ease pain and suffering. Just being there. I guess that is why there is the Jewish custom to sit shiva after a death. In Jewish life, family and friends come to the house of the bereaved for seven days. People eat and talk, but the custom is mainly to come and sit with the person who is grieving. Just being there is enough.

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Cooking in the Dark

In a fundamental way, I feel at home in the kitchen. It is the place where I can get my bearings. If I’m agitated and anxious, I don’t really want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere, but when I face the stove, suddenly I know this. I can start to deal with it. Likewise, if I am happy and want to spend some time doing something I love, I will often begin to dream up food I want to make.

I discovered this one summer working as a cook at Farm & Wilderness camps in Vermont. F&W is a Quaker place, where silent meetings are held everyday and simple work is valued. It was there in the kitchen, without music or radio to distract me, that I began to sense the connection between making food and some core truth in me.

Food is an important part of spiritual practice. In Judaism there are strict rules around the acquisition, preparation, and eating of food. The rules, known as kashrut, are the body of Jewish law that deal with what foods can and cannot be eaten and how those foods must be prepared. It is not a cuisine or a style of cooking.

In the chapter called “What Jews Eat,” in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant writes: “Perhaps the most compelling explanation [for the rules of kashrut] is the idea, restated in modern times by Martin Buber, that kashrut hallows the everyday. The intent of kashrut is not to deny the body’s needs or pleasures, but to turn a natural function into a holy act.”

Another explanation is that it is meant to instill a reverence for life, especially animal life. “The biblical mandate not to ’cause pain to any living creature,’ has been cited as an explanation for the rules of ritual slaughter and as a justification for Jewish vegetarianism,” she writes. Importantly, the rules of kashrut require paying attention to what you are doing.

I recently attended a class on Mindful Eating, taught by a longtime practitioner at Seattle Insight Meditation Society. She introduced us to the work of a number of Buddhists who have a special interest in food and cooking. One of them, Jan Chozen Bays, is a Zen priest and pediatrician, who writes and teaches seminars on the topic.

Bays talks about the seven hungers in the body. These hungers exist in the eyes, nose, mouth, stomach, cells of the body, mind, and heart. How food looks, smells, and tastes can all lead us to eat, regardless of the hunger in our stomach. Our sudden cravings for certain foods when our bodies need a specific nutrient and our emotional needs that we try to meet through food also contribute to our eating habits. Within these, there is ample room for developing mindfulness, Bays says. Why am I wanting this food right now and is this a desire I want to pursue? Can I meet this need or hunger some other way that might be more satisfying?

Our teacher also introduced us to the work of Edward Espe Brown, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and an accomplished chef. In this article, he talks about becoming mindful in the kitchen. He begins by describing the Zen notion of “feeling your way in the dark,” being careful and sensitive to what is happening. “Your capacity for cooking will grow and develop from your devotion to being in the dark, not knowing what to do, but carefully finding your way,” he writes. “You enter the kitchen and become intimate with cooking through cooking.”

Our ordinary effort is to dream up a picture of how we want things to be, and endeavor to make it come true. Now, in the dark, you feel your way along, and your wisdom flashes: a salad, a soup; the virtue of spinach, apple, and walnut speaks to you. The body becomes alive because you are doing something. Yes, it’s good to stop and sit and allow the usual impulses for motion an opportunity to move inwardly instead of outwardly — beautiful work there. Yet the hands love to be hands. You give them life by allowing them to find out how to do things — how to wash and cut, stir and knead, ladle and mop.

He advises cooks to put recipes aside and instead engage directly with ingredients. In this Q&A article, he discusses how to do this. “In cooking classes I emphasize adding one ingredient at a time and tasting before and after, so you start to know for yourself what each ingredient is doing,” he says. “If you just put everything in the pot and taste it, you don’t know why it tastes like it does. You don’t know what each ingredient is doing. If you add one ingredient at a time and taste it, you start to know what a spice or seasoning can do.”

I am generally a cook who likes to follow recipes. It will be different for me to find my way in the dark without that guidance. I think I’ll start with that eggplant in the fridge.

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Biding Time

I’m always kind of amazed when people honk their horns in traffic. It makes no sense. Not that they should enjoy waiting, no one does. The honking is just blowing off steam.

Impatience comes up a lot in daily life. We have a sense that things should move at a certain pace or we want the instant gratification we have become so used to in our culture, and we are easily frustrated when we have to wait.

But maybe it’s worth it to cultivate some patience. In a lecture on Zen Buddhism, Gerry Shishin Wick writes, “Einstein was once asked about his creativity and he touched upon this subject of patience and effort. He said the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious researcher. His observation can apply to our own practice. We could say the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem or your question and your aspiration for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious Zen student.”

I have been thinking a lot about patience lately, what it means to have it and what happens when I don’t. In Buddhism, one is said to be practicing. We are practitioners. I think patience goes hand in hand with practicing. You are moving in a direction, but you are not there yet. You may never get there, wherever there is. Certainly, it’s not going to come instantly.

There is something a little painful about patience. This is recognized in both Jewish and Buddhist teachings.

Rabbi Abigail Treu, a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes: “Having patience means not only the ability to slow down in our fast-paced world, but also controlling our impulse to grow frustrated when things are not moving quickly enough or going our way.” To do this, she says “we find a way to trust in a positive outcome…to see what good might come out of a difficult or frustrating situation.”

In the Mussar book Everyday Holiness it says, “Patience is not just about waiting, it’s about bearing.” Enduring and tolerating are also words that come into play.

In the lecture on Zen practice that I quoted above, it says: “To learn to live with patience and not be drawn into anger you must let go of the notion that you can live without pain, suffering, disappointment, injury. Here we are asked, encouraged, to practice living with life’s discomforts.”

Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the States had this to say about patience in an essay on Right Understanding:

Work to nourish that quality of constancy, of what’s called, “a long-enduring mind.” It’s not a short game. You know, we’re used to instant food, drive-through, tell the lady through the speaker, “Yes, I’d like a Big Mac, fries and a coke,” or whatever it is. You drive around and you get it and you can eat it while you’re driving; you don’t even have to stop. Instant gratification. This is not an instant gratification thing. It is the longest thing you’ll ever do because it’s your whole life. It’s really to discover how to transform your life from being on automatic pilot to being conscious, to discovery, to play. And it’s wonderful. So it means that you don’t complete it, you actually learn how to play the game and make your life into that.

Patience is having the willingness to hold on to a certain amount of tension. To stay where you are even if it’s uncomfortable, just to see what happens next. Something will, of course. I got interested in this topic after hearing a beautiful talk by Kamala Masters. “Patience is generosity,” she said. “It is a gift of safety and reverence.” I immediately thought of being a parent when she said this, how having patience is an act of generosity to children. I love that.

“Patience is a strong quality,” she said. “You have be humble to step back and be quiet, take a look at the situation and gather more information, then you take the next step forward.” Or as Einstein would say, grope in the dark.


Rules of Engagement

Trust is usually something we think of in terms of other people. Can I trust this person? That is really about whether or not they are honest or have the integrity to do what you think they should do even if you’re not around to see them do it. Trust is also something we engage in when we step into an airplane and buckle up while others prepare to launch this behemoth into the sky and land it safely somewhere else. We feel betrayed if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.

But on the spiritual path, trust isn’t so much about other people. In Judaism, the concept of trust relates to our limited perspective. “We can only see part of the picture of life at any time, and often only a small part, and so we draw faulty conclusions about what something means,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. We can’t see the big picture — for example, how something that seems rotten will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. We cultivate trust, in part, so that we don’t put too much stock in our immediate reactions to life. This is considered to be trust in God.

There is also a sense of a lack of control over our lives, which raises questions about taking initiative. “It is right to put all your powers into taking action to better your own situation and that of the world because you understand and accept your real responsibility,” the book says. “Your obligation is to act, not to determine the outcome.”

The concept of trust comes up in Buddhist practice too. In the book, Smile at Fear, Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, Chogyam Trungpa writes, “The reservoir of trust is a very simple, straightforward idea. If we accept a challenge and take certain steps  to accomplish something, the process will yield results — either success or failure.

Trust means that we know that our actions will bring a definite response from reality. We know that we will get a message. Failure is generally telling us that our action has been undisciplined and inaccurate in some way. Therefore, it fails. When our action is fully disciplined, it usually is fulfilled; we have success.

Trust is being willing to take a chance, he says, acting with confidence that the phenomenal world will respond. “The fruition of our action will always provide us with information,” he writes. “Such trust in the reservoir keeps us from being too arrogant or too timid. If you’re too arrogant, you’ll find yourself bumping into the ceiling. If you’re too timid, you’ll be pushed up by the floor. Roughly speaking, that’s the concept of the reservoir.”

“We begin to feel that we are dealing with a rich world, one that never runs out of messages,” he writes. “The only problem arises if we try to manipulate the situation in our favor.”

I am fascinated by this. Scientists look for the facts, the laws of nature. This seems to me to be about the rules of engagement, trusting in what he calls the dynamic process. “The ancient Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching, often talks about success being failure and failure being success. Success sows the seeds of future failure, and failure may bring a later success,” he writes. “Whether the situation brings success or failure, it brings an unconditional good understanding.” I can live with that.


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