Category Archives: Meditation

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.

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.”

Making Progress

In the beginning of Jubuhoo, I had the vague sense that I could be doing a better job of living. I could be experiencing my life more instead of chattering in my head while my life was happening around me. I sensed that I could be kinder, more patient. I felt that somehow I was missing the big picture.

Since then I’ve taken classes on Buddhist meditation and on the Jewish spiritual practice of Mussar. I’ve been surprised at how in sync they are with each other. They are not the same, but I am finding it is possible to explore both with ease. It makes me think that the spiritual path is what it is. Over time people have developed different methods of cultivating an inner life, but ultimately we are all human beings with vices and virtues.

The one issue that I haven’t really known how to deal with so far is the Jewish concept of God. In practicing Mussar, it is not necessary to invoke God like it is with Torah, which is the foundation of traditional Judaism. Mussar is about becoming the kind of person who can follow Torah with deep authenticity. I’ve kind of avoided the Torah piece and just focused on becoming the kind of person who does anything with deep authenticity.

In Buddhism, instead of God there are the basic tenets called the Four Noble Truths. In a recent class, I began to see how simple, but no less profound, these truths really are. While the Jewish God is lofty and omnipotent and for me not easily accessible, these Buddhist concepts seem just fundamentally basic. Some people describe Buddhism as grim. The more I learn about it, the more I think it is about seeking the truth. Looking it in the face and taking it on the chin.

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. It means we will all get sick, grow old, and die. As much as we may fight it, it is true for every one of us that sickness, old age, and death will happen. Impermanence is also a fact of life. People leave town, houses burn down, great jobs are won and then lost, children grow up and leave home, wonderful pets live with you and then run away. Life changes whether we like it or not.

All of that may be true, but why would I want to dwell on it? Buddhism recognizes the suffering we all experience, sometimes in a big, clear way, and sometimes in the vague sense that we’re not quite as happy as we’d like to be. This is the Second Noble Truth – that our suffering lies in our very deep desire to be happy and secure. We all want the good things in our life to remain and we want the bad things to take a hike. We crave for life to stay as it is or we want it to be different. This constant craving or rejecting what is happening is the source of our suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is that there is a way to end our suffering and that is through acceptance of life on life’s terms. It starts by recognizing the truth of the first two Noble Truths and then aligning your life with mindfulness, benign actions, and acceptance. The Fourth Noble Truth provides guidance on how to align your life in such a way. I will write more on that in the future.

Going back to the beginning of this post and why I started Jubuhoo in September, I think this is the big picture I was missing. These Four Noble Truths make sense to me. While I have learned so much from Mussar and plan to continue studying and practicing the cultivation of wholesome traits, I don’t see myself suddenly realizing that I believe in the Jewish concept of God.

I feel gratitude to my teachers over the past few months and to the people who have taken the time to write the books I have quoted here. I am also grateful to the friends and strangers who have embraced this blog. I hope you all have peaceful holidays with your friends and families. I look forward to studying and writing more in the next year.

Being Good

Even my kids know there are good guys and bad guys. As adults, we decide what we are. This post is directed to the good guys. If you’re a bad guy, maybe I’ll write something for you another time. My Buddhist meditation teacher talked about good guys a couple of weeks ago in our class. Here’s a version of what he said.

We want to be good people, but there are often occasions where our inner life does not stack up. We try to turn away from the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that we think tell us something bad about ourselves.

— Within all of us, there exists every human emotion, “good” and “bad.”

Our unpleasant states of mind create tension, we want to get over them or we act them out, and then we feel shame. Later on, we do it again.

— Aversion invests emotions with energy; every time we act them out, we condition our mind to behave in that way.

It is better to make a home for all of our emotions. Accept that it will not all be pleasant or comfortable, but it will all be workable. Their existence means nothing about who you really are. It’s what you do with these emotions when they occur that determines whether your actions will help or harm others.

— By becoming more open and accepting of ourselves, we become more compassionate towards others.

Mindful awareness observes the breath, the body, and the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise and fall away. Mindfulness holds anything completely, without judgement. This holding is an approximation of love.

— There exists in all of us a capacity to hold instead of react.

Every experience exists on its own. We just have to show up for it without resentments, judgements, opinions, or desires. That is what having an open heart means.

— Goodness flows from an open heart.

Initiating the heart

Worlds are colliding or so it seems. Last week I stumbled upon a form of Jewish spiritual practice that I had never heard of before called Mussar. Instead of Torah study, it focuses on aspects of character such as humility, compassion, generosity, and others that we experience in everyday life. The practice teaches you to look inward, develop awareness, and cultivate positive traits. Seems palatable.

I signed up for a class at my synagogue. I’m in a group. Can’t hurt.

At the same time, my Buddhist meditation class is beginning to focus on emotions. My meditation teacher began his talk this week with this:

Most of us have tried to excuse the difficulties in our life by finger pointing and blaming others. By doing this, we remain clean. It is always someone else’s fault or it is the circumstances. Very infrequently does it feel that the cause is self-inflicted. At some point, a maturation occurs and we realize that we are doing it to ourselves. The difficulties in our life are self-contained.

In Mussar, practitioners choose thirteen traits to work on and then rotate focusing on each trait for one week. After thirteen weeks, the cycle begins again. At the end of the year, the cycle has occurred four times. The practice includes repetition of a focus phrase that reminds you to be aware of the trait and a daily journal in which you keep track of your successes and failures, although I’m sure they wouldn’t call it that.

Both practices call for daily meditation. In Buddhist meditation we are told to give “bare attention” to whatever is happening in our mind. The focus is on the present moment and giving full awareness to anything that is occurring, whether it be an itch or a pain in the body or an emotion that arises. With all of it my teacher says, relax, observe, and allow. So there is an effort to gain clarity and to recognize what is happening in our inner world. Not to judge it or try to change it, but just to honor it.

In the book Everyday Holiness, the text we are using for the class on Mussar, Alan Morinis writes that the practice is also a guide to working on the inner life.

Because this book tracks a Jewish spiritual path, it is useful to see that the Torah acknowledges this primary choice that confronts us. In the book of Deuteronomy we are told: “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” That enigmatic image occurs only one other time in the Torah, in the variant: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart.” I understand circumcism here to be a metaphor for spiritual initiation – removing obstacles to having an open, sensitive, initiated inner life. In the first quote we are offered the option of initiating ourselves. The second quote tells us that God will do it…Initiate yourself, or God will initiate you. The Torah gives no third option.

I don’t actually believe in God, but I do see that people often turn to religion when life gets hard. Someone they love dies or something very difficult happens. I could imagine myself wandering into synagogue looking for help during a crisis. I guess I see that as God’s way of initiating your heart. Not God, but life. I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe that if I do this work now, then life won’t come at me. I know it will. I’m just getting ready. And in the meantime, maybe I’ll stop griping at my kids.

Middle of the Night

It’s the middle of the night. This happens. I’m awake when everyone else  in the house is asleep, except the cat who slept all day and now wants to hang out.

I’ve been thinking about the teachings in my meditation class this past Monday. Buddhism starts with the concept of suffering. From courses I’d taken in college I knew about the Buddhist concept of The Four Noble Truths: The nature of life is suffering. Our desire for pleasure and our aversion to pain create more suffering. Relinquishing craving reduces suffering. And the way to the cessation of suffering is The Noble Eightfold Path.

Essentially, we suffer because life is impermanent and imperfect. We try to seek pleasure and avoid pain and the more we do this, the more we suffer. The answer is to stop doing this. And the Buddha figured out how.

But there is a difference between philosophical knowing and experience, my teacher said. If we think about following the breath we are being philosophical. If we can really follow the breath, we are experiencing a moment of mindfulness which will increase our awareness. “This is an on-the-job training of how to work with suffering,” he said. “We have to consciously know what our pain is.”

He referred back to the comments made by students at the first class about wanting to quiet the mind, calm a busy life, deal with our inability to pay attention to the present moment. This is the suffering. Our dissatisfaction with everyday life is the suffering the Buddha was talking about. Oh. I have that.

This is the way Buddhism works. It doesn’t work by trying to pray yourself out of a situation. It works by looking at the causes of our pain and the ways we can remove those causes…We keep trying to jack up the volume of life, but underneath it is the deep sorrow. Turn down the volume and deal with the sorrow. How bad is it? You realize, I can deal with it. This capacity holds the whole key to making life harmonious.

It’s not all bad. Just as we avoid the unpleasant in our mind, we miss being aware of much that is pleasant. The more simple you are with each sensation, he said, the more beauty you will be aware of.

I Need Space

Here’s a trick. If you want time to stop, try meditating. One of my concerns lately has been that I can’t seem to slow down enough to notice anything beyond kids to school, whose been fed, where are your shin guards, is the cat in or out, why am I tripping over shoes in the kitchen, did you pee in your pants again, and so on. In all this chaos, life is zooming by.

Now that I’m sitting down everyday for thirty minutes to practice mindfulness meditation, I can’t believe how long it takes for a half an hour to go by.

Meditation is hard. My mind wants to jump on and ride off into the sunset with every thought that comes by. It’s supposed stay where it is and just be aware of my breath. But my mind does not listen. It is a lot like my son Sascha.

This is normal. In last Monday’s class, my teacher told us, “Point your attention to the breath instead of towards your thoughts. When you’re gone, just come back. The practice is the willingness to come back.”

You’re supposed to be gentle with your mind when it runs away. I’ve tried imagining that my thoughts are occurring in a stream at the top of my head. Then I imagine there is a gauzy barrier below which my mind can just be with my breath. Thoughts break through and my mind goes off, but I can bring it back to a quiet space.

Creating space in my mind. I think that’s what I’m doing.

My teacher told us that mindfulness meditation can have a profound effect on you. Yesterday I spent three hours cleaning my office, taking care of some matters that I’d put off for months, and getting rid of clutter. It was not lost on me the connection between cleaning out the clutter in my office and getting some quiet space in my head. Looking forward to class on Monday.

Don’t Miss a Step

Last night I went to the first of a six-week class on mindfulness meditation. It is taught by Rodney Smith, the founding and guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society (SIMS). It was interesting to see that over a hundred people showed up for the class. I guess I’m not the only one who is searching for something.

Early on, Rodney asked the students to comment on what we hoped to get out of meditation. One person said he wanted to feel more peaceful, another said she hoped it would quiet her mind. I wanted to say that I hoped it would help me get into the present. To feel like I’m experiencing each moment and appreciating that this is my life. These are my children. This is the sound of their voices. This is what it’s like to cut a carrot. I want to notice it all.

He taught us a basic sitting meditation and we practiced that for a short while. It involves sitting upright, either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, closing your eyes, and trying to keep your mind focused on the sensation of your breath. Nothing more, just paying attention to the breath. Thoughts arise and your mind wanders away, over and over you bring it back to the breath.

Thich Nhat Hanh says this: “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

Rodney also taught us how to do walking meditation, in which you pay close attention to the sensation of taking each step. Picture a large empty room filled with people taking very slow steps. It felt a little weird, but also interesting to see how focused you can become. “Don’t miss a step,” he would say occasionally. You are training your mind to pay attention.

For homework, he asked us to sit in meditation for 30 minutes every day and to do one “marker.” A marker is a daily activity that you do routinely, without thinking about it, that now you will try to do with complete mindfulness. He suggested teeth brushing. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh:

Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. Be mindful 24 hours a day, not just during the one hour you may allot for formal meditation or reading scripture and reciting prayers. Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. Does the word ‘rite’ seem too solemn? I use that word in order to jolt you into the realization of the life-and-death matter of awareness.

So this is the beginning. The path I am choosing to follow, at least for now. Thirty minutes of sitting meditation each day. Mindful teeth brushing. Maybe mindfulness will spread into other parts of my day. And we will see.

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