Friday, November 26, 2010

Seriously? Some further comments in response to Michael Stone

Michael Stone, yogi, psycho-therapist, activist, writer, and friend, wrote a comment in response to my last post (Why take life so seriously? It’s impermanent.) on FaceBook, prompting me to take this opportunity to delve again into what I was attempting to get at in that post.

Michael wrote: Isn't "peace the path" because our actions matter, not in a future life awaiting us, but in the real social, political, emotional, familial life of ours now? frank the title of your blog makes me uneasy as it comes close to the passivity that a (mis)understanding of non-attachment connotes. yes, the asset of joy means everything. and so does action! mindfulness happens in action, whether joyful or serious or upset and neutral. if we focus too much on not taking life so seriously, we can become indifferent, or worse, we tend not to study our actions and their consequences.

Michael specifically says that it is the title of my blog that made him uneasy. I don’t know (and I should have asked) if he had read the post before commenting. And if he did read the post, I should have asked if the rest of the post left him uneasy as well, or if it indeed were just the title.

After all, the title is simply from a bumper-sticker I found humorous, and yes, a bit provocative. And that was exactly why I chose to use this to title this particular post. As I responded to Michael, it was meant to be both humorous and provocative. I think perhaps the humor may have been lost on Micheal, and it simply 'provoked' his response.

The response I posted to Michael’s comment on Facebook was the following: Michael, I agree that "if we focus too much on not taking life so seriously, we can become indifferent" but my experience with students (and most people I know) is that we don't focus on taking life less seriously at all. The point of this post is that through self-absorbtion, most of us take things too seriously (personally) etc. Thay himself offers the practice of stopping and considering what you (and the person or persons you are caught in drama with) will look like in 100 years.

Our actions DO matter. AND I do believe we'd be better off not taking ourselves so seriously at the same time. Or as Pema Chodron puts it, "Enlighten up!" I've often experienced that when a group of practitioners can feel easeful enough to laugh at themselves and their 'craziness,' a deeper sense of authenticity and intimacy is the result.

I hope by this you’ll see that I am not saying that life is meaningless or that we should adopt a frivolous attitude to it. Everyday, as part of my prostration practice, I chant the following gatha:

Great is the matter of birth and death!
Impermanence surrounds us!
Be awake each moment!
Do not waste your life!

This is a pretty 'serious' verse. But to approach our actions and their consequences seriously is still not necessarily the same as taking ourselves seriously, and it was this that I was particularly addressing in my post. This is why I specifically talked about “drama queens” (and we all harbor an inner drama queen to some extent or another).

Sally’s comment directly addressed this when she wrote: Thank you!... this resonates so much with my current family drama that pulls me into thinking and getting so serious. I'd much rather be light, forgiving, loving, and letting go. I will always remember how easily you said there is nothing to forgive when I was so sorry to have forgotton to show up on a class that I was suppose to sub. That response is still with me as a reminder to extend it foward. so much gratitude.

I wrote that post after I had just returned from a Yoga Teacher Training in Costa Rica, where many of the students were oppressed by the suffering of taking themselves and their ‘little dramas’ so terribly seriously. It was this tendency we all share that I was addressing in my post. This is not to minimize the difficulty of life, of family and relationships in general. But again, as Thay reminds us, impermanence should wake us from this daze of taking every 'insult' to our ego so seriously. Many times when I have found myself getting upset and building a Gone With The Wind narrative around a perceived slight, I have used Thay's practice of imagining myself and my loved on in 100 years and the drama completely deflates, as does my anger and self-defensiveness!

Michael responded to my comment saying: thanks frank. sometimes i get charged with being serious (for those who don't know me) and i only mention this because social change that arises from compassion still requires confrontation. we need to confront, with metta, what's in us, but also what is around us. that's serious business!

And I totally agree with Michael that social change is indeed ‘serious business.’ And that compassion sometimes requires we confront injustice. But I still hold that we should work for social change in the same spirit as we work for personal change (or transformation) and that is by not taking ourselves so seriously! I believe this is part of the message we should take from the Diamond Sutra where the Buddha says that the bodhisattva works for the liberation of countless beings, and when countless beings have been liberated does not for one instant believe that any beings have been liberated. Why? Because if we think "I" have saved "others" we are falling into self-cherishment. 

One of the Buddha’s core teachings is the teaching of anatta or not-self. That we take every thought that goes through our head ‘personally’ is part of the problem of duhkha. As Joseph Goldstein says, "thoughts, feelings and emotions are all conditioned by impersonal forces." As hard as it may be to accept, there is nothing ‘personal’ about any of it! That we take things ‘personally’ is what I mean by taking things too seriously. Perhaps I should have been clearer, and so I thank Michael for his comments, prodding me to re-state my intention here.

As Karen Maezen Miller writes in Momma Zen, “Yes, we all have a load on our hands, but the heavy is in our heads. Set the heavy down and sweep aside the useless mental clutter.” As her teacher, Maezumi Roshi told her, “You make everything work.” Don’t we all do so when we take ourselves overly seriously? Life is more fun that we sometimes make it. When a child asked Thich Nhat Hanh what he did for fun, Thay responded with a smile, “Everything I do is for fun.” As I titled an earlier essay, I think of it (life, practice, commitment) as all of it being  “Important Fun.”

In metta
poep sa frank jude


  1. I was interested to read the most recent post on the blog regarding your previous post, ‘Why take life so seriously? It’s impermanent.’ I get the gist of what you’re saying Frank, particularly having very recently participated in a workshop with Yanai Postelnick , Insight meditation teacher, on Death, here in London. It was as might be expected a pretty intense day. Yanai very skillfully wove sitting meditation, walking and dharma discussions so that we as participants were invited to abide in a contemplative space. It was very moving and heart-opening.

    As might be expected in a contemplation of death I experienced much sorrow arise as well as awe at the certainty of Death’s arrival and the uncertainty of it’s time. To get to the point I arrive at a reflection upon the relative and the absolute. In absolute terms if life is impermanent, then why take it seriously and there is truth in that. On relative terms impermanence is all around us, the moments of our lives are passing by, as Rumi says:

    ‘ In a boat down a fast running creek,
    it feels like trees on the bank.
    are rushing by. What seems

    to be changing around us
    is rather the speed of our craft
    leaving this world.’

    This is serious, feels urgent. What are we going to do with our ‘one wild and precious life?’

    I guess it’s a balance between the two, being sensitive and courageous enough to know when to take things seriously and wise, humble, humorous and courageous enough to know when to hold things lightly.

    I wonder why Micheal didn’t post on this website as I would appreciate more activity here. I consider this website and the posts that you are offering so generously to have transformative potential and feel disappointed that there is not more engagement from others. I have recently set up a blog for graduates of my mindfulness courses and so far not much happening. Speaking with others I hear that people are afraid of exposure, feel that what they have to say is unworthy, are afraid of being judged. I can totally appreciate this, as I carry these concerns too, but, as Micheal says social change requires confrontation of what's in us as well as what's around us.

    It takes courage and commitment to set up a blog and to post on a blog. To speak out, to expose oneself and ones thoughts and feelings, and yet this is necessary. Social change can happen here too but it doesn’t happen if people don’t stand up to be counted.

    In this giving is receiving. I can vouch for that as this blog as laid and ripened many seeds with transformative potential, but it needs participation.

    With gratitude

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rosie.

    Yes, I too wondered why Michael commented on my Facebook profile page, but not here. I guess I should have asked him to!

    As well, I agree with your points vis a vis 'absolute' and 'relative.' Also, I just wanted to reiterate that from my own limited perspective, there's also a difference I was trying to articulate between taking LIFE seriously and taking ourselves taking life seriously. Do you get what I mean?

    For instance, I take Dharma and living/practicing and teaching it very 'seriously.' I do not hesitate to say that I feel passionate about it. I do so because it truly saved my life, and so I feel moved to share it with others who may find it also helpful.

    Ironically, part of how this transformation in my own life occurred was in learning not to take myself so seriously. In fact, I had suffered from 'stage fright' for years; could not speak in public at all! Now, that's what I do 'for a living!'

    It may take courage to set up a blog, but I will tell you, if I still took myself as seriously as I did when I was younger, there's no way I'd have started a blog (not to mention two others!).

    Finally, I too am a bit curious -- and perhaps disappointed -- with the scarcity of input from others. There are 101 "followers" of this blog, yet even at the most active, only a handful ever commented. I find this odd because so many people expressed great enthusiasm when I mentioned I'd be doing this -- and in fact the impetus was from students asking for some venue such as this to stay in touch, and to have some kind of continuity for practice and discussion.

    SO, where are you people?????

  3. It seems to me that the tendancy for most folks today is toward seriousness to the point of paralysis and depression. When we begin to explore our inner and outer worlds, the amount of work that needs to be done can be overwhelming! In this case, it seems to me that a good bit of light-heartedness can carry us forward to do whatever work needs to be done. It makes things seem possible and our optimism can be helpful to others, as well.

    Rosie, your comments about exposure and judgement are certainly true for me and I appreciate that you mentioned this. I'm not contributing as much as I'd like, but this blog is part of what is keeping me connected to a much larger community of practitioners.

  4. Hi Frank

    Yes, I do understand what you mean. Often it’s what we bring to a situation that makes it all the more painful. In mindfulness bases approaches we talk about the difference between ‘primary stress’ , the facts of a difficult life situation and ‘secondary stress’ what we bring to that situation. As Karen Maezen Millers’ says we add ‘heavy’ to the load, by as you point out, taking things too seriously, and thereby intensifying our suffering.

    I was touched when you spoke about practice’ saving your life’. I could relate to that, practice has transformed my life from one of ‘quiet desperation’ to one of great joy. Oh I have my sorrows but they are taken far less seriously than might have happened in the past. That’s why I’m so dedicated to dharma, so grateful for it.

    Apparently some Buddhist teachers have said that you need to suffer a great deal before you actually commit to practice. I resonate with that. In the beginning it was a life line but now it is a deeply nurturing way of being in the world.

    In terms of public speaking, I was painfully shy about this for many years but my desire for understanding and for liberation, kept driving me into learning environments where I was expected and indeed really wanted to express and contribute. Now I teach and yes I have stopped taking myself so seriously and feel that the best teaching comes when I get out of the way. In reading some of your book Mindfulness Yoga I was enlivened by your offering the root meaning of the word vocation,’ to put your voice forth.’ You go on to say, which I quote as it seems pertinent to the current dialogue:

    The word vocation originally meant ‘to put your voice forth’ into the world. What a wonderful way to see our practice. To commit to this practice is to put forth our voice into the world, to truly declare our values and our volition regarding how we relate to life itself. This is what is meant by our practice being our life.

    I made a commitment to myself when engaging with the book club that I would follow regularly and read the relevant chapters of the book. I made this commitment because I felt that the orientation of this blog offered something of value to me and my practice. This blog IS part of my practice.

    And it’s wonderful Judith to ‘hear’ your voice and I’m glad my comments were helpful. I feared that I might be misunderstood. Just shows me what can happen when I take a risk.

  5. I appreciate you're comments being grateful for Michael's post to help you restate, and go a little further. It's blogs like this, conversations and sanghas that help us go deeper. I also see the going into the future 100 years is looking at things from a different perspective. We need to lighten our hold or grasp to see things from another perspective. And in that other perspective, we see more. Lighter often allows us to see beyond the drama and is easier on the body.

    This reminds me of a training I was at once when the instructor (after a full day) was leading us into a few restorative poses, but was talking a little about the benefits when in the corner of the room there were several yoga students talking and laughing. I (and others) were getting irritated. "they aren't respecting the teacher or us"... "they should be listening..."

    The instructor went over to them (and I was thinking he was going to ask them nicely to be quiet)... instead he was very light hearted and went over to "tuck them in very lovelingly" and it was so sweet. It was very lighthearted. They quieted down so easily and I went in to a very sweet rest... remembering to lighten up.

  6. A very insightful read which I enjoyed thoroughly! It was a long article but I enjoyed reading each and every line and I will be posting about it on my social media platforms soon!