Sunday, November 20, 2011

"As Good As It Gets"

The following is an adaptation of an essay I wrote in 1998 after seeing the film, As Good As It Gets the night before. It was written for the newsletter of the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metro.

What if this – this life, as it is – is as good as it gets? Does this thought, which can be understood to be a central insight, teaching and practice of (zen) buddhism, scare you? Depress you? Do you celebrate the idea with a hearty cheer? Or does it jolt you into sobriety?

There is an old story about a farmer who travels many miles to consult with the Buddha. Upon sitting at the Buddha’s feet, he tells the Buddha that he has 83 problems. The Buddha asks him about his problems. The farmer begins, “Well, I’m a farmer, and I love to farm. But last year we had a drought and we almost starved to death because of the meager harvest. This year, there was too much rain, and many of the crops were destroyed.”
            The Buddha sat and sympathetically nodded his head. “Yes, go on.”
            “Well, I love my wife very dearly, but I find myself growing bored and looking after other women.”
            The Buddha continued to nod his head and encouraged the farmer to share his troubles.
            “I have a son and a daughter. They’ve made me very proud. But they’re stubborn, and don’t take my advice,” the farmer continued.
            After delivering his long litany of problems to the Buddha, he asked, “So can you help me? I hear you are a great teacher.”
            The Buddha responds, “Well, it’s true you have 83 problems, and you haven’t even mentioned others like the fact that you are growing old and that you will die, and that everyone you know and love will also grow old and die.”
            The farmer was aghast. Why wasn’t the Buddha helping him? Why was he loading on even more problems?
            Then the Buddha said, “I cannot help you with any of those problems. But perhaps I can help you with the 84th problem.”
            Exasperated, the farmer asks, “What is the 84th problem?”
            “You want a life with no problems,” replied the Buddha.

            We would like a life with no problems. Ideally, we would not grow old, infirm and die. We would not have to deal with such unpleasantness as losing our teeth, our eyesight growing dim, bad breath, wrinkles, graying and balding hair, let alone tumors, miscarriages, and the fact that, as the Golden Archies sing, “the number of ways to die is infinite.” We’d always be surrounded by the pleasant and beautiful. This is a true vision of heaven, and it is one traded on by religions, political ideologies, and advertisers. And because it’s not how our life actually is, we are led to feel discontentment and shame. We actually feel shame when our body does something innocuously natural like fart, or when our bellies make gurgling noises, let alone when our skin wrinkles or becomes diseased! And because of this conditioned shame, we spend huge amounts of money, time and energy trying to deny the fact that we are not “perfect,” distracting ourselves in myriad ways. Whole industries, anti-aging products and body enhancing surgery, are devoted to this vain pursuit. We put on a front for the world and attempt to hide from ourselves our “imperfections” and infirmities because we have been made to feel shame. The Buddha tells us that “imperfection” is real and we do not need to feel ashamed. It is “perfection” that is purely conceptual and unreal. And because we’ve fallen for this deluded conceptualization of “perfection,” we then conceptualize the real world we live in as “imperfect!”  In fact, facing duhkha is noble and ennobling. Not turning away, and not exacerbating it, is the noble response taught by the Buddha. This noble response to existential reality is enlightenment itself. It is transcending the conceptual duality of “perfection” and “imperfection” and embracing just this, life as it is, perfectly imperfect!

            Sitting on a cold stone wall on a cold grey afternoon in January, waiting for a dharma sister with whom I have planned to take a contemplative walk through Prospect Park. A dharma sister whom never arrives, so I sit and contemplate the film I saw last night, As Good As It Gets, as a kind of koan or hwadu.
            There are many parents out with their children, walking through the park today as it is a legal holiday – Martin Luther King Day. They are pushing carriages of sleeping or crying children, many carrying bags filled with the myriad supplies required when on an outing with little diaper-wearing children. Many of these parents have older children tagging along or running ahead. There is a lot of chaos and mayhem.

            Looking at all these universal and particular family street dramas, I see all the sheer effort that goes into being a parent. All the work, planning, and worry that goes into the seemingly simplest thing like a walk in the park with your kid(s). The stress that goes into bundling a squirming irritated little boy or girl to protect them from the winter cold. And many of these moms and dads will face several flights of stairs in their brownstone walkups when they get home, balancing children, supplies, and groceries, and the carriage up to their apartment. And, before they have a moment to catch their breath, the kids will be crying or pleading for something warm to eat or drink or they’ll need some other attending to. And on it goes.
            This is as good as it gets.

            This effort, all this drudgery, is absolutely inseparable from the incomparable joy of being a parent. Of being alive! It is all of a piece and all one. The “suffering” and the joy inter-are. The quality of mind you bring to one determines the depth of the other.

            The problem is that we all too often remain blind to this truth, and thus add greatly to our suffering and discontent through our thinking that it can and should be otherwise. All these thoughts, expectations, and hopes; all these preconceptions we bring to our life as to how it should go, keep us from fully experiencing the luminosity of the present moment. Because we tend to think that if only we could “get it all together” things would be fine. And then what? We wouldn’t have to struggle to balance the carriage and the kid and the diaper bag as we make our way up the stairs? While not dropping the groceries?

            In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Melvin (Jack Nicholson), fears and suspects that this life is indeed as good as it gets. So, Melvin spends much of his time and energy attempting to keep himself as separated from reality as he can. He locks each of the several locks on his door five times. He brings his own disposable plastic utensils to the same restaurant where he sits at the same table to be served by the same waitress everyday. He uses several bars of soap to wash his hands of the outside world, using each bar for only a few seconds before disposing of it in the garbage bin.
            Melvin suffers from obsessive-compulsion disorder. But, except for degree, how different is he from many – if not all of us? Do we not all, to some degree or other, attempt to set up a world we can control, attempting to put as much distance as we can between us and change? Between us and the every-changing contingency of reality?

            Impermanence is one of the deepest teachings of the buddha. And when we look deeply into impermanence, we see another of the deepest teachings: that of selflessness. Most of us, most of the time, are conditioned to view both change and selflessness with either fear or sadness or anxiety. But when Melvin is forced through circumstances to become the caretaker of his neighbor’s dog, the process that will lead to his opening of his fortress of solitude and his heart begins.
            And here, I wish to point out a key tenet of zen buddhism (and verified by recent cognitive science research) that we needn’t have to change our thinking in order to change our behavior. In fact, we needn’t wait to change our mind, but by changing our behavior, we do indeed change our mind. Thus the phrase often heard in the zendo: “You don’t have to like it.” Melvin most certainly does not like the situation, and yet it brings about transformative, healing change!

            Carol (Helen Hunt) lives, as a frustrated date tells her on his way out, “with too much reality.” Her son, Spencer, suffers from a severe respiratory and immune system malady, placing great demands on her, yet her love for him remains strong and bright.
            Yet she too has her hopes, and dreams of the “normal boyfriend,” to come to her and it is up to her mother to interrupt her fantasy and tell her, “We all want that but it doesn’t exist.” This, she is telling us, is as good as it gets.

            Simon (Gregg Kinnear), at the nadir of his life, ends up traveling with Melvin, the bane of his life! His quest is to return back home to Baltimore and his estranged parents in order to ask from money. When he calls from the hotel, and speaks to his mother, it is the day after an evening of re-connection to his art, inspired by Carol, and from a place of new-found strength, rethinking his situation, he refrains from asking his parents for the money. Instead, he forgives his parents, asks for forgiveness himself and just lets go. Holed up in a hotel with Melvin and Carol, it’s as good as it gets.

            Early in the film, after Melvin is rebuffed by his psychiatrist, he spits out the line which gives the film its title, to a startled and bewildered waiting room filled with patients. I suspect that for Melvin, this vocalization of his deepest fear is a kind of turning point. Later, we discover that he has begun to take the pills that may help him, despite the fact, as he says to Carol, that he hates pills. “You don’t have to like it.”

            When Melvin leaves his apartment to go to Carol’s house for the final sequence, he discovers (along with the audience) that he had forgotten to lock the front door. This strikes us all as powerfully meaningful. The Fortress is open and vulnerable. He is not defending himself from reality. He is about to step our into the “full catastrophe.”

            When he tells Carol why he is there – because he alone can see how perfect she is in her mere being (dark circles around her eyes and all); in the way she loves and cares for her son; in the way she brings Melvin his eggs at the restaurant; how he is amazed that no one else can see this truth that shines so luminously to him, we hear the voice of prajna. This life, as it is lived in the mundane moment-to-moment flow is good. It is as good as it gets if we can only open our eyes and our hearts to this reality.

            When Melvin suggests to Carol that they go out for a walk, it is Carol who fears that to go out walking at 4:30 in the morning is “insane.” She certainly doesn’t want to appear crazy! Melvin shows her how fluid reality and perception truly is – how indeed they are actually the same thing – and is we who give meaning to experience by suggesting a “legitimate” reason a couple might be out walking at 4:30 AM.
            There is a bakery on the corner. By stopping off there as they open, they go from being a “crazy” couple walking at 4:30 AM to just a couple who appreciate “really fresh warm rolls” for breakfast!

            Still, both have further lessons to learn this morning. Another insight needs to develop. As they walk, Carol becomes aware of Melvin’s avoidance of the cracks in the sidewalk. She stops abruptly and pulls away from him, declaring “this, whatever it is. It’s not going to work.” This is beyond her ability to accept. She is uncomfortable with the situation as it is. After another avowal of love from Melvin, he moves in for a kiss. But neither of them can completely let go into the moment. They are not fully present to the embrace. Melvin insists he knows he can do better, and then abandoning himself to the moment, surrenders to a truly passionate, fully embracing kiss that Carol herself melts into.
            When they take each others hand and start walking again, the camera’s set-up leads us to believe there’s been a typical Hollywood “magic of romance” movement, because we see that they are walking along a cross-hatched sidewalk, side by side! But, as the camera pulls back, we see that while Carol is walking along the tiles, Melvin is walking on the inside of the sidewalk, where the cracks are more widely spaced! But, they are holding hands across the gulf. Is this a compromise? Or acceptance? Or is it both? Perhaps these two options are not in fact two different things. Perhaps they are one and the same, their love bridging all distinctions?

            Yet, in the very last shot of the film, the bakery lights go on. As the door opens outward, and Melvin steps aside to let Carol in, he loses his balance and the toes of his left foot land on the cracks of the tiled part of the sidewalk. We see – and feel along with him – his surprise… and relief! Nothing happens. Nothing changes. And of course, everything changes! It’s okay. In the very moment that he has let go and allowed himself to be thrown off balance by thinking of someone else other than himself first, he most fully comes alive. He becomes himself, free of self-defensive compulsion and obsession.

            When we are finally able to awaken to the present, with all its messiness, we can see how those things we may fear most – “things” like change and selflessness, uncertainty, and insubstantiality – are not only negative, but the very grist and foundation upon which life is lived. Change is the constant process of transformation without which there is no life. Selflessness is the fact of interdependence, of the contingent nature of reality. No-thing, and no-one, exists in isolation, no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves into believing otherwise.
            In one way or another, each of the three main characters learns aspects of these lessons. Melvin’s transformation begins with his letting down his isolating tendencies – first with Verdell the dog, then with Simon and Carol. He learns interdependence as does Carol, when he offers her assistance and she overcomes her resistance to accepting his aid. In Simon and Melvin’s opening to each other, as well, the lessons of selflessness and interdependence allows change and transformation to happen; life flows and they discover deeper truths about themselves and their capacities to love.

            This is how we all become more fully alive. And, it’s as good as it gets!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Some notes on "After.Life"

This past weekend, Cinema Nirvana, an on-going film series I've been programming for close to two years, held at Tucson Yoga, presented directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. If you've not seen it, you may want to check out the trailer.  

As you might expect, the common dialogue around this film has run the "Is she or isn't she" thread to -- pardon the pun -- death! Those who are firmly convinced one way or the other seem to like the film, while those who are caught with not knowing, seem to hate it!

For a dharma talk, you'd be right to expect that some mention of the 'moral' of the tale -- which is stated baldly at least several times throughout the film -- that most of us live our lives as already dead. And dharma practice is there to help us "Wake Up!"

However, when I first saw this film, the comment made by the mortician (played to creepily fine perfection by Liam Neeson) that Anna is a corpse ("no one cares about your opinions anymore") reminded me of the famous hwadu: Who carries this corpse?

Hsu Yun was a renowned Chinese Chan (Zen) master, and extremely influential. He lived from 1840 to 1959, dying at the age of 119. Here's a "poem" written by him, from which the famous hwadu comes:

Years Months Days Hours

One year and then another.

Appearances gradually change.

Bone marrow shrivels.
Eyebrows thin away.

This time-limited body is like a mound of slurry.
In the Triple World, earth, air, fire and water mingle and change.

This is all our emotions allow us to notice.

And their sight obstructs our view of Heaven.

One month and then another.

The light and dark pass like melting snow.

No part can be kept for long.

Only the Dharma does not come or go.

The lacquer bowl suddenly breaks.

You are like the Dragon of Heaven - born to be lively and free.

A roc can't live in a crane's nest.

A little jiaoliao bird needs to stay near mosquito ponds.

One day and then another.

They never wear themselves out.

Give up your judgments about everything.

It's all insubstantial in the end.

All things under the sun come to an end and dissolve.

Spend what time you have in honest simplicity.

Just one breath of the Eternal

Admits you to the Great Chamber.

One hour and then another.

Inexorably march, step by step.

Whenever I meet you, we each smile.

But who is it who drags your corpse around?

Steadfast and unchangeable.

Always mindful of this or that.

You're young and strong. Exert yourself!

Don't wait... oh please don't wait

Until you're much too old and weak.

“Who drags this corpse around?" The hwadu (Korean; hua tou: Chinese) takes us right to the essence of Chan. Generally, most folk are more familiar with the koan, an apparently irrational or paradoxical story used in Zen Buddhism as a meditation technique. The hwadu is considered the true 'turning word' from the koan. For instance: "Does a dog have buddha-nature?" asks the student of Master Joshu, who replies, "Mu!" is the complete koan. Mu is the hwadu.
For many, practicing with a hwadu  may seem too abstruse, difficult and bizarre. The very way to approach working with one seems alien or insurmountable. I mean, counting the breaths, working with a mantra or visualization can be challenging enough, but to struggle with "What am I?" or "What is it?" can be truly mind-boggling!
One issue is the belief that certain circumstances are necessary to practice such a demanding practice. Hsu Yun warned us about this point:
"There are cases of the enjoyable state of purity and cleanness realizable in stillness but not realizable in disturbance. For this reason many meditators avoid disturbing conditions and look for quiet places. They do not realize that they have already agreed to become servants of the demon of both stillness and disturbance."

Note how often we find ourselves struggling to find the right conditions for meditation and the cultivation of a "spiritual" mind amidst the chaos of our lives. We may feel that we need stillness and isolation to practice, withdrawal from the round of daily life. But a central teaching of the Zen tradition is that anyone can awaken to intimacy with life, and nobody can start from anywhere other than where they are at the moment. As Hsu Yun emphasized, to separate conditions of "stillness" from "disturbance" in order to find the ideal condition for meditation is to have already succumbed to error. 

When working with a hwadu, it is like being told to open our eyes in a totally dark room and being told to look . In working with a hwadu (or koan) we use the same mind we use to explore the world of the senses; but we turn that faculty inwards instead of outwards, as the Korean Master Chinul said, "tracing the radiance back." And truly, at first all we see may be murky darkness, but before long that darkness becomes illuminated from within by a most brilliant light.

A hwadu is designed to take us beyond where our conditioned minds alone can take us. By forcing the mind to its very limits, we enter into a whole new way of perception – a more direct perception independent of the mind's more gross filtering machinery. The traditional Zen teachings is that we can go beyond all conditioning, but I believe that as neural beings, such unmediated "perception" is a fantasy. What we go beyond is the identification and attachment to social, cultural and some biological conditioning, but as all this 'going beyond' occurs in the body/brain, there is no going beyond all 'filters.' For instance, we can only see the colors and forms we see as conditioned by our optic systems, including the brain. What Zen practice can do for us is to allow us to see the colors free of conditioned association, and that's a lot!
The fact that work on the hwadu is expected to continue during times not set aside specifically for meditation provides us with the implication that the examination of a  is not intended to be a merely rational, discursive part of the thinking process; it is rather about developing a "feeling" of  doubt -- or as I prefer, questioning -- and slowly acquiring the skill to carry it with us at all times. We can argue with our spouse, change soiled diapers, be mindful of doing the washing-up after dinner, showering and shaving… all while being aware of the doubt, questioning just "who is performing this action?" There is nothing that can happen in our lives that we cannot use to give rise to this enquiring, doubting, mind. We can always ask ourselves "Who feels?," "Who thinks?", "Who is in pain?" "Who feels defensive?" "Who hears the train whistle?"
And as we practice, the easier it becomes to give rise to this feeling. When we least expect it, the breakthrough happens revealing the perfectly clear unambiguous answer to our hwadu. When that happens a blissful flowing energy -- what the early Buddhists called nibanna-dhatu -- is felt throughout the bodymind.
The hwadu "who drags the corpse" is a sword designed for cutting through to the heart of "who". The "corpse" referred to in the question does not simply refer to the physical body. In Buddhist teachings -- common to the wider Yoga Tradition, mind is also a part of this body, a part of this corpse. As all the six senses come together on this hwadu, a curious thing happens: we "see" the who and the corpse as the same thing - the duality vanished. The sense of an individual self vanished. It's this realization of anatta (not-self) that we are led to find by this practice.
An integral aspect of the essential reality of "not-self" is realizing that our form is not a unified and permanent whole, but a collection of interacting attributes that come together and move apart; a fluid but impermanent relationship of conditions. In Buddhism, these conditions are referred to as the five skandhas -- "heaps" or "aggregates". The "corpse" that we carry is the totality of these temporarily-bonded skandhas. Think of a pile of laundry: we call it "the laundry" as if it were a unified 'thing,' when in fact it is a heap of undies, socks, shirts, etc.
The five skandhas are physical form (rupa), which is the "meat body." Secondly, there are our feelings (vedana), the actual felt-sense of the body, including whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Thirdly, there are our perceptions (samjna), our tendency to notice, to label, to describe, and to perceive. Fourthly, there are our mental formations (samskaras) which are more difficult to describe, but might be recognized as ideas, beliefs and emotions which are formations based on feelings and perceptions, which create attitudes and perspectives unique to us. Finally, there is consciousness itself (vijnana). It enlivens and animates the other four skandhas.
Together, these skandhas change, interact, coalesce and create the personal sense of "I." It is this manufactured "I," identifying with the corpse, that the evasive "who" of the hwadu hides behind.
Looked at this way, the skandhas are this corpse. There is no duality between body and mind in this hwadu. The deepening examination of "who" it is that enlivens this corpse reveals a nexus of awareness that seemingly both transcends and "indwells" this body, this mind, these perceptions and feelings, this limited personal consciousness. The duality is, like all dualities, apparent: a product of our perception (one of the skandhas). This "who" is not a part of the personal self. It is not anything. We use the word "who" as we look within, but we know we will not find anyone. How could we? Anything found would simply be another entity, another being limited by its own point of reference, its own beginning and end. But we ask "who" in order to pierce deeper into that emptiness that is at the core of our own personal self.
Another example here: we say, "It is raining," and forget that there is no "it" separate from the rain. In a similar way, we talk of "our feelings," or "our ideas" as if there is some entity behind, beyond, below or above the changing phenomena of feelings and ideas. But try to find it and "it" cannot be found!
Every moment of every day, and not simply in seated meditation, reality itself asks this hwadu. Who are we? Who is it that responds to each thought, each perception, each feeling? The answer cannot be any of the skandhas for we are not our bodies, ideas, perceptions, forms or changing energies. So what is this who?
As we ask "who drags this corpse" and as we look deeper into this space of unknowing, we find that as our focus deepens, our words, and the corpse, falls away. Finally we are left with just who? And what then?!
Putting aside our self-images, our hopes, fears (aren't they two sides of the same thing?) and memories (at least just for the purposes of pursuing the "not-knowing" necessary for working with the hwadu, ask, as full-heartedly as possible, as intimately as possible:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11th, 2001

Like you, I'm sure, I've heard talk about 9/11 memorials for weeks, and this week a real ratcheting up of reminiscences -- some deeply moving and personal, and some typical so-called patriotic blathering.

I wish to mark the day by re-posting the following from my old blog: Karuna Notes, that I posted the day after September 11th. Sadly, the US took the reactive low road, and we are indeed a poorer nation for it. But for those of us living in NYC in those first few weeks after 9/11, we know -- we remember -- there was a shining luminosity of the heart shared by all of us. We had, however fleeting, a vision of the pure land.

in metta-karuna,
poep sa frank jude

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

September 11, 2001

Yesterday, very much more than the Manhattan skyline was altered. America's psyche itself was utterly changed by the horror we (no matter where we live) experienced. What could hardly be thought, actually happened. With no TV, my wife and I listened to the shock in the voice of a local NYC reporter describing the fire pluming from Tower 1. We heard the horror in  his voice as it reached a shrieking peak as he witnessed the second plane bearing in on Tower 2 and hittng it in a fire ball that was felt over a mile away.

Other reports, later, spoke of the "strange" calm and orderliness of the crowds as they walked through the streets and across the Brooklyn Bridge. I suspected it was evidence of shock. And of course, there was shock, but when I finally saw pictures, I saw, along with the grief and anguish, a palpable strength, determination and resolve. I felt I was witnessing the deep source of what is best in humankind -- here in the midst of the consequences of the worst of that which we are capable. I was moved to tears by the reports of aid given to each other by "victims," by the quick response of "average" New Yorkers, along with the valiant efforts of the City's fire, police and rescue operations. And of the death of so many of them -- true bodhisattvas. 

But I was also dismayed at some of the "news" commentators and politicians and their quick talk of war and retribution. Mayor Guilliani, in a news briefing, told New Yorkers not to lash out at New York's Arabic/Muslim community, for that would be coming from the same hatred and prejudice that was at the root of the terror itself. I am pretty sure he was unaware of it, but he was paraphrasing the Buddha who counseled, "Not by hatred is hatred dispersed, but by non-hatred." Those who call impulsively for retaliation suffer from both fear and a stunted imagination. Yes, I can understand the fear, but after millenia of trying to do away with violence and aggression with violence and aggression, haven't we yet learned that it just does not work?!

To give in to our most base instinct is to betray what makes us truly human. If we capitulate to our own anger and hatred, we lose the possibility of transforming this tragedy into what it could become -- a watershed in the evolution of the world and of society. If we give in to blind rage and fear, we learn and change nothing, but if we respond with awareness, compassion and understanding, we give meaning to what otherwise is the senseless death of too many.

"Look how he abused me and mistreated me.... Live with such thoughts and you live in hate," says the Buddha. And look how quick we are to point fingers and try to assign blame. We sure do want to pinpoint the blame, and yet we fail to even look at, let alone pinpoint the causes and conditions. For this would require some real thought and some deep "soul-searching." To point to "the other" as evil is to objectify and diminish in denial the inter-connectedness we live within. "How is it that we can be the object of such hatred?" might be a question that could spur some real creative thinking. What is our responsibility for the existence of such hatred in the world?

Please, I AM NOT saying that justice should not be served. Those who are "directly responsible" must not be allowed to get away with this heinous crime. But blindly acting out of rage and some mixture of righteousness and victimization will only fan the flames of hatred in the world -- and not serve to bring peace or safety to anyone. We can only have peace when we live from peace and when we have done all we can to insure that all beings can live in peace. 


Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they 
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember, brother,
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion --
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine. 

_--- Thich Nhat Hanh

Monday, September 5, 2011

September Daily Practice: Wisdom Practice -- Equanimity

Well, with this posting, this blog marks it's first anniversary. I'm wondering if those who have signed on as followers could offer some feedback on what has been helpful, what hasn't been so helpful and what you'd like to see on this blog. In a nutshell, I'd like this blog to be of service to you and all those who wish to live more mindfully, and I'd also like it to be more 'interactive.'  In looking over the past year, there's been less and less comments made, and I wonder what this signifies?

As for this month's Daily Practice, I'm sharing the fourth of the Four Immeasurables, the one that can be most challenging, and yet is ultimately the foundation and nourishment needed to expand the other three (friendliness, compassion and joy) 'immeasurably!'

A lot of people I know avoid reading the paper first thing in the morning—being confronted with all of the injustices and bad deeds in the world is an unsettling way to start the day. It’s difficult to read about the latest corporate finance scam or the obscenity of human trafficking and keep your peace of mind, and it’s even harder to know how to respond. The conflict feels even more immediate when you witness an unjust act firsthand, or are yourself the recipient of one, whether it’s having your wallet stolen, your car broken into, or any sort of hurtful behavior directed your way. The answer to this problem is upeksha, or equanimity, the fourth of the brahmaviharas. This state of mind allows us to respond to the nonvirtuous deeds of others, and indeed, to all of life’s fluctuations, in such a way that we are, as Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey describes it, the opposite of the way James Bond likes his martini: Stirred but not shaken. When we cultivate equanimity, we’re moved by injustice in the world and motivated to make things better, but our deep inner serenity is not disturbed.

Sometimes translated as indifference, upeksha is not a bland state of neutrality. In fact it means we care, and care deeply about all beings evenly! The Buddhist tradition’s understanding of upekkha or equanimity is one of balance. A balanced heart is not an unfeeling heart. The balanced heart feels pleasure without grasping and clinging at it, it feels pain without condemning or hating, and it stays open to neutral experiences with presence. Insight Meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg speaks of equanimity as a “spacious stillness of mind,” within which we can remain connected to others and all that is happening around us, while remaining free of our conditioned habit of grasping at what is pleasant and pushing away what is unpleasant.
One way to experience equanimity is to experiment with mindfulness meditation. Rather than fixing one-pointed attention on a single object such as the breath or a mantra, mindfulness meditation involves the moment-to-moment awareness of changing objects of perception. Mindfulness is like a flood light, shining awareness on the whole field of experience including sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away in the dynamic, ever-changing flux that characterizes the human experience of body and mind. Mindfulness allows you to see the nature of the unfolding process without getting caught in reactivity, or into being overly identified with it as ‘self,’ and this insight changes your relationship to the mind-body. The waves keep coming, but you don’t get swept away by them. Or as Swami Satchidanada often said, “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf!” This ability to remain balanced amidst ever-changing conditions is the balance of equanimity.

There’s an old story that illustrates the wisdom of this state of mind. A farmer's most valuable asset is the one horse he owns. One day it runs away. All the townspeople commiserate with him, "Oh, what terrible luck! You've fallen into poverty now, with no way to pull the plow or move your goods!" The farmer merely responds, "I don't know if it's unfortunate or not; all I know is that my horse is gone."

A few days later, the horse returns, and following it are 6 more horses, both stallions and mares. The townspeople say "Oh! You've struck it rich! Now you have 7 horses to your name!" Again, the farmer says, "I don't know if I'm fortunate or not; all that I can say is that I now have 7 horses in my stable."

A few days later, while the farmer's son is trying to break in one of the wild stallions, he's thrown from the horse and breaks his leg and shoulder. All the townspeople bemoan his fate: "Oh, how terrible! Your son has been so badly injured, he'll not be able to help you with the harvest. What a misfortune!” The farmer responds, “I don't know if its a misfortune or not; what I know is that my son has been injured.”
Less than a week later, the army sweeps through town, conscripting all of the young men to fight in a war... all except for the farmer's son who is unable to fight because of his injury.

The fact is, you can’t know what changes your life will bring, or what the ultimate consequences will be. Equanimity allows for the mystery of things; the unknowable, uncontrollable nature of things to be just as they are. In this radical acceptance lies peace and freedom – right there in the midst of whatever pleasant or unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to the truth that there is actually very little we can control other than our own reactions to circumstances, we learn to let go.

Cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, and joy open your heart to others. Equanimity balances the giving of your heart’s love with the recognition and acceptance that things are the way they are. However much you may care for someone, however much you may do for others, however much you would like to control or wish that things were other than they are, equanimity reminds you that all beings everywhere are responsible for their own actions, and for the consequences of their actions.

Without this recognition, it’s easy to fall into compassion fatigue, helper-burnout, and even despair. Equanimity allows you to open your heart and offer as much love, kindness, compassion, and rejoicing as you can, while letting go of your expectations and attachment to results. Equanimity endows the other three Brahma-Viharas with kshanti – patience, persistence, and forbearance. So you can keep your heart open even if the kindness, compassion and appreciative joy you offer to others is not returned. It is equanimity that brings immeasurability or boundlessness to the other three Brahma-Viharas.

If you practice asana, your practice can offer a good opportunity to become better at recognizing where, when, and how you get caught in or swept away by reactivity, and to observe your attachment to results. You might even observe an attachment to results in your motivation to practice in the first place! The desire to feel good and avoid the unpleasant might very well condition your whole experience of practice. But fixating on the results can cause you to miss key aspects of the process. As you continue in your asana practice, at some point it’s likely that factors outside your control—anatomical realities, injury, aging or illness – will affect your practice. When they do, you have a chance to practice equanimity by letting go of your attachment to the results you had been seeking. Equanimity gives you the energy to persist, regardless of the outcome, because you are connected to the integrity of the effort itself. Equanimity allows me to feel inspired by the beauty of the backbends modeled by B.K.S. Iyengar in Light On Yoga, knowing my back will never be able to accomplish them, and enjoy practicing the backbend I can do today.

In The Bhagavad-Gita Krishna tells Arjuna that this attitude of focusing on the action without attachment to the outcome is yoga: “Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.” Similarly, Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutra I:12 - 16 that abhyasa, continuous applied effort, coupled with vairagya, the willingness to observe experience without getting caught in reactivity to it, will lead to freedom from suffering.
For a formal practice to cultivate equanimity, begin with some calming breaths, or a mantra meditation. Once you feel calm, reflect on your deepest desire for happiness and freedom from suffering, both for yourself and others. Contemplate your desire to serve the needs of others and to be compassionately engaged in the world. Acknowledge both the joy and the suffering that exist throughout the world; the good deeds and the evil ones. As you continue to breathe into your heart’s center, acknowledge the necessity of balancing your desire to make positive change in the world with the reality that you cannot control the actions of others.

Bring to mind the image someone for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. With this person in your mind’s eye, repeat the following phrases to yourself, coordinating with the out-breath if you like:

“All beings like yourself are responsible for their own actions.”
“Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.”
“Although I wish only the best for you, I know that your happiness or unhappiness depends on your actions, not on my wishes for you.”
“May you not be caught in reactivity.”

Feel free to use similar, appropriate phrases of your own devising. After a few minutes, shift your attention to your benefactors, those who have offered you support and assistance throughout your life, including teachers, friends, family, as well as the unseen workers who keep the societal infrastructure working. Silently repeat the phrases to yourself as you contemplate these benefactors.
After several minutes, begin to reflect upon your loved ones, directing the phrases to them, followed by the difficult people in your life. While feeling kindness, compassion and joy for those we love comes more easily than it does for those with whom we have difficulty, it is often the opposite with equanimity. It’s a lot easier to accept that those we dislike are responsible for their own happiness than it is for those we care for deeply since we feel more attachment to them. Whatever your experience, simply note any reactivity and see if you can be equinanimous with your reactivity!

Broaden your reach after a few minutes to include all beings everywhere throughout the world, and then finally concentrate contemplating equanimity in regards to yourself, noticing how taking responsibility for your own happiness and unhappiness can feel the hardest of all.

“All beings, including myself, are responsible for their own actions.”
“Suffering or happiness is created through one’s relationship to experience, not by experience itself.”
“Although I wish only the best for myself, I know that my happiness or unhappiness depends upon my actions, not my wishes for myself.”
“May I not be caught in reactivity.”

When you cultivate metta, the friendly quality of kind regard, karuna, the compassionate response to the suffering of others, and mudita, the delight in the happiness and success of others, it is equanimity that ultimately allows you to truly expand your capacity to experience this kind of boundless love for those beyond your immediate circle of friends and family, opening to the infinite capacity of your heart to embrace all beings.

Upeksha Bhavana: Cultivating Equanimity

The meditation and cultivation of equanimity helps create and sustain a balanced mind that remains calm and at peace within all the changing circumstances of life; what Zorba, the Greek calls, “the full catastrophe.”

Preliminary Practice: Begin with some calming breath or mantra meditation. When you are experiencing some modicum of calm, begin the cultivation of equanimity.

Basic Practice: As with the previous meditations. Especially here, if there is any agitation or anxiety present, return to calming, stabilizing breath work.

The Phrases:

All beings are the owners or heirs of their karma.
Appropriate action leads to good results; inappropriate action leads to bad results.
Everyone must face his or her own situation.
Although I wish only the best for you, I know that your happiness or unhappiness depends upon your actions, not my wishes for you.
May I (you, he, she, they) not be caught in reactivity.

Use these and other appropriate phrases.

The Traditional Sequence of Upeksha Bhavana:

1.     To a neutral person.
2.     To benefactors.
3.     To loved ones.
4.     To difficult people.
5.     To all beings.
6.     To yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Club: "The Body of Truth" by Ajahn Amaro Bhikkhu (Part 3)

Whew! It's taken me some time to get back to this! There's much in this chapter worth speaking about, but I'm going to be brief, just jot down some notes, and see if there's any takers wishing to comment and dialogue. Otherwise, next post, I'll begin comments on the final chapter, Michael Stone's concluding essay.

First, the section "Responsiveness Rather Than Reactivity" pretty much sums it all up! I often talk about how practice takes us from the conditioned patterns of reactivity to more creative, wholesome, liberated responsiveness. To be able to respond is to also take responsibility. In the Zen ordination ceremony, the "Gatha of Atonement" (or "Repentance") is chanted three times to emphasize that when we take this path up, we are saying we are no longer viewing ourselves as "victims," and that from now on we take responsibility for our actions. Only in doing so can we ever live as free beings.

In "Mother Nature's Valium," Ajahn Amaro points out a basic physiological fact: when the body is tense, the mind will be tense and active; when the body is relaxed, the mind relaxes. Have you ever noticed, for instance, your hands clutching the steering wheel of your car while you are driving? Next time you do, quickly reflect on what's going on in your mind, and I can bet you will have been lost in thought, either planning or ruminating or fretting.....   Conversely, the next time you find yourself lost in thought, do a quick scan of your body, and I can bet you'll find you are holding tension somewhere!  The good news is that with this awareness, you can use either 'active mind' or 'tense body' as "Bells of Mindfulness," awaking you to "suchness," the topic of the last section of this chapter.

Ajahn Amaro, speaking of the word tathaagata) says: "is that Buddha quality completely transcendent -- utterly gone? Or is it immanent in the physical world -- completely here, present now? The term is perfect in that it carries both these meanings and indicates that the two, embodiment and transcendence, do not exclude each other in any way." I go further in saying that "transcendence" itself is a completely immanent, embodied experience and reality. As a "Zen Naturalist," I do not believe that there is some separate "transcendent realm" outside the physical world. What is transcended is our notions about what that physical world is.

I like how he adds: "This attribute of suchness then carries with it the spirit of inclusivity, being the point of intersection of the embodied and the transcendent, of time with timelessness. It directs us toward finding spiritual fulfillment in the suchness of the embodied mind, here and now, rather than in some abstracted, idealized 'me,' some other place and time, or in some special uber-heavenly state we might reach through withdrawal of senses." This is fabulous writing! And it's important to keep in mind just how tenacious the tendency to seek some such "uber-heavenly state" is in our culture! Religions of all types trade on such promise!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Boundless Joy: The Delight In Being

     “We hate it when our friends are successful,” sang Morrissey, the mope-rock, singer songwriter and former leader of The Smiths. And while  “hate” may be overstating the issue, a quick Google search of that song finds hundreds of articles and blogs quoting Morrissey, with people sharing the dark, not-so-secret fact, that rather than celebrating others’ successes and happiness, we often react with envy and jealousy. And the flip side of this human quirk is the guilty delight, or schadenfreude, we feel when others fail, as evidenced by so much of the popular reaction to celebrities’ foibles and misfortunes.

       It’s as if we had internalized the notion that there’s only so much happiness, joy, or good fortune to go around, and that if others are happy, there must be less available for us! This must be an age-old problem, and certainly not one limited to contemporary society, because already, over 2,000 years ago, both the Buddha and later, Patanjali, taught the practice of mudita, the third of the Brahma-Viharas, the yogic teachings on love, as an antidote to this notion that we need feel threatened or diminished by the happiness of others by cultivating the ability to take active delight in others’ good fortune.

The Classical Yoga tradition warns that feeling envy is painful and disrupting of our own mental well-being. The tradition singles out cultivating delight in virtuous people. “Don’t envy them; don’t try to pull them down. Appreciate the virtuous qualities in them and try to cultivate them in your own life,” Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Patanjali.

Speaking from the Buddhist yoga tradition, where the Brahma-Viharas are also known as the “Four Immeasurables,” or “Limitless Ones” the Dalai Lama speaks for a kind of ‘enlightened self interest.’ As he puts it, there are so many people in this world it simply makes sense to make their happiness as important as our own, because then our chances of delight are increased. If we are only happy for ourselves, there are many fewer chances for happiness. But if we can be happy when good things happen to others, then our chances for delight are increased “six billion to one!”

I try to remember this myself when I find myself on a long line, like at the bank. Rather than fall into impatience or envy of the folks toward the front of the line, I imagine their relief when they are called to the teller’s window and feel happy for them. By the time it’s my turn, I’m feeling pretty darn happy myself!

The root of the word mudita means “to be pleased, to have a sense of gladness.” The Buddha called mudita “the mind-deliverance of gladness” because this joyful delight actually liberates our hearts and minds. While the mainstream Buddhist tradition tends to translate mudita as “empathetic or altruistic joy” to emphasize our over-coming of envy and jealousy by taking delight in the happiness of others, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, this is too limiting a definition because it discriminates between self and others. In Teachings On Love, he writes: “A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?”

So much of our unhappiness comes from the negativity we hold towards ourselves and toward others. Through our judgments, comparisons, and envy we suffer from a sense of aloneness and lack. Because there are so many constricting impediments to truly opening up to joy, mudita is often said to be the most difficult of the Brahma-Viharas to cultivate. Perhaps because of this very difficulty, mudita can be a powerful liberating force, freeing us from the sense of isolation and self-constriction. And, thankfully, there are many ways we can create the conditions for opening to joy, in asana practice, meditation, and throughout the day.

Whether in my own asana practice, or when teaching, when focusing on joy, I find it helpful to follow John Friend’s advice to “look for the good.” To counter-act the mind’s tendency to fixate on what’s “wrong” with a posture – or with any of life’s experiences – we can actively look for what is “right.” This is not a Pollyannaish denial of duhkha – the unsatisfactory and painful aspects of life. After all, mudita follows the first two Brahma-Viharas: metta, the friendly, non-judgmental accepting quality of what is, and karuna, the compassionate opening to whatever physical, emotional, energetic and mental ills you may be experiencing. We cannot open to real joy if we are caught in aversion or attachment. A psychotherapist I worked with once said that the most pain avoidant people have the least joy in their lives.

The Buddha said that all experiences can be categorized as being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When we cultivate joy, we focus more on the pleasant, but the neutral too can help grow more joy. Thich Nhat Hanh offers the example of the “non-toothache.” When you last had a toothache, you knew for sure that it was unpleasant and that to not have a toothache would be pleasant. But now, you overlook the joy of the non-toothache because it is “neutral.” By bringing attention to the fact that your teeth do not hurt, you may feel a gentle smile of appreciation arise. The neutral quality of experience, through mindfulness, can be the nourishment for greater joy.

A deep, and long relaxation is a must when cultivating joy in our asana practice. While lying in shavasana, you can “touch” various parts of your body with your loving attention. For instance, bringing attention to your eyes as you inhale, send an “inner smile” to your eyes, full of gratitude and appreciation for them as you exhale. Spend a few breaths, smiling to each part of your body. As you move your attention through your body, you do this for your limbs, your inner organs – even, and especially for those parts of the body you may be less than satisfied with – developing greater joy and deeper appreciation for what is.

This practice of cultivating appreciation and gratitude can be taken off the mat and practiced throughout the day. A student shared with me that she felt that life had lost its “flavor” and had become rather empty. As part of her practice, I asked her to spend some time at the end of each day, reviewing her day and making a list of five things that brought her some joy. I emphasized that these need not be “big” things; that perhaps seeing a child laugh while a puppy licked its face could bring her some joy. At the end of one week, she asked if she had to limit her list to five things. She said she found that there were many joy-filled experiences, even on her darkest days. Without denying her sadness and heavy spirit, she was finding that all was not dark. As Leonard Cohen says, “the joy kept breaking through.”

Somewhat paradoxically, the contemplation on impermanence can also enhance our ability to touch joy. The Buddha thought the contemplation of impermanence so important he called it one of the three “Dharma Seals,” saying that without an understanding of impermanence, one could not fully penetrate the Dharma, meaning both his teachings and the real nature of things. I know for myself that the awareness of the impermanent nature of all phenomena – including myself – makes me more sensitive to the effervescent nature of experience. When awake to impermanence, I do not take any one or anything for granted. I stay in touch with what’s happening, and feel the joy of simply being awake to life.

As the mental obstacles to joy are so pernicious, it is important to stay alert to their presence as soon as they arise. When we are judgmental, the mind becomes rigidly attached to how it thinks things should be. If we are judgmental of ourselves, chances are we are also judgmental of others. Mudita, being nonjudgmental, accepts that others can find happiness in things that we would not. Can we accept that others may choose to live their lives differently from us and feel happy for them? Viveka, or discernment is still required, of course. Unfortunately, many people delude themselves as to what makes them happy, and in fact create unhappiness for themselves or others. But if people are genuinely happy and they are not harming themselves or others, mudita is the practice of sharing in their happiness.

Comparing mind is another major obstacle to feeling joy. Whether we compare ourselves to others as better, worse, or the same, we are falling into the trap of “conceit.” Comparing can never bring peace or joy because there is no end to the possibilities of things we can compare ourselves to! While it’s obvious that comparing ourselves as “better” or “worse” is painful, it may seem surprising that even comparing ourselves as “the same” or “equal” to others is considered “conceit.” The problem is, that all comparing is looking at others in order to define oneself. It is evaluating our self worth in reference to others, when the spirit of mudita and the other Brahma-Viharas affirms that we innately deserve to be happy. When we truly believe and understand that deep reality, we can take delight in the happiness of others instead of feeling threatened by it. Our relationship to the world becomes one of communion rather than competition.

The formal practice of mudita-bhavana (joy cultivation), celebrates the happiness of all beings – ourselves included! In fact, through the growing insight into the interdependent nature of the world, we see that the happiness of “others” is indeed our happiness.

To enter into the spirit of mudita-bhavana, it is helpful to recall your own innate goodness. Bring to mind a time when you said or did something that was kind, generous, caring or loving. If nothing comes to mind, turn your attention to a quality in yourself that you enjoy or like about yourself, some skill or talent perhaps that you can recognize and appreciate. If still nothing comes to mind, simply reflect on the basic “rightness” of your innate wish to be happy.

Then begin to offer yourself appreciative and encouraging phrases acknowledging the joy and happiness you’ve experienced in life.

“May I learn to appreciate the happiness and joy I experience.”
“May the joy I experience continue and grow.”
“May I be filled with joy and gratitude.”

Of course, you are free to create any phrases that have an appreciative intention, and as you send these wishes to yourself, open yourself to whatever feelings arise in your body and mind. Notice what – if any – reactivity is provoked by the practice. Don’t expect to instantly feel great joy and appreciation. As a “purification practice,” sometimes all we see is our lack of appreciation and the mind’s judging reactivity. Simply note whatever arises, and return to the phrases, with as much friendliness and compassion you can muster.

After directing these phrases to yourself for a while, the traditional sequence moves on to a benefactor, defined as someone who has inspired you or offered you aid in any way.

“May you experience joy and may your happiness continue.”
“May you be filled with appreciation for your happiness and success.”
“May your happiness and good fortune continue.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”

Following a benefactor, the sequence moves on to a loved one or friend; then towards a neutral person, defined as someone you barely know – maybe even a stranger for whom you have no strong feelings one way or the other. Following the neutral person, we see if we can include sending these phrases and connecting to feeling joy and delight for the happiness and success of the “difficult” people in your life; perhaps someone you envy, but generally those whom you have shut out from your heart.

“May your happiness and joy increase.”
“May the joy in your life continue and grow.”
“May you be successful and met with appreciation.”

If it becomes too difficult to send to a difficult person, acknowledge this with non-judgmental acceptance, and return to sending these phrases to a loved one or yourself. Trust that in time, your heart will expand to include even those for whom you now feel resentment and envy.

Finally, with the understanding that all beings wish to be met with appreciation, we send these phrases to all beings throughout the world. Imagine radiating these positive thoughts from your immediate environment, out in all directions, sending appreciative joy-filled wishes to all beings in existence. When you feel ready to end the meditation, take some time to simply sit with your feelings, and your breath, honoring whatever you experience.

In the Buddhist yoga tradition, the practice of “sharing merit” is another antidote to the idea that the happiness of others means there’s less for us. When we feel that there is a fixed amount of happiness in the world, we fall into an embittered, resentful state of competition with others. Yet, happiness, like love, increases when it is shared. Sharon Salzberg, the Buddhist meditation teacher, describes merit as a power that is born in and grows through acts of goodness. Sharing this merit itself is a powerful, wholesome action that generates its own power. When you give away your merit to others, your own merit increases! Happiness does not diminish in our hearts when we share it. It isn’t a commodity limited in such a way that it has to be rationed.

When we share merit, happiness, or love with all sentient beings, by the very nature of our own sentience, we are included! There is no real separation between “us” and “them.”
In this spirit, I would like to offer the version of “sharing merit” that I like to end all my classes with:
“Whatever merit we may have generated through our practice together
We now dedicate and offer all of it
to all sentient beings throughout the world, equally.
May our thoughts, our words, and our actions
Bring benefit to the world.”


The salient characteristic of joy is a gladness that celebrates the happiness of others. It is the  opposite of envy and jealousy. Ultimately, through the insight of no-separation, the happiness of “others” is our happiness.   

Preliminary Practice:  Bring to mind the image of a benefactor whose happiness you share in. Begin with the following phrases:
     May your happiness and good fortune continue.
     May your success and prosperity continue.

Basic Practice: The same attitude as previous meditations (metta and karuna).

The Phrases: The two above and/or other appropriate statements.

The Traditional Sequence of Mudita Bhavana:

1.     To a benefactor and then a loved one or friend.
2.     To someone you envy.
3.     To other individuals.
4.     To groups of people.
5.     All beings, known and unknown to you.