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(Buddhism) Right Mindfulness

Buddhism 150Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.

For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.

So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.

Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.

Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.

That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.

But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.

What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.

Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.

For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.

So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) The Wolf We Feed

Myth 150I’m sure you know this story. One evening, an elder sits down with his son. The son had been getting into trouble because he had problems with anger and lashing out, so the elder tells him a quick fable. “There are two wolves fighting inside of each and every one of us,” he says. “One of them is everything that is evil within us – anger, envy, sorrow, greed. The other is everything that is good – joy, compassion, peace and kindness. Though one may gain the upper hand for a time, the other is never truly defeated. They are fighting for the nourishment that only you can provide them.”

The son thought about this for a while, then asked. “OK. Which one of them wins?”

“The one you feed,” the elder says.

I think about this story a lot. As a Zen Buddhist, I see karma as simply the kind of environment we create for ourselves; we can only control our actions, and it’s important that we understand the effect of our actions on the people and places around us. It’s important to me that I bring comfort, contentment and connection to the places I’m in, because those are the kind of spaces that attract me. If I’m going to make the kind of world I would want to live in, I need to put in the work. So I try hard to find common ground with the people I’m with, to make them feel comfortable enough that we can work through our differences, to make them feel connected enough that they won’t fear me rejecting them for a disagreement. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the aim. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

But here’s something else. I self-identify as a social justice warrior. I know that’s a loaded label; most of the time it’s used by people who mean it as an insult. The narrative for social justice warriors is one of immediate, unthinking and overwhelming anger against anything that could be viewed as remotely offensive. If you say something politically incorrect, then the social justice warriors will grab their pitchforks and come after you. They’re the thought police of the internet.

I take on that moniker because I believe in the causes championed by many who’ve been derided as such. I occupy many different intersecting minority spaces, being gay, black, non-Christian and coping with chronic mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to move through a world that hasn’t been built for you, and I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis what it’s like to have your existence questioned, dismissed or belittled. I’ve also experienced how occupying many privileged spaces has made my life easier in many respects; I’m a cisgender male, I’m able-bodied, I’m reasonably educated, have medical insurance and a support network. My illnesses aren’t so severe that I can’t function in modern society. There are people who have more fundamental challenges than I do.
So I fight for them, and I fight for the people who are dealing with the same challenges I do. I believe in a world where we clearly see, understand and accept the unique challenges and burdens of our fellow human beings. I believe we ought to live in a society that provides them with whatever they need to be healthy, happy and whole. I believe in fighting for a shift in our consciousness around these issues; it’s not enough that I personally believe these things – we as a civilization must address the needs of our most vulnerable and powerless. We must make sure they can be connected to the fabric of society just as well as those of us who don’t need additional considerations. I’m willing to work to make sure that happens, however I can.

This is a mindset I’ve come by recently, to be sure. As a progressive, it’s sort of my job to continually test and reshape my understanding of how the world works, my place in it, and how society should function. I absorb new information and ideas about the human experience, including the really fundamental concepts that we often take for granted. My views have evolved from where they were one year ago, and hopefully they’ll have improved still further a year from now. Change is a constant in so many ways, and that must be embraced.

However, I understand why so many of us in progressive spaces have the reputations we do. We’re passionate, we can be uncompromising, and we’re fierce believers in our way of life. For so many of us, especially as minorities, the ability to organize into a community and speak in a way we can be heard is very new. The power that affords us is intoxicating, and we’re still learning how to wield it responsibly. But for the first time we can say that the frequent targeting, incarceration, abuse and murder of our black men, women and children is unacceptable. We can say that it’s unacceptable for our transgender men and women to be forced through a parade of humiliating ordeals just to “prove” their gender to people who have no business policing that concept. We can say that each and every one of us occupy space of privilege as well as under-privileged spaces, and it’s important for us to recognize that and accept what it means. What’s more, when we say it loudly enough, forcefully enough, people have no choice but to hear us. We have the power to force a conversation about these issues, and we need to because otherwise the vulnerable among us will continue to suffer and die at the hands of a society that’s only interested in keeping things exactly as they are.

If you’re not a part of these spaces, or you don’t hold the same views about society, privilege and our individual responsibilities to our community, then it may seem like I’m forcing you to talk about ideas that don’t make sense. When you ask (or demand) that I explain these ideas in a way that makes sense to you and I respond with “It’s not my job to educate you” or a dismissal of that request, it can be tremendously frustrating. When you tell me that you don’t agree or explain your position and I respond by shouting down your ideas or making personal attacks and moral judgements, it can be enraging and only encourage you to dig in your heels. I understand that.

It’s taken me some time to reconcile my identity as a Zen Buddhist with my identity as a social justice warrior. Spending time in activist spaces, I see how so many of them have become hornet’s nests of anger and frustration. For so many of us, this is a life-and-death struggle. For so many of us, people like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (remember them?) don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not aberrations or miscarriages of justice. They’re the end result of a system working as designed.
So many of us in progressive circles are afraid about what happens to us when someone decides that our differences will not be accepted. As a black man, will I be harassed by the police while I’m driving? As a gay man, will I be targeted for expressing love towards my husband in public? As a non-Christian, hearing the rhetoric in our politics about anyone who doesn’t go to church is disheartening. And these are anxieties I carry with my all day, every day.

We’re tired of being afraid. We’re tired of living in a world where speaking up means being shouted down or dismissed. We’re tired of feeling like we have to justify our existence. And that fear, fatigue and anger has reached a point where it’s simply taken over these spaces.

I understand why that has happened, and I hope other people do too. But…at this point it feels like we’re feeding the wrong wolf. We’ve given ourselves over to this anger and it means that we’ve become unable to actually affect change. When someone comes to us trying to understand why we say or do the things we say or do, it’s an opportunity to actually explain our position, to connect with someone else, to actually act on our principles and change the world. When we shut that person down with “It’s not my job” or anger, then we’ve missed that change. The disconnection deepens; that person becomes unable to speak with us because they don’t want to be subjected to that anger again.

Not every situation in which we’re asked to explain our position is an opportunity, and I know that too. But I’ve seen too many people turned away at the gate of our spaces because anger and dismissal is our default response. A lot of us have come to see the world as a more hostile place then it is, and we respond accordingly. We’ve fed the dark wolf until it has overpowered our better nature.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve come to the decision that this cycle has to stop somewhere. We can’t keep alienating those who disagree with us, and we can’t keep shouting down the people who haven’t arrived to the exact same conclusions we have. If we expect to change the world, we have to change the minds of the people living there. And we can’t do that with the tone of the conversation we’ve been having in and around these topics.

Inevitably, this opinion is going to be called “tone policing” or “concern trolling” because I’m more interested in the tone of the conversation than the subject. Since I’ve owned the social justice warrior moniker, I’ll go ahead and own the label of tone policing too. Fine, I’m advocating that we consider our tone. You know why? BECAUSE OUR TONE IS IMPORTANT.

The emotions that we deal with as minorities are certainly valid. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be tired. And it’s OK to be afraid. There is a lot that’s wrong with the world we live in, and we’ve been fighting the same battles for a very long time. Sometimes, it’s even OK to let that anger fuel our actions; we can rise up and state in no uncertain terms that we will not tolerate unfair or extreme treatment from a power structure that is supposed to protect us from it.

However, different situations call for different actions, regardless of our emotional state. It’s important to consider what we want out of our conversations. Are we hoping to express ourselves in a way that gets someone to see the world the way we do? If that’s the case, what’s the best way to do that? Making someone feel bad about what they believe rarely changes their mind, from my experience. Making them feel kinship with you stands a much better chance. It can be more difficult, and a lot more frustrating, but ultimately it’s much more effective.

Explaining why a certain statement or action is offensive requires patience and compassion. If we truly want the behavior to cease, then we must get the person engaging in it to understand what’s wrong with it and what would be a better course of action. People aren’t willing to examine themselves if they feel attacked; they close themselves off as a protective measure. In order to soften habits, we must allow them to be vulnerable. We must respect that vulnerability and treat it gently. That is difficult, if not impossible to do when you’re angry. So we must find a way to temper that anger.

I understand where the anger of progressives comes from; in many ways, I share it. But I also realize that I must remain vigilant against the effect of that anger. I don’t want to feed the wrong wolf, because that pulls me away from the person I would like to be, which pulls me away from the world I would like to create. I do my best to feed my compassion, my joy, my kindness by acting on those emotions, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.

I think in order for social justice warriors to be effective in combat, we’re going to need to start doing the same.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Buddhism, Politics

 

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Notes From the Zendo: A Softening

Buddhism 150Last Wednesday I went to the Kannon Do Zen Centre up in Mountain View to hear Natalie Goldberg speak. A friend had invited me to see her, and when do you get a chance to actually meet the writer of Writing Down The Bones? Of course, I had to go.

It was a bit of a shock to see the Zen Centre right there in the middle of Mountain View, just a small way from downtown. The grounds were immaculate, the neighborhood was quiet, and everything there was geared towards one purpose — the practice of Zen and the encouragement of mindfulness. I was really impressed with it, and introduced to a community of practitioners who were all striving for the same thing.

We meditated first. My friend asked if I wanted to sit in a chair, and I told him I would probably be able to hang on a cushion. That turned out to be a big mistake. I meditate on a seiza bench at home; it’s basically a tiny little bench meant to hold your butt up off of your heels when you’re kneeling. I’m way too inflexible for half-lotus, and I’m pretty sure I’d break my legs if I tried full-lotus. (I’m still marvelling that anyone can manage that pose. It’s like they have cartoon noodle legs). Sitting seiza, though, is not the best without some sort of barrier between your rear and your heels. If you’re not tiny (and I am not), then it doesn’t take long for your lower legs to fall asleep. After that, any shift you make will send a horde of angry ants skittering from your ankle to your kneecap.

At first I could hang, but the second half of the meditation session was pure agony. I shifted out of seiza, awkwardly tried the half-lotus before I gave that up too, and just sort of ended up hugging my knees and resting my chin on my legs. It’s a horribly undignified way to meditate, but nothing brings you into the present moment quite like shame.

After meditation, there was a brief chant. I had never experienced anything like it before! We chanted the “Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra,” which is this:

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when deeply practicing prajna paramita clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight…no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance…neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says “Gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

Something came over me in the recitation of this sutra. It felt like something came unlocked, this idea that there is nothing to attain because whatever we could strive for is illusory; and once you realize that, the very idea of holding on to something — or scrambling to achieve it — just doesn’t hold any weight. When you realize that, fear simply leaves you.

Fear is something I struggle with all the time. The past couple of weeks have shown me that I’m a very tightly wound person. I’m terrified of making mistakes. It frightens me to talk about something that means a lot to me and have it dismissed or rejected. I hate the idea of stretching myself out, of being in a place where I’m not certain. But that’s where life is; and as much as you strive for the comfort of knowing exactly where you are and what you’re doing, you will actually spend very little time there. That comfort, that stability, is illusory and impermanent; attaching so much of my emotional energy to it is a thing that causes me suffering.

Natalie spoke, after chanting and a period of silent reflection while a few associates navigated through technical difficulties. She talked about living in (and hating) Palo Alto, and how it taught her to be careful what you hate because so much energy goes into that act. She talked about being diagnosed with cancer and how it stopped her writing cold but channeled her creative output into painting. Her work there was interesting; warm, vibrant yet serene, touched by her New Mexico lifestyle while still capturing pieces of the setting she was in. Her self-portraits were the most interesting, capturing the fear, worry and sadness she couldn’t express in words.

I was impressed mostly by the softness with which she lived her life. She was very gentle with her words and her tone, as if she knew that she didn’t need to use pressure to get at the truth she was trying to communicate. There was a deep and abiding acceptance in everything she did, even when she spoke about the cancer that had frightened her so. That discomfort was something she knew intimately and embraced just as much as everything else.

Silicon Valley is not a place that lends itself to that softness. It’s a fast-paced, high-powered world, and it’s not conducive to slow and ponderous attention to one thing. It’s difficult to know how to attain that soft and gentle attitude. The current teacher of Kannon Do, Les Kaye, wrote Zen At Work and actually worked at IBM for 30 years before becoming a Zen teacher. I think he understands the unique challenge of marrying Zen practice to the tech sector, which is pretty neat.

The intimacy and care with which the community of Kannon Do related to the space and with one another is something I’ll remember for a long time. There are a number of things within my calendar right now, so I’m not sure if it’ll be possible right now to attend services regularly. It’s definitely something I will make time for, however. Just being there for one warm summer evening gave me an awful lot to chew over, and for that I’m grateful.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2015 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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Meditating Everywhere

Buddhism 150It’s taken me a very long time to understand what meditation is for. When I first started to practice, I assumed that the time I’d spend on the bench was in preparation for something else. By sitting down and counting my breath (one-in-out-two-in-out) my brain was being molded in a way that would manifest elsewhere. I assumed that meditation was a ritual, and that like most magic it would work in ways I wasn’t looking for, that it would surprise me with its effectiveness when I needed it to. An incredibly stressful situation would arise, and suddenly I would get through it with grace, focus and clarity without knowing how it happened. One day, just like Neo in The Matrix, my eyes would open and I would simply see everything for what it is. Instead of lines of code, I would see another person, sharing the same air that I was, wanting the same things I did, no different from me at all. I’d put in the time, and there would be a reward later, a mysterious effect disconnected from its cause by time and thought.

That’s a completely shitty idea. I know that now, of course, but I didn’t then. It took me a few years of sporadic meditation to understand that meditation isn’t a preparation for anything. It’s an act, it’s *doing*, and that you’re expected to take the focus and awareness you cultivate on the bench and carry it with you through your day. Meditation isn’t a ritual that pays dividends down the line — it’s the beginner’s version of how Buddhists are expected to move through life itself.

It can’t start out any easier. You simply sit down, and pay attention. The ideal thing is to pay attention to whatever is happening in the moment without attaching to it; when you attach to it, the thought carries you away from the present along a stream of associated thoughts and moods. When that happens, let it go, then return to where you are. It takes practice to maintain that presence, but the idea is that when you do you find yourself responding to what arises in a much more centered way. And the bench isn’t the only place where this happens. Meditation is a practice you can cultivate wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.

That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to focus on recently. My meditation practice is as spotty as ever, I’m afraid (I’ve never been one to develop good habits), but even when I don’t manage to sit on the bench I’ve been trying to really pay attention to what I’m doing when I do it. If I catch myself getting stressed at work, I take a moment to step back from that emotion, figure it out and move on. It really helps when you’re dealing with anxious or angry customers I’ve found; instead of taking a remark or behavior and being carried away by it, I can try to anchor myself and focus on a need that’s being expressed.

And that’s a huge deal to me. I come from a long life of depression, which is a pretty self-centered condition to have. You get used to thinking in circles around yourself; everything comes back to you, how you’re deficient in some way, how no one could ever love you, so forth and so on. Even managing it, it’s difficult to learn to step outside of yourself if you don’t work for it. That’s what meditation does for me; it provides me a way to step outside of myself, simply by being active in my awareness and focusing on my surroundings, other people, or feelings as they arise and fade. That helps me relate to people better, it helps me solve problems more quickly and easily, and it helps me to understand people and their perspectives without warping it through my own.

One of the reasons I’m talking about this is to try and explain my perspective in the hopes of encouraging people to explain theirs. Meditation helps me quite a bit, but I know a lot of people really aren’t into it. I’m curious about what other folks think about it — is it useful to you, if you practice regularly? Did you try it for a while, but find no good use for it? What do you do instead, if you have something that centers you? How does it work?

I think it’s important to have a way to remember the things that are important for you, no matter who you are and what you believe. Meditation is mine. What’s yours?

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Buddhism, Self-Reflection

 

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