Wednesday, October 3, 2012


You’ve made it to the cushion, and you’ve found a nice patch of wall. Now what?

One of the most challenging aspects of maintaining a meditation practice is overcoming the wealth of information coming at us from conditioned mind about what meditation should be and all the ways that we are doing it wrong. This is an example of a conditioned process I like to think of as “the expert.” When we try to do something new, we are met by an authoritative voice that seems to know everything there is to know about it and is eager to provide “helpful” information about the myriad ways we are failing to measure up. The expert strives to set our expectations so high that they cannot possibly be met. If we are unable to turn away from this barrage of false information, we can’t help but come away feeling like a failure.

A handy way to turn away from “the expert” and its kin is to choose what I like to call a “talisman.” A talisman is just a simple bit of experience that we practice returning to again and again. It is like a base camp from which we set out on our adventures in the exploration of awareness. As we continue to practice coming back to the talisman again and again, it becomes increasingly familiar. As we persist in its use, deviations of attention away from the talisman become more and more obvious.

Most introspective disciplines employ talismans of some sort or another. Many Zen practitioners count cycles of ten breaths; Taoists and Buddhists of all sorts employ a wide variety of chants; Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian contemplatives focus their attention on the names or attributes of God. All of the above make use of a variety of icons, statues, and other images to anchor their attention.

What sort of talisman should you chose? The Christian theologian Francois Fenelon advised choosing a short word, such as “God” or “Love.” I’ve had success with both (you needn’t believe in any particular notion of “God” for the word to serve as an effective talisman), but my personal favorite of late has been “Thanks.”

Most of the power of the talisman emerges from its use rather than anything intrinsic to the particular word or image.* So long as you have a simple, familiar and - hopefully! - pleasant place to return again and again, the talisman will serve its purpose. Have fun with it, and choose some experience you like. With luck you will be spending a lot of time there.

As with any tool, it’s essential to recognize the time and place for its application. At first it may be all you can do to hang on desperately to your talisman as you are buffeted by wave after wave of conditioned processes trying to wrest control of your attention away from you. As you develop the skills of keeping track of your attention and directing it where you choose, opportunities will arise to let go of your talisman without immediately ending up in the grip of conditioned mind. At times like these we can set out from our base camp and explore the surrounding country, secure in the knowledge that we have a safe place to return should we get into trouble.

Eventually, when we have become well established in tracking and directing our attention, the act of sitting down for meditation will be enough to turn attention away from conditioned mind. As our efforts on the cushion are met with less and less resistance, we can spend more time exploring the deeper reaches of awareness. When conditioned mind is on the offensive, we can fall back on our talisman; otherwise we can dispense with it and go further in our explorations.

As the Buddha pointed out time and again, every teaching is a tool to get us beyond the obstacle in our way in this moment. When you’ve crossed a given river, it’s time to put down the raft.


*There are some differences to be noted between a chant, image, word, etc. - or even from word to word, image to image, chant to chant - but it has been my experience that these differences are dwarfed by the overall effect of having a familiar piece of ground on which to make a stand against the conditioned processes which rally to divert our attention when we try to get a bit of clarity. Pick something you like and stick with it. It isn’t much use to have a whole belt full of tools that all do roughly the same job!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Can't Have Too Much Inspiration

Preparing for the upcoming “Resistance” email class I’ve been re-reading the previous session. This activity in conjunction with participating in a variety of retreats has rekindled a concern I want to draw our attention to.

The phrase we use most often to distinguish the illusory ego “self” from the animating principle is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate (often referred to as EKC.) In its unabbreviated form it’s a bit of a mind and tongue tangler, but clarifying when we break it down to its components.

If we accept the premise that we are the sum total of everything that has produced us, we suspect we did not arrive in this incarnation free of “predispositions and tendencies.” (All parents will agree that no two of their children arrived alike; each appeared with a unique temperament and affect.) When those karmic inclinations encountered current life circumstances—family, culture, society, time, and place—we began a series of adjustments that resulted in a complex of processes we have learned to think of as a constant, consistent, fairly unchanging entity known as “I.”

Believing that construction, that conglomeration of processes, to be real and true, “I” works hard to be “who” “I” am and how “I” should be. Maintaining a belief in a consistent “I” is dependent on looking to the same body of information for confirmation that what “I” experiences is real and true. The source of that information is a mind that has been conditioned to believe certain content and reject all other content.

The guarantee that “I” looks to conditioned mind and nowhere else for information resides in a system of “self” hate that punishes every infraction, large or small, “real” or imaginary. “You will, you won’t, you must, you should, you shouldn’t, that’s right, that’s wrong, you’re good if, you’re bad when…” On and on it goes monitoring, judging, assessing, comparing, punishing—controlling.

For those of us working hard to wake up and end suffering it is essential to devote ourselves ceaselessly to navigating the obstacle course of fabrications and ploys egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate uses to trap us in its small, artificial world. 

The ploy I want to reveal here is the acronym EKC. My first objection is that people capitalize those letters. Capital letters are an interesting subject larger than the scope of this message, but suffice it to say I’m discouraged from capitalizing Monastery while other, in my opinion, far less worthy words are readily capitalized. Next is my concern that self-hate is left out of the equation, it has been dropped from the acronym.

But here’s my real concern: When we fall into a habit of using acronyms it’s a quick trip to losing sight of the meaning of the words that point to the object. This is exactly the trap we’ve fallen into with “I.” We have become so accustomed to that nefarious acronym, we’re completely unaware that we have no idea what it means.

Now, I realize in an email class you get a maximum of 50 words for your response and it’s unfair to ask you to add an extra four words. So, here’s my request: Please make it ekc/sh (lower case) and always say the full words to yourself when you write the letters, increasing your chances of not losing sight of just what we’re up against in our journey toward liberation.

Oh, and to sign up for the class, if you haven’t already, please go to:

In gassho,

Friday, July 13, 2012

I Am Not It and It Is Not Me.

The statement that most resonated with me to explore is: “There can be no liberation until a human being recognizes what ego (the illusion of a self that is separate from life) is, and that “it” is not “me” and “I” am not “it.” In this statement is perhaps a clue to the question “In what way is ego an illusion?”

I always feel a tremble of resistance when I encounter the statement “the illusion of a self separate from life is not who I am.” What does that mean? How can this self not be me? The premise flies in the face of what feels true. What feels true is the form that eats and sleeps and experiences and dreams and acts and thinks. This identity, the sum total of a life lived and living, is as real and true as the pain it feels when “I” pinch myself. How can that be an illusion? And how exactly is that separate from life, if everything is the intelligence that animates all?

“Our life is shaped by the mind, we become what we think” is the opening line of the Dhammapada.

What this suggests to me is that identity, “I/me,” is a mental construct, that ego identity is a by-product of a mind process. The mind organizes the sensations, feelings, experiences, and thoughts affiliated to this form and categorizes/abstracts the whole as a “someone.” The “I,” in other words, is a convenient aggregation, a localized continuous narrative of what arises in consciousness. The “I” is really a process, not an entity. But from within the process, and because language is also a mind creation, we experience ourselves as the entity not the process. So we experience ourselves as a “who” and not a “what.” Looking through the lens of identity/ego reduces life experience to a single point of view, the only point of view. The process of creating that point of view also maintains that point of view. It is a self-referencing, recursive process. Trishna, clinging to that point of view as the only point of view, is described by the Buddha as the root cause of suffering.

It is as if we were born with a pair of ego lenses and were never told we could take them off to experience the world in another way. To me, that is the wonder of Awareness Practice. It provides the tools to develop a different point of view. Through practice, we become aware that we wear lenses, that we can see those lenses for what they are—a mental process—and that we can take them off and experience life through a perspective other than those lenses. Practice opens the door to the possibility that the self, the ego, the identity that defines “my” reality is one of many processes of consciousness. To step into awareness is to experience the substrate of consciousness that manifests this form. It is the ability to experience “ourselves” as awareness and not just as a limited output of an interpretative mental process. It is a way of being that allows us to experience all being, all consciousness, and to recognize that the experience can happen without a “self” having the experience. In other words, the mental construct of an identity, a narrative interpretation, is not the only way to experience consciousness.

The world created by that mental construct is an illusion in that there is an alternative reality from a different point of view. Yes, we experience ourselves as that illusory identity, but authentically we are the awareness that contains it. With the ego lens on we cannot identify with awareness, we can only identify with ego. The limit is built into the instrument, into the lens. We give up all of what we are for a limited perspective of who we are. Such is the illusion of a self separate from life.

Liberation is only possible when we can let go of clinging to the limited perspective of ego/identity. Only when we open to the concept of anatta, all things are without a self, can we begin to experience ourselves as all consciousness. The experience of all consciousness is what is described in the first bead of the Daily Recollection as Bodhi: the experience of the joy of intelligence knowing itself. With practice we begin to recognize the feeling of “identification” with the process of awareness rather than identification with the process of ego/identity. And that’s joy – a coming home to the recognition of the whole instead of the part, dispelling the illusion of a self separate from life.


Friday, July 6, 2012

“In what way is the ego an illusion?”

To begin, a few comments on language:

Talking about the ego is tricky, for our language assumes very specific answers for many of the questions we might want to discuss. For example, if I say “I think,” what is it that is taking an action, and what is the action? What does “I” point to? In just about all uses, it points directly at some ego or another. This can get us into trouble very quickly.

We might translate “I think that...” to something like “Ego is providing the information that....” This raises two questions:

1) To what is ego providing the information?
2) Are there sources of information besides ego available to us?

Approaching the first question cuts right to the heart of spiritual practice. If we are not our egos, what are we? There are many names for it, but they are only placeholders. To really know, we must seek out direct experience of it. For the sake of discussion, I’ll use “that which experiences” as my placeholder of choice

In my experience (Whose experience?!) “The record of observations of that which observes around these parts” ... to be clear is so tricky!), the answer to the second question is an emphatic “YES!” As we learn to turn our attention away from ego, we find that there is a tremendous wealth of information - joyful, life-affirming, effortless, and true - available to us in any given moment. What are we to call the source of all this wonderful information? Profoundly creative being that I am, I’ll refer to this as “the source of true information.”

I hasten to emphasize again that these are merely placeholders that point to experiences one must seek out to begin to answer these questions. I (!) hope that using a phrase instead of a word will help us to avoid the confusion between the pointer and that which is pointed to - the finger and the moon, if you will.

With our linguistic disclaimers out of the way, let’s turn to the question:

“In what way is the ego an illusion?”

My understanding is that the ego is something like a mirage; something is clearly there, but our vision of it is indistinct, and we can’t quite make out what is. This leads us to be misled about its nature and what it means for us.

The only mirage I’m personally familiar with is the one that appears on hot days on the highway. In the distance it appears as if the road is swallowed up by a great blue lake, and yet when you arrive at any given point you find only dry highway. Something is clearly going on, but we lack the knowledge to make sense of it. Thus, it seems like a vast lake is retreating away from us as we head down the road.

If we had a friend along for the ride who knew some physics, she might explain to us that the black asphalt of the road was heating the air above it, and that the hot air has a different refractive index than the air around it, causing light from a patch of sky to be bent up toward our eyes. With our friend’s help we can see that what we took for a vast pool of water is in fact a trick of light and a bit of hot air.

With ego, we are similarly confused on two counts: we’re mixed up about what it is, and have trouble getting a sense of the scale of it. We need someone like our learned physics friend above to help us see through the illusion. This is why we encounter bits of scriptures like the following:

“If you see someone wise, who can steer you away from the wrong path, follow that person as you would one who can reveal hidden treasures. Only good can come of it.” --Dhammapada 76

“Good friends! You already possess the prajna wisdom of enlightenment! But because your minds are deluded, you can’t understand by yourselves. You need to find a truly good friend to show you the way to see your nature. Good friends, the buddha nature isn’t different for the ignorant and the wise. It’s just that people are deluded or awake. When people are deluded, they’re ignorant. When they wake up, they become wise.” -- The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng

Fortunately, there are lots of good friends available to help us understand - most especially our cushions!

So what is ego? It is the kernel of conditioned mind, that which every suffering being has in common. It is the central core of the myriad attention monopolizing machines which keep suffering beings from discovering that they already have all they need to live in peace and joy. The primary way it accomplishes this feat is to continuously provide the information that ego and “that which observes” are one and the same. This is how ego becomes the “self” that is separate from everything else.

In order to maintain the illusion that it is all there is to know about a given suffering being, ego makes itself out to be vast and overwhelming. When we are in it, this seems very true. Everywhere we look we’re met with ego’s information about what is true of us and the world, but this too is an illusion. Ego is like the sheen on an oil drop floating on the ocean. If you’re inside the drop looking out, the sheen is everywhere. In every direction you turn, you’re dazzled by brilliant greens, reds and yellows. If, however, you move in any direction you find yourself swimming in the vast blue ocean. From this place, the drop is seen for what it is - a tiny point in an unending sea.

This leads us to a very different model of experience than the one that prevails in most places and times. “That which observes” exists in a vast space of possibility. It can turn its attention wherever it pleases. Overwhelmingly this space is occupied by “the source of true information.” One very small region of this vast space is inhabited by ego. When “that which observes” moves its attention into ego’s domain, it is bombarded by the information that this is the only thing that exists. If it believes the information, then it falls into the illusion of ego and remains trapped in that small space with ego.

In our lives, asking for help is one way of making the move out of the drop. Going to the cushion is another way. As soon as we make an effort to take care, the illusion begins to unravel and we can see that we exist in a much larger space than the tiny corner ego wants to keep us in. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Invitation to Aye and Bee

Invitation to Aye and Bee

I was inspired to begin writing a blog during a time when I was much less directly in touch with Sangha. It was before this year of not traveling, before a giant make-over for the Monastery, before assisting Ashwini in creating and implementing systems and procedures for internal and external communication, maintenance, finances, workshops and retreats, The Year of Deepening Practice, 300 for 1000, Sangha Market and so much more too numerous to list.  There’s little airplane travel currently, but we are traversing landscapes at a dizzying pace.

I would like to be writing about practice; there’s a book I’m eager to get started on. But writing about practice is not in the cards for me just now. Just now I am happily practicing being a steward of practice.

For years my favorite quote (okay, one of my top 100 favorite quotes, probably in the top 3) has been “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  For me, that translates into “just practice with whatever Life is putting in front of you, and do it with your whole heart and soul.” I endeavor.

Periodically I receive writings of a blog-like nature from a couple of practitioners whose ability to articulate our practice in different words appeals to me enormously. I read what they send to me, wish there were a way to make it available to more people, and, coming to no conclusion, file the pieces. A couple of times I’ve included one in my blog, but as a perfect example of “everything in its own time,” it never occurred to me to include them regularly.

The other day I realized I could open up what has been my blog as a conversation that includes what the two of them are looking at, while retaining the option of adding my two cents when that works with my schedule.  I asked and both agreed. One suggested we could poll readers to see if there are subjects you’d like explored. Moments ago I read the last postings on the most recent blog—from February! I rest my case—and saw that someone had posed this question, “In what way is the ego an illusion?” That could be fun to explore.

Two subjects I return to like a terrier with a favorite bone. 1) Communication (poor and lacking) is a not-an-accident cause of most suffering, and 2) There can be no liberation until a human being recognizes what ego (the illusion of a self that is separate from life) is and that “it” is not “me” and “I” am not “it.”

I shall now send this off to each of my guests and invite them to explore this first topic. If they are so inspired, they will speak to this topic; if they find something else currently inspiring, they will speak to that. You will then be able to suggest subjects and they may or may not speak to those! How’s that for “loose enough to fit beautifully with how life unfolds”?


Monday, February 13, 2012

I Suffer Because?

I received this and hoped that you would enjoy it as much as I did.

I suffer because?

It seems a good question to ask, I suppose, because one has to start the inquiry somewhere. Asking brings attention to the process of suffering. It helps identify the operating system. Catching on to mentation, to karmic conditioning and self-hate, brings awareness to the existence of the process of suffering – the unholy feeling of cosmic separation: a point of view, an interpretative film through
which life is framed, primarily as the absence off, something wrong, not enough. I can identify the system now, I can redirect the attention to the experience I want to have, not always but sometimes.

Now I am curious about what it feels like to live in Technicolor instead of monochrome – to be the picture instead of the negative.

I sleep in and stretch into a day of leisure – nothing to “do.” Such a potent verb: to do. Action in my conditioned world translates into worthiness, purpose, accomplishment, validation of existence – being somebody. It is the busy people who are valued. "I" frames the ideal person as having insufficient time, an incomplete project list, a mountain of unanswered email, feeling rushed. Contemplating a morning of sitting on the couch sipping tea is a guilty pleasure to be indulged once in a while. I feel the need to apologize to my hardworking sister, mother and partner, who have been up and about since 6 a.m. doing worthy things. Feeling “healed, whole and healthy,” rested, relaxed and refreshed, without an inclination to action is to be viewed with trepidation, a sign, perhaps, that one is degenerating into a lazy-good-for-nothing. That is the reason for the Taskmaster after all, otherwise, we will give in to the siren song and be forever lost in the land of the Lotus Eaters.

The difficulty, I think, is what my teacher points to often: we have become conditioned human doings . We are no longer human beings.

Being is an unfamiliar state. Absence of doing produces an acute discomfort for the mind. What does one do if one is not doing something? The irony of the question is obvious. Only mind would ask that question. I found myself having to watch the gyrations of every conditioned process desperately trying to get me to do something.

A squirrel drops onto the fence from the skeletal branches of the tree outside my window, hopping with enthusiastic energy and bright-eyed curiosity. “Where is yours,” mind whispers. “Should you not be meditating or researching something?”

I see the pink camellia bud peep shyly from behind waxy green leaves and the clouds move lazily across the sky. (I have a very nice view out of my window.) “What have you done to earn it?” whispers mind.

Time slows. Trudy, my beloved money plant, shakes her head wisely as she contemplates the little buddha on the altar. Life grows me, she seems to say. Air rushes into her pores. Sunlight caresses her supple stems. Water wiggles up her tiny thirsty roots from rich, dark, loamy soil. Three fragile, tender, leaves unfurl from the top of her head into the cold winter morning. She does not effort herself into
existence. She does not make herself branch or bud or move toward light; she is a product of life growing. She will be, without the whipping voice urging her to grow.

Being is spacious, timeless, relaxed grace, effortless unfolding, a perfect symphony of movement and stillness.

Katagiri paraphrased: the mind is unable to grasp the pace of life, the changing flux, the discrete discontinuity of its flow. It must create structure, permanence, timeline scaffolding to gloss over the
abyss of the moments between existences. Tuning into mind is in the space of the tick tock. Dropping mind is life dancing Trudy…

Wei-Wu-Wei paraphrased:
One: Who are you and how do you know it?
Two: I am consciousness and I know it because I love.
One: The first is so but not the second.
Two: How so?
One: I love can only come from an identified object...If whole mind
answered it would say I am love....

It drops in that perhaps Life is clearing the decks so this form can exchange the cellular memory of driven mental action to tuning into an expression of her movement, her natural folding and unfolding. Absence of action allows space for the silent movement and growth of life, to tune into the rhythm beyond tick-tock. There is a time and space for sipping tea and enjoying the acrobatics of baby squirrels to the beat of the sparrow orchestra. Awareness rests in the knowing of effortless movement. This practice is one of being, not a verb, a noun.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Privileged Environment

To facilitate the introspective focus required for awareness practice, we observe what we call the privileged environment. It’s a privilege to have the time and space in which to attend to one’s inner workings. It’s a privilege to have others support that environment through their silent, respectful, adherence to a set of guidelines, maximizing everyone’s opportunity to be present to and go beyond egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate and find freedom.

For as long as I’ve been offering sitting/awareness practice, I’ve held a firm line on “keeping the privileged environment.” Over the years I’ve spoken with countless people who have come to us from other sitting practices. The reasons given most often for their switch are along the lines of too much ego, too political, and too social. I’ve also heard many reports from folks in the Sangha that they nearly quit when first sitting with us because it was too weird and too unfriendly. (As my teacher pointed out, lo those many years ago, it’s the “too’s” that’ll get you.)

I realize it takes most people a while to see the value in such a thing, though not everyone. There are, in fact, those who sit with us for the first time and heave a huge sigh of relief that they don’t need to be social and don’t need to be a personality. What is true is that practice is not personal; it’s not about or for the personality. It’s not social, yet it is very friendly. The difference? It is heart to heart friendly, not ego to ego friendly.

I can certainly sympathize with the wish to have all the “people needs” in one’s life fulfilled by others who are pursuing a spiritual path, practicing conscious, compassionate awareness. If a person is single, what better place to look for a partner? If one is seeking a new or larger circle of friends, again it’s a no-brainer. If you want to start a business, what a great place to look for supporters, mentors, and partners.

It’s a no-brainer and a really bad idea.

The reason I’m so adamant about keeping the privileged environment is that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate:
~ is constantly lurking
~ is always focused on sabotaging efforts to awaken and end suffering
~ finds an easy opening when people lose their focus of attention
~ knows people often lose their focus in interactions with others
~ knows it takes a long time for people to recognize when it (egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate) has taken them over.

The Buddha left us a detailed and specific roadmap for awakening and ending suffering. From the depth of his own practice and decades of guiding others, he understood and clearly communicated the steps we need to follow to “work out our own salvation diligently.”

During the recent New Year’s retreat, we explored five of the practices the Buddha taught us to employ in our journey:
~ the practice of lovingkindness
~ the practice of pure attention
~`the practice of ever-expanding faith
~ the practice of constant devotion
~ the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana.
Each of these serves us magnificently as we take those steps along the path of working out our own salvation. The one that speaks most directly to the subject of the privileged environment is the final in the series, the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana.

Inquiry through correct dhyana guides us to seek clarity directly from insight that arises in conscious, compassionate awareness. We don’t look to conditioned mind for answers; instead, we allow the intelligence that animates to inform us. The simple application for that is living in “I don’t know.” The procedure we follow in applying the wisdom of “I don’t know” is to allow the guidance from our practice to rest, koan*-like, in our consciousness, relying on “ever-expanding faith” to sustain us until the moment of clarity when our doubt or confusion is cleared away by the arrival of an edifying insight. (*A koan is a spiritual “puzzle” that cannot be understood intellectually but must be apprehended in a flash of intuitive understanding.)

For example: I know there’s something in our practice about “the privileged environment.” And, it’s always said like that, like it’s a “thing,” so I sense it’s important, though I can’t see why. I get “custody of the eyes,” not watching other people. That just seems polite. I get not talking to other retreatants when we’re on retreat; we’re meant to be silent. What I don’t get is why we can’t get to know one another. How will I ever feel like I belong in this group if I have no idea who these people are? Besides, I have a lot of questions and it takes forever to get information from the Monastery!

All perfectly understandable, yes? All perfectly understandable from the perspective of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. (If we’re honest, what that “getting to know people” often means is “finding out what’s wrong with them”!) So, here is a perfect chance to apply the practice of inquiry through correct dhyana. I don’t know what this is all about. I get it that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate might not be the place to look for clarity. What I will do instead is to “sit with it.” I will hold that lack of clarity in my awareness, approach it like a koan, accept each insight that comes to me, and trust that sooner or later I will see. (And, to support that process I can avail myself of options such as Open Air.)

Now, a word of caution: One of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate’s most successful ploys is getting the human to believe something along the lines of “that doesn’t apply to me; I can handle this; I know what the privileged environment is and how to maintain it; I can be in relationship with people in the Sangha and it’ll be just fine.” The peril in which that that puts everyone—instigator, colluder, and Sangha as a whole—would take more than this communication to elucidate. (If anyone is interested, I’d be happy to give that elucidation a go.)

As we move into this year of deepening practice, talking more about Practice Plans, Sangha Market, stewardship, and other “group” activities, I want us to be as clear as we can be that stepping over the line from privileged environment to social interaction is a dangerous step we must all be cognizant of NOT taking. What we have as a Sangha is simply too precious to endanger. And that’s a “too” worth having!

In gassho,

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lit Up

I really am lit up about practice.

During the retreat season I’m so often involved with and fulfilled by the work we’re doing that sitting down to write just doesn’t happen. Now that our focus is on practice itself, rather than facilitating practice, I find I want to communicate with folks every detail of the extraordinary changes this organization is making.

2011 was such a time of change for the Zen Monastery Peace Center and Living Compassion that we designated 2012 as the Year of Deepening Practice. (I hope you read about this in the first issue of our new monthly newsletter: A strong argument could be made that 2011 was a year of deepening practice and 2012 is simply going to build on that foundation, but who would want to argue about such a thing! The important thing is that we are pleased with practice as it is and want it to continue and grow.

Interestingly, the economic downturn proved to be a boon for our Sangha. We began looking for ways to reduce costs, make practice more affordable, and expand the practices we offer at no charge. At the same time we asked those who could afford it to pledge monthly support for the Zen Center, which, in turn, supports the work of Living Compassion, primarily the Africa Vulnerable Children Project. Sangha stepped up in a big way, and we’ve been able to continue and expand a full range of practice opportunities, even while working to maintain the Monastery and upgrade accommodations.

Perhaps the biggest reason for our success in 2011 is the extraordinary gift of our volunteer CEO, Ashwini Narayanan. Many of you had a chance to meet her in one of the amazing (not too strong a word, is it?) What You Practice Is What You Have retreats, held in North Carolina and at the Monastery. What you perhaps don’t know is that she has been guiding both organizations on a daily basis for most of 2011. Working with me, the monks, and those in support roles in both organizations, she has moved us to the point where the term “organization” is truly apt. Her business skills, the depth of her own spiritual practice, and her ability to bridge those worlds is making an enormous difference for us and for the practice. Under her leadership we have expanded what we offer, been more financially viable, and taken better care of the monks and the Monastery.

Here are two of the many great ideas Ashwini has put forth:
1. In 2012, we will launch the “Rest, Receive, and be Thankful” weekends. These will be Friday evening to Sunday lunch mini-retreats, a break from the often stressful pace of the world—a chance to be in nature, participate in a yoga class or workshop, meditate, eat nutritious vegetarian food, take walks, draw, journal, or simply sit and be. These weekends will be in addition to our traditional schedule of week-long retreats, at-home practice days, and guidance days.
2. We have created a Visiting Monk Program in which we accept applications to train as a Visiting Monk each month of the year. This replaces the one-month-only Deepening Practice Training. More information on this program will be available soon.

To facilitate these changes and the growing involvement of Sangha, we are offering as a kick-off for the Year of Deepening Practice an at-no-charge course of guided introspection (see link below) that will result in a yearlong plan for practice that we have cleverly titled a Deepening Practice Plan. DPP training will support all of us in working through any resistance egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate might throw up in an attempt to derail a wholehearted, life-transforming, freedom-and-joy-producing Practice Plan for the year. Following that initial course will be monthly support to guarantee our commitment to liberation remains stronger than conditioning’s commitment to our lack of liberation!

Another thing I’d like to mention is our plan to help folks pay for all of this. We want people to participate in as much of practice as possible—it’s what makes life fun, exciting, and satisfying, rather than endlessly subjected to suffering—and, as I wrote in the last blog, we know that can be expensive, even at our bargain basement prices. I’ve written twice now about the possibility of becoming a vendor on Sangha Market to help generate funds to support one’s practice and have extra to support practice in general. Before long we will launch another available possibility: fundraising. Details soon.

That’s the beauty of Sangha. No one is going to have to go it alone. We’re going to be on this journey of deepening practice throughout 2012, and then, if we remain true to form, we will figure out ways to go deeper in 2013!

To sign up and get in on the ground floor of these changes, go to Deepening Practice Program:
Visit Sangha Market:
See current schedule: