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: