Monday, March 29, 2010

Dedicate Your Life to Something You Consider Worthy

I direct a fair amount of attention to the messages coming at us from that broader expression of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate called “culture” or “society.” One of my fascinations is attempting to see 1) whether I see and hear what I do only because I tune in to what meshes with my conditioning or 2) if my conditioning is so in sync with society’s messages that I’m receiving everything as intended or 3) if something completely other is happening and I’m missing the whole thing! I am blessedly, and not accidentally, popular-culture deprived. But, having been around for a lot of years and having seen many fads come and go, it seems to me that much of what’s current or trendy is just a veneer on old messages of “how you gotta be.” For instance, on the surface it would seem obvious that the requirements for survival would be different if one lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan verses South Central Los Angeles. Yes? But scratch the surface and I’m betting we would find that the real message is that regardless of your location, you need to fit in and be accepted in the particular patch you inhabit.

So, to continue with my wild projecting, I’m betting each person reading this got some version of what “dedicate your life to something you consider worthy” means. Few of us got that as a direct message, but the messages we did get—do something important, make your mark on the world, be somebody, fill in the blank— cover the subject.

These kinds of messages are perfect weapons for egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to use against us because they are so vague. What does “important” mean for heaven’s sake? How big a mark shall I make? “Be somebody” doesn’t mean me, does it? This is a beautiful set-up because the voice of self-hate will insist that whatever you do is not going to be big enough or good enough. There will always be someone it will point to who is doing something bigger and better, and as long as that person exists, well, I’m sorry, what you’re doing is just not that great.

So we are required to take our lives into our own hands, which is actually a marvelous thing. No one wants someone else, especially a disembodied voice inside the head, to be calling the shots for them, do they? (“Yes!” the voice will scream, but that’s to be expected.)

The Buddha taught us that we each have one person to save—ourselves. Each of us gets one life in which to do that. This one. He also, allegedly, taught that we will not allow ourselves to awaken as long as we are doing something we don’t feel good about. As Christmas Humphreys phrased it, “We are punished by what we do, not because of it.”

This puts us in an excellent position. We get to look—for ourselves—at what we want to devote our lives to, and then we get to practice not letting the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate have any opinion whatsoever about our choice. Each of us gets to decide that we will be a taxi driver or a school teacher or a stay-at-home parent; that we will work in a deli or as a librarian, politician, firefighter, road builder, or whatever... and the voices don’t get to cast a vote. Will they try? You bet they will, no matter what we do!

But the reason they don’t get to have a voice in the matter, aside from the fact that our life is none of their business, is that it doesn’t matter what we do; it only matters how we are. The real “thing” we’re devoting our lives to is a way of being.

We each get to choose how we want our life to be, to identify what we value, who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and we get to have a lifetime to practice that. To practice that. With no input from anyone or anything but our own heart, listened to in our quietest, most compassionate moments. With every breath we get to practice choosing what is dearest to our own heart.

That’s what’s possible for us.
We are very fortunate.

In gassho,

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Experiments in truth

"Believe me when I tell you, after 60 years of personal experience, that the only real misfortune is to abandon the path of truth. If you but realize this, your one prayer to God will always be to enable you to put up, without flinching, with any number of trials and hardships that may fall to your lot in the pursuit of truth." -- Mahatma Gandhi

In studying all I can of what the Mahatma left us I've come to guess that what he meant by "truth" is what we attempt to point at in our practice with words like intuitive knowing or clarity or center or here/now/this. We cannot grasp That Which Animates us, but we can sense the Presence and let that intuitive sensing guide our steps. In practice we are always attempting to be present enough to sense the wisdom, love, and compassion that animates us, letting go everything that pulls us away from that awareness.

As long as we believe the ego is who we are, as long as we take the ego personally, our lives are limited by that misperception. Identification with the ego makes the ego the authority in one's life. Whatever the ego wants, does, says, and feels must be attended to immediately, urgently.

When we step back into awareness, viewing the ego as what it is—a karmically conditioned illusion of something existing separate from the rest of life—we can begin to learn broad life lessons about the suffering that results from an identification with ego, but we no longer need to believe any of it has anything to do with ourselves. Nor to we need to take any of it personally. This disidentification is the birthplace of compassion for all humans. From this vantage point it is easy to see what in a person springs from authenticity and what has its origin in a mistaken identification with egocentric karmic conditioning.

In practicing with the above I've come to what I call the "ingredients for a satisfying life." They are:
1) Dedicate your life to something you consider worthy.
2) Celebrate your contributions.
3) Have That Which Animates you as your most intimate relationship.
4) Know how to give your attention to what you choose.
5) Keep your word to yourself .

More about these soon.

In gassho,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Attention, memes, and brain pathways

William James said that "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."

One of the recent Practice Everywhere reminders encouraged us to practice turning our attention from object to object. Nothing complex, just "now I'm attending to the chair, now I'm noticing all the green, now I will listen for any sounds I can hear, now I will turn my attention to my breathing, now I will turn my attention to my mouth as I smile." The practice is one of bringing conscious awareness to the process of attending. Doing that little exercise regularly builds our directing-the-attention muscles.

On Open Air last evening a caller was telling me about having spent most of the day in a miserable conversation with the voices in his head--likely the kind of one-sided "conversation" we had as children listening to a haranguing adult. After some consideration, he realized that assessment of his day was inaccurate. A voice in his head had told him he'd spent the day in that conversation! When he looked for himself he saw he'd spent quite a lot of the day present and aware of being present with no energy going to the story of suffering in his head.

I, like many of you, have spent a lot of time exploring that phenomenon. We seem to be going through life with a "companion" who we can say, at the very least, does not have our happiness and well-being as a first priority. Yes, it would claim to be doing everything it’s doing for us, but a brief perusal of the evidence makes it clear that's a lie. Losing any part of our day by having our attention dragged to conversations in the head about imaginary unhappy circumstances and then attempting to convince us that's how we spend all our time just can't be an aid to a happy, fulfilled life!

So, we might ask, what about that? Alas, there is, of course, no explanation. We don't know why we have that shadow companion. When I find it comforting to make up a reason, I tell myself that living with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate inspires me moment-by-moment to learn to choose compassion. Seems as good a made-up explanation as any.

Two "notions," one scientifically supported and one less easily proved, bring encouragement to use the weapon of choosing what we attend to. First, the less scientifically accepted is the “meme” theory which postulates that ideas, symbols or practices can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals; that those which replicate the most effectively spread best; and that some may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their “host.” Sounds a lot like social conditioning, doesn't it?

Second, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz was among the first to use brain scans with patients practicing mindfulness exercises to prove that neural pathways could be altered quite quickly by simply turning the attention away from the unwanted pattern of thought and behavior and to the chosen pattern.

All this encourages me to devote an increasing amount of my time and energy to building and flexing those "pay attention to what I want my life to be" muscles while withdrawing those sources of sustenance from the suffering production machine that is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.

In gassho,

Monday, March 22, 2010

Not supporting the ego

Francois Fenelon, a French Catholic theologian who lived in the seventeenth century said, "It is mere self-love to be inconsolable at seeing one’s own imperfections.” Aldous Huxley commented on that statement three centuries later with, "Self-reproach is painful; but the very pain is a reassuring proof that the self is still intact; so long as attention is fixed on the delinquent ego, it cannot be fixed upon God and the ego (which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld) cannot be dissolved in the divine Light.”

What irony! And how perfectly reasonable, and obvious once we see it, that the very self-judgment and self-criticism we were encouraged to adopt in childhood, needed to adopt in order to survive the judgment of powerful "others,” is the very process now fueling the egocentric karmic conditioning that maintains our suffering! It’s really quite a perfect system of suffering. We’re taught to feel bad about various thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We are convinced that feeling bad will somehow help us to be better. We’re afraid to let go of feeling bad because that’s the only thing keeping us from being worse! But, in fact, feeling bad keeps us identified with—and working hard to maintain—the very system that is the only source of our suffering.

"… and the ego, which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld cannot be dissolved in the divine Light” No wonder turning the attention away from ego and to HERE/NOW is so difficult. The stakes are truly life and death—for ego.

In gassho,

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Getting started


I realized many moons ago, as I was leaving the externally imposed structure of monastic practice, that if I weren’t careful and attentive I would drift away from the essential support for awareness practice that a regular daily schedule provides. Left to myself—which at the time was pretty much only what I’ve subsequently recognized as egocentric karmic conditioning—I would slide into a combination of what I “should” do and what I “want” to do and my commitment to waking up and ending suffering would get pushed so far onto the back burner as to be no hindrance at all for that egocentric self on its determined march to hell!

I began setting up a full schedule of commitments I would be unwilling to break, removing the “I don’t want to/I don’t feel like it” factor from my decision-making process. I have continued that practice for the past thirty or so years and it has served me well. I know that waking up and ending suffering is the deepest desire of my heart. That desire doesn’t change from moment to moment, and a firm commitment to showing up for what I’ve agreed to supports me in choosing my heart regardless of ego’s shenanigans.

The years have seen quite a range of commitments from shepherding a Zen Center and Monastery Peace Center to creating email classes that could support people practicing far away and, most recently, daily reminders to practice being HERE/NOW, using some of the great tools of technology. All these activities have required me to show up every day and do my best to be as centered as possible in each moment—exactly what I’ve wanted!

Now that I’ve stepped back from the day-to-day running of the Zen Monastery Peace Center and Living Compassion, I have more opportunity for my own practice and new opportunities for engaging in practice with others. I love doing the tweets! As I’ve said often, my mind naturally runs to bumper sticker and t-shirt size communication. I like short and sweet—or at least concise and clear. I’ve always thought a book title should be clear enough that if you don’t have time to read the whole book you will derive a good benefit just from reading the title. Now I get to walk around all day seeing tweets in everything I encounter. A cloud, a bird, a bit of music, a smile, a color all become reminders to drop whatever is going on in conditioned mind and get back here into this moment—awake, alive, present. I love it!

For years the way I phrased this practice was “the quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.” Now it’s become “what you practice is what you have.” Certainly this is not a new message; we each just find our own way of articulating the message for ourselves. (Even if someone else says it, it only matters for us when we are able to say it to ourselves and really hear it.)

I’ve been enjoying again Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-ts’an, the third patriarch of Zen.

“The Perfect Way knows no difficulties,
Except that it refuses to make preferences.
Only when freed from hate and love
Does it reveal itself fully and without disguise.

A tenth of an inch’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart.
If you wish to see it before your own eyes,
Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.

To set up what you like against what you dislike---
This is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of the Way is not understood,
Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose….

Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
Be serene in the oneness of things,
And dualism vanishes of itself.

When you strive to gain quiescence by stopping motion,
The quiescence so gained is ever in motion.
So long as you tarry in such dualism,
How can you realize oneness?

And when oneness is not thoroughly grasped,
Loss is sustained in two ways:
The denying of external reality is the assertion of it,
And the assertion of Emptiness (the Absolute) is the denying of it….

Transformations going on in the empty world that confronts us
Appear to be real because of Ignorance.
Do not strive to seek after the Truth,
Only cease to cherish opinions.

The two exist because of the One;
But hold not even to this One.
When a mind is not disturbed,
The ten thousand things offer no offence….

If an eye never falls asleep,
All dreams will cease of themselves;
If the Mind retains its absoluteness,
The ten thousand things are of one substance.

When the deep mystery of one Suchness is fathomed,
All of a sudden we forget the external entanglements;
When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness,
We return to the origin and remain where we have always been….

One in all,
All in One---
If only this is realized,
No more worry about not being perfect!

When Mind and each believing mind are not divided,
And undivided are each believing mind and Mind,
This is where words fail,
For it is not of the past, present or future.”

This is, to me, a gorgeous way of saying what we are always attempting to point at in practice. It’s a beautiful expression of “there’s nothing wrong,” “stop, drop, and breathe,” “get HERE, “let everything go, be THIS NOW.”

Which brings me to my latest project: This letter will be posted on what we’re calling “Cheri’s Practice Blog.” (link?) The blog is my opportunity to share what’s most inspiring for me in my own practice, be in communication with others practicing, and, hopefully, expand the base of support we all need for deepening practice in our own lives and as a support for the larger Sangha.

This idea grew out of a wish to take to a deeper level the tweeted reminders to wake up/let go/get here. What happens with us as we start spending more time HERE? How do we deal with voices that attempt to interfere and sabotage? Can we really trust that it’s okay to let go the negative voices? Is it safe just to be? The blog will be the place for us to have that continuing conversation on what arises as a result of deepening practice.

Will I answer general questions about practice? Not in depth, no. Will I speak to personal issues? No, that would become a life’s work in itself! I will simply take the tweeted messages and the daily messages from Transform Your Life and connect them up with other messages I find supportive and clarifying. Then, you/everyone will have an opportunity to express what you see from that in your own practice. And we will all see how it goes.

In gassho,