Writings

We are living in a revolutionary cultural moment. The term “mindfulness” and related practices are becoming common language. For the first time in history, masses of people are learning to stand “next to” their mental creations and notice them. Rather than immediately believing in or being identified with these impressions, people are actually witnessing and observing them. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Throughout human history most violence and intolerance came from people’s inability to question their own thoughts and feelings. This is a truly remarkable moment in the evolution of consciousness.

Our minds/brains are constantly generating impressions. This is what they do, this is their healthy functioning. The Zen Master Uchiyama Roshi called this  “secreting thoughts”. I would say, we are secreting thoughts/feelings/sensations or what I call “impressions”. We can say that from the infinite potential of the next moment “some-thing” is created. Mindfulness is the process of observing these creations. One does not empty the mind, one notices the “somethings”.

While mindfulness is extremely helpful in cultivating a different relationship to mental phenomena, the meditation that I practice and teach emphasizes something quite different. Though we still notice the various ‘arisings’ of mind and body, this noticing is not the center or the purpose of the practice. While this meditation, called “just sitting”, is not the same as mindfulness practice, it is not-not mindfulness. We sit with the paradox that while polishing the mirror (i.e. mindfulness) is essential, the mirror (our true nature) has never been tarnished.

This mirror image is based on a powerful and important story in the history of Zen. This historical event involves the choosing of a successor to the 5th Ancestor.

One day Hung-jen challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hung-jen said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.

Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wrote this verse on a monastery wall:

“Our body is the bodhi tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour-by-hour
And let no dust alight.”

When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:

“There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?”   


This illiterate monk knew that true realization was beyond any activity of his mind.  Rather, it arose from intimacy with his True nature. Although this intimacy cannot be created by any meditation practice, it can be encouraged by the practice of “just sitting”. As modern Zen teacher Baker Roshi has said, “enlightenment is an accident and zazen (“just sitting”) makes you accident-prone”. Intimacy comes from directly experiencing life itself.

Intimacy, Aliveness, Wholehearted Welcoming

For me, meditation is learning to be intimate with our lives, this intimacy is radically alive. Saying “alive” I do not mean to imply that it is pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or dull or anything in particular, rather that it is authentic and directly experienced. Before our opinions, beyond our preferences, life “just IS”. This “IS” can be sensed directly.  

This “is-ness” is dynamic! You learn to surf the waves inherent in the movement of life. If carried off by thinking, one is committed to returning to the living moment. The core practice is wholeheartedly welcoming the moment. This is the practical ground for learning deep acceptance. This is the practical ground for just being yourself.

When there is a voice inside that fights or hates the moment we wholeheartedly welcome that. This meditation requires an attitude of generosity toward the moment, toward the self. We are not “doing” meditation, meditation is alive in itself. How can we know the experience/non-experience of intimacy and aliveness?

Confidence helps. 
What can we have confidence in?
•    Confidence that you are much more than the voices in your head.  
•    Confidence that this moment is impermanent and always changing .
•    Confidence that your habitual, conditioned self is just a small part of you.
•    Confidence that you are directly connected to a vast field through awareness.

How do we get this confidence? I suggest many, many short moments of pausing and sensing into the background of the living moment. Let go of accomplishing something; sense how you know you are alive right now. This sensing is most directly felt as a bodily experience. Our body is always vibrating with the aliveness of the present moment. Even tiredness or dullness have qualities that can be felt. Sense what is alive right now! This requires a kind of listening and welcoming. Direct experiencing is always ‘right there’ yet it needs our invitation, our participation.

During a daily meditation practice of “just sitting” one can emphasize this resting into aliveness. Directly sensing the way life is known right now, we can rest in the awareness that notices. Mindfully observing the particular phenomena in the moment can be included with a light touch. Do not form the sense of a “solid observer”. Allow a feather-like noting of the momentary impression. Even when you notice a long, involved ‘story’ do not take it so personally, treat it lightly. The impression then dissolves like a snowflake falling into a mountain lake.

Turning the Light Around

When zazen does zazen, you are you.
When you are you, zazen can do zazen.
This knowing is simple, authentic and direct.

We have the expression “effortless effort”. This means it takes a clear, strong committed intention to rest in the light of “just sitting”. When we turn the light around toward the experience of being alive, the experiencer and the experience dissolve and all that remains is bowing to the intimacy with living.

The point of meditation is not to control the mind or to be mindful. It is to be intimate with self and life. This intimacy is alive because you are alive. You do not “do” meditation. Warmhearted welcoming creates the conditions in which meditation can reveal you to yourself.


I will end with a famous, wonderful dialogue.

It’s Alive!

A student asked Master Chao Jo (Zhaoruo)

What is zazen?

“It is non-zazen” he replied

“How can zazen be non-zazen?

“Its Alive!", Chao Jo replied





























THE MIRACLE……..LOVE IS
Can we be simple enough
Like children
Seeing Freshly
The miracle
That Love IS
 
Beyond our
Fear
Anger
Selfishness
Confusion
Anxiety
Despair
Love IS
 
Can we be simple enough
Like the spirits of
Those Children
Imploring US
To Remember:
The miracle
That Love IS
 
Looking in the mirror
Beginningless longing
Endless failures
The broken-hearted shame of our forgetting
That Love Is

My prayer for you, for me, for all of us
Feel it…Know it…Share it…Be it
The Miracle
That Love IS!

Life is one mistake after another”- Zen master Dogen

Each year around Thanksgiving, like so many of us, I join our ancestors throughout history in thankfulness for the harvest, for the food that will see us through the winter.  There is hope, humility and a deep sense of interconnectedness with all the forces that sustain our life.  This year I want to acknowledge an overlooked source of nourishment- our failures.

Many times everyday I fail to meet my life with care.  Often I am so lost in my self-involvement that I miss the beauty that is radiating forth or I miss the opportunities to take care of life.  For me, taking care of life simply means to notice and respond to the needs of the moment.  These needs might appear as really listening to my wife, making a phone call, doing the dishes, writing an email or sitting down for a restorative moment.  

And what of our larger failures? Those errors that permeate our lives, the regrets that haunt our minds?  Looking back on the most formative moments of my life I realize how often that a ‘mistake’ became the rich soil for  powerful growth.  That car accident that almost severed my spine, breaking two cervical vertebrae, resulting in a deep compassion for people experiencing intense pain.  The loss of a job that invited a need for more self-reliance and inquiry.  Unquestioning support for a loved one’s tragic, life-altering decision which empowered in me a deep questioning of people’s true motivations.  Each painful occurrence became an absolutely essential lesson in my unfolding.  I do not mean to paint a pretty picture.  Each event hurt and can still hurt. Yet, as my teacher Moshe Feldenkrais would emphasize, “it is our resilience, the shock that we can withstand and still recover our stability that determines our health”.  If approached with care, our failures are the ground from which compassion, humility and deep questioning can grow.

When I feel harmonious with my self and my life, there is a sense of moving through my day with presence and loving-kindness.   The new moment comes and I respond, there is grace and harmony.  Yet, after more than 40 years on this path of awakening, I am awed by the tenacity of my unconsciousness, how I can miss the true needs of the situation I am in.  By situation I mean everything from the people around me, my inner life,  the plant that needs watering, actually everything that makes up the moment.  

I am also awed by the unfathomable generosity of life as the new moment, pregnant with opportunity, arises freshly.  Freshly means I can start anew, born again. The art of bowing to ‘what is’ is a deep and lifelong practice.  Arguing with reality is a losing strategy.   When I can freely acknowledge my inadequacies then the failure in the moment becomes the blessing in the moment- we awaken to the light through our darkness.  As is said in Zen, samsara and nirvana are one!  We awaken through and to our unconsciousness, those old habits of self-contraction.

When on a path of awakening, it is our failures that are our best friends.  It is through waking up in these moments of being lost that we can learn to bow.  This humility opens our heart.  When we can uncover warm-hearted acceptance of our own limitations, the hard shell of false identity begins to melt.  Then, behind this shell, we sense the tender heart of our authentic Self.  For this melting, as painful as it can be, we can be deeply grateful.

This Thanksgiving I wish you many moments of joy, beauty and love along with some failures to help enlighten your heart.  Bowing to your mistakes will free your heart to love again.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt-marvelous error!-
That I had a beehive
Here in my heart.
And the golden bees
Were making white combs
And sweet honey
From my old failures.”
(from “Time Alone” Antonio Machado)

Happy Thanksgiving

Russell

Click Here for pdf for printing.

 

Why Sit for Peace? (Russell recommends printing out for further reflection)

On Sunday, October 14, for the fourth time this year, friends of the Embodied Life School throughout the world will spend time “Sitting for World Peace”. What does this mean, “sitting for peace”?

People often ask, why do you think sitting and “doing nothing” can help the world to become more peaceful? They usually concede that the person meditating might experience more relaxation but the idea that this could influence peace on the planet seems a far reach.

Some will argue that the primary ingredients for peace in the world require ending the external conditions of poverty and oppression. While these are noble and essential goals, worthy of our efforts, these conditions are not the true, deep antecedents to peace.

For me it is simple. To radiate peacefulness into the world, human beings need three interconnected capacities: 1) to be responsible for the kinds of thoughts and attitudes we radiate, 2) to become at home within our bodies and 3) to sense our deep connectedness to all of life. All of these require an ability to rest quietly within one’s self. Let’s explore these ideas.

What do you radiate…

Everyday we live in moments that can be upsetting. We have some hope or desire, small or large that is unfulfilled. Maybe we did not get the parking space we were anticipating, a friend forgets a date, we lose our job or a loved one is diagnosed with an illness. How we respond to these moments will be determined by the mental stories we tell ourselves about them. This is human freedom! We are not free to determine what will occur nor are we always free to determine the initial thoughts that arise. We ARE free to choose the thoughts and actions we will consciously cultivate about the situation. This will determine how we will carry the situation.  

Do our thoughts and attitudes allow for a confident equanimity in the unfolding of life?  Do we create mental catastrophes and generate greater upsets from our inner dialogue about what might/should/could happen? Learning to see our mind-created world is a direct outgrowth of “just sitting” meditation (this is the form of open meditation that I usually practice, description at the end of this article).

Many of my heroes are people who have endured great challenges yet managed to find a peaceful response to life circumstance. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison, yet even his guards came to respect and care for this man because of his noble, kindhearted attitude. In fact, the authorities needed to keep changing his guards because they would begin to care too much for him. His inner peace and deep acceptance radiated throughout his world. His mentor, Mahatma Gandhi would respond with great purpose and equanimity to the trials given to him by the British.

Our response to situations will be largely determined by the thoughts, images and beliefs, we generate about life and our relationship to it. To be free from unhelpful thoughts first requires noticing them. Second, we must be able to rest in ourselves and notice any hijacking by our mental habits. We learn to see that thoughts are only thoughts with no power until they are believed. To see this requires the ability to sit, alone within ones self.

Here is a story about this condition:

The disciples were involved in a heated discussion on the cause of human suffering. Some said it came from selfishness. Others, from delusion. Yet others, from the inability to distinguish the real from the unreal.

When the Master was consulted, he said,
"All suffering comes from a person's inability to sit still, be alone and listen".
(Based on a story from Anthony de Mello)

Learning to sit with our inner life, free from judgments, denial or self- criticism is the ground for uncovering peacefulness toward ourselves and others. Even when judgment occurs, as soon as we see this and choose to return to the next breath, we are cultivating the conditions for peace. Between the mental pattern and our response there is a gap, this gap allows for awareness to grow. This is the ground for freedom and peace to grow. Being friendly with “what is” is the essence of learning to live. When we can shine a light on our own patterns, the pattern begins to fade, like the darkness in a room when we light a candle.

This Bodily Life…

What about physical discomfort? Can one experience peace when the body is not at ease? No matter how well we take care of ourselves, how well we eat, exercise, think good thoughts, etc., our bodies will be uncomfortable at least some moments every day. For some of us chronically painful sensations are a daily companion. Part of this discomfort is the body’s way of communicating important messages. Some of it is simply the fact of living in an ever-changing physical universe.

As long as we have a body we will experience discomfort. To find that we can be comfortable within a moderate amount of physical discomfort is essential for both inner freedom and for deep peace. Also, so much of our physical discomfort is connected to emotional reactivity that is not consciously experienced and therefore held in our tissues. Life is often uncomfortable; can we rest in ourselves even when that is true?

The attitude of resting comfortably within discomfort assumes: 1) we listen well so that the message from our inner life is heard, 2) that we take action to alleviate the situation when appropriate and 3) we acknowledge that our fighting with discomfort or pain actually intensifies it. The old expression “what you resist persists” is revelatory. Sitting meditation is a direct way to learn about this process and cultivate our “peaceful abiding”.

A long time student of mine named June lives with many physical ailments. At first the idea of meditation was completely unappealing to her. She had learned to deal with her pain through constant distraction. By keeping herself always busy with high levels of stimulation, she could ignore her bodily sensations. This strategy was successful in certain ways but also left her feeling disconnected and exhausted. After learning to sit through the initial sensations of discomfort and the accompanying fear and resistance that would arise, June discovered that by settling into the sensations they could actually dissolve. Now, she proudly says, “sitting is my best friend”.

Connectedness to life...
 
Feeling connected to life is the basis for deep peace. When human beings sense connectedness with themselves and others, peace is the natural condition. Sitting can create a sense of deep connectedness to life.

As one drops deeper into the silence, an unexpected inner movement occurs. Deeper than the thoughts, feelings and sensations that are constantly changing is a quality of presence that is continuous. Perhaps you can feel it, if you pause and sense “what is the deepest sense of life I can know right now. Beneath the thoughts and usual sensations- what is IT?

When sitting, moments will arise when one experiences the subtlest sense of being alive- the sense of Being. For at least a few seconds we sense our connection to all of life. This is the most nourishing place I know.

There is always a pre-verbal “pulse of life” that can be sensed. It is both personal and completely impersonal. It is life itself pulsing through us. We can feel it. One “knows” oneself as part of All. At first this happens for brief seconds or even fractions of a second. Consistent sitting can connect you in a direct way to the totality of life.   You feel at home in this universe, never separate. From this connectedness an implicit caring for the world arises.  

Often while I am sitting, temporary “arisings” of mind will pull me away from deep connectedness. As soon as this is seen, the thought dissolves like a bubble bursting in mid-air. All that remains is life aware of itself in its primordial, uncreated form. After a while, this background quality of Being can be sensed even when the mind is distracted. Gaining confidence in this ground of Being through consistent practice brings profound peace and deep rest.  

In this article, I speak of learning to be at home in the circumstances of our lives. I give examples of people finding peace within extraordinary circumstances. I then speak about feeling connected to the whole world. It is important for me to acknowledge that living like this is not easy. In my personal life, all of these abilities are a “work in progress”. I am forever grateful to my sitting practice for helping these capacities to grow.


So to repeat:

Reason #1 to sit: to become responsible for our thoughts and become free from the habit of cultivating unhelpful thoughts. To do this, we must grow our capacity for awareness and our ability to see that the thoughts have no inherent power unless we believe in them.

Reason #2 to sit: to experience our capacity to be at home in our bodies even in challenging moments. When we discover the capacity to rest even when uncomfortable, life changes enormously. Pausing and befriending our bodily experience is the basis for non-struggling. As we sense the truth of the moment, the bodily discomfort will often lessen or even vanish. Imagine how different our lives would be, how different the world would be if we cultivated this kind of resting.

Reason #3 to sit: to experience our fundamental connectedness to absolutely everything. This connectedness is the ground for love. This is the perennial “peace that surpass all understanding”.

Please join me for as little or as much of the day as suits you. Even one hour of “sitting for peace” is a gift to yourself and to the world. Look at my schedule in California and perhaps we can sit together, wherever you are.

Russell

 

Basic instruction for “JUST SITTING” MEDITATION:

Feel free to sit in a chair or on a cushion. Your physical posture is very important for cultivating awareness. Most essential is to be comfortably erect with the spine long and the breath free. If you’re in a chair be sure your feet are supported by the ground. If needed, support your feet with a blanket. If you’re on a cushion sit toward the front third so that your pelvis can be higher than your knees.
 
Please let go of your ideas of meditation. Rather than 'meditation' I speak about 'just sitting', based in the Zen practice called shikantaza. 'Just sitting' emphasizes the physical act of sitting with the sensations of weight, breath and other bodily phenomena including sound. Rather than focusing on rigorous control of the mind, I emphasize "being with 'what is' from moment to moment". This 'being with' embraces whatever arises with respect, warmth and interest. Note that this embracing does not imply ‘liking’ or enjoying, it is the courageous act of opening one’s interest to the pleasant and unpleasant alike.

There are two main orientations: 1) a subtle, gentle intention to notice what appears (thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images) and 2) a warm-hearted acceptance of whatever one notices. For many students the most important initial learning is to recognize any unfriendly, voices of self- judgment. Many people are ashamed of their own minds. When we become kinder to ourselves, the whole world changes. Imagine saying “hello” to each moment with a welcoming, non-condemning attitude. Even physical discomfort, if not too intense can be welcomed. One is learning an atmosphere of “peaceful abiding”. This means not fighting the moment yet engaging with interested curiosity. To be friendly with your mind in this way will absolutely change your life!

When mild to moderate discomfort arises actively explore,” what makes this moment unpleasant”?  “What is it?”  “What is its essence?”  Is it possible to notice any resistance to the moment? Can you find way of resting in the discomfort? Also, can you warm-heartedly choose to move if you find that being with it is too much? Be gentle and kind with yourself as you courageously engage with the moment.

The job of the sitter is to consistently return to the moment, allowing the bodily sensations “to ground” the mind. Having the breathing as a gentle focus can be helpful. Notice the rising and falling of the lower belly. You can even count the exhales to give you more focus if wanted. Go 1 to 5 then return to 1. Do this the settle your mind if helpful. Through this dedicated, gentle intention one is inviting effortless awareness to dawn.

Attention and awareness are not the same- the first can lead to the second. While attention includes an intentional guiding of the mind, awareness is spontaneous and free. Interestingly, as awareness dawns the sense of a "body" drops away and all that remains is awareness itself.   Life is sensing itself through you. Embodied meditation leads us beyond embodiment, into the essential pulse of life. This is our direction.

1)    sit erect without rigidity;
2)    with interested curiosity acknowledge what arises;
3)    pay particular attention to any fighting of the moment;
4)    let your breath give you some “thing” to be with;
5)    let yourself rest in Being whenever possible.

 

Click here for pdf of article.

Click here for pdf of instruction for "just sitting".

 


 

 

As many of you know from my last writing, I recently journeyed to South Africa. I have been home a week now, here are some lasting impressions.

In the morning light, a wild giraffe, attracted to our singing and our welcoming invitations, comes toward us, looks intently and actually bows, legs splayed, forehead to the ground. It then lifts its head, again looks intently and walks slowly away with graceful dignity, a behavior never seen before by our experienced guide.

Here in the Cradle of Mankind, the vibrant earth simultaneously ancient and fresh has an unusual potency. Connecting to the ground, one feels a rare, living quality. From atop an outcropping of rock, actually the ground of an ancient civilization, we see lions running and elephants grazing. Again, as if attracted to our singing and our prayers, one elephant walks directly toward us, ears flapping gently, unhurried, steady steps.

And the white lions of Timbavati… According to the shamans (sangomas) of South Africa these are mystical Beings who have important messages for humanity. Credo Mutwa, the greatest living sangoma in Africa, claims that they carry messages from the stars for humanity's survival. They seem to appear and disappear through different eras of history. Currently, there are stories throughout our planet of the recent appearance of "white" animals- alligators, hummingbirds, dolphins, and donkeys. Again, according to indigenous wisdom traditions from various cultures, these are messengers from the animal kingdom. Can we sense these messages? Also, is it possible that the earth itself speaks to us, if we can learn to listen?

All of this is new to me. As a scientifically trained westerner, I like to go very slowly, approaching as Buddha taught, empirically, mindfully with an open heart/mind. I do know that our bodies are our direct connection to nature. I know that we can open our bodies to inner messages and experience a permeability to the world around us. The wisdom of our bodies is inseparable from the wisdom of nature. We are an expression of the natural world. How tragic that through disconnected thinking, we often alienate ourselves into a narcissistic, mechanistic universe. Setting aside my beliefs, I open to the world.
                                                                                       .   .   .   .   .   .

The dawn air on the South African plain tastes like a nourishing meal. Singing birds dance amongst the trees as the prey animals wander, feeling the relief of surviving another night. Each evening the dusk air is filled with the awakening sounds of lions and other nocturnal predators- a poignancy and aliveness radiates. Mandela, the large, dignified male white lion named for Nelson Mandela was rescued from a "canned hunting" farm where so called “hunters” pay as much as $165,000 to put a white lion's head on the wall. He shows us his huge teeth. His roar, a low, earth-shaking rumble alerts the world to his kingly presence. He, along with the other white lions are part of the White Lion Trust (http://www.whitelions.org/) that is attempting to save these great animals from the powerful, insatiable greed of the hunting industry. A bit further north 10,000 elephants (25,000 internationally) were slaughtered this year for tusks and many, many rhinoceros left for dead so that their horns could be sold as a potency supplement. We humans have abandoned our stewardship of the animal realm. 
 
We visit two underprivileged South African schools. Due primarily to HIV-Aids, the orphan rate is 70% and households are often parented by 8-year-old children. Amazingly, the vitality of the self-described “learners and educators" is infectious. Such smiles, such voices, as we share songs and dances together. The educators move with such exuberance that we are caught up in a dance just saying "hello". High-fiving the children as we ask for their names fills me with longing for an exchange- can our children be exposed to this natural, spontaneous élan and can the children here receive the nourishment and material support that our culture can offer?

In both the animals and the people I sensed a distinct dignity and vitality.  These qualities were palpable. When reflecting on the lions, I would also add the quality of courage. The courage to be the “king”. The courage, dignity and vitality that it takes to be a true king creates the revered “heart of the lion”. This quality speaks to me as I sit here writing right now.

As I am adjusting to my life back home filled with emails, electronics and new opportunities, I also long for these days when the natural world was omnipresent. Here in my rural home, I am committed more than ever to sense the offerings of nature, especially at dawn and dusk. What about people living in urban environments?  Even in the city, this rhythm of the earth, moon and sun can be sensed. More challenging but always present. This is why the great meditation traditions encourage us to settle down at these times. Can we sense these movements? Are we a part of or apart from this resonance with Life?

Honing this capacity for bodily listening seems essential to me. In this way no matter where I am the natural world speaks to me. Listening with consistency takes commitment. The reward is immeasurable. South Africa awakened something vital in me and I am excited to experience where this will lead.

Click here for pdf copy.

Implicit Connectivity

Just sit there,
Don't do a thing
Just Rest……….

For your separation from God
And from Love
Is the hardest work in this world!

Hafiz


Do you sense a connection to life around you? I find this a surprisingly significant question. Only human beings seem to have the capacity for feeling separate from the social and physical worlds we are living in. Said another way, how do we humans create the experience of isolation, separateness, disconnection from life, love, nature, God, and other people, when this is so obviously inaccurate? It is as absurd as a fish forgetting/denying water. Can we imagine THIS life in THIS form without the great body called earth forming our bones and the perfectly calibrated chemical mixture called air nourishing our cells?

I am growing further and further into the ongoing experience of implicit connectivity. It is "only" when confusion lives in my disconnected thinking that I forget this implicit connectivity. My bodily experience is always inseparable from the world around me. Even the thoughts/feelings propelling this writing are the product of the glucose nourishing my brain from this mornings oatmeal and those oats came from earth, rain, sun, air, farmers hands, cooks skill- these thoughts are connected to the whole world, as is your capacity for reading and understanding.

Yet, we do have this experience, this capacity for disconnecting. We need to be honest about that. We get lost in our make-believe mental world and, at those moments, boy, it seems so real. Developing a bodily habit of pausing, dropping  inside into our bodies and directly sensing the living moment is an elixir for this disease. 

When reconnection occurs, even a little, there is a blessing showering upon us. It may feel very, very small at first. Yet, if you interrupt your habitual self-talk and open to your bodily experience, something deep in you and around you is urging you to connect.  You might feel something in your heart, in the center of your chest calling you. Maybe your belly is gurgling with some response to something that was said to you. Your body is always processing the living situations in which you are alive. Some cultures speak of the beings of earth, the beings of air, the beings of water, the beings of sound actually calling to us, inviting us into relationship. I do not know about this. I do know that implicit connectivity is always there, when I let my bodily process be open to it.

Even in challenging moments there is always what I call a "shower of blessings" when I can directly feel that life is living through me in this moment. Letting a color or sound or sensation be sensed- free from my story about the moment- allows a sense of being touched by life. From this sense of being touched by life comes what I call the "field of gratitude" just as from the "field of gratitude" comes a "shower of blessings". You can enter the implicit connectivity from either feeling touched by a blessing (a blessing is anything that gets through to your heart) OR from sensing gratitude for anything. They lead to each other.

BUT you say, what of those moments when I am so disconnected, so depressed, so full of "NO, DAMMIT, I don't want to be touched by any damn thing". Yes, even here, with practice, a soft voice can arise and say, "even now there is more occurring than just your sorrow" and  "I am with you, yes I know it is really, really hard, tell me about it" (maybe placing a gentle hand on that spot). Take care of that suffering place that arises inside of you in the moments of disconnection.

"Yeah but it still might be a painful moment".

"Yes that is true". Pain is part of our living experience. Yet when we are in connection with Self and life, pain is just pain. It can feel terrible AND we can actually feel WHOLE within the experience. When we start fighting with the pain and disconnect from life then we begin to suffer, really, really suffer. Please do not separate from your living experience as it is occurring through your body and, if you do, come home soon!

"We are quintessentially integral with the universe.
In ourselves the universe is revealed to itself as we are revealed in the universe. Such a statement could be made about any aspect of the universe because every being in the universe articulates some special quality of the universe in its entirety.
Indeed nothing in the universe could be itself apart from every other being in the universe, nor could any moment of the universe story exist apart from all the other moments in the story. Yet it is within our own being that we have our own unique experience of the universe and of the Earth in its full reality."

~Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future.

Click here for a pdf version of this article for printing.

Mechanization, Technology and Humanity

IMAGINATION #1

It is the year 2100. The ancient spiritual dream of heaven on earth, Shambhala, where all Beings are loving, caring and enlightened has unfolded. A sense of interconnectedness lives throughout humanity. Close friendships have developed between people from diverse cultures and countries. This great development was accelerated through technology, especially the Internet. 

Through seeing natural and political disasters in real time, our compassion is awakened. All beings, human and other, become our family. Even in remote villages access to all the scientific and spiritual wisdom that exists on this planet is immediately available. After millennia of relative isolation, where our caring only extended to family, tribe and friends, we finally have reached the land of brotherly and sisterly love known as Philadelphia (philos=love, adelphos- brotherly). The Internet was the means for weaving us all together.

IMAGINATION #2

It is the year 2100. The science fiction picture of mechanized humanity has become real. Saturated with information, actual authentic connectedness is rare. Humans prefer the safety of electronic images to the uncertainty of direct contact. Looking at screens is interpreted as interchangeable with being body to body in the same location. Listening to lectures over the internet is considered indistinguishable from sharing physical space with the speaker. Cyber-sex has become more appealing and less threatening than true intimacy. Virtual reality machines create the feeling of authentic experiences. Even vacations in which all your senses are immersed in a substitute world are the norm.

Gift or Curse?

I am very grateful that I can write these words, press a button and so many people can share these thoughts. Certainly, this interconnecting has great potential for life on earth.

Yet…

Have you ever felt addicted to checking your email, surfing the web, watching television or otherwise giving yourself an electronic dose of quasi- reality? 

Did you know that the ‘beep’ that sounds when an email arrives  elicits the same response in the brain’s pleasure centers as chocolate or sexual imagery?

Just as native people were frightened that a camera could steal their soul, perhaps something similar is happening to humanity. Are we using these media or are they beginning to control us? 

How can we use technology without getting used by it? This is the question we are exploring. This issue is central for all of us. In subtle, nefarious ways we become entranced. I see it in myself. How easily I can be drawn, in compulsive ways, to the cyber-universe even though I am a person who loves nature, direct human connecting and quiet times without external stimulation.

From my point of view, we are in grave danger unless we mobilize the consciousness and will-forces to navigate this new stage of evolution.  The internet is exquisite for information sharing, can save lives and radically impact the world in helpful ways. Hearing music from around the world, seeing sporting and cultural events can enhance our lives greatly. Yet, all of these have a potentially great cost. Substitute worlds seem real. Electronic images seem interchangeable with that which is living. The uncertainty that comes with authentic, embodied living seems messy compared to an airbrushed reality. Although subtle, can you sense our collective trance?

I am especially concerned about young people. Just the other day my wife and I were in a restaurant enjoying a lovely meal. We noticed a family with two children, each with IPADS that were keeping them entertained. We felt disturbed as we noticed the glazed, disconnected look in their eyes. Even when their parents spoke to them there was little contact. Who chose the machines? Does this choice encourage human freedom and connectedness?

Children have not developed the neurological capacity to differentiate electronic imagery from the real. Their brains are defenseless against the seduction of the lights, sounds and images that stimulate their pleasure centers. Just as we protect them from running onto a busy street, we need the same sense of urgency to protect them from the electronic world.

I observe young adults, people raised on these machines, where the norm seems to include almost constant electronic “dosing”. Each instance is not damaging in itself and at times can be a fine choice.  These technological “advances” can be used positively. It is the addiction, the trance inducing, brain-altering potential that is of tremendous concern.

Adults also must be wary of an inflated sense of autonomy and self-control.  Our capacity for genuine freedom is on the line here! It is very difficult to discern when one is in a trance, so easy for the seduced brain to fool itself. We need practices, teachers and communities of fellow seekers to help us wake up! I am grateful that my life is filled with so many opportunities to spend time with other people who are committed to growing awareness and a path of awakening.

In the last few years, I have had more and more students who are addicted to surfing the web whether for news, shopping or pornography. Many families are in the habit of leaving television on even when no one is watching. Conversation and interconnecting begins to feel tiresome and just watching something seems the most relaxing. It is challenging yet extremely important to question our own habits and to find the right balance for our lives.

Some spiritual traditions speak of dark forces that seek to entrap humankind. Their goal is to eliminate free will. I do not know if these are actual entities with a conscious plan. I do know that the mechanization of the human being that can come through unconscious use of technology would be the ideal means for such a venture. When I see people walking down the street or through airports completely isolated in their own world, absorbed in their earphones or tiny screens with little connection to others I wonder if we are becoming collectively enslaved. Driving through suburbia at night and seeing these blue lights of televisions emanating from almost every house sends shivers up my spine. What is happening to us?

Again, how can we use technology without getting used by it?  Clearly the answer is not to go retrograde and swear off all media, this is regressive. There is too much positive potential here. Besides, going backward is not an option when on an evolutionary trajectory. What are the antidotes?


ANTIDOTES

I have painted a pretty grim picture. Still, I have tremendous faith in the capacity of human beings. We are drawn toward greater awareness, love and freedom. Even more, I sense that the evolution of life has an intrinsic orientation toward Shambhala and Philadelphia. 

Some suggestions:

  • Develop practices that help you to grow your capacity for embodied awareness in general.
  • Be conscious each time you choose to use electronic media (internet, smart phone, email, television, movies, radio):
  • PAUSE to make conscious your decision to check the email, send a message, make the call or watch that show, etc.
  • PAUSE to collect yourself in an embodied way. This means to sense your breathing, your connection to the ground, and contact with the space around you. Feel into the living moment and reconnect consciously every 15 minutes. Simply sensing a whole breath, taking your eyes off the screen, checking in with your inner life is enough to interrupt the unconsciousness. As you do this, it becomes a “bodily habit” that requires little effort.
  • If your children are watching electronic shows, interact with them, bringing human connecting into the experience.
  • When possible shut down your “devices” except when expecting a message so that you can choose when to check.
  • Be aware of the unconscious act of checking simply out of boredom or habit.
  • When communicating something personal handwrite a note.
  • For important, remote conversations use telephone or Skype rather than texting so that the sound of the voice and possibly the gestures are part of the interaction.
  • Spend time “wired down” and if possible connect with nature everyday. In cities visit the parks or just sense the air. Nature is always there! 
  • Get into water either a bath or extended shower, sense into the element of water and let it soothe you.
  • Most important, stay alive to the question, “am I choosing in freedom or acting from compulsion when using any electronic media?” Becoming conscious of a compulsive action, even if you do not change it, is a big help!
  • Do we have the capacity to use these great and expanding opportunities for interconnecting without getting lost? I am not sure. I, for one, am committed to doing my best to stay alert. Navigating these issues effectively will bring us many steps closer to the world we hope to create. Please reflect on these things and forward this newsletter to others.

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Ice melting in the Arctic, climatic changes throughout the planet, many of us are concerned about the environment that our children’s children will inherit from our decisions and actions today.

My larger concern is the “mind field” that we will bequeath to future generations. What do I mean by mind field? When one practices meditation and enters into certain expanded states of consciousness, the reality that our minds are interconnected becomes obvious and clear. Whether called consciousness, the collective unconscious or the Divine, the fact that we live simultaneously as autonomous individuals and in a state of inter-being becomes both verifiable and undeniable.

Even without these “altered states”, when one experiences the kindness of strangers and the spontaneous blessings that are constantly shared throughout the planet, we can also know this sense of interconnection. My recent writings about the Unborn Mind points toward this shared inheritance. To paraphrase Zen Master Bankei, “the greatest gift we receive from our parents is the Unborn Mind”. The Unborn is our access to and membership in the shared, collective consciousness out of which everything we experience arises.

Imagine this moment, each thought and each feeling, every creative impulse, arises from the Unborn, also known as silence. When Zen masters speak of “emptiness” they are pointing toward the infinite potential of the next moment, which arises from this vast field of silence.

Remember the old Zen story of the philosophy professor who visits the master and can’t stop talking. The master pours him a cup of tea and does not stop pouring even as it spills all over the table. The startled professor finally notices and says, “what are you doing, the cup is already full”. The master says “you say you want to learn about living and dying yet your cup is so full there is no room for anything new”.

The challenge is to allow enough empty space for the creative potential of the new moment. On one level we can say there is nothing to be concerned about. New moments are always arising and creativity lives deeply in our lifeblood. We will always have creative potential. Yet, I do worry deeply about the loss of two essential, overlapping capacities- the appreciation of silence and our tolerance for boredom.

To sit in silence, refraining from the usual means of self-entertainment: computers, TV, smart phones, reading etc. is uncomfortable for most of us. To be at home in our own thoughts, feelings and sensations, without creating distractions is rare. I believe this “wasting time” is very important for our health and creative potential. As Hafiz said, “Everything is God speaking, why not be polite and listen”. To listen means to empty your cup, allow enough space for something unexpected to emerge, to become permeable to the moment.

For me, just sitting quietly is the most nourishing gift to and from my inner world. How might this also be a gift to the larger world? First, there seems to be an alteration in the brains of people who sit consistently that seems to influence the field around you. We can say that you radiate certain qualities. People feel more at ease in your presence. There is something calming about you. Second, you are less quick to react in habitual ways. Though you can respond effectively with speed when needed, the unconscious patterns of reactivity seem to have more insulation around them. Your less skillful reactions and comments can be more readily inhibited. This generates more peace in your universe. Third, as you spend time with other people who are practicing silence, you notice a shared depth that allows a more authentic sense of self to emerge. Fourth, as anyone visiting a meditation room can attest, the space itself is influenced by the silent practice. As many say, it is as if the walls themselves are meditating.

We all hate boredom. When my father would come home to an empty apartment he would turn on two TV’s and a radio just to have some “company”. Most of us can relate to this impulse. Filling up the empty spaces protects us from all those feelings we would rather not experience. What is the price for this “filling up”? Does the temporary calming actually sustain a kind of omnipresent, low level anxiety?

Over the last 35 years as a Feldenkrais teacher I have observed a startling change in the children that I see. The level of inner agitation when in a quiet setting seems greatly elevated. I remember kids in the early days coming to my office happy to play with a little stuffed animal, a ball or one of the favorites, the plastic jack-in-the-box. Now, I notice an uneasiness, a dis-ease, that is somewhat ameliorated only when engaged with the flashes, beeps and bells of their favorite electronic toy. As neurological research is showing, our brains can be conditioned to a dependence on the “rewarding” sounds and fast, bright images that accompany all the games that they love to play. The pleasure centers in our brains actually become addicted to these stimuli. As adults we can notice the same thing, that little inner tickle that comes when a new email message arrives and the urge to immediately find out who it is from. Fully formed brains have far greater capacity for regulating these phenomena, our children’s brains are so innocent and vulnerable, sponges for the stimuli they are offered. Certain school environments such as Waldorf Schools take this very seriously and strongly discourage these kinds of stimuli for young children.

Tolerating more moments of “boredom” often can create something unexpected. If one meditates regularly or finds other ways to explore “not doing”, emerging from that open space are experiences that often seem very deep, whole and authentic. By becoming available to unscripted, unfilled moments, we can be surprised by a sometimes blissful, often illuminating present. Said another way, we become permeable to the constant blessings and offerings emanating from the Universe.

Without going into the whole sociological debate about technology (I am writing on a computer, I value my many emails each day and can relish electronic media; I am not suggesting an attempt at retro-living), I want to stand up for the great blessing of silence and boredom. In fact, I will go even further, suggesting that as more people learn to sit in silence, we will influence the mind field for future generations. I suggest that the capacity for being at home in the mystery of Being requires a willingness to take time each day turning off the various forms of entertainment and just Being with one’s living moment. If humanity loses this great capacity, we will simultaneously surrender our creative potential and our capacity for true freedom.


How do we live in the paradox of unconditional gratitude amidst so much destruction and sorrow?


What are "unfathomable blessings"?

Years ago, Ram Das (spiritual teacher Richard Alpert) gave me a great teaching. He came for some sessions after having his massive stroke and we enjoyed connecting on many levels. While at times frustrated or having challenging moments, usually he would return quite quickly to curiosity about the moment. In our first session, when he needed help lying down and I held him in a big bear hug, we shared a belly laugh at the absurdity of the situation. At first he hated the dependency of “needing people to wipe my ass”, but then we again laughed at how wonderful it was to be cared for so intimately.

What does it mean to stop struggling with life? Does it suggest that you like everything that happens? Does it imply passivity? Does unconditional acceptance of life “as it is,” mean that we can’t dedicate ourselves to ending injustice, reducing suffering and healing our planet?

How can we live in these realizations:” You are never separate from True Self (God, Life, Love)” along with “Everything is as it is and as it needs to be until it isn’t” while simultaneously feeling the tragedy of human violence toward the earth, her creatures and each other? How can one live fully into the “peace that surpasses all understanding” and also respond in revulsion to hate-filled crimes, destruction of the planet and selfishness revealed by human beings just like you and me?

If you are lucky enough to have an authentic practice of awakening and perhaps some help from a few spiritual benefactors, you will most likely experience the great freedom that comes from holding your self and your mental constructs lightly. By mental constructs I mean all the thoughts, feelings, reactions etc. that comprise your “story” of life.

As you learn to confidently live in the spaciousness of Being- the Unborn Mind- you do not dwell very long in your conditioned reactions. This does not mean that you do not have these reactions, rather, that soon after you notice your reactivity, your defensiveness and your struggling, you also remember the ever-present Unborn Mind. You choose to return to True Self rather than be lost in your reactivity. You learn how to be with the reactivity in a kind-hearted, curious way. Rather than having it take over the Self or pushing the feeling away or denying it, you learn to value your reactions as an expression of the Unborn, a part of your particular history. It is included as part of your life story, yet not true in any fundamental sense. Everything that IS is part of the reality of your life yet you are always much more than that particular state. You are the space in which the moment comes and the awareness that notices it (recall part 2 in this series of writings)!

So this is the edge- how to acknowledge the conditioned, historical, learned sense of self, how to value everything that has contributed to your development AND to remember the Unborn Mind. This remembering has an air of freshness, the moment feels new. As you grow more familiar with the Unborn you can even learn to maintain a kind of loving companionship with very challenging states like shame, anger or deep hurt. When held this way, the energy of these states will transform.

This is a unique positioning of oneself. One does not fall into the old stories (for very long) as if they are real and one does not fall into the “spiritual bypassing” or “process skipping” that can be so prevalent in spiritual circles. Finding this new way of locating ones self is very challenging until it isn’t. We are so often entranced by our inner dialogue, keeping alive our old stories about who we are, who others are and what life is. Most of these stories were learned before we had enough awareness to really choose what was true. Yet always, before and within the conditioned self is this Unborn Mind.

Authentic meditation practice gives us the certainty that this original ground of being is right here, “closer than your skin”. As I said in an earlier writing, one senses the silence from which sound emerges and to which it returns even as the particular sound is noticed. Knowing that this particular sound is only a temporary occurrence, one can feel that the spaciousness and infinite potentiality of the moment is never far away. Just as this is with sound so it is with thoughts, feelings- any mind state. One is either living in the Unborn or returning to it.

Emptying the cup of reactivity so that genuine responsiveness can emerge is the essence of meditation practice. It is also the essence of a path of awakening. We rest more and more in the open space out of which the moment emerges. We can learn to experience that open space during a mind state just as silence can be sensed within a sound.

I am concerned that this sounds too lofty, too extraordinary to be attainable, yet I am talking about ordinary people just like you and me. We can learn to PAUSE in our reactivity, breathe and connect with the Being that is free, even in that difficult moment. We can learn to have kind-heartedness toward the difficult moment. AND when all we can do is to notice that some reactive, self-protective state has emerged, when we are lost in a troubled state, we can be generous toward the place inside that is struggling. As this capacity grows, we notice our kindness and understanding toward others also growing.

Almost everyday I read the newspaper, it seems important to me to be exposed to all aspects of humanity, including the destructive qualities. Certain horror stories grab my innards and can bring me to tears. Yet, everyday I am also awed by the courage, generosity and loving-kindness of my fellow humans.

Just this week:

- In one story, a young girl loses her arm just two months ago and simultaneously loses her old dream of being a professional athlete yet refuses to let her loss be defining of who she is. Through new dreams and dedicating herself to helping others, she claims that life is rich and full and joy is joy even without that arm!
- A homeless man donates $20.00 each month to care for a child in Africa after hearing that the supporter of the child has died.
- A man released from prison after 25 years for a crime he did not commit forgives the prosecutor and the police and claims to have found deep peace through dealing with his incarceration.

My heart has many preferences, hopes and dreams. I do not live in a quiescent neutrality. I am moved by the people’s suffering and my own challenging moments. Everyday, I pray for my loved ones safety and happiness. Everyday, I pray for our planet and for people who are struggling to be free. I know we will all have challenges yet I also know that, in the Unborn Mind, we can be free, even in very, very challenging conditions. This freedom includes loss, grief and sorrow yet, as the ancient wisdom affirms “love is stronger than death”. Unfathomable blessings means to me that even with all the destructiveness, we can choose to lean toward the basic goodness that is life itself. This bowing to Life is the ground of knowing that the shower of blessings is continuous, always! And joy, love and peace become our home base. The Unborn Mind helps us remember. Unfathomable, Yes…………


One great tragedy of Zen, is that its very practical teachings can easily become obscure and seemingly intellectual. I notice that sometimes lofty density is presented as Wisdom. True Zen teachers always sit face to face with real people who experience sorrow, confusion and suffering. The teachings are not a way out but a way through. We can sense that being at home in the moment IS our very nature. For me, the sense of freedom that comes with this at-homeness is experienced as unconditional love. How can we know this?

Great Zen masters of the past often had one phrase, word or image that summarized their realization. This became the center of their teaching. "One bright jewel" was Xuansha's teaching, "this very mind is Buddha" belonged to Mazu. Perhaps the most powerful and resonant for me has been Bankei's "Unborn mind" also called “Unborn Buddha mind”. Often I return to this expression as a doorway. I find it an evocative entry into "True Self" or, simply, to "what is".

Let's explore this together.

While the Unborn Mind can not be effectively described in words, we can point toward three qualities or aspects.

1) For any moment to arise, implicitly there must be a space in which it can appear. This can be called the spaciousness of the present moment. Any experience, appears within a context- your chair is in a room, the room in a building, the building on some land and on and on. Thoughts and feelings appear in a space called mind or consciousness.

2) Next, for any moment to be experienced there must be the capacity for noticing. When a sound appears you effortlessly notice it. Without thought you can tell if it is the voice of a man or woman, the sound of a bird or a car. This capacity for noticing is an essential aspect of any well-functioning human nervous system. This can be called effortless awareness. Of course this is not only in relation to sound but in all aspects of our experiencing.

3) Prior to thought, before opinions and any personal reactivity is the infinite potential of the present moment also called inherent capacity. What is inherent capacity? Pause for a moment and listen to the silence that lives behind and within any sounds that are present. Even amidst great noise, we can intuit the silence that makes the sound possible. Listen softly, diffuse in attention, not in a focused way.

We are always in the atmosphere of silence, that great canvas upon which the world of sound paints. The next moment will bring unexpected, unanticipated, uncontrolled sound. This is the infinite potential of the present moment: always fresh, always unique always new.

What is the Unborn mind?

The Unborn mind points us toward the spaciousness of the present moment, the capacity for noticing it and its infinite potential. My most profound moments are the simple awe at being alive and the fact that “I” know it! Bankei would say that the great gift we received from our parents or from Life itself is this “Unborn Mind”.

Every living moment has these three elements: open space in which something can appear-"spaciousness", the capacity for noticing- "awareness" and the infinite potential of the present moment- "what is”.

Perhaps this sounds very lofty or abstract or maybe even too simple, yet all of this is directly connected to our everyday living. How is this so? Just now, I received a letter from a mother, an old student who has been caring for her brain-injured child. After a challenging delivery, many months in the hospital and hearing the dreaded words “brain injury”, she has been living in the challenge and deep, deep gratitude for this exquisite Being who has changed her life. Her child is an “unfathomable blessing” to her. She told me that her learning from previous years about saying “YES” to what is and placing Life itself above her preferences, without denying her hopes or her pain, have carried her through this time. I am again awed- this time by the human capacity to bow to Life. My heart experiences another “unfathomable blessing”.

Why is the Unborn so important to me?

Why do I know it as a doorway to freedom, clarity and loving-kindness?

How is this related to “unfathomable blessings”?

How does it speak to the paradox of experiencing constant gratitude amidst worldly suffering and destruction?


Please join me in the practice of working intimately with these questions, connecting with the "Unborn mind" and we will explore it further in the next newsletter. Your questions and comments are welcome.

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