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What Meditation Does

Summer House, New Ipswich squareMany people begin a meditation practice in order to become more calm and relaxed. But there is much more to it than that.

A common misconception is that meditation involves shutting out all thoughts. The thoughts will come. We neither attach to them nor dispel them. In fact, I have come to assume that whenever I sit in meditation, there is a ticker tape of thoughts scrolling across my awareness. Some may be mundane thoughts of chores that await us, while others might be deeply challenging. Either way, we notice them and allow them to continue to pass through.

This ability to notice thoughts and experiences with neither attraction nor aversion is called equanimity. In short, it means being nonjudgmental in our perceptions. This gives us the ability to stay present with our own difficult emotions. Meditation does not instill magical powers to make you feel good. It does not push away sadness or anxiety or anger. To the contrary, it allows these feelings to be present.

In that space where thoughts and feelings are allowed to be present, without judgement, they may be transformed over time. At the very least, they no longer have the ability to define us or have power over us. If we say, “anger is bad,” and push it aside for the duration of our practice, it will still be there at the end of our meditation. If we simply notice the anger and allow it to be present in our practice without obsessing about what made us angry, we have the opportunity to care for our anger and for ourselves.

Mindfulness is my basic meditation practice. Mindfulness means dwelling in the present moment and becoming aware of everything—both the positive and negative elements that are there both within us and around us. We learn to nourish the positive and to recognize, embrace, and transform the negative
— Thich Nhat Hanh

When we practice equanimity in our practice and in our lives, we are not permitted to take refuge in preconceptions and labels that we are inclined to apply to people and situations around us. We have to remain open, to stay in the middle, as Pema Chodron describes it. We stay in the middle between attraction and aversion. We allow our thoughts to be present without making value judgements about them. This is a challenging and sometimes frightening place to be, without the security of our preconceptions and opinions. Meditation builds our courage to stay in this position of groundlessness. It builds our strength from the inside out. That is why some Buddhists refer to the spiritual practice as “training to be a warrior.”

When thoughts are allowed to come and go with neither attachment nor aversion, the thinking mind quiets down. There are spaces between the thoughts, and with continued practice, these intervals become longer. The state in which there is no thought, but only awareness, is called shuniya. There may be one moment of shuniya during a meditation session, or there may be several. As a musician, I often have experienced shuniya while playing or listening to music, perhaps even more often than during meditation.

As we become aware of the spaces between our thoughts, our awareness arises from beyond our thinking mind. We become aware of the authentic self which is “watching” our own mind. I have had this experience both during meditation and during yoga, rather intensely at times. It is as though an ancient soul steps back and watches this human incarnation struggling with its body of clay, its angst, and the struggles of this life time. This soul without birth, without death, watches the thinking self, knowing that everything will be okay.

The most decisive event in your life is when you discover you are not your thoughts or emotions. Instead, you can be present as the awareness behind the thoughts and emotions. – Eckhart Tolle

If I had to describe the benefits of meditation to just one word, it would be “awake.” I feel more awake than ever, not in the sense of sleeplessness, but in the sense of being acutely aware of everything around me and within me. I am aware of my own thoughts and feelings without being submersed in them. I am aware of my authentic self beyond my thoughts. I am aware of the beings around me. I remember with compassion the beings who have been near me throughout time. I am learning to form fewer attachments and make fewer judgements. I have more courage to stay in the middle. I am training to be a warrior.

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A Change of Heart

It is always difficult to lose someone who was very special to you. If you’re lucky, you reach a point where you can look back on the relationship with neither attachment nor aversion. Yes, I still love you, but I have no expectation of getting you back. No, I will not trash talk you to make myself feel better. And then, you can feel a sense of gratitude for every good thing that the other person brought into your life. For me, it took about a year of talking, writing, and meditating about it to reach this point. But nothing can take away that initial awkwardness when the other person walks into the room…

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My former best friend came to a gathering I attended
A year after she walked away;
I had marked passages in books to share,
Knowing that she would never see them.
Eventually the bookmarks fell out
And I did not put them back.
A year of sitting in meditation until
The garbage in my mind was transformed into compost
And my soul grew deeper.
We shared our yoga practice.
We spoke of spiritual journeys.
We returned from our classes and retreats
Eager to tell one another of our adventures
Of the body and of the soul.
New teachers come and share their wisdom.
Some stay forever; others only for a few minutes.
But the lessons remain.
Like letting go.
My former best friend came to a gathering I attended.
She did not stay.
Again, she walked away.

Exploring Toxicity

IMG_8688bRecently, I have come across several articles about how we should eliminate toxic people from our lives. The underlying assumption that any toxicity in a relationship is caused by the other person strikes me as a kind of spiritual arrogance.  What if instead we turn this into an opportunity for brutally honest self awareness and deep healing?

Instead of thinking about which people in my life might be toxic, I turned my attention to myself in an effort to discern what elements of toxicity I may be bringing into my relationships.  I have learned that simply bringing one’s awareness to these elements and naming them can take away much of their power. It is not about becoming “better” or changing yourself so much as it is about becoming aware of your own habits. So when you get caught up in resentment or jealousy or criticism, you notice what is happening, and you have a chance to make a conscious choice about what comes next.

So why am I concerned about my own toxicity? Pema Chodron has said, “The essence of bravery is being without deception….Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing. As we train in clarity and steadfastness, we see things we’d prefer to deny—judgmentalness, pettiness, arrogance.” As I have seen some friends drift away, and particularly after losing my closest friend, I felt the need to look courageously at these unattractive parts of myself.

The last time I saw my former friend, she proclaimed to me, “You need healing. I pray for your healing.” She was correct, of course. While I recognized the inappropriateness of her posturing, I was grateful that she was praying for me. I also took her suggestion to heart. I realized that while there were many times when I would send healing energy to others, there were far too few times when I would chant a healing mantra and open my own heart to healing. So I began to incorporate this as a regular part of my practice.

I have found that if I bring my awareness to the unattactive parts of myself with neither attachment nor aversion, I can touch them with compassion. I can remain mindful of them without shame or despair. And as they are brought out of the darkness, they have less power over me. I am finding that the more I can bring my awareness to those difficult places without aggression, the deeper I can go in my soul work.

“To heal, we cannot reject our illness and grief or use anger and aversion to try to get rid of them. Instead, we have to bring a tender, healing energy to all that is sick or torn, what is broken or lost….Sometimes this is all that healing asks, that we become present. You should never underestimate your power to heal when you step toward difficulty with courage and love, when you touch pain with healing rather than fear.”

—Jack Kornfield, A Lamp in the Darkness

A short time later, I came across an article about communications patterns that are toxic to relationships. I noticed that the title refers to the communications patterns as toxic, not the people themselves. I read the article, wondering whether I might recognize myself in any of these patterns. A couple of  them did sound familiar, but mostly because I had been on the receiving end, specifically from the close friend who had left me.

I came to see how each of us had brought some of our own toxicity into the relationship. Realizing this does not make me feel vindicated or angry. I think of her now with more tenderness than ever, and I wish I could touch her darkness with the same compassion with which I have been able to touch mine.

Having done the work of bringing awareness to all aspects of yourself, no matter how beautiful or how ugly, the next step is to befriend yourself exactly the way you are. To know yourself exactly the way you are, without deception, must be followed by loving yourself exactly the way you are, without judgement or shame. Then a deep sense of acceptance arises from within, and one is less inclined to seek external validation through relationships.

“Loving-kindness—maitri—toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.”

― Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape

When I found that I was able to bring my awareness so deep with (almost) complete equanimity, I realized how far my practice had come. Now I can leave the meditation seat, with all my imperfections intact, having the ability to make more conscious choices about what comes next.

 

Perusing Pema

Morning MistHave you read any of Pema Chödrön’s books? I have found that her writing is not meant for reading, but for in-depth study. Those who have read at least a few of her books are aware of the recurring themes to be found in each—the practice of Tonglen, for instance. Or the idea that compassion is a relationship between equals, not that of the healer placing oneself above the wounded. She seems to repeat them every chance she gets in the hope that sooner or later, her gentle reader will “get it.”

“Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.”  –Pema Chödrön

I find Pema challenging. She does not write abstractly about being stuck. She gives specific examples of ways in which we close our hearts and become stuck. Bam! With every example, she talks about how I close my heart and how I become stuck. Yet she does so without condemnation. This is where you are. Make friends with who you are now. Have compassion for yourself and forgive yourself. Once you do that, you have taken a step closer to having compassion for others and forgiving others.

“When the Buddha taught, he didn’t say that we were bad people or that there was some sin that we had committed—original or otherwise—that made us more ignorant than clear, more harsh than gentle, more closed than open. He Taught that there is a kind of innocent misunderstanding that we all share, something that can be turned around, corrected, and seen through, as if we were in a dark room and someone showed us where the light switch was.”
(From The Wisdom of No Escape)

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to look at ourselves just the way we are. I have started projects in my house that are not yet completed. There is a baseboard missing in one room. There is old carpet in another begging to be replaced. I do not see these things anymore. I just go from room to room doing whatever business I have there, and I do not notice. It is the same with our unhealthy habits and our negative reactions. We have learned to live with them. We just don’t see them.

Pema won’t allow us to do that. If you read Pema because you want to begin your spiritual journey, to become fully awake and find your way to Bodhicitta, she will lead you first to look closely at yourself before any of those things happen.

“The essence of bravery is being without deception….Seeing ourselves clearly is initially uncomfortable and embarrassing. As we train in clarity and steadfastness, we see things we’d prefer to deny—judgmentalness, pettiness, arrogance.”
(from The Places That Scare You)

All of this is enough to make many of us put the book down. I did. Then I picked it up again. Once you become even a little more open, teachers and lessons will begin to appear in your life. Then you can go back to the book and reread certain passages, now having the context of these life lessons.

Many people are looking for a comfortable spiritual life. Let’s go to yoga class, groove to mantra music, buy a salt lamp, and align our chakras. As wonderful as these things may be, they can become distractions from the real spiritual work that needs to be done.  Ironically, many people end up grasping at spiritual fads instead of doing authentic soul work and developing a true sense of equanimity.

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable….If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.”
(from The Wisdom of No Escape)

As one of my yoga classmates once pointed out, “real spiritual growth begins only when we are willing to look at the least attractive parts of ourselves.” Pema takes us there. Whether we like it or not, she shows us that the path to Bodhicitta passes through the least attractive parts of ourselves.

Now it is time to do the work of Bodhicitta. It is time to begin, where I am, here and now.

Me Too

IMG_2452The current trend of #me too has made me think of a paradox in my own life and how I relate to the women around me.

On the one hand, I have found that anything that I as a man say or do around a woman may be viewed with suspicion. For example, a woman might compliment a coworker on her dress or her hair, but if I say exactly the same thing, I do so at my peril. Nonetheless, I’m sure that I have made some poor choices over the years, and there are some things that I have said or done that were not very well thought out.

On the other hand, I have had many women confide in me that they were survivors of rape or childhood sexual abuse.  These women ranged from 20 to 80 years old. I was romantically involved with one for a brief time, but at least two of the others were strangers.  It continues to baffle my wife that so many women are able to talk to me like that.

The most remarkable incident would have to be the woman who told me her story while we were sharing a sauna at a conference center. I should point out that she was the one who had invited me to come to the sauna with her. After she told me that she was a rape  survivor, I thought that being alone with a man in the sauna with diminutive covering made for a vulnerable situation. But she went on to say that the sauna was part of her journey back.

It started to make more sense as I thought about it. Yes, it was a vulnerable situation, but it was a situation of her choosing. She was making a journey back to a sense of control and dignity—her body, her choice. Why shouldn’t she enjoy the sensuality of the sauna?  Why shouldn’t she share it with a man of her choosing?  She was not healing by closing down her body and her sexuality, but by reclaiming her sense of control over how she was going to share her body and express her sexuality.

As I recall, she was a lovely woman with a very fit body. I suppose she might have invited me there for sex.  I have known other women in similar situations who chose to reclaim their sexuality by having lots of it.  But I was pretty sure that she was not one of them.  I was there to hold space for her, long before I had ever heard that term.  I was there to validate her recovering faith in humanity in general, and men in particular.  The only thing I am certain of is that it was the only time that I have ever held space for someone while wearing only a towel.

Survivors speak of the “rape culture,” but there is a deeper brokenness in our culture. In many cultures, including ours, men are raised with certain expectations and definitions of manliness. Manliness generally does not emphasize emotional maturity. Women are far more emotionally complex than men. As preteen girls, they develop their sense of love and sexuality by developing a rich fantasy life and harboring crushes on older teens, adults, or even celebrities. Women form deep friendships with one another and touch each other freely.

Men often do not experience this complexity of feeling and shared emotions. For men, intimacy is readily associated with sexuality. Touch either leads to or is part of sexual encounter. Moreover, with their minimal emotional vocabulary, men often rely on women to feel for them and to form emotional connections with the outside world.

The rape culture cannot be addressed without addressing the culture of manliness. Men often see “being emotional” as giving up their position of strength. But outer strength not only coexists with inner strength; it is enhanced by it. The practice of martial arts builds physical strength and teaches self-defense, but it all begins with mental conditioning and tuning in to one’s spiritual center.

Nor can the rape culture be addressed as long as people exhibit a pathological need to control others in every arena of life. Supervisors and colleagues exert undue control over coworkers. Clergy and lay people exert undue control over parishioners. Aggressive drivers exert undue control over other drivers. Family members exert undue control over adult children. Sexual abuse is the most heinous means of controlling others because of the level of vulnerability involved. It may be perpetrated by a man who grabs a woman, by a religious leader who shames women, or by a politician who denies a woman’s control of her own body through legislation.

The rape culture will end only when sexuality is neither a source of shame nor a weapon of control; when it is no longer a means of manipulation and relationships become authentic; when it is neither a substitute nor a synonym for love; when it is one part of a far broader spectrum of touch and sensory experiences.

There are so many opportunities to enjoy rich experiences involving touch that are not inherently sexual. When men and women embrace in friendship, they are not engaging in a sexual embrace. Nonetheless, they are two sexual people engaging in an embrace. One can’t expect another to leave his sexuality behind. That is a subtle form of sexual shaming. We embrace one another as whole persons.

In my yoga class, the teacher often adjusts our posture during asanas. As my teacher comes up behind me and lifts my hips during down dog, I sometimes wonder how well that would work with a male teacher and a female student. There is an inherent trust involved, and I have talked with my teacher about that. Since we talked, I notice that she adjusts me more freely. And because I yield my muscles to her so easily, she applies a light neck traction during savasana.

I relish this contact, both because the touch is so healing and because my teacher is such a beautiful woman. Yet, even if I were twenty years younger, I would not see myself pursuing her romantically or sexually, because I need her to be my yoga teacher.  The practice of yoga can be a deeply sensual experience, one which is an end of itself and not a gateway to sexual intimacy. For women and men, yoga can be a path to healing and creating a healthy balance of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Sharing touch does not make for a sexual encounter. On the other hand, sharing non-sexual touch does not make us non-sexual people. It is not the denial or suppression of our sexuality that will heal us, but the integration of our sexuality into our whole selves. This depends on spiritual development, emotional maturity and the ability to experience a broad spectrum of touch and sensory experiences. For a whole society to evolve on this scale seems like a utopian dream. But if it is a journey of a thousand miles, then let us take the first step.

From Grief to Gratitude

grief

Everyone understands the grief that follows the death of a loved one. What is much less understood is the grief that comes from losing a living person, one who chooses to walk away from you. This kind of grief can be just as profound and take as much time to process. And it has the added sting that the person made a conscious choice to leave you.

It may be obvious that my thoughts come from personal experience, from the loss of my yoga partner and soul friend. She was not a romantic partner; we were both married. But we shared our practice and our soul work in ways in which we were unable to share with our spouses.   I am reminded of a chamber music concert I once attended, enjoying the give and take of an inherently intimate musical genre. I was talking with one of the performers about the close relationships one must develop with the other players in order to play chamber music well. At one point she said, “I could never play chamber music with my husband!”

The journey of grief is a long one. No one can ever replace my friend, which is a blessing and a curse. A curse because the place that she once had in my life will remain unfilled. A blessing, because the empty space honors everything that she was and continues to be in my life.

Step one is to let go of blame. There are reasons, whether known or unknown, why the other person left. But all that matters is that she left. Step two is to stop trying to prove yourself. If someone chose to leave you, it is natural to think that it is because you are flawed or failed to measure up somehow. But you are the same person as you were before. In fact, if you are engaged in a spiritual practice and living intentionally, chances are that you are a better person now than you were before.

Pema Chodron wrote “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Early on, I had set my intention to remain present with my feelings of sadness and anger until I was able to discern what they might teach me. But as weeks turned into months, I began to wonder just when that elusive lesson might reveal itself. If there are profound lessons to be learned from grief, I thought, I must be absolutely brilliant by now.

Eventually, as I was just beginning to feel like I was coming through a long tunnel, I heard from this friend again, asking for something back which I had borrowed. Fair enough. I was happy that the exchange was not only civil, but genuinely caring. Still, I was revisited by some of the sadness that I had felt for so long. But now, I was not attached to it. Although I was completely aware of my feelings, they did not take over my consciousness. The next morning, I felt a sense of contentment that I had not known for a long time.

I wondered about the shift in my emotions from one day to the next. Perhaps it came from being able to love someone who had been a source of so much pain. Perhaps it was realizing how far along I had come in the transformation from anger to gratitude. Or was it the ability to accept myself just as I am (maitri) after dealing with so much self-doubt?

There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

–John O’Donohue

A couple of days later, the sadness came back, and perhaps a bit of resentment with it. But these feelings no longer defined me. They were part of a moving stream of consciousness, and I was no longer “stuck.” The way to deal with grief is not simply to get to the other side—to get “over” it—but to stay with it as long as it takes to transform it.

Just when you start to lose hope of ever coming through the tunnel, the light shows through. Then, just when you think you have processed all of the raw emotions, they occasionally come back to remind you that your soul work continues.

Early last summer, I attended my Tuesday kundalini yoga class. This was the class that my friend and I had discovered together one rainy spring morning, where we subsequently practiced side by side week after week. By the time the closing blessing came, I felt very sad. I decided to take a break from that class for a while, focus on my vinyassa, and attend other kundalini classes.

When I returned a couple of months later, I was excited to see my teacher and share some of our adventures over the summer. After class, I had lunch at a place where I often had gone with my friend. Instead of triggering sadness, these places elicited beautiful memories of a time, albeit far too brief, of friendship and deep sharing. That day was a celebration of personal triumph, as the sadness and anger no longer had power over me. And because the weight of grief was an obstacle to love, with that obstacle lifted, I am now able to bless my friend.

It does no good to go “through” these feelings or to push them away. One has to stay with them for as long as it takes to transform them into forgiveness, gratitude, and lovingkindness. Understanding these feelings is one thing. Transforming them is another. It isn’t easy. But now I know why I had to stay with them for so long.

Leaving Things to Chants

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Two summers ago, the yoga studio where I took Kundalini yoga classes held a special program to commemorate Yogi Bhajan’s birthday. Yogi Bhajan brought Kundalini yoga to North America in 1968. Part of the observance was to begin an 11-day cycle of chanting “Guru, Guru, Wahe Guru, Guru Ram Das Guru” for 31 minutes each day. For some reason, I never was able to settle into the mantra. I tried chanting with the support of one musical arrangement, then another. But it just never resonated with me.

In the course of doing that, I came across another mantra, “Wahe Guru, Wahe Jio.” I immediately took to this mantra, began working with it, and have been working with it ever since. Although I was not successful in carrying out the intention that had been set for me, my mantra meditation practice began with this “failure.” More importantly, my practice did not end 11 days after Yogi Bhajan’s birthday. Not only did I continue to work with this particular mantra, I have learned other mantras and deepened my practice over the past year.

“Japa (chanting) is when you sit and meditate on a mantra and you spend days and days and days in constant repetition of God’s name and God progressively calms the ego. The more mild the ego is, the more your finite Infinity starts seeing the Infinite Infinity. First you do things to be secure on Earth. Then you start seeing things beyond Earth, and what is beyond Earth is called higher consciousness… “

–Yogi Bhajan

There is a process to learning new mantras, particularly wordy ones like the gurmukhi Mul Mantra or the sanskrit Gayatri Mantra.  The first step is to memorize the words. You need to get to the point where they just roll out of your brain without too much effort. At the same time, you need to stay focused on the words and not recite them mindlessly.

The next step is to translate the words, so that you are thinking of the translation of each word as you say it. However, there is seldom any one “right” English translation for any one word or phrase in any ancient language. So you need to move beyond translation. By studying different translations and interpretations of the text, you can begin to grasp the concepts of the ancient words with all their nuances. So as you are chanting the ancient words, you are no longer translating, but understanding their meaning. Only then can you reach the ultimate goal of chanting the mantra: that the words speak to you, perhaps in a slightly different way each time you sit with them.

So that is how I began my mantra meditation practice. Something that I was trying to do broke apart, and this is what hatched. Had I been attached to the expected outcome, I simply would have attached to that failure instead of embracing a wonderful new beginning.