Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Queen and The Lion's Gaze: Finding Balance

I've written a lot lately about awakening our inner wealth of love and compassion, both in meditation and out in the world, in ourselves and for others. This is such a wonderful way to build a solid, strong foundation for practice. But I've been reminded lately that this is not the only side to practice. If we spend too much time being "blissed out," as a friend of mine likes to call it, our mind begins to lose the quality of sharpness and acuity that's so necessary for developing insight.

 I'm turning my attention now towards, well, attention. This part of the practice isn't fun, it's not particularly enjoyable, in fact it's so simple and boring that it's remarkably hard. It requires a great deal of effort, dedication, and discipline. But it's entirely necessary.

There's a terrific book by Alan Wallace called The Attention Revolution (see link provided) that gives a really nice step-by-step guide to building attention and focusing in meditation. There are a lot of stages, and I'm still stuck at the second stage. Most of us, in fact, will spend a long, long time just at the second stage. I'm making it my goal throughout the next three weeks to make it to stage three. The difference between the two is that at stage two one is able to maintain focused attention on their meditation object (the breath) for a few minutes at a time, continuously, until this time is built up to about 20 minutes. In stage three, this 20 minute period is doubled and one is able to easily maintain attention on the breath for at least 40 minutes. I'm pretty close to the goal already, but friends, it's hard. The defeating qualities of dullness and excitation that so often plague our minds can be remarkably subtle. The practice requires constant vigilance.

Having established compassion for one's self will make training in concentration a much gentler and healthy process. For all of the effort that is required here, it's important not to be aggressive with ourselves at any point in the practice. We still must practice with an open, loving heart.

One thing I'd like to take along with me on this part of the journey is something that my psychotherapist, Lisa, brought up in our last session. She was talking to me about Jungian archetypes and how these archetypes can be very powerful totems in our lives if we have any inclination towards the magical. We'd been talking lately about how to build appropriate boundaries between ourselves and the world. This may seem to be antithetical to what I've been talking about lately with loving-kindness and compassion, but it's really such a key aspect of being able to give someone our full love and compassion. We must be strong, whole persons.

So, she suggested the image of the Queen for me. What does the Queen represent? A source of great inner strength, all-powerful, immovable, impenetrable, regal, kind, patient.  I thought about relating this to a tarot card, perhaps the Preistess. This image shares similarities with the tibetan buddhist idea of the Lion's gaze, in some respects. To maintain the Lion's gaze is to situate one's self with unmovable, unshakable concentration -- like the gaze of a Lion. In all of these images -- the queen, the lion, the priestess -- there is a being-in-touch with an inner core strength. It's as if we have a mountain inside of us that we can sit upon, always. A rock of solidity. We can use this in meditation to maintain focus and effort, clarity and persistence. We can also use it in our everyday lives as we come into contact with difficult people and situations.

What archetype would you like to envision for yourself right now? What is most helpful, empowering, and can act as a source of inner strength and guidance for you?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Love Your Body

I love to love my body. It's such a beautiful thing.

I feed it well. Tonight's dinner menu: sauteed mustard greens with olive oil, walnuts, cannellini beans and lemon. Sliced heirloom tomatoes with diced avocado. One large portobello cap filled with soft la tur cheese, tomatoes, arugala, squash and sundried tomatoes. End of meal: blueberry yogurt.

I pay attention to it. Together my body and I run long distances and short, depending on how it feels. I shake its booty, roll its hips, clap its hands and stomp its feet in Zumba aerobics class every Wednesday.

I pamper it. Pumpice stone, exotic salts, massages, saunas, hot tubs and steam rooms.

Last weekend my friend and I went to a Korean spa. In the women's section of this delightful spa, every woman is nude. They walk around, lay around, get salt scrubs and massages, swim, breath in the warm healing powers of hot steam. We are a community of women here. No one is really all that concerned with her nudity, or her nudity compared to yours. There were women of every age, shape, and color. I spent hours with my feminine tribe. We are glorious beings! We carry the force of creation with us in our very center, our very core. How magnificent is that?!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Be Here Now

"Be Here Now".... so cliche, right?

Actually, it's the simplest and perhaps most precise mantra I've come across.

It's so easy to slip into striving with meditation. I clamp down. Try hard. Push myself. And what inevitably happens? I become frustrated, disgruntled, even angry.

I've been noticing these feelings arising the past few sits. This morning, I opened my eyes in the middle of a sit and said, "enough." What always helps when I get stuck like this?

Pema Chodron.

I opened her book and found just what I was looking for. A brief discussion on Lightening Up.

Lighten Up. Here's the slogan for it: "Always maintain a joyful mind." Funny, that's exactly what I was missing. A joyful mind. How easy it is to forget that there is this well of love and gentleness, a really beautiful happiness right here. Right where I am sitting. It's right in me, and I'm totally overlooking it.

So I transformed this slogan a little to give myself exactly what I needed. "Just be with your self." There's something about telling myself this that encourages me to let it go, and open to the feeling of what it is to be alive -- to be me. I'm not thinking about good qualities about myself, traits, characteristics... there are no concepts here. It's just a sense of beingness that, when I turn my attention to, I delight in. It is warm and real and full of bliss. It has an innate ability to focus, clear, and calm the mind. It's incredibly powerful.

So, Just Be Here Now. With a joyful mind. Just be with your self.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Perfection and Acceptance

Sometimes life has this interesting way of providing us with "learning themes." A particular lesson comes up, quite karmically, and wham -- whether instantly or within a short amount of time, you know, you're in the middle of a hard lesson.

It's hard because it's something that involves a deep habit, a dysfunctional aspect of our personhood that causes us distress, and has been causing us distress for a very long time. Its roots go far into our soils. And it is thematic in that there is a cyclical existance to this lesson that brings it up over and over again, presenting itself at optimal learning times throughout our lives (which we often interpret as the exact opposite: 'I can't believe I'm dealing with this now!'). It returns again and again, with varying degrees of difficulty until there is the necessary insight to dissolve its root cause.

The theme of late has been Perfection. This is no simple issue. That word right there, it's loaded baby! It can mean different things to different people -- some call it a disease, some call it an obsession, some call it an excuse -- but the basic suffering that is created from our particular attachment to it is the same. And it is excruciating.

My own particular Perfection attachment has to do with doing things right, and keeping others happy with me. It becomes sharply augmented when an authority figure is thrown into the mix. This is when my Perfection problem really gets kicked up. It's a real ego trip. The experience of loosing face, of being wrong, of having screwed up, with an authority, a boss of some sort, really burns me bad. It's okay to not be perfect in private, but dear God, don't put me on the stage with my pants down!

Pema Chodron talks about the root cause of this in terms of the Tibetan concept, Shenpa. This article she wrote on the topic is so helpful. It's not enough to merely recognize our illness of Perfection. We must eradicate it at the source. We need to understand the inner functioning.

I really don't think that our problem here is with Perfection at all. When I had the terrible situation come up a few days ago with my professor for whom I work, the first thing I could say in my own defense was, "I'm so sorry, I'm a perfectionist, and having messed up like this makes it really hard." Later, I kept thinking about what I'd said. 'I'm a perfectionist.' So this is why I was in so much pain and turmoil over having misinformed our students about a key thing they would be tested on for their exam? Becaus I'm a perfectionist? So, if I'm perfect then I don't have this experience? Something here just doesn't make sense.

The best thing I have found to do when something is literally haunting me like this, is I carry it around with me. I carry the feeling around, as if it were an invisible child in my hands. I'm very careful with it, very mindful. My attention is always there, even while I'm doing other things. I'm aware of it being there. The feeling in this case was very easy to carry because it was so palpable. It was extroardinarily raw. You know what I'm talking about -- that raw feeling -- like your skin has just been scraped away, and now it's open and burning.

The more I carried the feeling around with me, the more compassion I began to feel towards it. 'Wow, that one really hurts. Gosh, I wish Perfection wouldn't do that to you, my poor hurt child. How excruciating. Here, let me ease your pain.' I was gentle with it. I held it. Opened to it. Breathed it in. Felt all of it. I cried a lot. But the most remarkable thing -- I was so present. Everything slowed down. Everything softened around me. And suddenly I began to have small insights into the problem. Little "Aha!" moments. I began to understand this thing. I could see where it came from in my childhood, how it was learned, how I hid from it, how I preteneded things about it, all of the little ego defenses I danced in regards to it. I saw all of that, and because I had been carrying it around ever so gently and lovingly, I began to find acceptance.

Ah, Acceptance. Like a good, cold glass of refreshing water when you've just taken a very long and arduous hike across a mountain.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Beloved

Buddhism doesn't bother itself with the concept of "God." The closest it ever comes, seems to be in Tibetan Buddhism, in both the Mahayana and Vajrayana branches. Here the term "God" is not mentioned, but the absolute is -- and true, full realization is impossible without the cultivation of compassion and loving-kindness.

In this respect, one could say that Buddhism does speak of a Godness, if you believe that Godness to be something akin to total, all-encompassing, unconditional love. In Hinduism, the umbrella term for the ancient religion of India, "God" is most often spoken of in terms of the Beloved. Buddhism later grew out of this religion, and so in some ways, it is its mother.

I've been contemplating the Beloved lately. This contemplation has been brought about largely by the spiritual contemplations and ongoing revolutions of my dearest and best friend, as she wrestles with her own beliefs. It has certainly given me a moment of pause and reflection. What do I believe? What do I know, if anything, to be true? Is there a "God" or isn't there?

This has been an oscillating topic for me. Somtimes I find myself prizing the scientific intellect and saying, no, there is no thing that is "God," there is just this masterpiece of a universe... and to say there is God would be to totally discredit Mother Nature for her incredible beauty and genius. Then, I think to myself, 'well, if I take up that view completely, then the mind and "spirit" must fully die at the moment of death. Nothing afterwards. No awareness. No sense of consciousness.' But this doesn't feel entirely right.

Such dualistic thinking! If it's not this, then it must be that. It can't be all, it has to be one or the other. Our western philosophers have taught us to think this way since the time of Aristotle and Plato.

If you think I'm coming close to giving you an answer, however, you'd be wrong. The truth is, I really don't know. But I'm okay with not knowing. The knowing is the journey, in and of itself. And it's not in the finding, either... it's in the looking.

So what if we simply take this term that seems so utterly problematic that is has caused wars, death, famin, torture, genocide, and suffering of all kinds, and throw it out. Why do we have to label it "God" with all of those built-in issues? As if  something as miraculous as "God" could ever be limited in any way by our silly, ignorant little minds, anyway.

Here's what I know then:
- I don't like the term "God." It's far too loaded, and suggests that I know more of it than I do.
- I can only know what I have experienced for myself. This is that the "self" as we think we know it, is not actually so. There is no person that we think we are, this dies at the moment of our death. However, there is something that is indeed lasting, permanent, and real. It is unattached to self-hood, but it is totally aware.
- The only thing I have found at all capable of sustaining me in groundless space, is love.
- Those who have died are still able to communicate with us.

I had this interesting revelation last night when I was meditating. For months I have been struggling with letting go into the groundless space of meditation. To be aware, awake, and at the same time to let go into the present, unattached to thoughts, feelings, etc, seems only to be possible when my heart opens and the experience of love is flowing through me.

I watched a wonderful documentary of Ram Dass last night, called "Fierce Grace." He speaks a lot of the Beloved. He also spoke about his spiritual mentor, or guru, Baba Maharaji. When he showed a picture of Maharaji, the most interesting thing happened -- I started to cry. His face, his beautiful smile, just filled me with love so tender it made me cry. I thought to myself, 'Love. This is the most important thing I can cultivate. This is what brings you close to the Beloved.' When I went to meditate, an hour flew by like a handful of minutes. Meditation was so simple all of a sudden. I settled in, closed my eyes, and felt again that love so tender I wept inside. The barrage of thoughts that usually pour down on me, the fighting emotions, the struggle of calming and quieting, had all simply evaporated. Sure, a thought came here and there, but it wasn't a problem. I simply noticed it, and let it go.

(Baba Maharaji)

They speak a lot about the difficulty in meditation being one's ability to let go and release themselves into a groundless space. How in the world can I not struggle for ground in this groundless space, I've wondered? It has been my constant question, until now. I'm not sure if it's right, but it seems to work at the moment. Opening to the feeling of love allows me to release that very internal need for ground, for certainty, for thought and action, me and my-ness (the "I'm meditating. I need to wash dishes. I am struggling. I am frustrated.")

"But love is not of the mind, it is not in the net of thought, it cannot be sought out, cultivated, cherished; it is there when the mind is silent and the heart is empty of the things of the mind." - J. Krishnamurti

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Swimming Upstream

I remember reading once that the Buddha said the path to liberation is like swimming upstream. It's completely against the current. At the time I thought about this statement in an intellectual way. 'Okay, so it's against the norm. Sure, I can see that. Choosing to live your life authentically, to step outside of the herd, so to speak, yes -- that's swimming upstream.'

I can see now that this was small thinking on my part. It's good to remind myself that the Buddha always spoke from experience, not simply from ideas or opinions floating around in his head.

My goal this morning was to sit for an hour. I made it about forty minutes in, which is fine. I'm not so sure the amount of time really matters all that much right now. The fact that I am sitting, this is enough. But sometimes I get this dreaded feeling when I'm getting ready to sit. I know how hard it's going to be, and I start to dread it. Sometimes this dread leads me to avoidance all together, or excuse making, various task-doing until I simply run out of time. It takes a certain real quality of discipline to acknowledge all of that, and still do the insane thing -- sit anyway.

This is what is meant by swimming upstream. I sit anyway. And sure enough, for the first twenty minutes it's as if I were trying to paddle my way upstream, against the current. The current of the stream is the constant thought flow, the desire to go sleep or get up and wash dishes, get lost in thought, think about yesterday or tomorrow, create my grocery list. To swim against this stream is to let it all go.

What's particularly hard about this, what makes it truly swimming against the stream, is that it's also a terrific balancing act. There's a certain amount of effort required to tune into the present moment, to have the mindfulness to return again and again when the mind constantly, out of old deep habits, wanders off down stream. So, I push and I paddle. I get angry with myself. I feel frustrated every time the current takes me. I can feel myself tightening inside -- the breath constricting, my eyelids clamping down instead of easefully shut.

This is now trying too hard. One must let go. Relax. Release. Be gentle. But not too gentle, not too relaxed... because there you go, falling asleep. Where's the breath? Am I even awake right now?

Even though I sat today for forty minutes I could have sat for an hour and the "sit" would have been much the same. This is what they mean when they say the spiritual path is like swimming upstream. If I paddle too hard, I'll wear myself out and drown. If I don't paddle at all, I'll simply be swept down the river with all the other fish.

There are certain virtues that we need to take along with us on this journey. All of the great religions talk about it. To be close to God, whatever you concieve that to be, requires a lot of faith. Surrender. Devotion. And even patience.
(Note: Buddhism, however, is not a religion in this sense. It never speaks of "God" as it is more of an eastern psychology, than an eastern religion.)

I find the notion of taking refuge really helpful at this point in the practice. Taking refuge is like taking solace -- it's a kind of reassurance. For over 2500 years people have struggled, just like I am struggling, to meditate and they've made it through to the other side. When I think of all those that have come before me, who have made this struggle, I feel a sense of connection. This was hard for them too. When I think of Siddartha himself, I am especially encouraged and feel tremendous compassion, as well as gratitude for what he did. I'm fortunate to have the dhamma -- books upon books written by others to help guide me along, to tell me how and what and why. Siddartha had nothing. He didn't even have the method. He had to discover it all on his own. I can't hardly imagine having the insight that if I just sat in one place, with all of these particular qualities at work -- concentration and equanimity -- that this would be the way to liberate the spirit from the cage of the mind. What a miraculous gift he brought into the world! 
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