Musings

June 2020 Musings

A geranium suggested the direction for this month’s “Musings.” That might sound absurd to some, but for us Awareness Practitioners a geranium with an idea is perfectly normal. When we’re HERE, everything is clearly alive, conscious and supremely capable of communicating with us if we’re receptive to it. After all, inspiration arrives, intuition informs, insight drops in…formlessly in awareness. Why can’t flowers and birds and clouds be the forms through which Intelligence speaks?
 
But I’m getting ahead of myself!
 
I was sitting in the garden attempting to write an article, tussling with a thread of thought that had tickled my imagination. No matter how hard I pursued it, there was no tapestry to weave from that thread. It simply lacked the life force that translates an idea into something more substantive. So I abandoned myself to the flowers, the bees, the drunken motes of dust, the busy hummingbirds and the plaintive notes of a mourning dove. And then the geranium said, “Interview me.” Obediently, I picked up the recorder…and lo and behold…a tapestry unfolded.
 
The practice of interviewing objects that share our lives was offered in a recent workshop. We ask the object these four questions:
 
What do you love about being you?
What do you love about me?
How do you want to be treated?
What would you like me to know?
 
… and then record and listen to the answers.
 
This simple projection exercise, done several times a day, has the power to magically transform one’s world from inert and inanimate to vibrantly alive. It is as if the life force that pulses through the arteries of the universe has suddenly found voice. I find myself surrounded by friendly, wise and whimsical companions, willing to engage with me at any time with the wave of a recorder. In listening to them talk about themselves, I was introduced to my Self, not the ego-I that lives in a bleak, mental, prison of anguished sameness but the True Nature that wonders, delights, laughs and observes with a nuance, acuteness and attention that is enchanting.
 
The geranium had much to say, and it was no surprise that what it spoke about directly addressed the struggle I’d woken up into. It spoke to me of its favorite moment, when the first rays of the morning sun caresses its petals. It waits breathlessly for this encounter, a moment of transitory intimacy when it experiences itself in spirit. For what is a flower other than sunlight in form, synthesized solar energy in a wild and gorgeous blossom? It tells me that it revels in its sense of itself while glorying in its connection to its sister flowers and brother leaves and mother roots and cousin stems; all individually perfect and growing out of the same Source. It wishes that I too could feel my wholeness and enjoy my sufficiency, for what was I but another blossoming of synthesized sunlight?
 
As far as I know, a geranium has no ability to experience itself as separate from Life. In fact, as I look at its beautiful lilac pink petals, it drops in that its sufficiency is so complete that it doesn’t need to be on a path to Self-realization. It is realized consciousness. Someone who is Awakened to their True Nature is like a geranium in the sense of being completely satisfied with who they are. “Be Who You Are” has been the clarion call of many a sage, but the translation of that invitation into a practice of recognizing one’s wholeness has been a recent revelation.
 
We are told in all the teachings of the East that ignorance of our True Nature is the experience of insufficiency. This dissatisfaction propels the desire to experience wholeness, but through incorrect means. We look for someone or something “out there” to complete us. Because there is a momentary satisfaction when we “acquire” experiences or objects of our desire, we’re falsely lulled into believing that our wellbeing is conditional. We get attached to those objects. Attachment (defined as psychological or emotional dependence on someone or something else for our well-being) fuels insecurity because no-thing can predictably and eternally deliver satisfaction.  Attachment breeds greed, fear of loss, and sorrow from loss. Attachment also breeds anger, for what is anger other than thwarted desire, expressed as hatred toward the “other” (circumstance or person) that has failed to fulfill our desire? This is why we begin a Zen Awareness Practice by training to ignore the refrain of self-hate’s “something wrong, not enough.”
 
Joseph Campbell, in an essay on Zen, referred to it as the “way of the monkey.”
 
In India, two amusing figures are used to characterize the two principal types of religious attitude. One is the “way of the kitten” and the other, “the way of the monkey.” When the kitten cries “Miaow,” it’s mother, coming, takes it by the scruff and carries it to safety; but as anyone who has ever traveled in India would have observed, when a band of monkeys comes scampering down from a tree and across the road, the babies riding on their mothers’ back are hanging on by themselves. Accordingly, with reference to the two attitudes: the first is that of the person who prays “Oh Lord, O Lord, come save me!” And the second of the person who, without such prayers or cries, goes to work on themselves. In Japan the same two are known as tariki, “outside strength” or “power from without,” and jiriki, “own strength,” “effort or power from within.”
 
The journey to wholeness by “the way of the monkey” is a wild ride. My experience was that of the baby monkey hanging on for dear life to the threads of practice while bounding through valleys of tears, dark nights of the soul and painful crucifixions of identity. But after years of battling the ego, I have arrived at this clarity.
 
No matter what avenue ego chooses for its attack—physical pain, emotional anguish or mental desolation—the Life force witnessing it all remains serenely unaltered. As attachment is stripped from the human being, what emerges and thrives is intrinsic wholeness. The “output” of the way of transformation is sufficiency. It is a recognition of the strength of the power within.
 
“I” did not choose Zen. It was chosen for me. If I had known there was a choice, “I” would rather have chosen the “way of the kitten” (based on my previous belief in my inability to save myself!), and yet what is absolutely clear to me now as a practitioner of Zen is how perfectly I’m guided. In other words, the “way of the monkey” is also the “way of the kitten.” Nothing is achieved by “my” power, and yet what saves “me” in some mysterious way is the Power that “I am.”
 
As I write this, I am aware of a voice that says, “You’re writing about geraniums when protestors are taking to the streets and brutality is on the rampage? How is that helpful?” How is it not helpful? Nothing in spirituality says we should not combat injustice. In fact, the most famous teaching of Hinduism, The Gita, is an elucidation of the reasons to fight a “just” war. Without fighting the battle within, can we ever hope to tackle any injustice? The Buddha’s teaching there is crystal clear:  
 
“Hatred never heals hate. Only love heals hate.”
 
Ego screams for action, admonishing us for not doing enough, for not being enough. There it is again…insufficiency. So it might behoove us to begin by sitting still in a garden and letting a geranium teach us about wholeness; from that place of “being who we are,” we cannot also be the person who puts their knee on another human’s throat and chokes the life out of them. From that place of wholeness, whatever arises as action will not add to the never-ending cycle of samsara.
 
Gasshō
ashwini

May 2020 Musings

“Can you say,” I once inquired of a sixty year old cloistered nun who had lived (vibrantly, it seemed) from the age of nineteen in her monastery cell, “what the core of contemplative life is?”

“Leisure,” she said, without hesitation, her china blue eyes cheerfully steady on me. I suppose I expected her to say, “Prayer.” Or maybe “The search for God.” Or “Inner peace.” Inner peace would have been good. One of the big-ticket items of spirituality.

She saw I didn't see.

“It takes time to do this,” she said finally.

Her “this” being the kind of “work” that requires abdication from time's industrial purpose (doing things, getting things). By choosing leisure she had bid farewell to the fevered enterprise of getting-and-spending whereby, as the poet said, “we lay waste our powers.” 
– Excerpted from A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampl
 
Holy Leisure appears on the monastic schedule every Sunday afternoon. I’ve often wondered why it’s not featured more regularly, but I suspect there is a kindness in not having to confront the hardest course in the curriculum of spirituality more than weekly! Holy Leisure is a time to just be. We find it hard to just be, to do nothing, as so many of us are finding out first-hand with the current stay-at-home orders. We find ourselves not knowing what to do when we can’t do what we normally do or, as in the case of Holy Leisure at the Monastery, there is nothing to do. The structure of Holy Leisure assists in confronting how doing stops us from being. It appears that “knowing being,” the blessed knowledge of Emptiness, the recognition of ourselves as the Intelligence that Animates, can happen only when we stop doing.
 
Needless to say, Holy Leisure is an important practice! And then someone asked a question… “Can we perform a labor of love during Holy Leisure? It’s not ‘work’ if it’s love, is it?”
 
A little context here. The Monastery is making masks for frontline workers—grocery store clerks, prison wardens and nurses. Sewing is feverishly underway as the demand is acute. So, should we take a break from being and work on making masks? I sat with this question, waiting for Life’s guidance to drop in. What dropped in was this Musings article. The road to the answer allowed me to examine the reason for structures in spiritual training and how brilliantly designed they are to encounter and transcend ego.
 
Take the Monastic schedule, for example. There is a time to meditate, a time to eat, a time to walk, a time to process, a time to be in the garden, a time not to work, times to R/L and a time to sleep. The times are arbitrary; there is no reason behind why we sit at 2:30 p.m., and one could wonder why we follow an arbitrary schedule as if it were sacrosanct and get judged for being rigid and unyielding. Structures need to be inviolate when we are in spiritual training because that’s the way we contend with ego’s primary weapon: resistance. The ego acts on whim, on what it feels like doing. If we need to train to go with Life’s guidance rather than be pushed around by a capricious mental program whose mantra is “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it,” showing up regardless of what “I feel” is crucial. I may not feel like meditating, but my job is to train to lose interest in ego’s feelings (because ego is not me) and be seated on the cushion in the Meditation Hall at 2:25 p.m.
 
It gets worse than having to meditate when I don’t feel like it (for the ego of course!). At the Monastery you don’t have a say in what you do. You simply execute the task you’re given. This structure of doing your assigned task builds on the training to lose interest in feelings. If I’m required to do a task regardless of how I feel, I rapidly get in touch with the principle that my well-being is not conditional. As long as I resist, rail against, and complain and moan at having to do something that I don’t want to do, I’m miserable. I continue thinking that what I’ve been given to do is making me miserable, until one day I realize that I rather like sweeping the porches. If I’m lucky, I soon recognize that my misery has nothing to do with the task and everything to do with the conversation in the head that is being indulged while I do it. I begin to see that being happy or unhappy is a choice I can make, and the price of happiness is surrendering the egocentric orientation of conditionality and control, or the illusion thereof.
 
If we pay attention, we notice that Life unfolds without consulting our preferences. That control is an illusion is one of the hardest lessons for a conditioned human being to learn. I have no way of directing the course of life; and whether I’m on board or not, I’m swept into the current. That’s the lesson the Monastery structure illustrates for me over and over. “I” have no say in how things happen. Whether I consider a structure stupid, unnecessary, ridiculous or even supportive, it simply is and has to be followed. That’s the agreement my heart made before I walked through the Monastery gate. Submitting to the structure is surrendering an ego position, a practice that I get to do until the ego is completely annihilated and I’m happily absorbed into being lived and unfolded by Existence.
 
And here is what ego really balks at: No unilateral decisions are made at the Monastery. Everything is done within “guidance.” Within the Monastery walls, “expertise” is not venerated. Even if you’re a master chef who has chopped a thousand tomatoes, you’ll still be instructed on how to take a knife to a nightshade. This structure of guidance is a way to train attention from referencing the limited knowledge of conditioned thinking to accessing the rich and dynamic database of consciousness in the moment. It’s a training to be HERE, because being present is the only way to access the information in the moment. You have to be here to know you don’t know and seek guidance. Structures help with that as well because violating a structure assists us to understand how often we’re not HERE. An oft quoted example of this is finding oneself in the Monastery kitchen wearing outside shoes. Where was I when I walked through the dining hall doors?
 
Which brings us back to Holy Leisure and the question that inspired this article.
 
Someone asks, “If masks save lives, and if making them is a labor of love, does it take precedence over the structure of Holy Leisure?” You can almost feel ego marshal its arguments. After all, what better reason to overturn a structure (cold, rigid, unyielding, only for my benefit but it’s hard to see how) than an impulse that serves others? This is where the structure assists. It does its job by surfacing the duality: follow the structure and be spiritually correct, or follow the loving impulse and save lives. What a tough choice!
 
You don’t have to be in monastic training to relate to the kind of situation where we feel conflicted by two “good” but contradictory choices. In fact, feeling conflicted appears to be accentuated when an impulse to action drops in with a Life label such as love, integrity, responsibility, goodness, enthusiasm, inspiration or helpfulness. And despite all these good reasons, “I” still find myself paralyzed by a lack of conviction to take action. I’m confused.  Confusion implies being stuck in a decision about content. It doesn’t matter what the merits of the choices are. The “right” choice cannot be made from within that process. Presenting the choice, in our example, as between individual spiritual salvation and saving lives obscures the only real choice I can make, the choice between freedom and suffering.
 
If one is a spiritual aspirant, the question that accompanies this state of confusion is “How do I know if I’m following ego or Life’s guidance? Is True Nature raising a red flag or is ego seducing me?” It sounds like the question of a sincere seeker doesn’t it? If you asked a Zen teacher this question, her answer would likely be a laughing, non-committal “You never know.” What that translates into is not that there isn’t a definitive answer but that there isn’t a “you” to know it, and if you were HERE, you would not be asking the question. Which is the answer! The clearest choice in any moment is to surrender the “I” and make the choice for freedom from suffering.
 
Dharma is a word that connotes behaviors or actions that are in accordance with the inherent order of the Universe. Clarity is simply the experience of being in accordance with. Confusion is the opposite. If I am conflicted, then I know that I am not in accordance with The Way, with the Tao. Acting from a lack of clarity will always perpetuate suffering. It’s not dharmic (not in  alignment with how life is). In point of fact, identification will cloud my ability to tell the Life action from the karmic one, often making the karmic action the “right” choice.
 
So, “should I override the structure or follow a loving impulse” is really a red-herring kind of question designed to keep me in suffering. Fortunately, most monastics are trained not to go with an impulse that violates a structure. They are trained to ask for guidance. If the Message Board reads “Sunday 1:30 p.m. Holy Leisure” and you feel like doing something else, ask for guidance as a way to make the dharmic choice of exiting the conditioned process of suffering.
 
On a content note: The guidance in the case of mask making (at the end of all this musing) was to keep the structure and practice Holy Leisure. For, in the end, the structure holds the heart when the mind spins in confusion. And when I’m HERE, there is the simple clarity of everything arising in Love and no confusion between a labor of love and following a structure for my awakening.
 
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. 
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. 
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
 
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for, or against, anything. 
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. 
When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
 
The Way is perfect, like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. 
Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things. 
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things, nor in inner feelings of emptiness. 
Be serene in the oneness of things, and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.
– Hsin Hsin Ming  
 
Gasshō
ashwini

April 2020 Musings

Carved on the walls of a temple I visited recently is a beautiful and terrible promise…
 
Whenever and wherever there is a humiliation of righteousness
and a predominance of unrighteousness prevails,
In those times and in those places, I will manifest in the world.
 
To protect goodness,
To annihilate evildoers,
To restore the balance of righteousness,
In every age, I will take form.
 
–Bhagavad Gita
 
The “I” in these verses is Lord Krishna, a divine incarnation, speaking to his devotee, Arjuna, a great prince, on the eve of a historic battle.
 
****
 
Let me be clear! Despite my origins, I am not a devotee of any incarnation of Divinity, but I was moved by these verses in a way I cannot quite explain. The possibility that Conscious Compassionate Awareness is not wholly indifferent to how things play out on the cosmic stage was absurdly comforting. That Life is ever-changing, that it’s a vast mystery beyond our human comprehension; that Uncertainty is its signature, in the face of which we have no agency or control, is and has always been true. But what a mixed blessing it is when we are required to confront that truth. How wonderful that, in that moment of absolute terror (that’s what I felt at any rate), in that experience of the annihilation of “me” and the shattering of all my illusions, what I encounter is Comforting.
 
We could dismiss the notion of “Goodness taking form to root out evil” as a mind game of the weakly credulous, just another way to anesthetize ourselves from facing the terrible randomness of the world. But as I let myself be embraced in feeling comforted, I wondered whether Faith has to be blind. Can Faith not come from being so in tune with the Truth of Existence that we “know” things that a mere ego consciousness is not in touch with? What would we experience if we allowed ourselves to let go the conditioning that clings to “rationality” and refuses to even entertain the magnitude of the Unknown?
 
I used to be of the naïve persuasion that sought refuge in the belief that “good will triumph over evil” and “justice will prevail” and the story will eventually have a happy ending. (Perhaps I’m still of that persuasion and that’s why those verses spoke to me!) But Practice has allowed me to mature sufficiently to at least grapple with the spiritual truth of Holy Indifference. That suffering exists is the undeniable Noble Truth. That this plane of existence is where we struggle to choose between ego and conscious awareness is verifiable. That there is no guarantee that goodness will prevail is a spiritual frontier to be transcended. Perhaps the frontier evaporates when the subject/object orientation that creates the sense of Good versus Evil—that one is better than the other, that there is something wrong with the world as it is—is finally surrendered so we get it that “we are all of it.” And when we do, when we internalize that we are the context of consciousness within which everything is, perhaps we find a capacity to be in the world as the world is; perhaps Unconditional Acceptance gives us the strength to contain the heartbreak of witnessing a 200-year-old tree being chopped down to create a housing development while not feeling hatred towards the entity chopping it down and being able to plan a campaign to preserve forests worldwide….
 
Perhaps what those verses of the Gita are pointing us to is the powerful possibility that what will arise to redress the balance of good and evil is not without but within. Perhaps the illusion is continuing to believe that abstract Goodness somewhere out there will take form and help the world, rather than experiencing each of us as form, absolutely engaged, involved and participating in maintaining the balance of consciousness in the world. From that perspective, isn’t Holy Indifference simply an ego orientation? I am indifferent to Life when I am identified. Here, present, Life is “me” incarnate, engaged in existence.
 
The Hindu pantheon has a wonderful set of stories in which Divinity takes different forms in different ages to root out “evil.” These forms have included a fish, a turtle, a boar, a lion and a succession of human forms such as Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita, and the Buddha, the most recent incarnation. It is said that we are awaiting the form that will manifest in this age and this time to save the world again. But does it follow that when IT takes form, humans will be saved? I’ve always loved these stories because I’ve identified myself with the good that is worthy of being saved. But are we confident at this juncture that humans are not what needs to be eliminated for the good of the world? What if this is an opportunity to confront the hubris that we are the species worthy of being preserved by a Divine Incarnation?
 
The precept is “not to lead a harmful life.” Identified with ego, we cause untold harm. At what point will we have to face the consequences of the choice for ego? After all, if we look at how things are currently going—only human beings are falling sick and dying—is the virus saving the world because we, in our unconsciousness, are not choosing to save it or ourselves? In that context, what is our opportunity?
 
Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life. --Dogen
 
Isn’t the opportunity, still, as the Buddha taught, to save the only life we have to save? We have to acknowledge, once again that the battle is within. It might take something like Life in the form of the virus to make us realize the seriousness of the stakes, but it’s always the choice we’re practicing. In that choosing, we may or may not change the course of a world crisis, but is there any other choice, any other way to realize that the “world” is us?  

In gasshō
ashwini

March 2020 Musings

This story, adapted from When You’re Falling, Dive, continues to be one of my favorite teachings.

A novice monk was given the task of cleaning the Zen Master’s study. As he was doing so, he inadvertently knocked over the teacher’s beautiful and extensive collection of glass prisms. Contemplating the shattered shards of glass on the floor, the monk was overcome with fear and guilt. The teacher would be so disappointed in him! How could he have been so careless? Would he be thrown out of the Monastery? How could he ever replace what his beloved teacher had so treasured? As he stood shaking in trepidation, assaulted by a barrage of self-recrimination, the teacher walked in. She took in the situation at a glance, smiled kindly and said, “Those prisms were meant for enjoyment, they were not meant for suffering.”

We can forget that Awareness Practice is about cultivating awareness

Because we begin this practice by paying attention to how suffering is created and maintained, we can get talked out of practicing awareness when there isn’t any “suffering.”

When life is going my way,  
when ego is not being threatened in any way,
when karma is not rearing its ugly head,
when there are only minor lapses in attention, which are simply par for the spiritual course and can be corrected by the use of our tools,
                              …there is the temptation to stop participating in Practice.

We may not be aware (there’s the clue!) of the subtle case being made to stop paying attention! If I’m in well-being, if I R/L daily, sit regularly, need I go to group? Should I participate in a Socratic email class with the Guide, if there is nothing I currently need guidance around? Why practice two-handed recording if I’m happy? Aren’t these practices meant to be done when we’re suffering? What has Practice to offer when things are going well?

It’s telling, isn’t it, that it doesn’t occur to us that we could practice contentment, happiness, gratitude, acceptance, generosity, compassion, love, laughter, wonder, curiosity, delight? It’s a subtle takeover in conditioned mind when Practice becomes only about seeking support to transcend unhappiness. If nothing else, we aren’t seeing the egocentric assumption that limits an entire spiritual practice to just seeing ego in operation. It is true that many of us come to a Practice when we’re suffering.  But as we see and see through the layers of content we suffer over, the seeing itself becomes the focus of the training; what I see is almost irrelevant. Just because I get less frequently identified, just because I’m more skilled at paying attention, doesn’t mean practicing is over. On the contrary, this is where spiritual practice begins. It behooves us to keep paying attention so lack of practice does not blunt our ability to be present, aware, here. How else can we keep the aperture of awareness from being silted over by ego/karma or ensure the fallen barriers to Love don’t get reconstituted?

Lest we think that maintenance of well-being for fear of a future ego takeover is an insufficient reason to practice in “good times,” here is another perspective to consider: Thisherenow is a fascinating realm to explore, a vast playground compared to the limited world of conditioned assumptions and beliefs. Getting intimately acquainted with “what sees” is a joyous pursuit that can last a lifetime. As the teacher in the story above points out, we can be here for what life is…rainbows and broken prisms; it’s suffering (I’m an awful person for breaking them…it should not have happened! No more rainbows for me!) we don’t need to indulge. So when there isn’t “suffering,” thisherenow offers itself for our exploration. As Kafka said: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

And when we learn to see Life itself, there are more frontiers to explore. The progression in a practice of awareness is the training to move from awareness of (whatever the object--suffering, ego, Life, God)) to an awareness of Awareness. We could describe this movement as a shift from an object orientation of awareness to a subjective experience of Awareness, awareness aware of itself as the Intelligence that Animates All. The Guide recently gave us a beautiful example statement of this shift. From this place we might no longer say “I don’t feel happy.” We would say “I am happy.” The identification is with Awareness itself! It takes practice to make this movement. No wonder we stumble when there is no “suffering.” We’re on the brink of a breakthrough of a lifetime! This is a moment to stay here, now, paying close attention, as Life sees Life as it is in a way it has not been able to previously. 

Yes, the first noble Truth is that suffering is. But the “is-ness” of suffering doesn’t have to be. The possibility the Buddha offered us is transcending suffering so we can be here for a continuous experience of True Nature, which he chose not to define, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it is beyond definition. The Buddhist way is often described as the “Negative Way,” but not in the conditioned sense of negation. Isn’t “Not this, Not this” simply an admonition to never stop looking? Isn’t it just an exhortation to constantly expand the perspective that can perceive the All that can never be constrained by definition? Or in the words of Rumi:

Suppose you know the definitions
of all substances and their products,
what good is this to you?
Know the true definition of yourself.
That is essential.
Then, when you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One who cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.

What a marvelous journey awaits those of us who are seeking to end suffering! For what else were these sages talking about other than Being Happiness?

So amazing this choir of
socks, shoes, shirt, skirt, undergarments,

earth, sky, suns, and moons.
No wonder I too, now, sing all day.
-Rabia

Wild roses,
Plucked from fields
Full of croaking frogs:
Float them in  your wine
And enjoy every minute!

-Ryokan

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light

when I get
home.

-St Francis of Assisi

Don't forget love;
it will bring all the madness you need
to unfurl yourself across
the universe.

-Mirabai

Gasshō
ashwini

February 2020 Musings

I once asked a bird,
"How is it that you fly 
in this gravity of darkness?"

She responded,
"Love lifts me.”
–Hafiz

 
Lately, before going to bed I have been reading a poem by Hafiz to remind myself that spiritual practice is really a journey of love. One tends to forget all about Unconditional Love when one is identified with the small self and its bitter, often petty, judgements and resentments. Mired in conditioned mind, one journeys through life with resentment, righteousness, worry, impatience, irritability, moroseness, bitterness, rigidity, affront, hurt and hatred as companions. But to read Hafiz is to be in touch with a world alive with encouragement, laughter, mischief, whimsy and delight. It is to reaffirm the possibility of making this life journey in the companionship of a Beloved, a Friend, a Mentor, tender, wise, generous and  unmistakably on one’s side. It is to be reminded that Happiness is another word for “freedom from suffering” and spiritual practice is not just a divorce from ego; it’s training to be in a love affair with Life.
 
When I read mystical poetry, I am enchanted by the casual intimacy that exists between the poet and Divinity; but what inspires me to redouble my practice is the certainty of the poet that Love IS the nature of True Nature. I want to “know,” the way Hafiz knows, that every particle in the universe is a dancing love dot, ablaze with the Beloved’s light. I want to live as Hafiz lives, in friendship with Life, in the togetherness that views living as “love mischief.”
 
If friendship is what I seek, I have to train to look for Friendliness everywhere, to look for the sparkling vitality of the life force in everything. Attending to the life force ANIMATING all is a necessary practice and one that is as essential as training not to attend to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. It can be argued that if we don’t have a practice of relating to Life or letting Life relate to us, we are missing an important component of our training to be present to Presence.
 
If we are attending to Life, we fall in love with Life. It’s impossible not to wonder at the luminous shimmer of a dragonfly’s wings, not to marvel at the complexity of a spider web or delight in the beauty of a tiger lily. We can’t help but be enchanted by birdsong or mesmerized by the furry caterpillar’s million legs going at once. In getting to know life this way, we find ourselves to be lovers of Life in the way the mystical poets are, seeing the world alive with the signature of Love. We are part of the dance and the invitation to participate in the celebration is unmistakable.
 
This is not to say that we don’t also experience the abyss of identification or the anguish of separation. As another favorite mystic poet writes:
 
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.

–Rumi
 
Perhaps part of the spiritual struggle is to come to terms with devastation as an aspect of the process of encountering the Unconditional. Life is not known partially. There is a totality of surrender required to be a partner in love mischief. Otherwise we are unequal in the partnership. Perhaps it also takes traversing difficult terrain to secure our faith that the Mentor is always with us. No matter how hard the circumstances, or how identified we are with the absence of Love, can we still seek the Beloved who never forsakes us? Isn’t that the true lesson of the dark night of the soul, to find faith where faith was absent?
 
The danger in the wake of periods of struggle appears to be the seduction of staying with feeling broken rather than training like phoenixes to embrace the resurrection. The nature of the “wings that are given,” the quivering resiliency that outlasts the shriveling of a conditioned orientation, is something we learn to possess. It does not have the quality of lightness and whimsy that comes from contemplating a butterfly’s wings. But isn’t it still part of the continuum of consciousness, a burnished awareness that can embrace the essential nature of existence as all stages of metamorphosis?
 
The point perhaps is that we can know both, lightness and the depths, because Life is All of it. But to know anything requires love. To quote another mystic:
 
We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not loveLove is a mode of knowledge.
–Aldous Huxley
 
Which brings us full circle to spiritual practice as a journey of Love…
 
Awareness aware of itself, in any expression, is the only true knowing. For when I contemplate a butterfly and wonder at its wings, or feel the joyful anguish of transiency, there is no “other” that I experience. “I know I,” not the “I” of ego, but the joy of Intelligence knowing itself. If “knowing” is by definition loving, then how can we ever escape Love as the journey itself?
 
It seems an important milestone in practice to recognize that the longing we have to be loved cannot be fulfilled by something or someone external to us. We have to access the Friend within that can befriend the one seeking friendship. And when we do we are made whole by the resulting union; we can live in a relating where there is no separation, yet there is receiving and giving, loving and being beloved.
 
And so as we begin another practice year, let’s listen to Hafiz once more!
 
Let's open all the locked doors upon our eyes
That keep us from knowing the Intelligence
That begets love
And a more lively and satisfying conversation
With the Friend

In gasshō
ashwini

December 2019 Musings

I was sad one day and went for a walk.
I sat in a field.

A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times,
to just be close to creatures who
are so full of knowing,
so full of love
that they don’t chat,

they just gaze with their
marvelous understanding.

—St John of the Cross
 
I had a powerful moment in group the other night. It was Thursday at Center, and for the first time in many weeks I was not sitting on the cushion facilitating. Instead, I was sitting on a cushion facing the Guide. My heart cracked open on seeing that beloved figure, framed by the meditation bells on one side and a profusion of white flowers on the other. It’s hard to articulate what I was feeling in that moment, but perhaps it was the experience referenced in the poem of being bathed in a gaze of marvelous understanding. I was aware of receiving the tremendous gift of certain knowledge that I had a Guide, a Friend, someone on my side as I make this spiritual journey. I surrendered to the exquisite sweetness of feeling held and supported.
 
That I was moved so strongly by the gift of support made me aware of the extent to which I had been spending time in a place of no support, a place where it was all up to me, where I could not count on anyone else, where the weight of my existence was mine alone to shoulder. That place, of course, is conditioned mind, and the sense of alienation and isolation is a signature of ego identification. Spending time in this bleak landscape, devoid of encouragement, compassion and understanding, is not just lonely; spending time identified with ego blocks out all awareness that support is there for the asking; it dulls the receptors that register the loving little creatures—the darting hummingbird, the gorgeous dragonfly, the cuddly cat—that offer solace to a troubled heart.
 
It is a paradox of the spiritual journey that one travels a terrain of Unconditional Love but that Love does not trumpet its presence. The onus of recognizing it, seeking it, embracing it is on me. Unconditional Love has already chosen me. The task is for me to choose it unconditionally.
 
If I could design a process of awakening, I would have Love, Kindness and Wisdom rescue me in times of distress. Instead, the way it appears to work is that I am required to seek Love when it feels least available, when what I’m identified with blinds me to its presence.
 
Hafiz says…
The diamond takes shape slowly
With integrity’s great force,
And from the profound courage to never relinquish love.
 
In the thick of a karmic storm, I don’t feel courageous or loving. In fact, I feel the despair of having been forsaken. But perhaps that’s the point of the crucible of transformation: to face down the illusion of the “absence of Love” until the veil drops and Love reveals Its presence. Perhaps, in the maelstrom of the dark night, “I” am whittled away until I can see that Unconditional Love never relinquished me, and that what holds on is Integrity’s great force. The small flame that flickers on, unquenched by the darkness of an ego crucifixion, is Love triumphant. Even the worst whirlpools of the mind cannot submerge that jaunty flame. It’s mine to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, in good times and bad, not even to be parted by an ego’s death.
 
If we are lucky, we will come to a point at which practice moves from a bitter divorce from ego to a love affair with Life. Wherever we are in that spectrum of practice, what we practice remains the same; we train to be in relationship with the wisdom, love and compassion that is our True Nature. For in the dark night of the soul, we don’t want to lose the thread of Love that will guide us out of the maze and into the Light.
 
To transcend the ego is not an easy task. To be a part of a community that supports this monumental endeavor is a privilege. To have a teacher we trust to guide us on the journey is a gift to be marveled at. To be supported by a practice structure that gives no quarter to the ego, that will hold our hearts until we find the willingness to make a choice for Love, but will never intervene to insist on it, is a miracle that is almost impossible to comprehend. And so as we come to the end of another practice year, we bow deeply in gratitude and recite: The blessings of love and respect we offer to all, in times past and present, who have opened the doors of wisdom reuniting all beings with their intrinsic purity.
 
Gasshō
ashwini

November 2019 Musings

I am the ritual and the sacrifice; I am true medicine and the mantram. I am the offering and the fire which consumes it, and the one to whom it is offered.
 
I am the father and mother of this universe, and its grandfather and grandmother, too; I am its entire support. I am the sum of all knowledge, the purifier, the syllable Om; I am the sacred Scriptures, the Rig, the Yajur, and Sama Vedas.
 
I am the goal of life, the support of all, the inner witness, the abode of all. I am the only refuge, the one true friend; I am the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation; I am the womb and the eternal seed.
 
I am heat; I give and withhold the rain. I’m immortality and I am death; I am what is and what is not.
— Bhagvad Gita
 
Could your recording of what’s true about you be the above verses? Even if you didn’t stumble over the references to an unfamiliar religion, it would take a level of disidentification from ego-I that few of us have achieved to identify with the “I am” making these statements.  There’s an almost visceral feeling of discomfort when Divinity is attributed to us “mere mortals.” Something in “me” overtly or subliminally rejects as counterfeit the invitation to consider that All That Is is what I am. We so readily disavow that which we are, not because we’re not that, but because we’re so much more conditioned to experience ourselves as what I’m not rather than what IS truly me.  
 
What is your trouble?
Mistaken Identity!
— Wei Wu Wei
 
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many of us stumble over the Day 16 assignment of the monthly focus in the yearlong retreat, Making a Change for Good: “Record what is true about you, the internalization of which would enable you not to fall for or be tortured by the self-hating conversation.”
 
If you’re frustrated that you don’t seem to be able to do this assignment, that’s good! Because, like all Zen training, the exercise is designed to reveal and stymie conditioned thinking.  In posing the question “What is true about you,” we’re being asked to bring awareness to a process that never questions assumptions. It takes a lot of practice before we would pause to consider…
 
Who am I?
How do I know who I am?
What does “true” even mean?
How do I know what’s true about anything ?
 
… before we do the assignment.
 
So we don’t pause. We just attempt to do the assignment. What happens?
 
Let’s say you begin to describe yourself as kind. As you record about the ways you’re kind, you might notice a voice casually say, “That’s not true. You were mean to that store clerk just yesterday.” Attention shifts from looking for kindness to what happened yesterday at the store.  Soon you’re in a conversation.  “Can I claim being kind as true about me? Sure, I’ve been kind on a few occasions but truth is an absolute standard and one can’t claim kindness as true about me if I’m only kind sometimes. Not to mention the evidence presented. After all, I was unkind to that clerk! How can I deny that behavior?”
 
Blame
Keeps the sad game going.
It keeps stealing all your wealth—
Giving it to an imbecile with
No financial skills.
Dear one,
Wise
Up.

— Hafiz
 
Spiritual victory is ours in this moment if we can disavow the identification with self-hate. If we don’t argue for ego by taking the blame for what ego says and does, we’re training to unwind the process of identification with what I’m not.
 
What actually happened with the store clerk may never be known. But what happened during the recording is pretty clear!  The identification with the conclusion of “not being kind” got reinforced. We ended up with a description of an “I” who doubts its and Life’s capacity for kindness. That description says a lot about conditioning, but it says nothing about the Intelligence That Animates All. Small wonder there is nothing in “me” that can accept the “truth” of “that thou art.”
 
The good news is that if an identification tries to define what is true about Authenticity, it can’t. The dissonance we sense between ego’s lies and what awareness registers as true is something we describe in spiritual practice as divine dissatisfaction. Something is aware of the falsehood of identification with ego. If we can train ourselves to pay attention to that awareness, we are, in Hafiz’s words wising up.
 
It does not necessarily follow that just because we’ve “seen” how ego hijacks this assignment that we can suddenly make a recording from the perspective of the “I am” of the Bhagvad Gita verses. One has to surrender the identification with the “false” self completely and re-identify wholly with True Nature. That’s a process, the practice of which is in the latter part of the assignment of Day 16.
 
To make a recording of what’s true that self-hate cannot refute, we have to rewire our vision to see what is, as is. After being programmed to see only what’s not, it takes practice to develop the receptors to see what’s so. In this quote David Hawkins gives us a hint as to how this alchemy of sight is accomplished.  
 
Love focuses on the goodness of Life in all its expressions and augments that which is positive. It dissolves negativity by re-contextualizing it, rather than by opposing it.
 
Note: If, at this point, self-hate offers itself up to be included in Unconditional Love, claiming that if it exists it must also be Divine, please ignore it!  Arguing whether self-hate is divine or not, or suffering is divine or not, misses the point.  Yes, human beings identified with self-hate do hateful things.  If we attribute “bad behavior” to an absence of love, and have compassion for the human being subjected to self-hate, we’re practicing the re-contextualizing that the quote offers as an option. Divinity isn’t exclusive or dualistic, it’s Unconditional.
 
In our previous example, when I make a recording about “me” being kind, I don’t listen to a voice negate my kindness.  I ignore every voice attempting to trap me into limiting my vision to only seeing egocentricity.  I expand awareness to focus on looking for more and more examples of kindness.  If I’m looking for kindness, eventually Kindness has to be looking in order to find Kindness. And miraculously, when attention is on awareness, there is a recognition of itself as Kindness.
 
The moon's the same old moon,
The flowers exactly as they were,
Yet I've become the thingness
Of all the things I see!

— Bunan
 
Isn’t this alchemy of vision the promise, the possibility, and the joy of spiritual practice?
 
Gasshō
ashwini

October 2019 Musings

Doing Practices versus Practicing
 
“Practice means to perform, over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”  —Martha Graham.
 
I meditate.
I record and listen.
I participate in Reflective Listening Buddies.
I have a Zen Awareness Coach.
I write a love letter daily and listen to it first thing in the morning.
I participate in the yearlong retreat.
I listen to Open Air on Tuesday nights.
I get the Practice Everywhere Tweets.
My day starts with reading daily peace quotes.
 
If I am doing any or all of these practices, am I practicing? Surprisingly, the answer is not necessarily.  It is possible to keep all of my practice commitments, to participate in everything that Practice offers and still not be practicing. How? Because as we say in Practice, “It’s not WHAT but HOW.”
 
As awareness practitioners, how do we practice? We practice being present. What does that mean, one might ask? It doesn’t mean anything actually. It’s just a phrase we use to point to an experience. That experience we could say is, in the words of Martha Graham, the “perfection desired.”
 
Keeping a practice commitment is not a sufficient condition to invite the “perfection desired.” If I’m not paying attention, if I’m not directing attention to awareness, if I’m indulging a conversation in conditioned mind while I do my practices, I’m not practicing being present, I’m practicing being in conditioned mind. I’m doing a practice of “choosing something over ending suffering.”
 
So for example, if I am ticking my practices off my to-do list, satisfied at the end of the day that I’ve done a good job if I do them all and feeling bad if I don’t get to them, it would be more accurate to say that ego is “doing practices.”  Because at no point in this entire process am I dis-identified enough to “see” that I am identified with a “someone” listening to and believing a voice in the head telling “me” who I am based on what I do or do not do. I am not looking at conditioned mind, I am looking through it.
 
It’s a coup for ego if it can convince a person that they are practicing ending suffering when they’re actually identifying with it. (It’s almost impossible to “see” identification with ego when I think I am not identified. Which is why we need a Guide, a Sangha or a recording device. But that’s another discussion for another time.)
 
None of this is to say that we should stop “doing practices” if we aren’t practicing awareness perfectly. One can’t claim to be an awareness practitioner if one doesn’t practice being aware. The process is the outcome. This is the paradox of spiritual practice. If we conclude that I shouldn’t practice meditation because “I” identified with self-hate twice during a thirty-minute sit, I’m missing the point of a practice of sitting! How did I know that I was identified? Was I aware of that while I was identified? Would I know that if I weren’t paying attention? Any practice I choose to do is simply a container of awareness that reflects the interplay of attention and awareness.  In doing the practices, I am practicing paying attention. In other words, I’m practicing becoming the awareness that is aware of what attention is attending to.
 
It is always helpful to know what we are practicing.
 
When we first come to a practice of Awareness, it is essential to have practice commitments. At this stage of practice, it’s not so much about keeping commitments as much as becoming aware of the process that talks us out of keeping commitments and then blames us for not keeping them. Commitments are the training wheels for an Awareness Practice. They assist us in the first crucial step of “seeing conditioned mind.” We learn to recognize the process of “me,” become familiar with ego’s signature and develop an awareness of the beliefs and assumptions and the messages of self-hate that keep the ego-identity in place.
 
Once we’ve practiced identifying egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, we’re ready to extend our practice. Now, not keeping a practice commitment is a two-step. We not only notice how ego controls us and how self-hate beats us up, we ALSO use our practice commitment as an opportunity to practice Unconditional Love and Acceptance for the human being. This is an “act of compassion” we will perform and perfect for a lifetime, in the face of all ego’s nay-saying. Here, the difference between “doing practices” and practicing is noticing what “sees” ego/self-hate. Ego observing self-hate is not an invitation to presence. Conscious compassionate awareness, aware of self-hate in the field of awareness, is.
 
Ultimately, awareness practice is a practice of seeing. Our seeing is limited by conditioning. This means that we cannot see what we’re conditioned not to see. Becoming aware of conditioning gives us a choice to “see” how things are as they are rather than how we’re conditioned to see them. Once this “vision” develops, our practice can become a dance with consciousness itself. It’s therefore important to practice seeing “something” other than conditioning! Now our practice commitments assist us to develop attention on awareness rather than just being aware of conditioned mind. We practice seeing the “Emptiness” that is form.
 
In “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it,” we tell a story.
 
A young seeker coming to a Monastery is assigned to weed the garden. Eager to be of service, she enthusiastically throws herself into the task.  A couple of months later, a monk notices that the garden has no flowers or vegetables. It turns out that the novice gardener did not know the difference between a weed and a flower. Once she was given this information, the seeker renewed her efforts. Soon the garden was flourishing. People from far and wide came to admire the beauty of the flowers and the bounty of fruits and vegetables it produced.
 
The seeker on the other hand was weary. She went to her teacher and said, “I’m tired, angry and frustrated. I spend all my time weeding and I still can’t keep up with the weeds.” The teacher then said, “Go back to the garden and spend all your time loving the flowers and the vegetables.”
 
Months later, the teacher passing by the garden noticeed the seeker singing and laughing. The song was about the beauty of the flowers, the dance of the bees and the bounty of the vegetables. The teacher stopped and asked the seeker, “What about the weeds?”
 
“When I notice them,” the seeker says, “I gently pull them out and tell them it’s time to go.”
 
Just weeding is not the remit of a gardener. So too with awareness practitioners. Awareness practice is a spiritual practice, perhaps because the opportunity available to any practitioner is to realize the capacity to be the awareness that is aware of everything that awareness is aware of. The “perfection desired” then becomes the joy of Intelligence knowing itself as All That Is, weeds, flowers, gardening, gardens and gardener. 
 
“Under whatever name and form one may worship the Absolute Reality, it is only a means for realizing It without name and form. That alone is true realization, wherein one knows oneself in relation to that Reality, attains peace and realizes one's identity with it.”  —Ramana Maharshi
 
Gasshō
ashwini

August 2019 Musings

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
 
A beautiful girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. One day, her parents discovered she was with child.
 
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin. In great anger the parents went to the master. 'Is that so?' was all he would say.
 
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
 
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.
 
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
 
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was, 'Is that so?'
 
– Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
 
Recently, life offered a workshop in “false accusation” in which I was not directly implicated. The target was Practice, the embodiment of goodness, generosity and compassion. I watched bewilderment arise. How could someone who only ever received from us respect, understanding, and support choose a course of action that might adversely impact this community? We did everything right…how can that result in something so “bad”?
 
Life happens, that’s our experience, and yet we carry around this false and unhelpful notion that “doing the right thing” protects us from “bad” things happening. We’re shocked when encountering a situation that is contrary to our ideas of how “good” people’s lives go. Because we entertain the deeply conditioned belief that we are in control of how our lives should unfold, we slide into a suffering loop of “wanting it to be different than it is” rather than compassionately assisting the human being who has to deal with the inevitable difficulties that a life presents.
 
The exploration of the inability to say “Is that so?” in this case shatteringly revealed a hidden cynicism. Underneath the belief that doing the right thing would result only in good was a lack of trust that Unconditional Love would prevail. Ego is smugly confident that when the chips are down everyone will choose ego over compassion, everyone will accuse rather than defend innocence, no matter how much evidence of goodness exists. History seems to bear this out. Doesn’t hate tend to wreak havoc unchecked? Don’t fear, malevolence and evil frequently overpower good? It’s the rare exception that a human being has the courage to be heroic, to make a choice for Authenticity in the face of ego’s threats.
 
Drilling down beneath this lack of trust we see another conditioned belief. The force of darkness appears to have the advantage over the force of Light because an aspect of Goodness is vulnerability. Its inherent openness implies it is undefended against the barbs of ego. Everything good can be destroyed by the identified human being. Gandhi was assassinated, Jesus was crucified and Hakuin’s fate was to lose his reputation. “Is that so?” did not prevent the world from thinking the worst of Hakuin! How could that not affect him? It’s hard enough not to be tortured by self-hate when one has acted out of identification and done something unskillful. It’s a whole other level of practice not to jump to “my” defense, not to clarify, justify or explain when my motives are questioned or my intentions misunderstood, especially if the interaction is with someone who knows me.
 
A disclaimer before we go any further: Practice doesn’t advocate for not defending innocence or not fighting injustice. Where there is suffering, Practice always advocates further exploration. The question behind the looking is: does this orientation/behavior lead to suffering or does it lead to freedom from suffering?
 
What about being “falsely” accused produces so much suffering?
 
It always seems to come down to the intensity of sensations in the body associated with a particular set of beliefs. “Being misunderstood” means someone is thinking and saying awful things about me that are not true, and I’m told I can’t stand that. The real discomfort is the writhing, cringing, quailing, shrinking “sensations” that arise when attention is on the voices in my head projecting what other people are saying. The narrative of ego in this crucible of suffering is “If they knew me, how could they think that?” “Oh my God, they do think that of me! I need to rectify this somehow! I can’t stand this!” The impulse to correct the double-reverse projection (they are saying what the voices in my head are saying about me) reveals much childhood conditioning and usually a rather startlingly naïve set of beliefs. “If I’m the good-right person then I will be all right.”
 
A practice of awareness inexorably brings us to the precipice of having to let go the identity of being the good-right person. And since this is a hard place in practice, it begs the question, “Why must we?”
 
To transcend suffering we have to relinquish all identification and not because being the “good-right person” is the wrong thing to be! The “good” person and the “bad” person have “person” as the common denominator. As long as we cling to an identification with the ego, we’re in the process of separation. An identification with an orientation of separation perpetuates the illusory dualistic world of self and other, good and bad, right and wrong. The spiritual consequence of that dualism, to quote the Third Patriarch of Zen, Seng T’san:
 
“As long as you remain in one extreme or the other 
you will never know Oneness.”

 
The focus on trying to be a good person and trying not to be a bad person obscures the truth that our True Nature is Goodness itself, a quality beyond the small judgments of a dualistic orientation. It perpetuates the ignorance that the Buddha taught is the root cause of suffering. To inhere in True Nature is to know a place of peace where the arrows of self-hate cannot penetrate or wound. From in HERE, there is neither right nor wrong, just Life as IT is.
 
Over and over again, I went over the meaning of “Is that so,” the equanimity in the face of an unjust accusation. And then one day, as it always does, Life presented its case. It wasn’t a spirited defense but a gentle revelation of strength.
 
I was walking along the shores of an alpine lake, amidst a pine forest devastated by fires and storms, saddened at the carnage on the forest floor. My reverie was interrupted by the shriek of a blue jay. Attention shifted to the beauty of the forest, the air alive with the sounds of insects and birds. I was aware of a tiny patch of pine seedlings, vividly green against a giant fallen limb. The fires had failed to destroy the forest. There it was… the blinding revelation. Goodness does not need to be defended. It’s a vulnerability that endures without protection simply because it IS existence. Besides, the Intelligence That Animates is always GOODNESS. It doesn’t doubt itself. Goodness is innocence that cannot be tainted. Because it transcends the dualistic orientation of good/bad/right/wrong, in an identification with Goodness there is no-one to offend and no-thing to be defended. From True Nature, “Is that so” is an easy response!
 
Conditioned mind would say, “That’s all very well but you still get identified when someone accuses you unjustly.” To which the only appropriate response, to borrow a phrase from Hakuin, is: “Is that so?”
 
Gasshō
ashwini

July 2019 Musings

I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
-- Fredrich Nietzsche
 
Have you noticed how often and how subtly “no” is your orientation?
 
This inquiry into negation as an orientation started a couple of years ago on a trip to India. My mother is a gifted and imaginative cook and spends much of her time coming up with delicious and elaborate meals for her family to enjoy. And while we all appreciate the food, our refrain at the table would be: “Mom, you shouldn’t have!” “You need not have cooked so many dishes!” “You get so tired standing over the stove all morning; can’t you take a break from cooking?” “Mom, you do know that I would rather you spend time with me than cook for me?” My mother would patiently reiterate that she loved to do this for us. It was no trouble. It made her happy to make us happy. It was her way of showing her love. And if we persisted in our commentary, a tinge of irritation would seep through in “Who else is going to cook?” Finally, one day, she said to me, “I just wish you would say thank you and acknowledge what I do.”
 
Needless to say, the request shattered “me,” the me that was so identified with being concerned for her well-being that I was unaware I was negating her. Often, we may not recognize this form of self-hate projected outward, perhaps because the negation is hidden under the guise of wanting the best for another person. If I’m coming from a place of caring, I don’t have to notice when I slip into implying that you are inadequate to your life or that I have a better idea of how you should do something. I don’t have to be sensitive to what you might need from me, listen to what you are saying, witness your experience, accept what you are offering, or be appreciative of who you are.
 
As I looked into this further, I saw negation in so many exchanges. For example:
 
---I tell you all the things I did, and you point out the thing I could have done differently.
---She tells him what’s going on for her, and he tells her how that happened to him.
---He tells her about a decision he made, and she gives him some information that challenges that decision.
---I offer my perspective, and you contradict me.
---She tells you her problem, and you try to solve it for her.
---You are excited about a possibility, and he expresses his resistance to the idea.
---I make a suggestion, and you tell me how it’s usually done.
 
Many of these interactions may sound overtly innocuous or even helpful. But what’s fascinating, if we continue this exploration beyond the overt, is the discovery of the subtle mechanism of egocentricity operating in all of them. The ego reveals itself in the shape of non-acceptance, a rejection of “you” in order to assert “me.” For me to exist, you have to be denied.
 
In her children’s fantasy, A Wind at the Door, Madeleine L'Engle portrays a world in which a dark force attempts to extinguish Life as it is by negating human expressions of it. Through constantly telling someone what they’re NOT, this force of negation X’s the person out of existence. To defend itself, Life recruits Namers, individuals with the unique gift of assisting people to get a sense of their Authenticity. As one of the protagonists in the story, a cherubim says: “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a Namer’s job.”  Knowing one’s Name, being called by the Universe to what one is in the scheme of things, makes them invulnerable to being X’ed.  Those that experience being unconditionally loved for what they are, accepted as they are, are saved.
 
The parallels between A Wind at the Door and what we’re doing in Awareness Practice are not hard to see! We recognize that force of negation as self-hate. We’re aware of that voice ceaselessly telling us what we are not: not good enough, not prepared enough, not smart enough, not deserving enough, not authentic enough, not hardworking enough, not articulate enough, not fit enough, not tall enough, not successful enough, not pretty enough…fill in the blank. What a coup for the forces of darkness, what an absolute negation of the Intelligence That Animates, if the form it expresses itself through can be convinced to identify with something that it isn’t, not its true nature, but the ego. Those of us riddled with self-hate have tremendous resistance to identifying with Goodness as the essence of our being, not because we aren’t Goodness, but because we believe the self-hate that claims anything good can’t contain that level of self-loathing.
 
If self-hate can convince us to see the world through the lens of negation, it has won another victory. Identified with “what’s not,” we cease to be able to see what is. We are robbed of the ability to be present to Presence. In fact, if we were writing a mathematical equation to describe self-hate, it would be a negative function of what is. A negative sign in front of whatever is life. Small wonder that want (a lack of something), loneliness (an absence of the other), and dissatisfaction (wanting it to be different than it is) are the experiences of an ego.  And the final coup for the ego: Identified as me, how am I not a means, an instrument, to make you experience yourself as what you are not?
 
It seems the work we do in “naming” ourselves, of being able to reclaim what we are by embracing ourselves in Unconditional Love and Acceptance, is our greatest gift to the world. For then we are radically receptive, so completely whole that we can be like Chang Tzu’s famous mirror, reflecting all that is, as is.
 
Since that moment with my mother at the dining room table, my practice has been to attempt to be a “Yes-sayer.” This does not mean that I have to agree with what you say, that I don’t do things my way, that I can’t have my own opinion. I don’t have to ignore our differences or stop being me so you can be you. I simply have to move from a zero-sum orientation where everything is mutually exclusive to an orientation that is all inclusive. That’s the beauty of Life as it is; there is space for All that is, all expressions of it. In not negating you in any way, I cease to negate Life, Life as you or Life as me. For the brief eternity of a moment, Presence is….
 
Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out, and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the starsclear and pure.
-- Madeline L’Engle.
 
Gasshō
ashwini

June 2019 Musings

We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge, and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility.
-- Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
 
The yearlong retreat has sparked in me a hunger for specificity, specificity as in the particular, the precise, the individual, the distinct, the discrete, the detail. This interest in specifics might seem like an ego drift into content as a focus, but perhaps that’s just ego’s opinion! For might not the process of specificity be described as paying attention, becoming minutely aware of every facet, every nuance, every inflection of the Intelligence That Animates? Isn’t this way of attending to the Love that “knows,” the mode of knowledge that brings us into unitive knowledge of the Divine?
 
According to the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, “Those who desire to see the living face of the God should not seek it in the empty firmament of the mind.” As practitioners of awareness, we’re well acquainted with the quality of emptiness that is the mind. That mental quality is in direct contrast to the vibrant immediacy of the Emptiness of direct experience. The mind would characterize Emptiness as void, a vast dreariness of nothingness. But when we stop, breathe and get HERE, our experience of the awareness of the moment is anything but empty. In fact, the conditioned impulse, when confronted with the vastness of the everything of the now, is to retreat into the limited perception of small mind, which begs the question: How do we train ourselves to be present to All the Mystery?
 
Enter Specificity.
 
We could say that a mental perspective is an abstraction of how things are, for the mind deals in constructs. To be present to a wildflower is a vastly different experience from a mental appreciation of its beauty. If we’re truly present to anything in life, our experience would be that of William Blake, seeing
 
…a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold(ing) Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
 
To have a Blakeian experience of your own, try this awareness exercise. Become aware of a patch of green as you take a walk, and then pay really close attention!
 
My favorite place to do this exercise is in the Monastery archway. I sit down on a rock near the pond, train my gaze to the square of green at my feet, and am instantly transported to a world in miniature. Green becomes a complex web of tiny plants, each characterized by a different shape of leaf. No geometry textbook ever included the infinite variations of squares, triangles and parallelograms that dance at my feet.  A lone ant scurries away with a seed. A diminutive pink flower peeps shyly from under a loose pebble. The transparent wings of a baby dragonfly glisten as the wind moves the sunlight across the pond. Miniscule mirrors of mica add sparkle to the mosaic of grey and black grains of sand, while a motionless stick springs to life and moves across my vision on tiny legs. Time stops. Wonder makes me lightheaded. I feel drunk with ecstasy as I get up and make my way across the wooden bridge to my next errand, my heart soaring like the hummingbird darting across the sky.
 
This type of experience brings to mind a quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” An appreciation for the detail of Life, the specific shape of a moment, allowed me to understand this “wasting of time.” It’s only when we dive in with our attention into the specifics of the Infinity of the Now, that we truly Love. Normally, we gaze at the world, observing it as a mental picture divorced from Reality. Experiencing Life through conditioned mind leaves us feeling dissatisfied. This divine dissatisfaction is the intuitive awareness of the reduction of All to a linear abstraction, robbed of dimension, flavor, texture, and color. It’s only when we drop into the moment that we feel the vitality come pulsing back in the organic joy of the living, breathing aliveness of the Intelligence That Animates.
 
Specificity isn’t just a tool to contemplate Emptiness, it assists in the very nuts and bolts practice of dismantling suffering. In a book about Teresa of Avila, author Mirabai Starr writes, “Ecstasy is a gift, but so is mindfulness and showing up for the hard work of being human. It is tempting to use our spiritual concepts to check out of reality and avoid suffering.”
 
We’re familiar with conditioning co-opting practice concepts to explain itself as the source of our misery. We hear phrases such as:
Those voices say…
It’s just a projection…
I saw ego doing this thing again…
I have a karma to…
I got talked into…
 
Of course, our practice yields insights that assist us to spot the ego in action. But if we lose the lens of the specificity of how we’re caused to suffer, will we really end suffering? This is why the yearlong retreat provides a template to break down the suffering process. We drill with this template month after month, applying it to different content areas. From the specifics of content to the particulars of process, we plumb the depths of the “me” that keeps the All at bay. Far from being a navel-gazing exercise, such attention trains the awareness to be aware of when attention is on suffering and for the awareness to exercise an alternate choice of attention. As we peel back the layers of ego, uncovering a way of seeing, unfettered by the shape of ego, we discover the uniqueness of a human incarnation, an expression of Life unlike any other form in existence. In becoming the wisdom, love, and compassion that assists a human being through shedding her false identification with what she is not, we share in the joy of discovering the shape of “her” Authenticity. Knowing a human being in this particular way, through this kind of loving attention, is another exquisite experience of the joy of Intelligence knowing itself. It’s a process of transformation that Rumi describes thus:
 
Suppose you know the definitions
of all substances and their products,
what good is this to you?
Know the true definition of yourself.
That is essential.
Then, when you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One that cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.

Gasshō
ashwini

May 2019 Musings

The wind drops but the flowers still fall; 
A bird sings, and the mountain holds yet more mystery.

from Haiku, by R.H. Blyth
 
I sit on an antique rocking chair, a steaming mug of tea on the side table, hands on the keyboard, waiting for inspiration to arrive.  One might assume that inspiration requires a hushed silence for its entrance, but it’s anything but silent where I sit. Little yellow birds are in impassioned conference outside my window, the wind rustles and groans through the maple tree, a siren calls in the distance, rain water drips persistently from the gutters, but from that place which produces Musings articles, there is…nothing. I’m conscious of the similarity between staring at a blinking cursor on the first line of a Word document and facing a blank wall in meditation. Both experiences share the flavors of a cultivation of patient receptivity, a straining then a relaxing, an emptying of effort, a steadying of breath, a letting go of expectation that insight will arrive on demand. This “blankness” where words should be, while not unfamiliar territory is not a terrain that I have traversed in some time. Usually, the “gap” is brimming with ideas jostling for cohesive expression; other times, the article stands majestically complete, serenely awaiting transcription. This time there was just an emptiness, a spaciousness that lulled me into stillness. As I waited, I watched myself being tuned by Emptiness to receive its transmission; a narrowing of attention, a slowing down of time, a quieting of the breath and body, a calibration to nuance. Perhaps, I mused, Emptiness simply wants this Musings to be a capping phrase, a zenrin kushu…
 
A bird sings
A siren calls
The wind moans
Drops drip
Silence…
 
Why not? Isn’t that what IS, NOW?
 
A whisper of something lifts my eyes to scan the room. A title jumps at me from the bookshelf… a cookbook, The Joy of an Empty Pot. I chuckle in delight and reach for it.
 
“Why is an empty pot joyful?” I read.
Because it’s not empty, the author writes, it brims with the potential of all possibilities. A symbol of humility, the perfect receptacle, willing to wait to be summoned into service. It humbly accepts whatever the cook decides it must hold and needs no recognition of a job well done when it’s returned to the shelf, shining and clean after it has played its role. The perfection of the metaphor, the empty pot, the blank computer screen, and the “uninspired me” listening to Emptiness takes my breath away. Perhaps that is the message of Emptiness. Here, now, is never “blank.” Presence brims with embodiment. What are you not seeing?  
 
The wind rustles in the maple tree…the mind wanders, attention rests on another title. This time, Emptiness is in Dogen’s voice, Instructing a Zen Cook. “Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf. This is a power which you cannot grasp with your rational mind. It operates freely, according to the situation in the most natural way. At the same time, this power functions in our lives to clarify and settle activities and is beneficial to all living things.” Laughter bubbles up. This power is writing this article, I think, delighting in its whimsy and reveling in the utter joy of being carried by the wisdom of the wind. All it requires, something writes, is an attitude of reverence, an approach that signals an awareness of its nature. It will always respond true to its nature, a generous revealing which in itself is a benediction.
 
Blessed Is the Knowledge of Emptiness.
 
It does not seem a coincidence that we recently embarked on a retreat, the subject of which is Emptiness. To realize Emptiness is not just locked into the poetry of mystical experience, but that it is here, now, available as the animating Intelligence of every moment, blessed is that knowledge indeed.
 
On a recent radio show, the Guide was talking to a caller about the importance of coming from a place that is compassionate to all. “Christ,” she said, “did not ask us to turn the other cheek from a place of deprivation. He was able to offer that perspective from a place of fulfillment.” What is that place, that can contain all contradictions and reconcile all opposites?
 
Perhaps it is an afternoon of solitude in an armchair, listening to the wind and rain and twittering of birds. Perhaps it is the willingness to be empty of oneself, to be the empty pot, content to receive whatever is given. For as Kafka says, of getting in touch with this place of fulfillment, “You do not have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Gasshō
ashwini

April 2019 Musings

Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
         The dark unfathomed caves of the oceans bear: 
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, 
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
— Thomas Gray
 
These lines from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” have haunted me ever since I read them. I could see those flowers in my mind’s eye, tiny, brilliantly hued and exquisitely beautiful. I could smell their sweet intoxicating fragrance, and the thought of them fading unseen and unappreciated in some desert expanse filled me with an inexplicable anguish. That the flowers were not having my experience didn’t dawn on me until recently.  Who was it that was feeling the pain of being unacknowledged? Why anguish? And what unexamined assumptions lurking behind being “unseen” were producing this suffering?
 
As I explored this “strain of thinking” with a recorder, the jumbled layers of conditioned beliefs that collated as “anguish” began to reveal themselves. I realized I was identified with a child trying to make sense of an indifference to its existence. Mixed in was an existential fear that not being seen by “another” was equivalent to non-existence.  There was pain at not being accepted as I was, colored by bewilderment at not understanding the reason behind the rejection.  All of that confused thinking was buried behind a more general frustration at the nature of human beings.  So many radiant expressions of intrinsic purity are utterly ignored. How is it that we are unmoved by beauty? Why is it that we so often discount the rare, the different, the original? What prevents us from joyfully embracing all that life so freely offers? Why don’t we value the precious expressions of life that surround us? What happens when we are indifferent? Will those forms of life that bring us joy, desert flowers and rare gems, vanish from the earth because we don’t pay attention to them?
 
The insight that transformed this knot of suffering occurred when I stumbled across anguish in another setting: evening group with the Guide. The topic under discussion was the original Mountain View Center. Cheri was explaining that in those early days it was not uncommon for her to be the only person at evening meditation. As I listened to her talk, I conjured up the Meditation Hall. The polished floorboards, the black zabutons and plump zafus arranged with precision along the walls, the spring flowers, a vivid splash of color caressing the serene face of a Buddha. The Guide bows, walks the perimeter of the room and takes a seat on the cushion, a dignified presence in perfect meditation posture, waiting in the soft silence. The clock ticks towards the seven o’clock hour. No one else arrives. Another bow…the bells are rung, the recitation is said, the period begins… and ends. Just one person, one flower in the vast desert expanse of the Hall, deep in meditation…practicing.
 
There it was again, that suffocating experience of anguish! Is a sit which no one attends a waste of sweetness? Fortunately, the Guide’s voice summoned the attention before it was sucked into a familiar whirlpool of suffering. Very matter-of-factly, Cheri indicated how offering practice was her practice. She did not offer meditation in the hope that someone else would come. The schedule merely assisted her to show up for herself.
 
In a blinding flash of insight, the anguish dissolved. Only an identification with the illusion of separation would discount the fact that everything in the Universe was present in that silent Meditation Hall. The desert flowers were not unwitnessed. The practice offering was not unattended. The only “problem,” if there was one, was the limitation in how “I” was seeing, a perspective that could acknowledge Form but not Emptiness.
 
Moreover, this perspective of “I” is not just limited, it is negating. It discounted the existence of the one person who was there for the sit, Cheri! She hadn’t discounted herself, it had! That’s what self-hate does. It negates existence itself. Identified with it, we don’t count the importance of our own existence. It doesn’t matter if there is no one else in that Meditation Hall with the Guide, no one else in the desert with those flowers, no one else witnessing me or  my life. Because I am there. I am thisherenow, not the small “I” of ego but the Intelligence animating All, animating this form. Acknowledging one’s own presence is to identify with All That Is in an affirmative act of recognition. Life gets counted while self-hate gets discounted.
 
Like many conditioned human beings, I struggle with a lack of acknowledgement because identification with an illusion of separation is an experience of insufficiency.  From an ego perspective, mere existence is not enough! Something external needs to signal the facticity of my existence. The desire to be seen, the need to have “my” existence acknowledged is a desperate cry of egocentricity.  But when attention is on awareness and awareness is aware of being part of all that is, aware of All that is expressing as this part, being witnessed is unnecessary. Existence is sufficiency.
 
As we allow ourselves to deepen in this perspective of non-separation, we can perhaps glimpse the totality of Presence in each moment. The Guide was there in that Hall, as everyone, meditating everywhere.  The mind shudders at that notion. It resists this expansiveness. It clings to its smallness, its boundaries, its definitions. But awareness is aware of its capacity to register the totality of True Nature. As we sit on the cushion, can we allow ourselves to attend to that awareness, and in so doing experience with each breath all of being, all of existence coming into existence as us?
 
Lately, tiny, brilliant, exquisitely beautiful flowers tend to make me smile. My heart opens as I identify with them, completely content to be themselves, offering their fragrance to the desert air. I rejoice in their transience, their blooming and fading. They are, after all, also participating in the eternal cycle of life coming in and going out of existence. Now we need a poet who can capture that experience of anguished Joy…and Basho’s words come to mind.
 
On the white poppy
A torn butterfly’s wing
Is a keepsake.
 
In gasshō
ashwini
 
A side note: This article is not advocating an absence of participation in practice offerings. A Meditation Hall with one expression of Life has much to teach us, as does one that has an expression of Life seated on every one of its cushions. But more about that in a future Musings perhaps….
 

March 2019 Musings

In a recent group I reported what we call a “duh” awareness. Most of us who do this practice are familiar with what that is. A “duh” awareness is one that’s so obvious we’re almost embarrassed to share it with Sangha, the underlying implication being that anyone with a solid practice should be way past the point of so basic an insight. But as the Guide says reassuringly, “We see it when we see it, and we see it as often as we need to until all the depths are plumbed!”
 
The awareness was about answering the question “Are you excited about …?” Whenever I’m asked that question, I find myself hesitating. “Am I excited?” “I should be, shouldn’t I?” Usually, I find myself responding with a tentative, “I suppose so.” And then quickly equivocating, “Yes, of course,” while silently wondering why the enthusiasm of people “doing exciting things” is not my internal experience.
 
Over the years, I’ve employed the same Socratic method to other things and decided that not only am I not excited about many things, I’m not enthusiastic about, not happy about, not passionate about (fill in the blank). Subliminally, the self-hating conclusion is that I must be the most neutral, colorless, joyless, phlegmatic person in existence. Occasionally, I am aware of sadness about that.
 
Sadness was hovering around that morning before group, and in a flash of insight it dropped in, “Wait, what if the question is the issue?” Instantly the world transformed, from monochrome to technicolor. Suddenly there was the golden warmth of the sunshine, the sweet pinkness of geraniums, the intoxicating scent of paperwhites, and the excited tweeting of hummingbirds in conference.
 
“Of course you’re not excited about anything in your HEAD,” trilled the hummingbirds.
 
Exactly! Referencing a mental process to sense a feeling is bound to result in a dry, sterile, metallic experience! Of course, there was nothing wrong with me and there never had been. I was just looking in the wrong places for an answer to a question that could not possibly be answered from there.  As I stood in the shower, transfixed by this awareness, something else clicked. The construct of the question was the red herring. Are you excited about xyz? Now this is a level of subtlety that conditioning specializes in. It may not be universally true, but it was true for me! The “about” in the question was the decoy. It had my attention focused completely on the what – about my travel to India, about writing a book, about seeing a friend, about the project. I wasn’t excited about any of these things. “Things,” or as the Buddha would say, “mind objects,” are not inherently exciting. I WAS having the “right” experience. But since I was also listening to a voice in the head say, “You should be excited about this thing and you’re not,” I was confused.
 
And here is the awareness that “blew the mind away.” Attention was on “why” I was not excited. This ensured that the focus was on the “why” and not the “I.” Not only doesn’t excitement exist in conditioned mind, not only are mind objects not intrinsically exciting, “I” is a “mental thing.” Ego-I-me is completely unexciting. Identified with it, excitement doesn’t EXIST.
 
Exciting is being aware of the Intelligence That Animates, the dancing, powerful, heartbeat of the Life force of the Universe. When attention is on that, “everything” is exciting. The vitality of Life energy is one’s experience, whatever the mood of life in the moment: stormy, quietly content, or wildly enthusiastic. I was jubilant! Passion, delight, joy, enthusiasm…all there, nothing lacking in this expression of Life. I went to group feeling gloriously alive.
 
True, this movement of attention is what we practice always, but the difference this time was so subtle I almost missed it. Awareness was aware when the “mind” had taken over. Sadness was not “my” experience. Sadness was a collection of sensations associated with a story in conditioned mind that flagged an expanded awareness of where the attention was focused. Sadness no longer meant attending the funeral of this expression of life one more time, succumbing to being negated out of existence. (That may sound dramatic but it’s true, yes? Don’t we all have that feeling, with varying degrees of intensity, that we’re such sad sacks who can’t enjoy being alive that we don’t deserve to live?) That very feeling, that “lament,” was the portal back into Life.  
 
This insight transformed my worldview, and my intention in reporting it in group was to share my wonder at having an entire foundation of karma crumble. And yet the reporting of it as “duh,” however tongue in cheek, completely trivialized the insight. If someone had told me (the Guide does repeatedly) that there is a force of negation actively extinguishing life energy, I would have dismissed it (evidence of it in action!) as the subject of myth and fairy tale. But we’re all living myths. The battle for what has expression, Light or darkness, is being waged inside of us all the time.
 
We grow up spiritually when we recognize and accept that there are no winners or losers in this battle, that the outcomes are not weighted towards a “right” side. It seems we all participate in an eternal unfolding dance along a spectrum of conscious awareness. And despite the formidable recruiting campaign of the “dark side” that conditions us to live as shadows of what we are through shame, guilt, worry, fear and hatred, we do get to weigh in on the composition of consciousness in any moment.
 
Motes of dust dancing in the light 
That's our dance, too. 
We don't listen inside to hear the music-- 
No matter. 
The dance of life goes on, 
And in the joy of the sun 
Is hiding a Friend.

-- Rumi
 
As we approach the celebration of another International Day of No Self-Hate, perhaps this band of spiritual warriors can declare ourselves once more for the expression of Intelligence That Animates that is “Unconditional Love.” Engage today in an act of kindness, a choice for compassion, a nod of thanks, a word of encouragement, a pause of wonder, a smile of appreciation. Each of these tiny acts of love just might tip the balance in favor of a more lit-up world!
 
In gasshō,
Ashwini

February 2019 Musings

She went to the door of the Beloved and knocked.
A voice asked: “Who is there?” She answered: “It is I.”
The voice said: “There is no room here for me and thee.”
The door was shut.
-Rumi

Arrogance is not an attitude of mind that opens the doors to a spiritual practice. If we show up with hubris, the Zen Master will shut the door, metaphorically speaking, in some way. If we’re one of the lucky ones, the door is opened with an invitation to tea. As we sit in anticipation of a warm brew and some enlivening “spiritual” conversation, we’ll watch the Zen teacher top the tea cup up to overflowing.  We will watch in dismay until we can’t stand it anymore and exclaim our protest at this unnatural behavior, at which point the Zen teacher will gently and calmly explain that we’re not ready to train. Our cup is so filled with the “I” of ego that there is no space for anything else.  

After a year of solitude and deprivation
she returned to the door of the Beloved.
She knocked.
A voice from within asked: “Who is there?”
She said: “It is Thou.”
The door was opened.
-Rumi

The journey between “It is I” and “It is Thou” is not a linear progression. To the ego the journey is “solitude and deprivation,” but to the “seeker” it’s a movement towards the intuited but as yet unrealized. The signature of this journey is a wearing away of egocentricity, an attrition of false identity.  As the Guide says in Sweet Zen, “We have to pursue what we are seeking in that wholehearted manner until there is nothing left of us to pursue it.  And then there will only be what you are seeking.”

Zen Awareness Practice offers a way to empty the teacup, to notice and surrender the “I” over and over until there is a growing awareness that “Awareness is all that is and it is all of me.” We’re encouraged to seek what mirrors our True Nature, to calibrate to the still small voice until we recognize it as us. Embodied in that encouragement is a tremendous trust in the adequacy of the individual and the structure of the process to navigate the dangers of ego territory. Ego of course does not see it that way. For the ego, anything that challenges its control is controlling! But at the beginning of a spiritual journey, ego is in temporary retreat and that which is seeking has the upper hand.

Initially, therefore, there is tremendous willingness to follow the “dictates” of a Practice. We recognize that we need the training wheels, and we gratefully accept them, even when ego puts up a fuss. We are willing to say, “Oh, that’s just ego resistance,” and reach for the tools that will help us through the identification. At some point, we become pretty “good” at practicing. The tools are familiar. We have a pretty consistent R/L practice. We sit regularly. We participate in the offerings of our practice and the “intensity of suffering” recedes. Sure, there is identification, but it’s not as obvious or as painful as it used to be. At this juncture, there is danger of being talked out of practicing, forgetting that practicing got us to this well-being in the first place. But if we’re lucky, we fall into a suffering hole again and we return to practicing.

The undulation of complacency happens frequently enough for us to begin cultivating humility. We’re up against a worthy opponent, and the vigilance that the Buddha emphasizes time and time again in the verses of the Dhammapada becomes a non-negotiable aspect of our practice.

If we examine what happens in a plateau of well-being, we come upon a signature of ego that is downright frightening. Let’s call this hubris.

Hubris is a fatal flaw in a personality that ultimately results in his/her downfall. In Greek tragedy, the character usually enjoys a powerful position which results in an overestimation of capabilities to such an extent that contact with reality is lost. The hero deludes himself (there are few females in the Greek pantheon!) into believing he is a god and attempts to defy the Gods and his fate, which never ends well.

The Buddha exhorts us never to simply accept what a spiritual teacher says, not because it is not trustworthy, but because our salvation lies in going beyond beliefs in order to have our own direct experience of what is True. But what is the experience of direct experience? An intuitive knowing, a fleeting glimpse into something that has a ring of truth, a growing sense of a flame within that will guide us through the darkness? How do we ever know that this still small voice is not the voice of ego?

Zen’s answer is that we never know. No matter what practice we follow, we can never lose sight of the humility of “not knowing.” Anything in us that is absolute is suspect. It’s extremely difficult to know this place of hubris in ourselves, but it is so easy to spot in “someone else.” The energy of resistance is palpable. There is a subtle challenging of practice frameworks. There is selectivity in which aspects of practice are followed. Guidance is appreciated, even received with gratitude, but the actions that follow do not conform to guidance. The level of collusion with ego is blatant, but the identification is so absolute that it is imperceptible to the practitioner.

That said, there is a subtle place in practice where the intuition of inner guidance appears to contravene a teaching. The exit ramp from ego danger at this juncture is to clue into “appears to.” In the moment that I “know” my experience is contrary to practice, I have stepped into egocentricity. Each time I identify with the ego that “knows,” I am in opposition (however subtle this position) to the practice that guides me. Yes, my experience in this moment is X, but in life, ALL experiences are TRUE in the moment. The quality of existence is inclusive. Humility means that I can accept my experience while holding in awareness every other possibility that IS ALSO SO. Humility is a receptivity that recognizes differences and then looks for the underlying oneness. How is that “other” also true? When we come up against something in our experience that is hard to reconcile with what a practice offers, humility keeps looking until there are no barriers to oneness. Debating whether practice is right or wrong, or what aspects of practice we agree or don’t agree with, is a guaranteed way to end up in ego’s camp.  In this place, ego’s position might be articulated by these lines from William Ernest Henley:

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

These lines are a paean to the indomitable human spirit that remains uncrushed by terrible odds. Yes, that determination not to give up is the fire that fuels our practice. But ultimately what we seek comes to us in our depths of despair, not in our heights of glory—especially if we suffer from hubris. It appears that we are given circumstances that break us to cause us to surrender control, to destroy the hubris that says “I” can do it, on my own, and on my terms. We’re given the “difficult” times because we won’t surrender “my will” to “Thy will” otherwise.

Inherently, the spiritual path is one in which we intuitively accept that any trace of “me” will be washed away. Spiritual freedom is not the utopia of an “enlightened ego,” where “I” gets to reign supreme. If we practice diligently, the “fall” of ego is inevitable. If we can embrace the “fall” in humility and compassion, we learn the valuable lesson that is perhaps why we set out on the path in the first place. That lesson? The Unconditional truly loves unconditionally.

Awareness Practice then is not a Greek Tragedy.
We are never punished.
We are always redeemed.

In the words of Joseph Campbell, in all heroes' journeys we arrive at the realization that “…all that we see is but the reflex of a power that endures, untouched by the pain... a transcendent anonymity regarding itself in all of the self-centered, battling egos that are born and die in time.” 

In gasshō,
Ashwini

January 2019 Musings

If “our goodness is already established,” one might ask why we have choosen to focus an entire year of practice on Making a Change for Good? I was struck by the similarity of this question to the one that drove the great Zen Master Dogen to leave his homeland in Japan in search of answers. Dogen’s question was posed this way: If we’re already enlightened, why do we need to practice meditation? If we’re already Buddhas, why do we need to walk a spiritual path to attain Buddhahood?   
 
Dogen’s question presumes enlightenment is a given and everything else follows! But who among us began practice with that premise? Who among us presumed our inherent goodness as the starting assumption of our spiritual journey?
 
Underlying almost any change we want to make is a devastating and unexamined assumption: There is something wrong with how things are and making the change will result in things being different/better.
 
If we could eat less sugar
If we could keep to a fitness program
If we could meditate more
If we could pay bills on time
If we could stop yelling and complaining
If we could sign up for more practice offerings
 
Then… WHAT?
 
I would be different, more lovable, more loving, more acceptable, more accepting. People would be more likely to hear me, see me, love me, approve of me. And perhaps when that happens circumstances will be happier. Until we bring conscious awareness to it, we don’t grasp the tangled illogic of this reasoning! In fact, without conscious awareness, we don’t recognize what’s being kept in place under a seemingly benign and heartfelt wish to make a change for good. Without conscious awareness, we cannot see that what’s operating us is a near constant process that negates our inherent goodness and obfuscates our felt sense that our goodness is already established.
 
Dogen reports receiving an answer to his question during a particularly difficult sesshin at a monastery. The answer he “saw”: “Practice IS Enlightenment.” If we sit in meditation to achieve enlightenment, we assume a world in which a duality of enlightened and unenlightened exists. If we sit on the cushion to realize the Buddha Nature that is us, we’re still entertaining the possibility of something in existence that is not Buddha Nature.
 
So, we simply have to sit. Sitting is the expression of the embodiment of the Buddha Nature that is. If we come from an assumption that something is wrong with “me,” or if we attempt to attain a state of “there is nothing wrong with me,” we’re still caught in a process of duality and negation from which it’s impossible to realize our inherent Buddha Nature. We have to approach the cushion and sit until we drop out of negation/duality/separation. Or as Dogen put it, till it drops us!
 
In Dogen’s words:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.
No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
 
So, we practice “making a change for good” not as a path of self/ego improvement but as a way of embodying our inherent goodness. Or once more in Dogen’s words: “If you want to see things just as they are, then you yourself must practice just as you are.”
 
In training ourselves in this way, we start from a different presumption. A change in behavior is no longer a condition for acceptance. A commitment not to eat sugar is no longer about eating or not eating sugar. It’s a way to dissolve the illusion of a “me” that is deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Behavior changes are simply vehicles through which we recognize Life in places where we have not previously.
 
When we make commitments from within the context of Unconditional Acceptance, we practice Compassionate endeavor that results in goodness. Each commitment we make brings attention to a process of ego that masks our inherent goodness. As we bring conscious awareness to that “ignorance,” the veil falls away to reveal the goodness there is. Each endeavor we undertake compassionately results in a greater awareness of the goodness that is already established.
 
Dogen describes practice as “arriving enlightenment.” We notice attention is on a conditioned process, we acknowledge the awareness that is aware, we train attention to attend to awareness. In this way, we train ourselves to identify with the Awareness that is aware, that is All That Is. In Dogen’s words again:
 
The true person is
Not anyone in particular;
But like the deep blue color of the sky,
It is everyone,
Everywhere in the world.
 
In gasshō,
Ashwini

December 2018 Musings

I recently came across something the Guide had written as part of an email class response: Spiritual practice is far more difficult than awareness practice because spiritual practice requires us to see “God” in everyone and everything.
 
Wait, what?
 
God in Zen?
Gradients of difficulty?
Awareness versus spiritual practice?
 
Breathtaking Zen paradoxes are meant to flummox conditioned mind while rescuing practitioners from karmic tangles. This practitioner eagerly and gratefully seized the lifeline that was proffered.
 
The Doldrums
I was at a place in my practice that I would term a dry spell. Ghostly shapes of dissatisfaction subliminally lurked despite every attempt to redirect the attention. Karmic upheaval has a signature of turbulence. Whether one’s struggling with how things are, or how “I” am with how things are, the constant in that kind of suffering experience is struggle.  It has juice. But when circumstances are not challenging one’s identity, when ego has no “other” to wrangle with, when there’s no content to bring the crucible of transformation to a roiling boil, might there be another kind of spiritual experience that we’re being invited to participate in?
 
When nothing reflects the ego, the ego often says it's “bored,” hoping that we will take the bait and “do” something, anything that moves us away from being here. This line by the Guide suggests  that when nothing reflects the ego we have the exquisite opportunity to train to reflect the Intelligence That Animates.
 
An Alchemy of Seeing
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to us as it is, Infinite. --William Blake
 
We could say that a practice of awareness results in a transformation of seeing. Before a practice of awareness, “seeing” is limited to what we’ve been conditioned to attend to.
 
In the Buddha’s words, attention is habitually on a “mental construct of reality,” a stream of beliefs, assumptions, memories, perceptions, sensations, accumulated through a collision of karma and conditioning that coalesces into a notion of “me.”  “Me” is the lens through which the world is witnessed, understood and referenced and, subsequently, everything outside “my” version of the world is gradually filtered out of “my” awareness. We’re trapped in a “limited edition of reality,” without awareness that we are trapped.  Perhaps the only symptom of living in “ignorance” of how things are, is that we suffer. Could we say that suffering is an unconscious awareness of dissonance, a subliminal comprehension that what we think is so may not be?
 
This dissonance brings us to a practice of some sort.
 
Through Awareness Practice, we become aware of awareness as a mode of seeing. It trains us to “see” beyond the limitation imposed by “me.” We not only see “me” for what it is, an illusion, we get to watch the process in conditioned mind that creates and maintains the illusion. With practice, not only do we become more skilled at recognizing conditioned mind, we also increase our capacity to attend to awareness. The scope of our vision expands. If we’re lucky, the amplitude of oscillation between unconsciousness (attention on conditioned mind) and conscious awareness (attention on awareness) becomes less and less, and we come to rest at Center, in the bliss of Presence.
 
At least that’s the theory…
 
A Spiritual Practice
There is another step or two in the process it seems! The transformation of seeing that occurs when we develop the capacity to be aware of “ego-I” in operation does not necessarily result in having the “sight” described by Meister Eckhart. To be aware of the ego is not the same as being able to say, “The eyes through which I see God are the same eyes through which God sees me.” To see “God” everywhere requires cultivation of an altogether different order of seeing.
 
Perhaps this is the point at which awareness practice morphs into spiritual practice. If awareness practice trains us to become aware of how we see, maybe spiritual practice trains us to identify with that which sees? Seeing ego, seeing the human incarnation, seeing the Mentor, even seeing “God,” still retains some residue of a seer. It’s still a limited awareness, perhaps because it’s still dualistic?
 
How then do we achieve a one-ness of seeing, the perspective that Rumi describes in this line: “You are not a drop in the ocean but the entire ocean in a drop.”
 
It seems that shift cannot be sought.
It happens.
 
In the words of Annie Dillard: The secret of this seeing, then, is the pearl of great price. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise…. I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.
 
Seeing with the Eyes of Love
To sail on a solar wind? How far beyond possibility that seems! And yet a practitioner of awareness is well-equipped for such a venture. Practice gives us many tools to put ourselves in the path of that light beam. And the tool that has been helpful to my practice is writing love letters to myself that I record and listen to daily.
 
Initially, this practice “repairs the damage” caused by attending to a voice of self-hate. We cannot see “the divine” everywhere if the one place that’s excluded from all that is sacred is me, not the me of ego, but the spark of life that is the human incarnation. We’re deeply conditioned to believe that we are not sufficiently worthy to participate in Existence. The ghostly echoes of unworthiness taunt us as we walk the path. Are we really worth saving? The question of deserving has to be snuffed out of existence. Writing a love letter does that.
 
As we witness a human being’s life, we fall in love. Everything about that person becomes endearing. We applaud their courage, commiserate with their misfortunes, share their heartbreak, celebrate their triumphs, encourage their endeavors and reflect their lives. On a content level, it seems as if we are embracing a person, but on a process level there’s a transformation of seeing occurring. In bringing all that is negated into the light of unconditional acceptance, we’re honing the ability to see with the eyes of love. The result is a totality of awareness, where nothing is excluded.
 
And then we go further.
 
As we listen to those recorded letters, awareness becomes aware of itself as that which is Unconditionally Loving. That awareness expands from seeing the divinity in the human incarnation whose life is witnessed in letters of love, to seeing the divinity in everyone and everything. This alchemy of seeing is best captured by our practice adage, “How we see anything becomes how we see everything.”
 
Suddenly a tree is not a tree anymore in any sense that we have witnessed it before. It appears before us. There is an instant of mutual recognition. Life mirrors Life, in perfect reflection. “Authentic mirroring,” someone said, “can only call forth what is already there.”
 
The moment passes…the doldrums return. We feel the anguish of separation. That’s the signal to pick up recorder, pen and paper, to bear witness to that anguish in a letter of love… As the words form on paper, we’ve hoisted the sail…we are riding the solar wind, once more in the path of a light beam…

Gasshō,
Ashwini

October 2018 Musings

Blessed is the knowledge of emptiness.
- The Daily Recollection
 
It’s a beautiful day. The grass is wet but the sun feels hot under a clear blue sky; a brisk breeze ruffles the celadon waters of San Francisco Bay; the air hums with the sound of drums, bicycle bells, and barking dogs, the smoky smell of a picnic fire tantalizing the senses. Smiling people in colorful chitenge pants and skirts make their way to the amphitheater nestled under the soaring vermilion beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge. Precisely at noon, a microphone crackles and a familiar voice welcomes us to the Bridge Walk. “Collect your T-shirts, buy your raffle tickets, don’t miss out on those tasty veggie burritos!”  For almost sixteen years, Sangha has gathered, literally and virtually, at Chrissy Field to celebrate the work of the Africa Vulnerable Children Project.
 
It’s hard to believe we won’t do that again this year. This year we won’t have a “Bridge Walk” in the form it has always taken, but that doesn’t mean we have to forfeit a celebration! The recent launch of the 2018 Africa fundraising campaign is an invitation to Celebrate Courage, Generosity and Family.  But is it possible to celebrate without an occasion to celebrate?
 
Conditioned mind objectifies experience: I am excited about this; I am inspired by her writing; his approach disturbs me. Ego’s focus is content. Practice constantly challenges us to look beyond this conditioned obsession with content to live in process. Yes, that sunset is magnificent, but what registers wonder and awe at it? Yes, that exchange on the radio show was inspiring, but what perceives inspiration? Yes, gathering at Chrissy Field is celebratory, but what appreciates fun and oneness?
 
Why does Practice continually ask us to “locate,” via attention, the awareness that is aware? Could it be that a pre-requisite for a rendezvous with the Unconditional is a process rather than a content focus? This “Bridge Walk season without a Bridge Walk” might be a perfect opportunity to find out if it’s possible to be in wonder, awe, inspiration, connection and celebration without a sunset, a radio show or a party.
 
Good Wolf & Bad Wolf
“There is always a battle between the good wolf and the bad wolf,” says the old Cherokee woman.
“Which wolf will win?” asks the little boy.
“The one you feed,” replies the grandmother.
 
This incident was featured in the news:
Someone films a homeless man shaving on the train and posts the video online along with a rant that shames, judges and vilifies him. The post generates a storm of criticism and vitriolic hatred. Someone else investigates the “truth.” The actual story of the man on the train is heartbreaking. Word gets out about his true circumstances. A “go-fund-me” campaign is launched. An unbelievably large sum of money is raised in support of a maligned stranger on a train.
 
We always have a choice between compassion and cruelty, and it seems more often than not the choice is for cruelty. That’s not a statement of who we are as much as a statement of the extent to which we’re disconnected from our Authenticity. It requires a transformation of consciousness for compassion to be our first response in any moment. We have to train ourselves away from a perspective shaped by self-hate to an orientation that “sees goodness.”
 
That is the transformation that Living Compassion Africa helps make possible.
 
Living Compassion
 
I recently asked the Guide why the Africa Project was so important to our Practice. She responded with a parable from current events. A congressman, known for enacting extremely harsh punishments for transgressors of the law, is sent to jail. Suddenly he is having a direct experience of being subject to the very laws he helped put in place. Prison becomes his crucible of transformation.  He has the opportunity to see his fellow prisoners as people, to relate to their circumstances, their suffering, their humanity. Through this process of proximity, he discovers empathy and compassion, a perspective of non-separation from which kindness and generosity govern action.
 
Without something in our lives requiring us to step beyond our conditioned ego orientation, compelling us to be receptive to a radically different way of being than our own, we may be forever stuck in an “optical delusion of consciousness” that, as Einstein says, “restricts us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.” 
 
We engage with this community project in Kantolomba as a way of transcending some of the beliefs and assumptions that foster in us a sense of separation. Participating in the Africa Project, however one does it (donating, fundraising, volunteering, attending the Bridge Walk, following the blogs or reading the stories of life in this community) is a practice. It’s a practice of learning to be Living Compassion. It’s a practice that trains us to have compassion as our first response.

The Boddhisattva Is a Starfish
Many of us are familiar with the starfish story.
 
A storm…
A beach strewn with stranded starfish…
A little girl starts to throw them back into the sea.
Enter cynical bystander-- “There’s too many of them. You are never going to make a difference.”
A deflated little girl…
Suddenly she brightens.
She bends, picks up a starfish and throws it back. “It made a difference to that starfish,” she says.
The naysayer joins the little girl in her rescue operation.
 
Was the little girl there for the starfish or was the starfish there for her?
 
This year’s Bridge Walk campaign chronicles stories of a community’s bravery, willingness, determination and generosity. Not one community but two, the community in Kantolomba and the community of Sangha around the world. Or is it not two communities but one—all of us giving everything we can in pursuit of “transforming lives, ending suffering,” each working out our own salvation with diligence, together?
 
Are we there for the Project or is the Project there for us?
 
Practice
Check out the 2018 Bridge Walk campaign in support of the Africa Project today and have a direct experience of living compassion.

Gasshō,
Ashwini

August 2018 Musings

“That’s not you, that’s ego.”
 
We hear this phrase, or versions of it, in Practice conversations all the time. Perhaps the facilitator or Guide might say…
You’re not beating yourself up, the voices are beating you up.
You’re not afraid. Ego is afraid. In fact, ego is fear.
There is no you! “I” is the illusion of a self separate from Life.
 
Outside of the context of Practice, these statements sound nonsensical. “Who are you, that’s not you,” is precisely the sort of opening gambit to a maddening conversation one might have with a hookah-smoking caterpillar along the byways of Wonderland. But in the Wonderland of Awareness, “That’s not you, that’s ego” has a very practical application to ending suffering.
 
Once we get over our conditioned reaction to that statement, which could be many things…
 
Relief: Whew! I am so glad that “I” was not mean to my mom.
Confusion: What do you mean? Those unkind words came out of my mouth!
Frustration: You don’t understand. I am afraid.
Indignation: I think I know who I am, thank you very much.
Denial: I don’t want to be anything other than who I am.
 
...we can begin to explore the teaching.
 
“That’s not you, that’s ego” opens up several lines of inquiry.  We might ask:
What’s the ego? I thought ego was an illusion.
What’s the me that’s ego?
What’s the me that’s not ego?
 
Note the focus on “me.”
 
If we were philosophers, heading down this path of conjecture might be both interesting and fruitful. But as Zen Awareness Practitioners we’re trained not to “noodle.” Instead we inquire:  What are we being asked to pay attention to?
 
That’s ego.
“That’s not you, that’s ego” is indicating where attention is. We’re being informed that attention is on conditioned mind. “That’s not you, that’s ego” is an invitation to the most important movement in Awareness Practice: dis-identification. Dis-identification is moving from identification with conditioning to awareness of it.
 
Bringing awareness to conditioned mind allows us to comprehend its nature, its operating structure, and its components.
 
We notice the mind is dualistic, comparative, conditional, controlling, causative, negating, fearful, linear, interpretive, judgmental, confused, future and past oriented.
 
We see the truth of the opening line of the Dhammapada: Our life is shaped by the mind. We become what we think. It becomes increasingly clear how a sense of “me” emerges from a conversation in conditioned mind: I like puppies. I hate politics. You deserve to be unhappy. I’m worried about that presentation tomorrow. I can’t ask for what I want. You don’t get to tell me what to do.
 
We recognize that suffering is the result of identification. In Einstein’s words, identification produces a kind of optical delusion of consciousness through which a human being experiences oneself, one’s thoughts, one’s feelings as something separate from the rest. It dawns on us that our sense of dissatisfaction is actually accurate. When identified, we ARE sensing ourselves as less than all that is “us.”

 
With practice, we realize that identity is a process. The “me” that I habitually identify with is not “me.” It’s “ego-I.” When we comprehend “identification,” we’re free to explore the alternative— the experience of “not ego-I.”
 
Thou Art That
The fundamental issue with being the “me” that’s ego is that it’s reductive. It limits our experience of existence to a single process, and not a very joyful one at that. In the words of Jacob Needleman: The ego, our ordinary initiator of action, is an ephemeral construction, which in the unenlightened state of awareness represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. We are built to receive all the energies of creation in our consciousness and through the mysterious activity of watchful silence, to allow them to gestate and unfold in the fullness of time.
 
“That’s not you, that’s ego” opens the door to the spiritual, to the discovery of a state of being described by another set of pronouns: “Thou art That.” That thou art, cannot be articulated, but recognition of the mystical often finds expression through poetry or nonsense verse.
 
Listening to the rain
Dripping from the eaves,
The drops become
One with me.

~Dogen
 
Deep in the valley, a beauty hides:
Serene, peerless, incomparably sweet.
In the still shade of the bamboo thicket
It seems to sigh softly for a lover.

~Ryokan
 
Living from “Thou art That” requires, in Osho’s words, a “transmutation of consciousness.” In the crucible of Practice, we strip away the “you” that’s ego and prepare to receive “all the energies of consciousness.” A mysterious alchemy of context occurs as we oscillate between the experience of separation (ego) and the experience of non-separation (not-ego). Instead of attending to a limiting process that ignores All, our context switches to an All from which “I” can be seen as a limiting process.
 
“Thou art That” may feel like the illusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but we glimpse it each time we do the two-handed recording exercise. The final movement of listening to what the Mentor said is a portal to the recognition and acceptance of the Buddha within.
 
You
A delightful and unexpected benefit of context switching – from “you” to “All” – is that we discover the authentic human incarnation, the one that laughs, cries, loves, grieves, feels pain and loss, grows old, gets sick and dies. This is the “you” the Guide or facilitator is pointing to when they say, “Take care of her. She’s a really good person,” or “He really needs someone on his side.” If you did a double take when you heard these statements, you’re having the right experience. There IS more than one “person” being referenced: the she or he that needs some compassion and support AND that which can offer compassion and support.
 
When we get to this point in practice, we begin to feel like Alice in Wonderland. For in this Wonderland of Awareness there is so much more than we expect to the “you that’s not ego.” A human being, it turns out, defies further definition. In typical Zen fool fashion, we are required to consign the parsing of personal pronouns to the realms of irrelevance and get on with the more interesting task of being alive.
 
Now the response to the Caterpillar’s cryptic question “Who are you?” is a mischievous Cheshire cat grin that embodies the practitioner’s awareness in the moment. Am I a cat without a grin or a grin without the cat? “I don’t know” would be the only accurate answer, and I would know what I meant by that.
 
Practice Tip: Applying the Teaching
Laurie has a hard time going to bed on time…
 
You’re tired. You need to relax. Just one more episode. You can sleep in tomorrow.
That’s not you, that’s ego.
 
I really want to watch what happens next. It won’t take that much more time! I will be in bed soon.
Again, not “you.” It’s ego-I. 
 
Can’t believe I did it again. I really have no discipline.
Still not “you.” It’s ego-I.
 
Next time I’ll do better.
Maybe ego-I.
 
No, you won’t! You never keep your commitments.
Definitely not you. It’s self-hate!
 
I’m tired. I’m going to go to bed.
Ah, the authentic human incarnation?
 
Maybe it’s time to shut down the computer.
The still small voice?
 
Nope. Just one more episode.
Gotcha! That’s not you. That’s ego-I.
 
Ok. I’m going to process map how I’m talked into staying awake.
The authenticity that’s the awareness practitioner perhaps?
 
Well, I love you just the way you are, but if you want some help getting to bed on time, let’s work out how I can assist you with that.
How about the Mentor?

Gasshō,
Ashwini
 

July 2018 Musings

The poster is eye-catching. A rainbow unfurls between a smiling moon and a laughing sun. A tiny monk in black robes and sandals skips along merrily. In her hand is a can of paint and her brushstroke has just conjured the rainbow into existence.  A question floats below her feet: What Universe are you creating in this moment?
 
I pause to consider my answer.
 
My universe in that moment is not rainbows or starlit skies. It’s a red-hot rage, laced with toxic judgment. My impotence in the face of an act of bigotry has left me shaking. Tiny flames of hatred lick along my veins, the voices fanning them to a flash point of fury. Picking up the recorder, I take myself outdoors fuming and muttering… “If goodness is the essence of the Universe, why is there so little of it?”
 
Many people come to a spiritual practice seeking to make sense of a world that defies every attempt at comprehension. Few of us accept that the Universe’s mysteries are not ours to comprehend. It comforts me immensely that our spiritual tradition seldom answers questions. Instead, the answer to every question is to turn the lens of inquiry onto the very nature of inquiry. What asks? What seeks to know? What frames the question? Why are answers necessary?
 
We are disturbed about life, politics, the economic situation, the horror, the brutality, the sorrow in the world as well as in ourselves, and from that we realize how terribly narrowly conditioned we are. --J Krishnamurti
 
Conditioning can be defined as the limited orientation of “me,” an amalgamation of my political inclinations, my social and cultural beliefs, my religious upbringing, my personal experiences, preferences, opinions.  When something challenges “me,” I get upset. So here I am raging against a “world” that doesn’t conform to my idea, my expectation of how it should be.  
 
But isn’t that a false experience of the world? The contradiction between how I expect it to be and how it is, is still within that conditioned system. For example, my conditioned belief that tolerance is an important quality causes me to condemn as bigots people who are “intolerant.” The point is not whether “bigotry” exists as an absolute fact. The point is that in my world, it does. “I” (a conditioned orientation) divide the world into those “good” people who are tolerant and those “bad” people who are not. If attention is caught in that duality, I’m still not present to how the world is. I’m only present to the collision of opposites across an arbitrary definition of goodness that exists in my world.
 
Moreover, this collision of opposites becomes fodder for a conversation that obscures the ability to see that the “issue” is not with the “world,” and the extent of bigotry it does or does not contain, but with a conditioned point of view.
 
On this occasion of being discriminated against, the “conversation” went along these lines:
 
Why is there hatred, cruelty, violence, and meanness?
Why do I have to live in a world full of bigots? I don’t want to deal with bigotry. I don’t know how to do that. Why do I react to it so unskillfully?
Why do I have to be subject to intolerance when I don’t engage in the world that way? It’s so unfair!
I hate them. I don’t want to hate. I hate the way I feel now.
I didn’t ask to be part of a brutal, jealous, greedy, and fearful species, and yet I have no choice but to be a part of it.    
 
I stop at this staggering realization:
 
I am part of it.
 
When we look at what is taking place in the world, we begin to understand that there is no inner and outer process; there is only one unitary process, it is a whole, total movement, the inner movement expressing itself as the outer and the outer reacting again on the inner.
-- J Krishnamurti
 
The truth of the above statement is so obvious that most of us miss its implication and application. There really is no “world” out there, outside the world “I” am. The “world” is simply my projection of a spectrum of goodness, ranging from virulent hatred to lovingkindness, based on my conditioning. The “goodness” in my world in any moment is really up to “me.” My world is a dark room each time I react to “injustice” with judgment. Each time I indulge self-hate because I am judgmental, I perpetuate intolerance. In fact, any judgment of bigotry puts me firmly in the camp of also being a bigot – just a “good” one since I am intolerant only of intolerant people!
 
As practitioners, we can get caught up in the “injustice” out there and struggle with recognizing “Goodness” as an objective quality of Life that “shines through transparently.” Realizing that every human being is conditioned, is unconscious of that conditioning, and probably acting it out in ways that cause “harm” allows for the possibility of accepting the “world of human beings” as inherently egocentric rather than objectively good. That shift in orientation allows us not to fall for the bamboozle that there is something wrong with the world or with me! When I recognize that I am complicit in/am controlled by/unconsciously participating in this universal programming, I can finally come from a place of humility and truth when I move to “address harm.” As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes:

We hold the hardness of reality and the suffering of the world until it transforms us, knowing that we are both complicit in evil and can participate in wholeness and holiness. Once we can stand in that third spacious way, neither directly fighting or fleeing, we are in the place of grace out of which genuine newness can come.
 
Accepting the universality of conditioning is not condoning the actions that arise from unconsciousness. Bringing awareness to conditioning as a process does not mean we can’t address unconsciousness. It simply means that our best response when we do notice an identification with conditioning is not to go unconscious.
 
So what do I do when hatred, judgment, and resentment arise?
 
It’s important to cultivate the ability to be “present” to a conditioned reaction because the most revolutionary response to any conditioned reaction, especially hatred, is conscious compassionate awareness. Conscious awareness is a form of acceptance. If there is an acceptance of what is so, “feeling hate,” for just a moment, rather than immediately going to “there is something wrong with feeling hate” it is possible to see how hating is happening.  What creates hatred? Can we trace the source of the hating process to conditioning? Can we identify the feeling of frustration/anger/pent-up energy as simply an experience of being confined by a perspective so narrow that it cannot contain the many ways the world is?
 
As I walk the multi-use trail in the neighborhood, attempting to keep my attention on Unconditional Love & Acceptance instead of indulging the conditioned reactions, I notice a small wooden sign next to the paved road beckoning me into Summer Lane. I cross a wooden bridge that arches over a dry creek bed and emerge into a cul-de-sac of towering trees, nestled into which is a small park. The smell of wood chips is fresh, the lawn is surprising green and lush and a bench against a fragrant eucalyptus begs to be sat upon. I accept its invitation, leaning back against the worn wood and stretching my arms along the ample backrest. A soft cool breeze rustles the canopy of the oak trees, a mourning-dove coos, a golden ray of sunlight dances on my eyelids.
 
This quiet sparkle of beauty would have been a balm to my spirit if only I could ignore the freeway fifty feet away. Amid the trills of birdsong, evening traffic roars under the overpass. Sirens scream and the world vibrates in dissonance with the rumbling whine of a motorcycle engine. The acrid smell of tar and fumes intermingles with eucalyptus.
 
Something in me twists in anguish at this metaphor of existence; this juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty, hatred and divinity confuses me. “Meditate,” a voice whispers. I set a timer, close my eyes and take a few long deep breaths….
 
Exhale, one, motorcycle, bird song
Exhale, two, siren, bird song
Exhale, three, honking car, bird song…
 
The timer goes off. I get up from the park bench feeling a deep stillness. There is still a faint residue of something unresolved, a hankering for the world to reassure me of its goodness.   
 
And out of the blue, I hear the liquid notes of a bird song.
My world tilts.
 “That’s it,” I exclaim out loud. Not once did the bird stop singing. For all the “ugliness” in the neighborhood, the birds still sang.
Joy bubbles over
My heart opens.
Suddenly, my Universe is smiling moons, winking suns, and dissonant traffic.
There is no question anywhere about the Universe’s goodness as the realization hits that it’s always our choice whether or not to sing…
 
Gasshō,
Ashwini
 

June 2018 Musings

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”
--Alexandra K. Trenfor
 
If one is an awareness practitioner, then everything happening in one’s sphere is part of the curriculum. We’ve enrolled in a course titled “A Transformation of Seeing,” where training centers not on what we see but how we see. We’re taught to become stewards of the attention, which we soon come to realize is key to how we “perceive” the world. When attention is on the habitual beliefs and assumptions of conditioned thinking, our vision is clouded and our perception of life, distorted. When attention is on Awareness, we are present to Life as it is and perceive it with a startling immediacy and clarity. And of course, we suffer less! 
 
Lessons in this school of Life are seldom straightforward and the gradient of difficulty increases with practice. We have to surrender much of what we know to grasp the basic principles. And just when we’re frustrated beyond belief by our inability to comprehend the teachings, Life compassionately delivers a tiny hint or a giant clue about where to look, and sometimes even what we need to see.
 
Most recently, the hint arrived in the form of a song from the seventies musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Yes, it seems this classroom uses all kinds of visual aids and borrows from all religious traditions to educate!) Christ sings the following in the garden of Gethsemane, as he awaits his arrest and subsequent execution.
 
If I die what will be my reward?
I'd have to know, my Lord,
Why should I die?
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.
Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die.
You're far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why.
 
Alright, I'll die!
Just watch me die!
See how I die!
Then I was inspired.
Now, I'm sad and tired.
After all, I've tried for three years, seems like ninety.
Why then am I scared to finish what I started,
What you started –
I didn't start it.
God, thy will is hard,
But you hold every card.
I will drink your cup of poison.
Nail me to your cross and break me,
Bleed me, beat me,
Kill me.
Take me, now!
Before I change my mind.
 
Everyone finds themselves in their version of the Garden of Gethsemane at one time or another (perhaps multiple times) to face the inevitability of what has to come to pass to be free of suffering. In the face-off between ego-identity and Life, will the choice be for the crucifixion of ego-identity; will there be the willingness to unconditionally surrender “my will” so “thy will is done?”
 
No one willingly comes to the Garden of Gethsemane. Fortunately, the curriculum in Life’s school is constructed as a series of encounters that wears away “my will.” Over and over again, we are faced with circumstances that are not going “my way.” Over and over again, we are confounded by our inability to affect outcomes. Over and over again, we’re required to come to terms with our lack of agency. We rage, we grieve, we despair, we sulk, we retreat, we lash out only to be met by the compassionate silence of Holy Indifference.
 
There are few things worse than being identified with a thwarted ego railing against its inability to order the course of existence. We could easily spend years in a dark room, identified with being a victim of circumstances, angry at “my” lack of choice. But perhaps until we have experienced that level of suffering, that level of anguish at being that separate from Life, we won’t freely choose the Unconditional in every moment.
 
With practice, one principle becomes abundantly clear. Awakening is just not available on ego’s terms. It’s not a contest. We’re never graded. We are simply given as much time and as many opportunities as we need to surrender whatever version of “my will” that still resists “how it is.”
 
Growing up in India forges an assumption of faith that Gods and Goddesses exist to intercede on one’s behalf. Whether it’s to ensure an auspicious start to a business venture or secure the harmony of a marital partnership, there is always a power to be petitioned. It has taken years of Zen practice to “see” why no “God” interceded on Christ’s behalf to save him from dying on the cross.
 
The Buddha taught that we have one person to save, ourselves, and we should each work out our salvation diligently. As long as we’re holding out to be “saved,” we’re still identified with the illusion of separation; we’ve still not grasped the essence of our True Nature.  As it says in What You Practice Is What You Have:
 
What we are being guided to do is cease to identify with the ego-self, recognize our authentic nature, an expression of the Intelligence That Animates all… and from that place of conscious compassionate awareness embrace into unconditional love the incarnation that has believed itself to be that separate ego self. The movement from being mentored to being the Mentor is how a person can “work out your own salvation diligently.”
 
In a flash of intuitive grace, you find, at last, unconditional love and acceptance for the you that you were taught to see as a sinner, the despicable person that self-hate has beaten, and in that moment of acceptance, you realize that the sinner is the saint who has been teaching you how to love unconditionally.
 
In that moment of intuitive grace, it is possible to realize that we are the sinner, the saint, the unconditional love and acceptance, and the awareness that contains it all.”
 
Being met by Silence in the garden of Gethsemane, surrendering to the death of the ego, and not being saved from the crucifixion are all steps on the road to resurrection. It’s all a necessary part of the process.
 
Is it worth it? What’s the reward?
 
The Buddha smiles serenely.
 
In an old Zen story, a jolly, little figure dances in the marketplace handing out sweets to little children.
 
And a monk at a Monastery writes:
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, grass grows by itself.

May 2018 Musings

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. — Nathaniel Hawthorne.
 
It seems that Inspiration behaves much like Happiness. Actively pursued, it remains elusive. But if one is willing to be patient, it almost always reveals itself. In the stillness of meditation, while communing with a pine tree or in the expanded awareness of group discussions, it quietly signals its appearance. Over time, one becomes familiar with its call signature. Sometimes it’s a complete symphony that simply requires transcribing. Other times, it’s a single note with an invitation to pursue the thread of a melody. On a few occasions, there is an overture with a dissonant chord, an indication that the instrument requires tuning (some personal karmic knot needs untying) before the coda is revealed. In whatever form Inspiration arrives, writing the score is an exquisite process. Life calls and the instrument responds. In some magical way, whatever the encounter entails, polishing a sentence, wrestling for clarity, delighting in an insight, the faculty to “hear” Life as it is and the willingness to be played is continually enhanced.  
 
Musings articles can gestate for weeks on end or be dashed off in an afternoon. Life decides the length of the duet. But so far Inspiration seems to respect deadlines and schedules of delivery!
 
Until now.
 
Inspiration did not show up for April. On the afternoon of April 30, despite riding a tidal wave of practice insights all month, there is no Music. What now?
 
Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.
— Rumi
 
Someone at the Monastery recently said that the portal to transformation is the moment. What is going on now? What’s here?
 
Nothing. No inspiration. No article. Emptiness.
 
“Isn’t the knowledge of Emptiness blessed?” Inspiration whispers.
 
And the brass brand arrives with a flourish of trumpets.  
 
A day “late” according to conditioned mind. But the heart is busy dancing to the tuba.
 
What is the song?
 
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us
to see the soul.
— Rumi
 
What hubris concludes: “I” can’t hear it, so there is no music. A limited instrument perhaps? One that is conditioned only to pick up a narrow range of frequencies, to recognize the song of forms but not the symphony of Emptiness? Isn’t spiritual practice the alchemy that transforms the finite experience of “me” into the Infinite experience of All? On every occasion where there is no expected “outcome,” no information to make a decision, no insight when we are confused, no inspiration when the article is due, perhaps Life is compassionately inviting a re-calibration of capacity to a hitherto unregistered octave of Music?
 
The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.
— Rumi
 
In the practice of ever-expanding faith, devotion is a key ingredient. What if to hear the music, we must, in all circumstances, never lose faith that the Music is? If our practice is to choose the Unconditional unconditionally, isn’t a crisis of faith a gift from Life to practice expanding faith? When I don’t hear the Music, I train to recognize an opportunity to tune the instrument so that I can hear the Song.
 
The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together.
— Rumi
 
Ego rails at the nature of the “way of transformation.” But lovers of Music learn to surrender the limitation of “me” to participate in the Orchestra of Life. And then…
 
what sweet music…

Gasshō
Ashwini

The Rumi quotes are from the poem: "The Song of the Reed."  

March 2018 Musings

There is some kiss we want with 
our whole lives, the touch of 
spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!
–Rumi
 
Have you ever done the assignment to write the love letter you’ve always wanted to receive, and then to record and listen to it?
 
If you haven’t,
STOP
and do it right NOW,
before reading any further. 
 
To listen to this love letter is a powerful experience, perhaps because it’s the only time we get to see OURSELVES through the eyes of love. It’s a truly spiritual moment, an encounter with the Divine, the immediacy of Life witnessing Life and experiencing the wonder of recognition.
 
We write the love letter not just as a practice of “compassionate comprehension that dissipates delusion” but also to reveal what veils that clarity. What keeps us in identification with ego and “ignorance of our True Nature” is self-hatred. It has nothing loving to say about the “person” being written about. In fact, from its perspective, “not only are you unworthy of love, you don’t deserve to exist.”  It’s that strong a force of negation. Most of the time we’re unaware that these voices are subliminally coloring our perception of who and what we are or that the message they deliver is always “there’s something wrong with you.” 
 
If you don’t believe that self-hate is always operating under the radar, pay attention the next time someone says something nice to you. Do you find yourself deflecting the compliment, being self-deprecating, or acknowledging their words outwardly while listening to and believing something inside you reciting all the reasons why you don’t deserve appreciation? Isn’t it your experience that you can acknowledge that you are loved but you cannot say, without reservations or qualifications, that you’re completely lovable? 
 
That’s because you believe what self-hate says.
 
Anyone who has ever listened to and believed the voices of self-hate (and if you are human and have a pulse, you have!) knows what a devastating experience it is to be subjected to this constant hatefulness. Whether its flavor of the moment is mild or vicious, the message of “your” inherent worthiness is cruelly, dispassionately, and coldly delivered as the absolute, unequivocal “truth.”
 
Before we come to Practice, we believe the voices of self-hate and identify with the lies they spew. Even with practice, identification with what self-hate says is so ingrained that we find it almost impossible to “see” and claim our True Nature. We may catch ourselves in a rare moment of grace, feeling “good” about ourselves, but the experience of our goodness is temporary. In minutes, the verdict from that voice in our head, that “fantasy of authority,” has dissipated our expansive energy by pointing out that the only reason we received “approval, validation, love, acceptance” was because of what we did, said, offered, thought, or produced. Self-hate is quick to reinforce the conditional nature of our well-being and negate anything that reinforces our inherent goodness.
 
Everyone possesses Buddha-nature. Don’t demean yourself.  – Dogen.
 
Life is. All of Life is acceptable to Life. We could say the spiritual journey is developing the “seeing” that allows us to be present to Presence, unconditionally. Conditioning dulls our “sight.” Self-hate is more debilitating! It blinds us to our True Nature. It robs us of our ability to experience ourselves as a unique expression of the Divine. This is why we say, “spiritual practice begins when the beatings stop.” As long as we’re willing to entertain even an iota of self-hate, there is one element of existence that is outside the circle of acceptance: “You.”
 
This is why “going beyond self-hate” is the foundation of the practice of recognizing our Buddha Nature. With practice, we’re usually able to discern egocentricity in action. We can even be present to the Buddha Nature of all things.  But accepting our intrinsic purity is difficult unless we let go the self-hate that say’s there is something wrong with “you” for having an ego. This is why we practice Unconditional Love and Acceptance.  We embrace in Conscious Compassionate Awareness every aspect of the human being, including what sometimes identifies with ego. We widen the circle of acceptance until it is ALL inclusive and our intrinsic wholeness and goodness is not in question. This makes us less susceptible to the habit of identifying with ego.
 
Love is a mode of knowledge.  - Aldous Huxley
 
It is only when we see with the eyes of love that we can be present to what is. It’s a glorious process to discover and embody the specificity of Buddha-nature manifesting in form. What I am becomes a clarion call for Life. Instead of identifying with and being negated by self-hate, and therefore denying what is, we practice being in the joyous process of affirming All that is us while honoring the individual expression of All in “you” and “me.”
 
 
Happy Birthday Cheri
We celebrate the Guide’s seventy-fifth birthday on April 18. Her gift to us has been an invitation to drop self-hate and experience ourselves the way Life sees us. The invitation is embodied in this song, based on Cheri’s book There Is Nothing Wrong With You, written and sung by Trish Bruxford-Coligan:
 
What would you do if you knew you could not fail? 
How free would you be, how deep would you love, dear?
 
What would you hear if you listened to your beautiful heart?

 
What if you lived with your soul as your pilot?
 
What skies would you fly, how wide would you open?

 

What would you sing if you gave voice to your beautiful heart?
Self-punishment does not lead to self-compassion. 
Self-compassion opens to self-compassion
 
Opens to compassion for all
 
Opens to love

Be gentle with you
 
Who would you be if you came out of hiding? 
What name would you claim; will you rise for your entrance.

How would you dance to the music of your beautiful heart?



What if you bathed in an ocean of roses? 
What if you swam in a river of joy?
 
What if you breathed in the notion of forgiveness?
 
What if you opened to an ancient flow of Love?


 
 
What if?
 
Practice:
Do one of these practices on April 18, the international day of no self-hate.
 
Practice not listening to and believing the voices of self-hate.
Stop identifying with the “self” that is hated.
Embrace in compassion all that is deemed unacceptable about “me.”
Cultivate an intimate relationship with the Wisdom, Love, and Compassion that is our True Nature and practice “looking to it” for what is so.
Choose Unconditional Love in each moment to calibrate our vision to “true seeing.”
 
Gasshō
Ashwini
 

February 2018 Musings

“If you don’t see God in the next person you meet, it’s a waste of time looking for God further.” Gandhi
 
Someone in the Sangha called into the radio show recently and asked the Guide an extraordinary question. “Do you have a meditation that would help me keep my heart open when I encounter someone who I know is physically abusive to another person?”
 
Namo prajna paramita hridaya! Homage to the wisdom in the heart.
 
Only the heart would ask this question, for only the heart operates from that ancient law, “Hate cannot heal hate, only Love can heal hate.” Only the heart compassionately comprehends a surfeit of ego as an absence of love and seeks a meditation to offer love. Only the heart wisely takes responsibility for the one experience it can affect, its own, and joyfully embraces its “task to seek and remove any barriers” to loving unconditionally. 
 
Confusion arises when we leave the wisdom of the heart to consult conditioned mind about love in inter-action. Now we’re faced with questions such as:
 
I can see that I want my heart to be open.
I can see that judgement closes my heart.
But how can I love someone who inflicts harm?
 
“Don’t make it about him,” responds the Guide. “You’re the one that wants to have an open heart.  You can always choose Unconditional Love.”
 
It is important to note that the Guide did not suggest the caller “Love him Unconditionally.” As a matter of fact, the guidance was delivered precisely how we’re to practice it:
 
Don’t make it about him.
You can choose Unconditional Love.
 
This guidance allows us to unlock a conundrum that every spiritual aspirant “looking for God” encounters. It’s not often that we run into someone or something and “see God” in them. More often than not, interactions with “people” are encounters with ego. Even if I think I am really centered, somehow the ego-in-you triggers the ego-in-me and I’m left feeling “disconnected from Presence.” The heart “feels” closed. Love is less available. Loving the person who triggered me (by saying or doing something mean, hateful, unjust, unloving, unconscious, prejudiced) despite what they said, appears to be beyond my ability. One feels somewhat defeated by the injunction to choose Unconditional Love because the conditioned interpretation of this suggestion is that “I must see God in him/her/them” and “I” can’t. Fortunately, as the Guide pointed out, we don’t have to. We are told not to make it about him/her/them!
 
Let’s explore this further.
 
We’re deeply conditioned to believe that love requires an object. I love my aunt, babies, pet, flowers, moonbeams, warm spring afternoons, sports, fast cars, spicy food, chocolate, redwood trees. I feel a certain way around these objects so I conclude the object is the cause of my sense of acceptance, tenderness, connection, love of beauty, peace, the feeling of aliveness, sweetness, awe. I don’t always feel this way. In fact, sometimes I feel irritated, urgent, impatient, out of control, judgmental, inadequate, violent. And what makes me feel those things? Well, blame that “object” again. For if love needs an object, so does its corollary, hate. I hate/dislike/am averse to bad driving, long lines, the idiocy of customer service call trees, early morning meetings, mean people, irrational bosses, my uncle’s politics. It’s those pesky people, places, and circumstances that define my experience. In fact, I seem to exist in a state of reactivity, a perpetual victim of my circumstances. What I think/say/feel/do is based on those objects that trigger feelings of liking or disliking.
 
When we come to Awareness Practice, we’re introduced to a subjective orientation to Life. We’re invited to explore the possibility that “my experience” is really a product of where the attention is. The attention can be on the process of conditioned mind, which makes the entire world an object experienced by an illusory separate “self,” OR on Conscious Compassionate Awareness that experiences existence as is.
 
If attention is on conditioned mind, “Life” is experienced through conditioned mind. Conditioned mind, to borrow a definition from Franciscan Richard Rohr, is the “small, binary, dualistic mind which strips things down to two choices and then usually identifies with only one of them.” In our Practice, we describe conditioned mind as the process that creates the illusory world of opposites. It divides “what is” arbitrarily into endless dualities: good/bad, right/wrong, moral/immoral, divine/profane. Through this either/or lens, tinted by a specific conditioning/karma, “ego-I” takes a “position” on one or other side of the duality in REACTION to whatever is arising. Implicitly, taking a position is rejecting the other side. Might we call this process “JUDGEMENT”? Moreover, taking a “position against” reinforces a sense of self, defined by what “I” oppose, avoid, resist, condemn. Isn’t it interesting to see that “self” is always defined RELATIVE to the “other”? How I am is BECAUSE of how the “other” is. Is it surprising then that, when identified with conditioned mind, we attribute the cause of “my” experience/feeling/behavior” to the other?
 
If we contemplate the caller’s situation from within conditioned mind, judgement is inevitable, love is just one side of the love/hate duality, “my experience” is a function of “his” behavior and my choices are dualistic: love him OR judge him and feel bad.
 
When the Guide suggests not making it about “him,” she’s encouraging us to stop attending to the process of conditioned mind that is object oriented and therefore judgmental, conditional, and dualistic.  The encouragement is to bring the attention instead to Awareness. From this non-separate perspective, there is the ability to “see two human beings” (Life in form), attending to conditioning and suffering. We call this “seeing” COMPASSION. There is awareness that there is “no person” to judge or love, just the process that creates judgment, self and other. What “sees” this is Conscious Compassionate Awareness, the “God in me.” Perhaps a way to reframe Gandhi’s quote is along the lines of “If you cannot see the God in you in the next person you encounter, look no further.”
 
When we practice choosing Unconditional Love, we’re not practicing “loving the person.” We’re practicing choosing the Impersonal, that which is not ego/taking it personally/making it about “me, him, her, she, them, it.”  The choice then is not to love him or judge him. The choice is always conditioned mind or Presence.
 
It takes a lot of practice not to identify with the karmic programming and react with judgement, condemnation, and hatred. It’s not easy and is often painful (for the ego), and we sometimes wonder what keeps us “looking for God/Buddha Nature” in the next person we encounter. Could it be that, as we keep practicing, there is a dawning realization that Intelligence enjoys seeing Itself and nothing but seeing it All as Intelligence will ever be wholly satisfactory to It?
 
Practice Suggestion:
For the next 48 hours, practice being in Gassho.
Gassho means your heart and my heart are one. When we bring our hands together we embody the reconciliation of all opposites. We bow to the “God we see.”
 
Set a timer to practice Gassho several times each day or practice doing Gassho each time you walk through the door or see the color red. As you bring your hands together drop into the wholeness of heart wisdom, the experience of the joy of Intelligence knowing Itself.
 
Gasshō
Ashwini
 
Note: Deep Gassho to the Open Air caller who inspired this Musings. The content of the call is being used to illustrate a teaching. No projection on the caller or their process is intended.

January 2018 Musings

Pay attention to everything.
Believe nothing.
Don’t take anything personally.
 
We’re offered these guidelines when we first begin a sitting practice. For many people, the last of the three tenets can be the most challenging to apply.
 
Don’t take anything personally?
Is that even possible?
Isn’t everything personal?
 
I worked out yesterday. My body is sore.
I have so much to do. My mind is busy.
I find technology challenging, customer service annoying, the political situation outrageous. That’s my experience.
I believe in free speech. That’s my position.
I love pizza. That’s my preference.
I don’t want to get involved. That’s my choice.
You’re wrong.  That’s my opinion.
 
Whatever is happening in my world involves “me” after all. How can it not be personal?
 
When we start an inquiry such as this, old Zen stories come in handy. Here is one of those not-so-old stories, retold with some poetic license.
 
A monk is sent to town on a routine errand. It turns out that the errand is not routine! Having no way to consult her teacher on his preferred course of action, she has to make a choice. It’s a tough call, and after sitting with it the monk does what she thinks best. She returns to the Monastery, fully aware that her teacher might not agree with how she executed her task.
 
And sure enough, he doesn’t.
 
Late in the afternoon, as she works in the garden, reveling in the last few rays of winter sunlight, she sees her teacher huffing and puffing up the hill. She knows she is in for it! His face is red with exertion and irritation! As soon as he is within earshot, he makes his displeasure known, loudly, explicitly, and clearly.  Everyone at the Monastery can hear him!
 
The monk stands silently gazing downwards, her heart pounding. She could defend herself. She had done her best. There were no other options. As his voice swirls around her, she becomes aware of another voice, a still small voice, clear as a bell, reminding her of her practice vow: “I choose peace and calm.”
 
When her irate teacher stops talking, the monk bows deeply, and without saying a word, calmly returns to her work.
 
The teacher turns on his heel and bristles down the hill. Wait, is there a barely perceptible smile playing about his lips?
 
Let’s project, from our experience of situations such as this, what might be going on in the monk’s mind during her teacher’s tirade. The voices would be repeating her defense and justifying her actions.
 
“I did my best.”
“Really, it was a considered choice. I thought it through!”
“If you only knew the details.”
“Just give me a chance to explain!”
“Why does he get so upset?”
“How is it fair that he gets to act out his anger on me?”
“What’s the matter with me? Will I ever get it right?”
“Will he ever approve of me?”
“I don’t like being yelled at.”
“I hate this place. I need to get out of here.”
 
In the voices’ version of the story, it’s all about the monk being wrongly accused and unjustly treated. But is there another version of what happened? Could it be this?
 
There is an errand
The errand got done one way.
There might have been another way to do the errand.
Lots of energy in a body!
Body moves up the hill.
Words are said.
Monk bows.
 
Sounds like a Zen poem, doesn’t it? Why Zen? Perhaps because what’s absent in this version of the narrative is “me,” “I,” “you”, “mine,” “he,” “she,” “they.”  Zen teaches us a way of viewing the world where there is clarity about “what is” as a set of processes. There is “no self” in sight!  
 
If we
pay attention to everything (tenet 1)
believe nothing (tenet 2)
we begin to see a process in operation that imposes “personhood” on anything that arises in life (we close in on tenet 3!). Ego, we could say, is a process of personalization, an ability to interpret existence in terms of “personal pronouns.” The Buddha termed this faculty of the mind “I-consciousness.”  We call it egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. For the purposes of this article, we could label the process “taking it personally!”
 
It seems everyone does it. It’s like a default setting, a habitual way to make sense of the world. But it’s not the only way.
 
It is possible to be in a body, be conscious, feel vitally alive, and participate in existence without identifying with the ego process. This is the possibility demonstrated by the monk in the story. Instead of believing the voices’ version of the story, which made it about “her,” she practiced not taking “anything personally.” She chose to have her attention on something other than that which personalizes. Instead of suffering from feeling hurt, betrayed, criticized, disappointed, and inadequate, and then living in resentment of her spiritual mentor, she was able to choose peace and calm!
 
Not taking anything personally opens up a whole new world, described by two magical words: Unconditional Love. Choosing Unconditional Love is attending to something other than ego. When we stop attending to the limiting orientation of the personal, we are free to experience the expansiveness of the Universal, an awareness of how things are where the divine, the human, and the ego co-exist peacefully.
 
Nirvana?
 
Yes! That might be what the Buddha was talking about.
 
Gasshō
Ashwini

December 2017 Musings

Like many before it, this article begins with an Old Zen Story.
 
After ten years of training, Tenno achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, "Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?" 
"Yes," Tenno replied. 
"Tell me," the master continued, "did you place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the right?"
Tenno did not know the answer, and realized that he had not yet attained full awareness.

So he became Nan-in's student and studied under him for ten more years.
--From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
The ego, our ordinary initiator of action, is an ephemeral construction, which is formed by factors operating far beneath the level of the Source and which in an unenlightened state of awareness represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. In other words, because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call action or doing cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energies in our bodies and actions.” --Jacob Needleman
 
As Zen Awareness Practitioners, we are on a quest for “compassionate comprehension that dissipates delusion.” We recognize that we don’t see the world as it is, that our view is distorted, and that distortion causes suffering. The path to freedom requires us to develop a capacity to see differently.  Direct experience, seeing what is, as it is, entails surrendering what distorts how we see.
 
As the old Zen story illustrates, the tricky part of a practice of awareness is that we can never assume we have attained “full awareness.” What distorts never stops distorting, and wavering attention brings “delusion” back into the picture. When that happens, not only are we not seeing how things are (where did I put that umbrella?), we’re no longer aware that our seeing is “distorted.” 
 
On such occasions, Practice, like Nan-in, steps in and asks a question that reveals an unexamined assumption that prompts us to look again, perhaps deepening our commitment to a practice of inquiry. The purpose of a practice of inquiry is to be in a process of inquiry. We never actually “know” anything so we practice paying attention to everything in every moment. In some mystical way, by questioning the “how” of what we “know,” we’re always in the “not knowing,” which is the experience of thisherenow.
 
So here is a place of inquiry, a Nan-in-esque question from Practice:
 
“Have you really looked?”
 
In many groups, in coaching interactions, in Socratic email classes, etc., we bring our “process” to the Guide/facilitator, asking for the next place to look. The prerequisite to being facilitated is to have explored our experience. We describe what we’ve seen so that we can be assisted to become aware of what we’ve not yet seen. But do we do our part? Do we really look? 
 
Many of us, especially those who have been around Practice for some time and have assimilated the language of practice, tend to describe our experience in practice terms.
 
I am watching this karma to…
Conditioning said
Ego was screaming at the situation…
The Mentor said…
I could have felt bad but I redirected my attention
I chose unconditional love instead and all was well…
 
But wait a minute! Are we really practicing awareness, seeing what is, as it is? Are we really paying attention to our experience?  Or have we stopped “looking” because we “know” and can describe what we’re experiencing in practice terms?  Have we lost the information in the moment because the labels “ego,” “conditioned mind,” “self-hate,” and even “Mentor” have obscured our ability to be in inquiry?
 
This is where we come back to the one rule: The point of paying attention is
to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer
                        SO WE CAN DROP THAT AND END SUFFERING.
 
We can suspect we have stopped looking when we bring the same “process” to guidance over and over again. For example:
 
I am watching this process: I want to meditate, then I listen to a voice that distracts me from keeping my commitment to meditate, then I don’t meditate, then I feel bad for being an awful spiritual practitioner. But then it drops in that as a Sangha we gave up feeling bad, and so I pick up my recorder and talk to the Mentor and redirect my attention to Unconditional Love. I know what resists what’s good for me is ego, and ego is not me. And then I recommit to meditation. And I still feel so much resistance to meditation that I don’t meditate.
 
How can this person not be practicing awareness? Clearly, they’re aware of the voices and what they say, they’re aware of the battering cycle, they know not to “feel bad,” they have an R/L practice, can redirect their attention to Unconditional Love and are committed to meditation. How much closer to enlightenment can you get, you might ask!
 
It’s not that the person isn’t practicing awareness, it’s that they are still suffering.
 
If I am suffering because I get talked out of meditating and I am aware of how I’m talked out of meditating, it’s not sufficient to report on the process that stops me from meditating, even if I do so in the most accurate of practice terms! I may be paying attention to how ego causes me to suffer, but I have not attained “full awareness” because I’m not using awareness of “how I am caused to suffer” to “wake up and end suffering.”
 
The inquiry has to continue. Now I become curious…
 
How can meditating happen? How can I pay closer attention so that I am present when the thought arises that distracts me, but I sit down and meditate anyway? What more can I see about this process? What is being kept in place by this suffering? What do I need to let go that I am still clinging to? How can I get to loving the human so much that I’m willing to do what it takes to take care of her/him more than the ego payoff I get from not meditating? Can I train myself to sit on the cushion whenever I remember that I have not meditated, even if it is in the wee hours of the morning and I really don’t feel like getting out of bed? Is that even possible? Why am I not open to that? 
 
If we are exploring these questions in guidance, can you imagine what rich conversations we could be having about “not having full awareness”?
 
When Practice challenges us in this way, it’s not to discourage us or belittle our efforts. It’s simply to recall us to what we are setting out to attain, which is nothing less than ending suffering. When it’s brought to our attention that we cannot state whether the shoes are to the left or right of the umbrella, we have a choice: to humbly recommit to another ten years of study or remain in the process of creating and clinging to beliefs.
 
There is no “wrong choice.” But there is only one choice that leads to ending suffering.
 
Will we make that choice?
 
We get to find out, if we are curious.

Gasshō
Ashwini

November 2017 Musings

Zen stories always challenge our conditioned notions. This one is no exception.
 
Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a famous Zen teacher named Seisetsu. His talks were so well attended that it became necessary to build a bigger school to accommodate the students who wished to train with him.
 
A very rich merchant decided to make a large donation to the building project.
 
When he offered Seisetsu a bag of gold, the teacher said: “I will accept it.”
 
The merchant was affronted. “Not a word of thanks?  No acknowledgement of the generosity of the gift?”
 
“In that sack is ten thousand ryo!” the merchant hinted.
 
“Yes,” said the teacher. “You told me so before.”
 
“Even though I’m wealthy, that’s a lot of money,” said the merchant.
 
“So you’ve told me,” responded the teacher.
 
“Someone could live for many years on that amount of money,” said the merchant.
 
“Do you want me to thank you?” asked the teacher
 
“You should,” responded the merchant.
 
“Why should I thank you? The giver should be thankful!” responded the teacher.
 
Those of us familiar with Zen stories can instantly see the gift in the teacher’s response. By not following social convention, the teacher invites us to examine the conditioned beliefs around giving and receiving that keep us identified with an illusion of a self separate from Life.
 
We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. -- Thornton Wilder
 
How often have we been confounded when our generosity, thoughtfulness, sincerity, or devotion go unacknowledged? This lack of validation may provoke disappointment, grief, resentment, even despair, leading us to questions such as, “Why do I care? What’s the point anyway? Does anything really matter?” The original impulse to give appears to meet an indifference that leaves “me” feeling rebuffed and isolated. As spiritual practitioners, anything that wakes us up to a “feeling of separation” is a signal for inquiry. “Why is the acknowledgement so important? What drives this need to be thanked?”
 
Presumably, the merchant was wealthy. He had all the gold in the world and could therefore afford to be generous. But had he received the abundance? If he were present to all that he had, would he not feel so fulfilled that his giving would be an act of gratitude and not an act of need?
 
Identification with the illusion of a self separate from Life aligns our attention with what is lacking. We set out to acquire what we feel we don’t have, and no matter what we accumulate – stuff, relationships, trophies, thank-yous—we’re never satisfied. The hungry ghost always wants more. Not only does egocentricity prevent us from awareness of what we have, it precludes us from recognizing that “my” wealth, good fortune, and prosperity were given to me. “I” didn’t achieve, earn, or deserve it. Yes, it might all be for me, but it’s not “mine.”  We’re all revolving doors for Life’s generosity, able to give and receive life’s abundance, and if gratitude is due, perhaps it might be offered to That Which Is Perpetually Generous! 
 
If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, it will be enough. -- Meister Eckhart
 
The point of the story is not that there is something wrong with saying thank you. In fact, a gratitude practice is one of the simplest and most profound of spiritual disciplines. Cultivating an attitude of appreciation widens the aperture of awareness. It’s a specific and effective way to combat egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate’s orientation of something wrong/not enough. If we’re looking through a lens of appreciating what works, what we have, all that we’ve been given, what we love, what’s beautiful, what delights us, we’ve circumvented the process of suffering that keeps us in want, lack, and ignorance of All. If we’re present, it’s not possible not to feel blessed, and feeling blessed spills over into gratitude that wants to give. Then we have a sense of what the teacher in the story meant when he says, “the giver should be thankful.”
 
Suffering happens when we’re bamboozled into leaving the feeling of abundance to long for a validation of “my” giving.  Ego mutates an act of gratitude into a desire for acknowledgement. We leave the process of having to look for what we already have. Now the focus is on lack, not abundance.  What a coup for ego!
 
Gracious acceptance is an art -- an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving. -- Alexander McCall Smith
 
Whether it is receiving from Life directly or from Life through another human being, ego can make it about “me.” How often have we rejected, negated, denied, or deflected what has been given? “I can’t accept that! I don’t deserve so much. You shouldn’t have! It’s too much! I really didn’t need for you to do that. I will never be able to repay you for it. That’s not what I asked for. This isn’t what I want. If only I had X instead of this...”
 
Receptivity requires surrender of ego. We have to be empty of “me” to receive, or as C.S.Lewis states, even “omnipotence cannot give.” This attitude of receptivity was modeled by the teacher in the story, even though the merchant was too identified to recognize it. In accepting the merchant’s gift, the teacher acknowledges what gives, rather than the “person” giving it.
 
When we aren’t giving egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate any attention, we are receiving what Life gives. This is the greatest act of thanksgiving.
 
Go to your fields and your gardens,
and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower, but it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
and to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
and to both, bee and flower,
the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.
-- Kahlil Gibran
 
It seems to be the “human” condition to long for validation, appreciation and acknowledgement. But that isn’t the human experience, it is the ego experience. As humans, not only do we have the capacity to experience ourselves as separate from life, we are also built to recognize our oneness with the Wisdom, Love and Compassion that animates all. We too can participate in the dance of Life, like the bee and the flower. When the illusion of separation falls away, we are fed by the fountain of Life, and fulfilled, we give our thanks as “messengers of love.”
 
If gratitude wants to give, what message of love will represent your celebration of thanksgiving this month? R/L

Gasshō
Ashwini

October 2017 Musings

Someone recently asked me what I mean when I say “my practice.” This inspired an inquiry into what practice is. What do we practice as Awareness Practitioners?
 
The Buddha taught that it’s possible to end suffering and live in compassion and goodness. That sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it?  But without a way to do that, a process that moves us from where we are to what the Buddha teaches is possible, it remains just that... an idea.
 
Practice moves us from idea to “actuality.”
 
As Martha Graham put it:
 
“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes a shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”
 
The “perfection desired” in almost all spiritual traditions is the experience of the Unconditional. Both words – perfection and desire -- are “loaded” in the spiritual sense! But let’s explore inviting the “perfection desired” in our tradition.
 
The word Zen originates from an ancient Sanskrit root that means to “see.” Suffering, as the Buddha taught, is a result of ignorance – “avidya,” interpreted in one way to mean an error of sight or an inability to see clearly. Awareness (consciousness, comprehension, recognition, insight, cognizance, realization) could be described as a way of “seeing.” As Zen Awareness Practitioners we train to see and see through what keeps us in an orientation of looking for what’s wrong, what’s not, what’s lacking, what’s unacceptable. As “athletes of Awareness,” we invite the experience of the Unconditional through the practice of accepting the perfection of what IS.
 
Attention on conditioned mind results in and reinforces an orientation of something wrong/not enough. To invite the “perfection desired” we are encouraged to focus on “I choose Unconditional Love.”  If we are wondering at the choice of Unconditional Love for our mantra (a device that stills the mind) these words of William Law may guide us to an answer. “Love is infallible; it has no errors for all errors are a want of love.” If our quest is to “see” perfection, then perhaps Unconditional Love is the lens best suited to never “see errors.” A mantra does not work just because we repeat it. To see through the eyes of love requires nothing short of a transformation of “seeing.”  This is what Zen Awareness Practice offers.
 
Until we come to a spiritual practice, and perhaps even then, we seek the elusive perfection of the Unconditional outside ourselves. Someone or something out there will deliver our happiness on a platter. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh acerbically commented on the obsession with the dream of fulfillment by the perfect other thus:  “We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. You have fallen in love (with someone or something) because you cannot be alone. You were trying to avoid yourself somehow or other. All your activities can be reduced to one single source. The source is that you are afraid of your aloneness. Everything else is just an excuse. The real cause is that you find yourself very alone.”
 
Every conditioned human being experiences this aloneness, this “absence” of something inexplicable. With practice, we learn that a sense of separation is what it “feels like” to be identified with ego, with aloneness. The lesson of practice is that identification with the illusion of a self separate from Life obfuscates the “perfection desired.”
 
Intuitively, we recognize that to be “alone” is to be in intimate relationship with the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. To numb, forget, avoid, escape “me,” we pursue all kinds of distractions including relationships, only to be disappointed over and over again. Seeking the Unconditional while identified with the “self” is an “error of sight.”  We are doomed to remain forever thirsty if we keep looking for water in a mirage. Once we see the mirage for what it is, an “optical illusion,” we have the ability to stop looking for water where we are unlikely to find it.
 
This is perhaps why we begin Practice with the tools to identify the process of self-hate and then dis-identify from it. What  hates itself, that which is always looking for what’s wrong with “me, with “you” with “life,” denies the Unconditional with every breath. It dismisses the perfection of what is with every thought, word and action.
 
It isn’t enough to practice tuning out a hateful voice in the head. We are so programmed to receive negativity and judgment that we have to retrain ourselves to receive encouragement, kindness and compassion. And so we cultivate a relationship with the Mentor. The practice of being in communication with Wisdom, Love and Compassion gradually shifts our orientation from “something wrong/something lacking” with me to feeling accepted for what we are.  The Mentor is our first experience of the Unconditional. No matter what the voices say about who we are and what we have or haven’t done, and how badly we did what we did, we are loved. Self-hate condemns, the Mentor accepts and in the embrace of Unconditional Acceptance we get a glimpse of True Nature, of the conscious compassionate awareness that was obscured by a false identification with “ego.”
 
What can happen with this practice of turning to the Mentor repeatedly is illustrated in this whimsical Zen story.
 
A famous Zen teacher was once asked how she came to Buddhism.
 
“I lost my parents when I was six years old,” she narrated. “I was left in the care of an aunt who was the head cook at a Monastery. Being extremely busy all day, my aunt had no time to give me any attention. On the day I arrived, my aunt took me to the meditation hall and introduced me to the smiling Buddha on the altar. “
 
“This is your friend and mentor,” my aunt said. “Do you see that the Buddha’s hands rest in his lap as a perfect oval? As long as how you are and what you do does not anger the Buddha, his hands will stay that way. If you do something that you feel deserves the Buddha’s forgiveness, you can check the Buddha’s hands. They will no longer make a perfect circle. If you make the Buddha angry, make sure you help someone or assist in the work at the Monastery as a sign of repentance.”
 
The teacher laughingly recalled the many times she had tended flowers or swept the porch or helped in the kitchen to make up for childhood transgressions.
 
“Each time, I would run to check if the Buddha was angry,” she said.” But I never found his hands in anything but a perfect circle.”
 
Many in the audience were appalled at the way the aunt had taken advantage of a young child’s innocence. One man stood up and said, “But it was a stone Buddha! The fingers would never have moved. I don’t approve of using superstitious falsehood to raise children. Didn’t you feel resentment towards your aunt for lying to you and stuffing your head with this nonsense?”
 
The teacher looked at him with compassion. “My aunt would never tell me a falsehood. When I discovered that the Buddha’s fingers never moved, I learned that the Buddha always forgives. No matter what sin or weakness, he was never angry. I came to realize that I didn’t want the Buddha to have to forgive and forgive and forgive. And so I learned to live in a way that he would not need to forgive. It was such a support during subsequent crises and temptations. That’s what my aunt wanted me to learn from the unmoving fingers.” -- adapted from Meetings of Cloth and Stone
by Trevor Leggitt
 
The Mentor is our experience of the Stone Buddha whose fingers are always in a perfect circle. Being in relationship with the Mentor assists us to stop identifying ourselves with that which “needs to be forgiven.” In this radical “circle of acceptance,” we learn to “see” the human being not as the “flawed and worthless self” that stars in the narrative of self-hate but as, in the words of Teresa of Avila, “how God sees us.” We learn to see with the eyes of the Unconditional.
 
As William Blake said: “If the doors of perception are cleansed, we can see everything as it is.” In that clarity of sight, we may on some occasion glance down at our own hands and notice them in the perfect circle of the cosmic mudra. Ah! The joy of attaining the “perfection desired.”
 
Gasshō
Ashwini
 

August 2017 Musings

Not Feeling Bad: Take 2
 
A Modern Zen Tale
A practitioner comes to Center where she practices. On her way inside, she notices that the umbrella in the garden, where visitors to the center sit between activities, is not in its usual place.
 
Entering the Hall, she notices the umbrella lying in a corner. “Why has it not been put up?” she wonders. “Perhaps they are short-staffed. Perhaps I can do it after class.”
 
When class is over, the practitioner picks up the umbrella and takes it outside. A monk walks up, bows and says, “It’s too windy to put up the umbrella.”
 
The practitioner bows in return and brings the umbrella in.
 
During meditation, the conversation starts!
 
“You violated a basic guideline of practice! You made an assumption!”
“You should have asked whether or not assistance was required before you rushed out to be helpful!”
“How do you feel when someone assumes you didn’t do your task and tries to do it for you?”
“Why do you always project that someone needs your help?”
“Why do you have to fix everything you see?"
“So helpful! So NOT!”
“You might just have insulted the monk whose job it is to put up the umbrella.”
“Ugh, everyone will see that you can’t keep the privileged environment. After so many years of practice!”
 
Fortunately, the practitioner had given up “feeling bad” and could see these “accusations” as the voices of self-hate. In coming back to the breath, and redirecting attention to “I choose Unconditional Love,” there was a moment of clarity.  The still small voice kindly said, “Next time, ask first.”
 
++++++++++++++++++++++
 
The way out is to become more conscious. What does it mean, “to become more conscious”? To begin with, becoming more conscious means to start looking for the truth for ourselves, instead of blindly allowing ourselves to be programmed, whether from without or by an inner voice within the mind, which seeks to diminish and invalidate, focusing on all that is weak and helpless. To get out of it, we have to accept the responsibility that we have bought into the negativity and have been willing to believe it. The way out of this, then, is to start questioning everything.
-- David Hawkins
 
When we “come to” after being unconscious, we are in a moment of pure awareness, a moment when Life has access to us. If we stay present in this moment, an insight might drop in that assists in untying a karmic knot of suffering. Life might offer helpful information, as it did to the practitioner in our modern Zen tale: “Next time, ask first.”
 
A practice of inquiry and pure attention
Guidance always points to where to look. As Awareness Practitioners, engaging in a process of inquiry about what is suggested in guidance or through an “insight” is always a good step. The practitioner at Center took Life’s recommendation to heart. “Ok. I am to ask first… How am I going to remember that and keep it in awareness? Perhaps a recording I listen to daily in the morning? Wait a minute! What actually happens between noticing something and acting on it in order to be 'helpful'? What am I listening to when I decide to fix something? Do I actually know? Let me watch that process and map it….”
 
Attention and awareness are recruited to watch how “unconscious” happens to implement a behavior change of “asking before acting.”
 
And then what?
 
How can you go unconscious when you are paying such close attention?
 
We say a change in behavior results in a change in consciousness. It’s important to understand that first there’s an insight that signals a change in consciousness. If we are to maintain that change in consciousness, we must have a change in behavior. It requires immense awareness to practice any change in behavior. It’s because we are paying such close attention that we get to observe karma unfolding and can then practice making a different choice (asking before acting!)
 
An insight suggests a behavior change (ask first!)
  that requires increased awareness to implement
  that leads to a greater ability to stay present enough not to act out of unconsciousness
  that then leads to a transformation of consciousness, not just a flash of insight but a different orientation
                  from which we’re not doing “the thing” that causes us to suffer….
 
….another one of those clever Zen ways of outwitting conditioned mind!
 
A practice of lovingkindness
When committing to a behavior change, the most important ancillary practice is “not to feel bad” when we do go unconscious and repeat a karmic pattern.
 
“Not feeling bad” means we do not INDULGE self-hate when we fail to do something we committed to do. We don’t listen to or believe what the voices are saying about “what’s wrong with ‘me.’” We also don’t REPORT on what the voices of self-hate are doing or saying when we have a chance to look at our process. As Fenelon famously said, “Self-reproach is painful, but it is reassuring proof the self is alive.”
 
As long as we are giving attention to anything that reinforces the “illusion of a self,” especially an ego “self” that is deeply flawed, who can’t be “fixed” and must be “improved,” we’re not doing spiritual practice! For what is spiritual practice if it’s not the journey to seeing ourselves as the Intelligence That Animates all? Attending to self-hate simply reinforces what we’re not and perpetuates a “false” seeing.
 
A practice of constant devotion
“Feeling bad” does not help us make a different choice. It focuses attention on “me” and what’s wrong with “me” as ego’s way to DEFLECT the attention from recognizing the “self” being talked to by self-hate is not Authenticity. When we hear...
 
“Again?” “How could you?” “You should be ashamed of yourself!” ”When are you ever going to learn?” “What kind of a spiritual practitioner are you?” “You might as well quit.”
 
… we cannot then indulge
 
“What’s wrong with me that I can’t keep a commitment?” 
“Why can’t I be like John who is my age and twice as fit?”
“Am I ever going to get it right?”
“Gosh, it’s always my fault!”
 
In this exchange, “you” is a voice of self-hate and “I” is the self that’s hated.  We call it a “conversation in conditioned mind” because ego talks to ego. We have to realize that in this ego-to-ego equation, there is attention but no Authenticity.
 
Therefore, the behavior change is simply to redirect ATTENTION, to not focus on the “flawed self” in question. This is precisely what the karmic program doesn’t want us to do. As long as ego can get us to believe we are it, then we are not aware of ourselves as Awareness. In fact, each time we indulge self-hate, the groove of the identification with the ego deepens, and the ability to experience ourselves as conscious compassionate awareness attenuates. We are feeding the process that obscures our Buddha Nature. 
 
More eloquently articulated by Aldous Huxley:
So long as attention is fixed on the delinquent ego, it cannot be fixed upon God and the ego (which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld) cannot be dissolved in the divine Light.
 
A practice of ever-expanding faith
“Not Feeling Bad” does not mean we have license to go unconscious. It’s the first step in a practice process. When we come to after being unconscious, the practice suggestion is to direct attention to
  • gratitude for having come to,
  • compassion for the human caught in suffering,
  • acceptance of how things are
  • choosing Unconditional Love.

By choosing the attributes of Authenticity to attend to, we reinforce our direct experience of being conscious compassionate awareness. The aperture of awareness that self-hate is attempting to close stays open, allowing Life to continue its journey of awakening.
 
If I am suffering, I am choosing something over ending suffering.
When we can receive this teaching without feeling responsible, defensive, or ashamed, we can celebrate a win in the practice of “Not Feeling Bad.” It means that we are not identified with the egocentricity that presumes itself to be the architect of all experiences and the victim of all “bad” choices. Now we are able to see suffering as a process.
 
We are able to take in the message of the teaching: “Where is the attention? How is suffering being caused? What beliefs are you clinging to?” When we become aware of how our attention is hijacked and how awareness collapses, we can stop doing that and end suffering.
 
Practice Tip
The next time you experience a beating, practice “Not Feeling Bad.” Turn attention to the karmic pattern that just happened and commit to mapping the process that resulted in feeling bad.  Let life inform a behavior change that can interrupt the karmic pattern. Practice this behavior change. Don’t indulge the self-hate if you go unconscious. R/L what you notice about this practice of transformation.
 

July 2017 Musings

In our Practice we train to be in the mind of meditation in each moment. To this end, we practice different forms of meditation: sitting, walking, and working.  

Sitting on a cushion for thirty minutes attending to the breath may feel like a herculean task for many. But in creating a set of conditions where all stimulus, triggers, and distractions are removed, we are enabled to see and see through egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate in the ways it manifests—terror, boredom, fantasy, resistance, discomfort, rage, anxiety, despair, guilt…to name a few! In the words of Joko Beck, “The meditation hall is a furnace room for the combustion of egocentric delusions.” 

This training on the cushion prepares us to direct attention and expand awareness in more complex situations, such as walking and working. What makes walking and working meditation more “difficult” is that we are no longer in “laboratory” conditions. The environment is no longer “controlled” and so conditioned mind can more easily hide out in plain sight. It takes practice to be present in an activity that we are conditioned to do unconsciously, precisely because we have no awareness that the attention is not here in the execution of the action. 

All three forms of meditation practice tend to be done in the silence of the privileged environment with minimum, if any, interaction with others. This is a deliberate construct to assist us clearly to see that everything going on with “me” is manufactured in a conversation in conditioned mind. 

We want to be grounded in the practice of “paying attention to everything, believing nothing, and not taking anything personally” when we encounter the variable that makes staying in the mind of meditation most difficult, other people! For some reason, perhaps because only humans have the capacity to experience themselves as a “self separate from life,” the intersection of two people (and therefore two egos) produces the perfect conditions for karma to be triggered and ego to be maintained.

It is a fundamental understanding in this practice that “there is no self and other.” 
Really? 
How can that be true when my colleague is standing in front of me saying the very thing that makes me want to throttle him? 

This teaching (no self and other) is not pointing to non-existence of physical form but to the extent to which personalities are mental projections. Are we truly present to someone else? Or are we indulging a conversation in conditioned mind in which ego is projecting unobserved about feeling victimized by another person’s actions and words? Have we not all heard the voices say, “If they were not how they are, if only they would say or do things the way I want them to, I wouldn’t be the way I am or say or do the things I do!” 

Here is an illustration of how interactions often go.

Lily and Rose are housemates of many years.
Lily notices it’s garbage day and the cans are still in the yard.

Lily (inside head): Again! I can’t believe she has not taken the garbage out yet. Wow! Is she so busy that remembering to put the garbage can out is not on her radar? If she expects me to do it for her—again!—she is mistaken. Why should I always pick up the slack around here! Not one word of appreciation when I do something for her. She just takes advantage of the fact that I take responsibility. 

Lily (aloud): You’ve not put the garbage out yet?

Rose (inside head): She is so uptight! Can’t she see how focused I am on this work project? She’s so insensitive. It’s all about her and how she wants things done! What about how I want to do things? I may miss putting the garbage out once in awhile but so what? But can I say that? Of course not! And I really don’t have time to stick around and argue.

Rose (aloud): I’m running late. I’ll do it when I get back.

Lily (inside head): Yeah, right! I’ll believe it when I see it 

Can we see the manufactured self-and-other in this interaction?

Lily (ego/self) in her conditioned reality is responsible and on top of it. She feels unappreciated and undervalued and is in relationship with her projection of Rose (“other”) who is irresponsible, unconscious and uncaring.

Rose (ego/self) is overwhelmed and overworked and lives with her projection of Lily (“other”) who is insensitive, uptight, selfish, and nitpicky.

Here, the garbage can issue triggers external and internal conversations that are only between ego-Lily and ego-Rose! This process is the water we swim in. Without practice, it’s almost impossible not to drown in it. 

How do we stay in the mind of meditation when an encounter with conditioning in another form/body triggers identification? One simple practice is to become interested in the “other” person’s experience. 

We sidestep the pull to identification (into feeling we are a self separate from life) in reaction to someone else’s identification by keeping attention on, and interest in, their Authenticity. Expressing interest in the Authenticity that is animating another form, being curious about its life experience, querying its sense of being animated and alive, allows for true relating. It’s impossible to be engaged in Life and identified with ego at the same time!

In the mysterious way that is Life, attending to Authenticity includes, and therefore dissolves, what divides. The process that separates “you” and “me” is no longer the focus of attention. Attention remains on awareness, and we drop into a sense of togetherness that stems from two nodes of Intelligence relating to each other’s oneness. 

It’s one of the happiest ways to experience these words of the Third Patriarch of Zen:

In this world of suchness 
there is neither self nor other-than-self. 
To come directly into harmony with this reality 
just say when doubt rises "not two." 
In this "not two" nothing is separate, 
nothing is excluded. 

Emptiness here, emptiness there, 
but the infinite universe 
stands always before your eyes. 
Infinitely large and infinitely small; 
no difference, for definitions have vanished 
and no boundaries are seen.

Practice
Practice responding with interest and curiosity instead of identification when next you encounter an “other.”
 

 

June 2017 Musings

At a recent retreat, we were looking at this poem by Hafiz.

The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, "I surrender!"

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.

While there was a rich discussion around the many teachings in this poem, our exploration focused on one particular theme: the difficulty of finding joy when circumstances are not inherently “joyful.”
 
How is it possible to trip over joy and laugh when
someone you love is dying,
you’ve just lost a beloved pet,
you’re constantly in physical pain,
you’re reeling from the dissolution of a lifelong partnership,
or assimilating the news of having to give up something you love doing because of an injury?
 
Framed this way, there is only one answer to the question: you can’t. There is no joy in content. No thing in life – no circumstance, no object – is joyful.  It just is.
 
We don’t have to believe that. We’ve had the experience! Is this familiar?
 
We might say we feel joy
           when the sun is shining,
           after the chores are done,
           at the end of a delicious meal,
           or during a restorative yoga class.
 
In other words, we claim our sense of wellbeing is a result of these externals.
 
But if I am identified with ego –
           worrying about the performance review next week,
           simmering with resentment at what my partner failed to do,
           calculating how I can afford the vacation I want to take and make the car payment,
           composing an email to decline an invitation without causing offense,
           planning the dinner menu –
even when the sun is shining, after the chores are done, at the end of a delicious meal, or during a restorative yoga class, joy is NOT my experience.
 
The fact that the same set of circumstances can be experienced as miserable or joyful might be a clue that a causal relationship doesn’t exist between circumstances and joy/misery. As we practice awareness, it becomes apparent that the process that has our attention determines our experience.
 
If we pause for a moment and consider the common denominator in times of suffering, we notice that attention is on non-acceptance. Whatever is going on, it needs to be different from how it is. There is no joy in the process of “not this!” There is only dissatisfaction!
 
If we are paying any attention at all, we know that in a human lifetime we age, get sick, experience pain, death and loss. And yet when those things happen to “me,” there is frustration, resentment, fear, resistance, despair, anger, and disbelief that life includes what it has always included.  The conditioned conversation in these situations may go like this: 
 
It shouldn’t be this way.
It’s unfair.
It’s so wrong.
Why is this happening?
What did I do to deserve this?
Why is life treating me this way?
I don’t want to feel this way.
Why is he that way!
How could he/she/they/Life do this to me?
This can’t/shouldn’t be happening to me!
 
Leading to the inevitable question…
“What do I do to fix, alter, change, and avoid thisherenow?”
 
In the face of the inevitable, the ego thinks it still has a thousand moves. But as awareness practitioners, we can take a page from the saint’s playbook and surrender. The only thing we surrender is the process of “not this.” With time, this practice becomes joyful. How can it not be? When we surrender that which denies how Life is, we get to receive WHATEVER is arising. In fact, as we summon the Mentor for support, encouragement, and assistance, we have the ultimate human experience of completely embodying what it means to be human while being aware of the divine embrace of Unconditional Love and Acceptance.
 
If we keep surrendering ego’s moves and submitting to Life’s terms, each circumstance that gives rise to “not this” is a gift. “Not this” could be seen as beliefs, opinions, preferences, desires, and perspectives that limit how we experience the Intelligence That Animates. As we surrender these limits, intimacy with Intelligence grows. We get to know aspects of it that were previously off limits.  At some point we break through all ego boundaries and receive the grace that allows us to appreciate the sublime chess game. The Beloved reveals itself as not other than what we are. At this point, there is a re-contextualization of our orientation to Life, and we “trip over joy” and laughingly acknowledge the “masterful move of God!” – not just in that moment of enlightenment but at each check in the chess game. We surrender to the mystery that the checkmate to the ego is a necessary, painful, and joyful process of Intelligence knowing itself.
 
The “mystery of knowing” is reflected in a passage by Dogen:
 
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water. The depth of the dewdrop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short in duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.
 
Practice Tip
Joyfully surrender at least one ego move today as a way of realizing the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky. 

 

May 2017 Musings

The Gateless Gate
 
There is an old Zen saying…“If you pay attention, everything enlightens.” Living from the orientation that everything we encounter can be a teacher, a gift, an opportunity to be enlightened makes spiritual practice fun and joyful. Truly! The content can be ANYTHING, even something as pedestrian as a gate.
 
The gate in this story stands at the entrance of the Zen Monastery Peace Center. It’s rather unremarkable in appearance, just a few aluminum rods hooked together, stretched between two wooden posts, decorated with a faded white sign lettered in black. With quiet dignity it wards off the random passerby whose idle curiosity might disturb the tranquility of the spiritual community that lies beyond it.
 
If you’re a guest or practitioner attending a retreat or Sunday morning group, you’ll likely find the gate wide open, an invitation to explore the path that winds between whispering pines to the tile-roofed buildings nestled at the bottom of the hill. If you’re very lucky, on the way down you might even be escorted by a burst of birdsong, a blue jay, or butterfly.
 
But if you’re a resident or a visiting monk, encountering an open gate is a very rare occurrence. And that closed gate….well… the perfect opportunity for many a monk to work out their own salvation diligently!
 
The closed gate, like all structures in practice, forces a confrontation with ego. It brings one face to face with the ego-I that
 
--doesn’t want to get out of the car and open the gate
--feels thwarted that it’s closed
--fumes at the stupidity of having to close it behind one
--resents that it is to remain closed at all times
--resists the effort to walk up to close the gate at the end of a long day
--gets confused about whether to leave it open or closed
--is churlish, grumpy, unhappy, irritated, and urgent when encountering a closed gate that's supposed to be open or an open gate that's supposed to be closed!
 
In the standoff between the gate and ego, the closed gate is a steadfast teacher. Imagine the lessons in…
 
Gratitude: Thank you for being open! Now I’ll be on time for group.
Prayer: Please be open! It’s cold and wet and I don’t have rain gear.
Acceptance: If I want to get where I need to go, I have to open a closed gate.
Patience: There’s no hurry, no speed records to set in locking the gate.
Surrender: “I” give up. “I” can’t make this lock work.
Participation: If I struggle with this lock, maybe others do too. Perhaps I should say something.
Courtesy: So many guests tonight. Maybe I can leave last and be the person who closes the gate.
Willingness: I don’t know if the gate is closed, and although I’m tired I will check.
Following Guidance: Do I leave the gate open or closed? Of course! Leave it as it was found. We live without a trace.
 
... that have been learned by those that have passed by this patient teacher!
 
We can measure spiritual “progress,” as it were, by paying attention to our response in any karmic encounter. Over time, this gate has changed from an adversary to a practice opportunity and, finally, to a friend.
 
It’s a special moment on the path when a closed gate produces a smile, when we have a spring in the step as we get out of the car to open the gate, when we give it a friendly pat and wish it good day as we drive through, and when we cheerfully close the gate behind us. This experience is sometimes described by the Zen expression “passing through the gateless gate.” Without having attention on a conditioned conversation that “wants something to be different from how it is,” what was once a barrier ceases to exist as such.
 
Well, for the moment…
because every moment is essentially a choice between “gate and gateless.”
 
It’s a spectacular moment in practice when something like this happens:
 
We’re running late. The gate is closed and the lock proves to be intractable. As we struggle with the lock, our phone rings and we drop the hot cup of tea and important sheaf of papers we’re holding. Frustration induces a burst of self-hatred that is expressed in a loud string of profanity (not a normal behavior) which, horror of horrors, may have been heard by someone who politely turns their back as we come around the bend in the path.
 
Instead of listening to the voices that might berate us for “damaging the Dharma,” violating the privileged environment, being a horrible Zen student and a failure as a Buddhist, we pick up the recorder and turn to the Mentor and

offer the human being unconditional love and acceptance,
 
embrace the sensations of disappointment without going to the egocentricity of having been the instrument of someone else’s adverse experience,
 
humbly admit that we always have something to practice with, like releasing the energy labeled “anger” in a harmless manner,
 
receive the encounter as a necessary step in a deeper acceptance of all that is, exactly as it is,
 
let it all go and be wholeheartedly present and available to whatever Life is asking of us NOW.

 
When we choose compassion over suffering in a difficult situation, the gate not only vanishes, it becomes a gateway to a new dimension of existence. The process that divides the world into right and wrong, good and bad, closed and open, dissolves. The circumstances, however “hard,” are experienced as what IS—painful, challenging, disappointing, and frustrating but undiluted by “something wrong mind.” In joyful realization, Intelligence recognizes itself, not as a bundle of memories, preferences, opinions, and stories, but as All of IT—every texture, color, frequency, feeling, and expression of existence.
 
In the words of the Third Patriarch of Zen:
When a mind is not disturbed
The ten thousand things offer no offense.
One in all,
All in One.
If only this is realized,
No more worry about not being perfect!
 
Or Rumi:
Your hand opens and closes,
opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds' wings.
 

 

April 2017 Musings

Conscious compassionate awareness is a phrase that’s frequently used in our Practice. In all my years of practicing, no one ever stopped to ask me what it means.
 
But that doesn’t imply we don’t “know,” does it?
 
In fact, anyone who has been on retreat with this Practice is intimately aware of an experience of conscious compassionate awareness. When we’re invited to “close our eyes, lie back and get comfortable, and allow to arise in conscious compassionate awareness,” we segue magically into a mysterious world of wisdom that we navigate with intuitive expertise.
 
Life dropped in the suggestion to muse on this phrase for this article.
 
Conscious: present, here, paying attention, not attending to conditioned mind
Awareness: a way of seeing, a faculty of Intelligence that registers Life without a “self” needing to be involved
CompassionateBLOCK!
 
Ours is a practice of compassion, and yet this is the word that has been a personal koan for the longest time. What is compassionate really pointing us toward?
 
One answer to that question was revealed in a group I recently facilitated. Someone put their hands up to speak and launched into talking about an old, familiar process of struggle with the voices.
 
For a split second, ego was present on the cushion. “Really? Not that again! Come on! How long will you report on the same thing in every group!”
 
And right on the heels of that, “I know that place for me. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a familiar cycle. I know how it feels to be the object of a karmic program that controls me like a puppet and dictates my mood, my energy, and my actions.”
 
And BINGO! Life dropped in the experience of compassion…
 
Not pity, not sympathy, not sadness--
          a mixture of humility,
                                empathy, and
                                          comprehension of the First Noble Truth,
                                                      “There is suffering.”
 
As the Buddha taught, the human experience is to be subject to a process that imprisons us in a hell state of anxiety, loneliness, self-hatred, judgment, deprivation, comparison, resentment, resistance, envy…. In fact, when we’re identified with that process of suffering, we’re simply pawns in a game of ego-identity maintenance, but it appears to be real. It takes a lot of practice to recognize the state for the illusion it is.
 
Compassion, perhaps, is “seeing through the eyes of love” and recognizing the universality of having an ego.
 
Compassion witnesses suffering, and our response comes from also being a human subject to suffering. The poignancy of the love that arises is, perhaps, our first experience of inclusion in the theatre of life, a rite of passage before we take our place in the audience as witness, instead of believing ourselves to be the tragic hero of the play
 
This story from a recent retreat brings home the teaching.
 
When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled.
 
Bankei ignored the case.
 
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they would leave in a body.
 
When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. "You are wise brothers," he told them. "You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave."
 
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.  –- “Right and Wrong” from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
 
Most of us relate to the angered and self-righteous monks more so than we do to Bankei.

Why?

Perhaps it is because we’re so conditioned to listen to the self-hating voice in our head, a voice that so mercilessly condemns us, that we cannot but project that self-hate outward. For many, judgment is all we’ve ever known. Is it surprising that we can’t offer anything other than criticism to someone else?
 
This is why Practice encourages a relationship with the Mentor.
 
The Mentor is access to the Conscious Compassionate Awareness That Animates. Moving from being mentored to being the Mentor is the movement from an identity as a small ego-self to awareness of oneself as “conscious compassionate awareness. –-from What You Practice Is What You Have
 
We are on a spiritual quest, a hero’s journey. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell writes: The passage of the mythological hero may be over-ground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. This deed accomplished, life no longer suffers hopelessly under the terrible mutilations of ubiquitous disaster, battered by time, hideous throughout space; but with its horror visible still, its cries of anguish still tumultuous, it becomes penetrated by an all-suffusing, all-sustaining love, and a knowledge of its own unconquered power.
 
Practice
Cultivate “seeing with the eyes of love.” Where there is judgment, practice compassion. R/L

 

March 2017 Musings

This month’s article was inspired by an unusual retreat at the Monastery, “Living in Joy: A Zen and Christian Perspective.”
 
In one of the workshops, we explored the beliefs and assumptions that keep us from living in Joy. This story was used to illustrate one of those beliefs.
 
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
 
She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
 
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  --Luke 10:38-42
 
How many of us can identify with Martha?
 
There are so many things we’re worried and upset by…
 
the latest disturbing political news,
        what the neighbors did to the car
               the fact that my taxes are late
                       that unexpected big expense
                       the family member who might get laid off
                the baby that is not sleeping
       the fight I had with my teenage son
the bonus tied to the performance report
                 
There is so much to do and so little time to do it!
 
...dishes, laundry,
                     bills, taxes,
                                returning phone calls, arranging appointments,
                                           emails, texts, the plumber,
                                                        the PTA meeting,
                                           picking up the kids, exercise, meditation, practice commitments,
                                work meetings, preparing dinner,
                                                        shopping for groceries....
 
With all that going on, who in their right mind can stop for a moment of joy and metaphorically “sit at the feet of the Lord and listen”?
 
How many of us are bamboozled into believing that there will always be time for joy later, or that spiritual well-being is earned after doing the hard work of living?
 
If we look at this story from the dualistic world of opposites, the choice is to be Mary OR Martha. Jesus’s words could be interpreted to mean that Mary’s way is the right way: escape from the world and spend time on spiritual practice.
 
Did you hear a voice whisper something along the lines of “Really? Who has the luxury to do that?” “What about my life?” “Isn’t dropping all that I’m responsible for to run off to ‘sit at the Lord’s feet’ downright irresponsible?”
 
But perhaps Jesus was pointing at a more radical perspective, most articulately encapsulated in our favorite Zen quote:
 
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.  --Alan Watts
 
Is it possible that God, the Divine Mother, Buddha Nature, or the Intelligence That Animates is peeling the potatoes? 
 
If we pay close attention, do we notice that it’s only when we are identified with the conditioned orientation that creates the illusion of separation between
 
self and other,
me and you,
this and that,
God and me,
joyful non-activity and stressful work
 
that the conflict between being Martha or Mary arises?
 
As Jesus points out, we only need to do one thing to have a “Mary” experience. When we stop attending to the process of suffering that creates the illusory world of “the many things I have to worry about,” we’re “sitting at the feet of the Lord” while we do the many things!
 
The Practice adage that points to this is “Not What, But How.”
 
When we cease to listen to the conversation in conditioned mind, we’re able to see the world as God, to see each task as an act of worship, to be filled with the joy of Intelligence knowing itself as it takes care of the laundry, pays the bills, and peels the potatoes!
 
Practice
For the next 48 hours, practice being Martha as Mary. Going about daily tasks, receive the experience of the Intelligence That Animates peeling the potatoes.
 
Gasshō
Ashwini

 

February 2017 Musings

Some of the phrases we use in Practice seem inconsequential, but within the phrase is an exquisite teaching. Here is one of my favorites.
 
“How would it help you to know that?”
 
You might hear this phrase for any number of reasons. For example

  • in response to a note you post to the Guestmaster asking why something is the way it is
  • in Group if you inquire too closely into the antecedents or the personal life experience of your facilitator
  • if you write the registration office to inquire if the Guide is facilitating a retreat so that you can decide whether or not to sign up

All these requests for information seem perfectly “normal,” even “intelligent,” but the response from Practice indicates otherwise!
 
“How would it help you to know that?” as a Teaching
 
Zen has no business with ideas. - D.T. Suzuki
 
In Practice, a question in answer to a question is a koan in disguise. It’s a signal to pay attention. It’s meant to catapult the practitioner from the realm of content to the realm of process. It’s a pointer to look at “what’s” asking, serving as a reminder that we are not practicing to perpetuate conditioned thinking but to transcend it.
 
Because ours is a practice of Zen, if the question provokes, offends, or disturbs the ego, if it challenges a conditioned way of thinking, if it puts us in touch with a boiling rage or a simmering resentment, it’s the most compassionate rejoinder possible! Our job when that happens is to learn to watch ego squirm and then chuckle at its antics.
 
The Why Question…
 
For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them. - Thích Nhat Hanh
 
“Why” is lauded in the world of conditioned mind as a “gateway to understanding.” “Why” supposedly reveals those really important things, such as causality, purpose, meaning… The prevailing assumption is that there’s utility in figuring something out.
 
Yes, “why” contains the seeds of curiosity, but it can also cleverly conceal a movement into the abstract, into theories and hypotheses, into positions, preferences and beliefs. It takes us away from the throbbing intuition of direct experience to the ossified “certainty” of knowledge.  
 
The spiritual journey is into the mystery of Emptiness, and in that endeavor “why” is not only not helpful, it can be a downright detriment. It’s the first step away from what is, simply because it is. This is why the Buddha never answered “why” questions.
 
Practice gently reminds us when we ask why that asking why is never helpful!
 
The “Who” Question!
 
When you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One that cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.
 -Rumi
 
Have you noticed the conditioned propensity to “get to know a person”? It’s the currency of connection to discover the antecedents, history, and narrative of the personality. Intimacy appears to come from knowing about someone – what they do, what they think, what they feel, what they prefer, their views, beliefs, positions. When we extend that conditioning into the context of spiritual work, we are programmed to believe that knowledge of “who” someone is and how they have become “who” they are is helpful to “me” if I want to become what “you” are.
 
When we question the Guide about her past for example, or a facilitator about his or her spiritual history, if we compliment a monk for their service, attention turns to the  “personality.”
 
We practice in the privileged environment precisely because it is constructed to keep out the personality. In this most holy of practice “spaces,” identity is irrelevant. It’s not that we are asked not to ask questions or are discouraged from showing appreciation.  But it’s the role of Practice to compassionately recall us to what we are doing.
 
When we unconsciously wander into the territory of ego’s preoccupation with itself, we are recalled to the teaching “all things are without a self.”
 
“How would it help you to know that?” points to paying attention to whether or not our attention is on “knowing” the self or transcending it!
 
The “Me” Question
 
When we pay attention, everything enlightens.  -Zen Proverb
 
Yes! There are many variables to consider when deciding to come on retreat.  It’s after all “my” money, “my” time, “my” immortal soul. Really? Who is this “me” that “decides”?  Ego always has a preference for the optimal conditions under which we should practice. But Practice reminds us that there is always only one decision: we are either practicing to end suffering or not.
 
Showing up to practice is making a choice for the Unconditional, unconditionally.
 
Showing up, no matter what, for a practice event is to move from an orientation of consumer to contributor. It’s one of the most important spiritual movements we make.  It’s a movement to surrender the “self” lost in the self-hating conversation that believes it has nothing to give. It’s cultivating the humility to recognize that every node of life is Intelligence waking up to itself and can be our teacher. 
 
When the registration office poses the question “How would it help you to know that?” when we ask who is leading a retreat, we are being invited to consider the value of practicing unconditionally.  The question invites us to the perspective that what we seek is “what we are,” and ultimately that realization is something we have to arrive at for ourselves through practice. 
 
Practice Tip
As you go about your day, consider how the question “ How is it helpful for you to know that?” is your teacher. R/L

 

January 2017 Musings

This month's Musings was sparked by this story from the Buddha’s Life and a passing remark from the Guide.
 
Once, near the town of Shravasti, the Buddha was seated with his disciples when a woman named Krisha Gautami made her way through the crowd and knelt at his feet. Her tear-streaked face was wild with grief, and in the fold of her sari, she carried a tiny child.
 
“I’ve been to everyone,” she pleaded desperately, “but still my son will not move, will not breathe. Can’t you save him? Does the Blessed One work miracles?”
 
“I can help you sister,” the Buddha promised tenderly. “But first I will need a little mustard seed – and it must come from a house where no one has died.”
 
Giddy with joy, Krisha Gautami raced back to the village and stopped at the very first house. The woman who met her was full of understanding. “Of course I will give you some mustard seed. How much does the Blessed One need to work his miracle?”
 
“Just a little,” Krisha Gautami said. Then, remembering suddenly, “But it must come from a house where no one has died.”
 
Her neighbor turned back with a smile of pity. “Little Gautami, you know how many have died here. Just last month I lost my grandfather.”
 
Krisha Gautami lowered her eyes ashamed. “I am sorry. I will try next door.”
 
But next door it was the same – and at the next house, and the next, and the house after that. Everyone wanted to help, but no one, not even in the wealthiest homes, could meet that one simple condition. Death had come to all.
 
Finally Krisha Gautami understood. She took her child to the cremation ground and returned to the Compassionate Buddha.
 
“Sister,” he greeted her, “did you bring the mustard seed?”
 
“Blessed One,” she said, falling at his feet, “I’ve had enough of this mustard seed. Let me be your disciple.”
-- Adapted from The Dhammapada by Eknath Easwaran
 
Several things caught my attention while reading the story this time around.
 
One: The Buddha does not say to Gautami:
“All formations are transient!”
“All formations are subject to suffering.”
“All things are without a self.”
“Everyone suffers! You don’t have to grieve!”
 
Instead, he compassionately offers to help her and gives her a direction that will create an opening for her to realize the truth of his teaching.
 
Two: Krisha Gautami did not pause to say:
“O, Blessed One, how can mustard seeds help my son to breathe again? And why do those seeds have to come from a house where no one has died? What if I cannot find mustard seed? Can I get sesame instead? Do I have to go now or can I wait until tomorrow?”
 
Instead, “giddy with joy” she raced back to the village to do what the Buddha bid her to do.
 
Three. Once Gautami experienced the truth of the teachings, she let go the pursuit of the “mustard seed” to become a disciple of the Buddha!
 
The origin of the word disciple comes from the Latin discere, to learn. As a Buddhist, she pledged to learn from, to adhere to, to follow the Teachings.
 
There is so much we can apply to our own Practice from this story.
 
 
Making it Work
Having one’s own “direct experience” is the cornerstone of Zen. We are not required to “believe” anything. We are required to examine everything “I” believes as a way to transcend the “I,” the process of suffering, that keeps us from being present to how things are.
 
Unfortunately, without a lot of practice having one’s “own experience” is translated by the ego as “looking to ego/conditioned mind for what something means, and then believe/do what the ego/voices say to do.”
 
Here is an example:
We hear often about how Practice is working for people. We feel inspired to have the lit-up experience that everyone else seems to be having. We call the radio show to talk to the Guide about this, and her first question is the one we were hoping she wouldn’t ask:
 
Guide: “Do you Record and Listen?”
 
Participant (some version of the following):
“I used to, but I haven’t for sometime now.”
“It doesn’t seem to work for me.”
“I don’t want to R/L. Can I do something else?”
“I couldn’t make it work, so I stopped.”
“Yes! I do it religiously everyday for 10 minutes. But I still don’t feel lit up.”
 
How often have we stopped doing something…
 
going to the gym,
meditating,
eating healthy,
practicing Awareness,
 
…because “it just isn’t working for me?”
 
This is a BIG bamboozle that we all fall for in some form or another. We can call it the “if it doesn’t work for me, there’s something wrong with me or it” bamboozle.
 
If egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate can get us to believe the conclusion that something is “not working for me,” it has ensured that it remains firmly in control of our life experience.
 
Some of us may actually pause and look to see why “it doesn’t work for me.” We might even earnestly report that the “voices of self-hate or resistance or ego identity” are responsible.
 
But how many of us actually pause and turn our attention to exploring…
 
how to make it work?
 
This revolutionary shift in orientation extracts us from the narrow, limited, and negative position of ego and opens us to the world of potential and possibilities. Now we are riding the Life wave of discovery. The more we do this, the more we realize the point of shifting the orientation is not to make “it” work per se (whatever it is), as much as to be in the process of Life’s yes and out of the process of ego’s No.
 
Don’t Make It a Contest
Even when we are looking at “how to make things work,” we must not stop paying attention. Ego has a back way in through another con game: Making It a Contest.
 
We’re talked into staying in an untenable situation…
 
“I need to stay in this job even though I am miserable because I need the health benefits.”
“I have to go to that party. How else will I know whether I have conquered the temptation to eat sugar?”
“I have to do this on my own. No one can know that I have trouble handling things like this.”
“I can’t move out because I want peace and quiet. It would hurt my roommate’s feelings!”
“I have to accommodate his request. If not, he’ll be offended.”
 
…that makes us deeply unhappy because it is the right spiritual thing to do! We’re told that if we were doing practice and doing it sincerely, then whatever the situation, we would be able to bear it with phlegmatic equanimity!
 
In fact, Life would never want us to suffer. We can practice trusting that if we have a lesson to learn, Life will keep offering us what we need to transcend until we transcend it! 
 
So exiting a situation that makes us unhappy and making a choice for happiness is not a “failure” of the spiritual aspirant, no matter what the voices say. It’s a triumph over the ego that is rooting to perpetuate suffering.
 
We may not always be clear whether we made a choice from conditioning or freedom, but we always see/learn something if we’re paying attention!
 
And if we are Awareness Practitioners,
paying attention to everything,
believing nothing,
and not taking anything personally
is what we do!
 
Be the Buddha. Do What the Buddha does.
 
Conditioned mind desperately wants answers to content questions.
 
“Should I leave or stay in this relationship?”
“How do I make myself meditate when I don’t want to?
“How often do I have to Record and Listen?”
 
Practice patiently points us to changing our context.
 
Often, like the instruction with the mustard seed, what we are told to do as a practice may seem completely outside the realm of addressing the issue we are grappling with.
 
There is wisdom in this way of redirecting the attention! The ego does not want an answer, it wants attention. It uses anything that is said to maintain itself.
 
When Practice gives us a task…
 
“Drop the conversation.”
“Come back to the breath.”
“Don’t indulge the self-hate.”
“Make a recording about what is true for you.”
“Lose interest in how you feel.”
 
…we are being assisted to make the movement into Awareness that reveals the context within which “our issue” is no longer a “problem.”
 
Practice movements are always encouragements to get out of the process of “there is something wrong” and drop into the awareness of how it all simply is. 
 
If we want to be the Buddha, we have to do what the Buddha does, we have to act on the Teaching. If Practice tells us to get a handful of mustard seeds, we need to jump at it, giddy with joy, not from a place of blindly believing what Practice says but from enthusiasm for being disciples, dedicated to having our own experience of what the Teachings point to.
 
In the words of the Short Recitation:
 
“We are not here to create and cling to beliefs. We are here to pay attention. We are here to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer, so we can drop that and end suffering.”
 
Practice
Is there an aspect of Practice that ego resists? If so, practice doing it anyway, no matter how “I” feel, to make the movement from ego’s no to Life’s yes. R/L
 
Is there a situation in your life which ego has made a contest? Talk to the Mentor! Tune in to the Intelligence That Animates and see what the Mentor says is most compassionate for All.

Gasshō
Ashwini

December 2016 Musings

Always we hope someone else has the answer, some other place will be better, some other time it will all turn out. This is it; no one else has the answer, no other place will be better, and it has already turned out.
--Lao Tzu
 
On a recent radio show, the Guide offered us a simple assignment to turn our lives around. Record “I choose unconditional love” for twenty minutes and listen to it round the clock. She also offered an explanation as to why no one would do the assignment. 
 
It’s because of what we are up against.
 
“We are up against what we’re always up against, and it’s not ‘out there,’ it’s not ‘him,’ not ‘her,’ not ‘them.’ It’s that system that exists inside each of us that talks us out of doing what would enable us to get rid of it.”
 
Awakening, it appears, is an “inside job.”
 
As we come to the end of another year, perhaps we can renew our commitment to stop being talked out of choosing the Unconditional unconditionally. Can we stop listening to and believing the voices of self-hate and embrace the “hitherto unperceived good” as who and what we are?
 
 
Twelve Days of Christmas
“The 12 Days of Christmas” is a popular holiday carol that describes the gifts “that a true love sent to me.” Here are twelve gifts from the True Love of Practice that can assist us to say yes to Life and no to the conversation.
 
 
Day 1 - A Gift of Miracles
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. --Thomas Merton
 
When hatred prevails, does Goodness cease to exist? Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate certainly wants us to think so! The conversation about hatred is meant to obscure the awareness of all that is loving, kind and beautiful. Stop ignoring the divine “shining through” and receive the miracles in the moment.
 
 
Day 2 - A Gift of Generosity
People think, “Oh, I’m being selfish if I allow somebody to be helpful to my life.” Actually, it’s being generous. Generosity is the willingness to share your life with others. It’s a gift to people to allow them to love you.
--David Hawkins
 
When we are listening to a conversation in conditioned mind, we feel excluded, isolated and alone. It never occurs to us that we can include ourselves! Practice the generosity of inviting someone to share something in your life. Allow yourself to receive the love and belonging that conditioned mind’s exclusivity denies you.
 
 
Day 3 - A Gift of a Broken Heart
May the Divine break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.
--Mother Teresa
 
We are bamboozled into barricading our hearts because we are conditioned to believe that we cannot stand the pain of loss, grief or disappointment. Practice allowing your heart to be broken open by being present to the compassion you feel when you witness someone, you perhaps, being tortured by the voices of self-hate.
 
Day 4 - A Gift of No Mistakes
Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.
--Mahatma Gandhi
 
How many of us feel the constant pressure of having to get it right, to do the right thing, to be the right person? We are so afraid to make a mistake that we are robbed of the joy of being alive. Embrace the gift of no mistakes and practice reveling in the freedom to be curious, playful and spontaneous. 
 
 
Day 5 - A Gift of the Impossible
A path is made by walking on it.
--Zhuangzhi
 
So much of the conversation in conditioned mind is focused on what’s not possible, why something is a problem, all the ways the plan will not work, all the reasons that an idea will fail. When that conversation of negativity gets going, redirect attention to possibility. How can we make this happen? How will it work? Discover for yourself why “impossible” is not a priority for Life.
 
 
Day 6 - A Gift of Totality
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
--Martin Luther King
 
We seldom have the experience of being completely and happily engrossed in what we do. How often have we heard the voices congratulate us on a job well done? Practice being wholeheartedly engaged (no attention on that conversation of comparison, judgment or assessment) in a task given to you and experience the reward of a job well done. A celebration recording is in order!
 
 
Day 7 - A Gift of Stillness
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.
Stand Still. The forest knows
Where you are.
You must let it find you.

--David Wagoner
 
Our most intimate relationship is with the voice in our head, and so we are strangers to the Love of the Intelligence That Animates. Practice being still and let the forest find you. What is the experience of being loved by Life? R/L
 
 
Day 8 - A Gift of Letting Go
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.
--Nelson Mandela

Is there an old karmic pattern that still imprisons you in bitterness and hatred? Give yourself the gift of a two-handed recording session and leave the story behind. Take that walk to freedom.
 
 
Day 9 - A Gift of Surrender
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
--Pema Chodron
 
Even though we know that we need to encounter what we have to transcend, we identify with a feeling of failure when a karmic pattern of suffering repeats. If everything in Life is for you, practice embracing the gift in the encounter by being open and attentive to the teaching being revealed.
 
 
Day 10 - A Gift of Happiness
Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.
--Hafiz
 
We are often talked into believing that spiritual practice is a serious business. But practice is grim only for the ego. If we allow ourselves to dis-identify from conditioned mind, even for an instant, we experience the happiness that has been trying to find us. Stop, drop the conversation, and allow happiness to find you.
 
 
Day 11 - A Gift of Life
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.
--Rabindranath Tagore
 
What is your experience of the Intelligence animating you? Do you know? Most of us don’t experience Life, we experience an illusion of separation from life and deem it a life experience. Practice “being made glorious by the touch of this world of life.” Allow yourself to be moved by it in tumultuous waves and dances of rhythmic measures. Record and Listen!
 
 
Day 12 - A Gift of Meditation
Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.
--Alan Watts
 
So much of our energy is spent in making the effort to get somewhere. As long as we can be bamboozled into believing that success, happiness and well-being are somewhere in the future and dependent on acquiring something, our life force is feeding ego. So bring out the cushion. Sit down in front of the blank wall and surrender to the realization of having arrived. Give yourself the gift of being present to the point of Life in each moment.
 
Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays!

Gasshō
Ashwini

November 2016 Musings

The calendar of practice events inspired the previous Musings article. Continuing with the theme of “what is” as source of exploration, two major events in November seem to anchor this month’s musings…

            An occasion to vote and
                                An occasion to give thanks
 
For us Awareness Practitioners, casting our votes and giving thanks are not discrete events in time that happen at pre-determined intervals; rather they are (or can be) continuous processes that define a way of life.

In each moment, we practice voting with our attention.
 
The parties on our ballot:
Conscious Compassionate Awareness OR
           The voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate
 
When we elect to attend to thisherenow, we exercise a choice for freedom from the process of suffering that traps us in an often hateful, unhappy, unsatisfactory, albeit, illusory world of opposites. Each time we choose to empty the teacup of the positions, preferences, and opinions of ego-I, we are blessed with the “knowledge of emptiness,” an experience so indescribably joyful that we are compelled to a celebration of thanksgiving!
 
Why cast the vote for Life?
In a couple of recent workshops, the Guide asked us to sit with a profound spiritual question: What do you see as the point of a human existence?
 
Just sit quietly with this question for a moment…. What drops in?
 
The point of human existence?
 
Really?
Do we know?
And yet, what an important question!
 
If we stop to consider for a moment, we see, implicit in how we live our lives, an embedded and unexamined assumption about the point of our existence. It’s only when we become aware that life as we are living it is failing to deliver the fulfillment we sense is possible might we turn to a spiritual practice and seek an alternative.
 
The alternative that spiritual practice provides is not an answer to the question of the point of existence but a pointer to a way of life, which when practiced reveals the mystery of our conditioned assumptions about existence.
 
This way of Life is beautifully articulated in the Prayer of St. Francis.
 
Please,
Make me an instrument of your Peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
 
Grant that I may not seek so much
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
 
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying to the self that we are born to eternal life.
 
The essence of Practice is summed up in the last line of St. Francis’s Prayer.
 
It is in dying to the self that we are born to eternal life.
 
As we embark on a spiritual practice, we may or may not agree that “eternal life” is what we seek. But in Zen, as with many spiritual traditions, practice definitely involves “dying to the self.”
 
The surest way of “dying to the self” is to live in Yes because any no is ego resistance.
 
Did you hear the loud NO of protest to that last statement? Did you register the indignant sputtering, the BUTS, the fog of confusion, the scramble to articulate the exceptions?
 
That’s the NO we want to die to!
 
As we often point to, living in “Yes” is not yes to content. It’s not saying
yes, to not eating meat,
yes, to accepting that job,
yes, to ending this relationship,
yes, to taking out the garbage.
 
It’s a process of yes.
It’s a stepping out of the “no” of ego.
 
Each time we feel resistance, we are offered the opportunity to step back and examine where the “no” is coming from.
 
Does it simply maintain an ego-I stance?
Is it self-hate keeping the “self” in play?
Is it a barrier to love?
Is it a way to constrain the life force to the limits of what is “me?”
Is it a door closing on curiosity, wonder, exploration, learning and expanded awareness?
 
Practice encourages us over and over again to move towards anything ego resists so that we may have a direct experience of the freedom and fulfillment that comes from dying to the “I,” “me,” “mine.”
 
For, in the words of Aldous Huxley, “Deliverance can only be achieved as a consequence of the intervention of eternity in the temporal domain; and eternity cannot intervene unless the individual will makes a creative act of self-denial, thus producing, as it were, a vacuum into which eternity can flow. All our actions must be directed, in the last analysis to making ourselves passive in relation to the activity and the being of divine Reality.”
 
The vote has to be cast for emptiness!
 
How do we cultivate this receptivity to divine Reality?
 
St. Francis points the way again.
 
Attend to Life
The first lines of the prayer point to where we focus the attention – on love, hope, faith, light and joy. Only the ego feels despair, doubt and hate. Only the ego gets injured and suffers. So wherever and whenever we encounter an ego experience, we practice redirecting attention to a Life experience.
 
We cease to look at Life through the lens of the ego narrative of what’s not, what’s missing, what’s wrong and how it should be but isn’t. We elect to look at life through an appreciative and expanded awareness for all it is.
 
Notice how the prayer does not petition for love, hope, faith, compassion and joy to be given to us. Implicit in the prayer is the awareness that we already have access to love, hope, faith, compassion and joy. We simply have to turn away from the illusory belief in “what we are not” to awaken to the Reality of what we already are.
 
Cultivate Thy Will be Done
There IS a petition in the second stanza of the prayer:
 
           “Please, Grant that I may never seek so much as to be ….”
 
that points to an attitude essential to transcending self-will: humility. We practice the movement of surrender that is a submission to Life’s terms.  Acknowledging that spiritual freedom is beyond “my” will, it’s not up to “me,” and is not about “me” assists us to avoid the danger of ego-I taking over our practice.
 
An example of an ego takeover of practice is believing a voice that says:
 
“If you were the right spiritual person, you would be more present.”
 
In pointing to the flaws in how we practice, by introducing standards of spiritual awareness, we are bamboozled into re-identifying with the “I” and practicing to be the right “me.” The illusion of “self” is still maintained in the pursuit of it’s transcendence.
 
It’s perhaps for this reason that the petition in the prayer focuses on being supported to give love, understanding and consolation instead of seeking it for ourselves. That movement assists us in cultivating love, understanding and compassion that is disinterested instead of self-directed.
 
For who of us has not “suffered” from feeling misunderstood, unloved and forsaken? The desire to experience love is the battleground of the ego, for “not having it” produces sensations so “real” that we can be conned into wallowing in lack and recklessly pursuing the desire.
 
There is a subtlety not to be missed in the structure of the prayer…
 
If we desire something, we are tacitly admitting the absence of it; we are expressing dissatisfaction with the way things are. In eschewing the desire to be consoled, understood and loved, we are practicing eschewing desire not giving up on consolation, understanding and love.
 
In choosing to give instead of to seek, we wear away the grooves of the sense of “me,” that keeps “me” in suffering over what “I” want that I don’t have. When the “I” falls away, we come to the magnificent realization that brings us to our knees in gratitude – that nothing is missing – that we have an infinite capacity to give and receive Love, Compassion and Understanding because that IS what animates us.
 
Choosing Freedom No Matter What
This brings us back to the beginning of the prayer: “Make me an instrument of your peace.”
 
To produce a melody of peace, the instrument has to be whole. It cannot be fractured by discord, divisiveness, dissent or conflict. However, the choice to be whole, to be an open channel for harmony, is left completely to us. In the words of Hans Denk:
 
“The Divine forces no one, for love cannot compel, and to be in the service of the Divine, therefore, is a thing of perfect freedom.”
 
Choosing peace no matter what requires us to say yes to Life no matter what, to say yes to unconditional love in the most trying and difficult times.
 
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be”
 
we want to elect to be instruments of peace through which it is possible for the world to rest in Grace, even though there is no guarantee that peace will prevail.
 
It is the hardest place in practice to vote for peace when the outcome of that election is uncertain. But the necessity of it is undisputed, for there is no alternative.
 
As the Dhammapada uncompromisingly states:
For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.
 
Or once more in the words of St. Francis
                                  “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned...”

Practice

  • As the festival of thanksgiving approaches, practice appreciating Life as it is.
  • Choose to look through the lens of conscious compassionate awareness and fully receive what you’ve been given!
  • Elect to be an instrument of peace through which consolation, understanding and love is available to anyone who seeks it from you.
  • Vote with your attention for presence, joy and gratitude.
  • Record and Listen 

Gasshō
Ashwini

October 2016 Musings

In sitting with what to write for the October Musings article, it drops in to look up the word “musings.”
 
Synonyms for musing include meditation, contemplation, and reflection. 
 
“Meditate,” says the still small voice.
 
“Yes,” says the practitioner and moves to the cushion.
 
Sitting on the cushion, there is an awareness of quivering excitement in anticipation of the magic that always happens when Life is ready to instruct.
 
The breath moves in the body...attention shifts to awareness...and into exquisite stillness the inspiration for a Musings article drops in.
 
“Look at the teaching hidden in the October schedule” was the suggestion.
 
Laughter bubbles up. Life’s sense of humor is delicious!
 
Muse on “what is so” in October and hey, presto, you have an October Musings article!
 
So what does the October 2016 schedule have in store for us in terms of practice events?
 
We kick off the month with a “There Is Nothing Wrong with You” (TINW) retreat at the Monastery. On the 15th is the Ruby Anniversary of the Bridge Walk, followed by Precepts Renewal Ceremonies, and then a workshop with Cheri titled “Too busy. Not enough time!”
 
Each of these events embodies a core teaching of Practice.
 
There Is Nothing Wrong with You
“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.” ―Wei Wu Wei
 
This notion of “no-self” is so contrary to our habitual orientation that we often reject it outright.
 
“Wait a minute! There is no ‘me’? Nonsense! Of course I exist! In fact, if you ask me, I can rattle off a narrative of my history, attributes, preferences, opinions, pet peeves, circumstances and experiences along with a long list of what most assuredly is wrong with me!”
 
It is at a TINW retreat that we are introduced to the extraordinary possibility that there is no “me” for something to be “wrong” with. 
 
In a crucible of compassion, we are guided to see the “I” as an aggregation of beliefs and assumptions forged by the collision of karma and conditioning. It is only because the attention is on an incessant, often self-hating, conversation in the mind that a sense of self exists.
 
Once we catch a glimpse of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate as a process of identity maintenance, we open to compassion for that which suffers from the self-hate being leveled at it.
 

Transformation lies in the movement
from
identification with that which suffers
to
that which IS compassion.

 
In embracing the human incarnation in unconditional love and acceptance, the “self” dissolves into the joy of recognizing our nature as conscious compassionate awareness.
 
 
There Is Nothing Wrong
The Buddha taught that ignorance of True Nature is the root cause of suffering.
 
“The nature of ignorance,” says Katagiri Roshi, “is to lack deep communication with nature or the universe. It is to separate, to isolate, to create discrimination and differences, so that we can no longer communicate as a harmonious whole.”
 
In ceasing to attend to the process that divides the world into self and other, good and bad, right and wrong, we discover the harmonious whole of “there is nothing wrong.”
 
The Africa Vulnerable Children Project is the practice offering through which we embody our recognition that “separation” is really the illusion, and Life is a web of glorious interconnectedness shining with lovingkindness, generosity, and goodness.
 
We participate wholeheartedly in the lives of a community on a different continent as an acknowledgement of an awareness of our shared, mutual, interconnected True Nature. It’s not a coincidence that the acknowledgement is a celebration. The joy of Intelligence knowing itself wells up from within and spills forth in dance and song and laughter and, yes, tears of gratitude.
 
 
There Is Nothing
“Fear, worry, anxiety--these form the central core of individualized selfhood. Fear cannot be got rid of by personal effort, but only by the ego's absorption in a cause greater than its own interests. Absorption in any cause will rid the mind of some of its fears; but only absorption in the loving and knowing of the divine Ground can rid it of all fear.”  – Aldous Huxley
 
In the absence of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” attention is here. Contrary to conditioned belief, thisherenow is not empty, it’s not “nothing.” It is no-thing, or All That Is.
 
It takes practice to live in the awareness of All That Is.
 
“Taking Precepts” is the practice offering through which we commit to train to live in the awareness of all that is,
         by eschewing the “authority of the voices” and
                  by surrendering to the guidance of the Intelligence That Animates All.
 
The Precepts become our guide to living in alignment with the heart, and The Truth, the Teachings and the Holy Order become our refuge. Through this process we commit to the “absorption in the loving and knowing of the divine Ground” as our primary focus, and in doing so take a giant leap forward on the spiritual path.
 
Practice becomes less about ending suffering and more about living in freedom. It becomes less about ending “my” suffering and more about “ending suffering for all beings.” Or as the Guide offered recently, we trade having a lifelong relationship with ego, attempting to transcend it, in exchange for having a love affair with Life.  
 
The ritual of renewing Precepts annually is a powerful practice structure that trains us to keep in awareness that in each moment we are choosing to be here, awake, and present, in love, with life, instead of being behind the veil of a conditioned conversation, identified with an illusion of a separate self.
 
There is... enough
“Spiritual awakening is the difficult process whereby the increasing realization that everything is as wrong as it can be flips suddenly into the realization that everything is as right as it can be. Or better, everything is.”  –Alan Watts
 
No matter how committed we are in our love affair with life, it is the nature of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to assert itself and seduce us into the byways of ignorance. We can know we are back in the world of suffering when our experience of “what is” is “too busy, not enough time.”
 
The title of the workshop with Cheri is code for resistance. “No” is simply the ego’s response to life, its maintenance strategy of defining itself in opposition to what is.
 
When we encounter resistance, we use the ego’s tactic of no against it. We redouble our practice efforts to say yes to Life and no to ego. “There is enough” becomes our mantra of acceptance.  Before long that mantra may turn into “there is plenty.”
 
As we drop into thisherenow, we notice ALL there is. This orientation of everything is allows us to experience the “deep communication with nature and the universe” where “there is nothing wrong” or “everything is as right as it can be. Or better, everything is.”
 
Practice Tip
Whether or not you are involved with or participating in any of the scheduled events for October, make a commitment to practice what each event represents.

  • Practice noticing the negative messages of self-hate and turn to the Mentor instead. Record and Listen to what wisdom, love and compassion has to say.
  • Perform a random act of lovingkindness and experience dissolving “self and other.”
  • Commit to dropping the conversation in conditioned mind for a week in October. Take refuge in the Intelligence That Animates by making a recording of what is True, what you love about Practice and the gratitude you feel for the support of Sangha
  • When you hear the refrains “I don’t want to, I don’t feel like it,” “too busy, not enough time,” practice doing what ego resists!

Record and Listen
 
Please note: the practice opportunity we did not include is the Oct. 25-Nov. 17 email class on Communication. It will possibly be the subject of a future Musings article or even our next book. We hope to see you in the class!

Gasshō
Ashwini

September 2016 Musings

Student: At a recent retreat, one of the facilitators mentioned that if I am not having fun, I am not practicing awareness. So far my experience of practice is that it is hard… it’s not fun.
 
Teacher: For whom is it not fun? 


 
God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. —Voltaire
 
“For whom is it not fun?”
 
What a profoundly simple question, and yet one that has the power to confound us completely!
 
“Wait a minute!” we might exclaim in response. “I just said I am not having fun! What does the teacher mean by ‘for whom is it not fun?’”
 
If we stick with the invitation, implicit in the question, to continue the inquiry, the Zen teacher is likely to continue to ask questions that confound us.

  • What is your experience of fun?
  • How do you know you are having fun?
  • How do you know you are not having fun? Is there a voice in your head telling you that you are not having fun?
  • How do you know what practicing awareness is? What tells you that you are or are not doing awareness practice?
  • In fact, how would you know who you are if you were not listening to a voice in the head that uses the personal pronouns me, you, and I?

Soon we are wondering….
 
“Is this teacher crazy, or am I? She must be because she is talking about voices in the head…”
 
However, if we are lucky CURIOSITY may start to take over.

  • “Does she have a point?”
  • “Do I have a voice in my head?”
  • “When is the last time I had fun? What was my experience of it?”
  • “What is awareness anyway?”
  • “How DO I know who I am?”

And, as we start paying attention to the energy of the interaction, we are struck by something else! The teacher is smiling. She seems to be enjoying this process that so discomfits me. Why?
 
When we open ourselves to this practice of questioning modeled by the teacher, we might begin to experience the source of the Zen teacher’s enjoyment:
 

Confounding the conditioning
that “assumes it knows”
and thrives on refuting or accepting without examination
what is stated.

 

Confounding conditioning is FUN!

 
It’s ONE of the things that makes practicing awareness enjoyable. We finally get to turn the tables on the system that has been controlling our lives and making us miserable since before we can remember.
 
Being curious has another benefit. It moves us from the habitual orientation of being lost in a conditioned conversation to being PRESENT, interested in the NOW, AWARE of what is. And what is, we discover, is diverting, entertaining, joyous, and interesting. Even the shenanigans of ego can be witnessed and seen to be absurd.
 
In fact, if we keep the questioning going, we reach a point when we’ve made “nonsense” of everything we “know” and give up in a fit of helpless giggles. At which point, we have truly dropped into the place from which the Zen teacher smiles.
 
We suffer because we take seriously what the Gods made for fun.
                                                                                             —Alan Watts
 
We often refer to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate as the process of “something wrong and not enough.”
 

If we are identified with a process
that is always focused on the negative,
on what’s not working, on finding fault and assigning blame,
that is petulant, peevish, irritable, grumpy, and grudging,
that is constantly judging, criticizing, grumbling, complaining, and whining
about someone or something,
are we surprised that fun is not our experience?

 
What “I” thinks is fun is almost always a set-up for going unconscious and feeling bad afterwards.  For ego-I, fun is usually about:
 
Excess: I am so looking forward to the evening. A bottle of wine, a tub of ice-cream and seven episodes of my favorite TV show! Never mind that each time I do this, my body pays such a price that I swear I will never indulge this way again.
 
Distraction: It’s going to be so much fun to watch that new movie. Never mind that it is a violent, post-apocalyptic celebration of all that is cruel and hateful and makes me wonder what the world is coming to.
 
Novelty: Life is so boring! I need something new in my life. I can’t bear to be with what life is. I have to leave this moment to find something more interesting. Never mind that the novelty wears off and I am left feeling dissatisfied.
 
We are bamboozled into believing that the reason we are not having fun is because life is so hard, the pressures of day-to-day living are too much, and the secret lies in getting away from the drudgery of everyday existence by undertaking an activity that is fun. But how often have we gone on vacation or a get-away weekend and had a miserable time because we took those pesky voices along?
 
If we drop into an experience when we were “having fun,” we notice the conspicuous absence of the voices of conditioned mind. No matter how hard the voices try to convince us of the contrary, fun is not the result of what we do.
 

Fun is the absence of conditioned mind.

 
The secret to having fun no matter what we are doing is to refuse to let the voices come along for the ride!
 
“What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts? It is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!” —Hafiz
 
When we step out of the process of “something wrong, not enough,” we move into an awareness of what is. Only then does the possibility of enjoyment actually become available.
 
NOW
 
We can be completely captivated by the brilliance of a dragonfly’s wings,
            be delighted by the astounding perfection of a praying mantis,
                        be enchanted by the antics of a furry brown squirrel.
 
A mundane task such as washing dishes
            becomes a playful adventure of slippery soapsuds and dancing bubbles.
 
The  “boring” commute home is suddenly transformed
            into a comedy of errors,
                        of red lights, shaking fists, blaring horns
                                    and unexpected stops and starts. 
 
What changed? 
 
We dropped into Awareness. Attention is on awareness and we are wholeheartedly absorbed in this moment. It does seem true that “wholeheartedly absorbed” is a good synonym for fun. For when there is no attention or energy given to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, there is no “conditioned mind” to ask the question “Are we having fun?”
 
“Laughter is the cancellation of ego.” —Katsuki Sekida
 
If the ego is doing Awareness practice, we can be assured that practice will not be fun. Since the ego takes everything seriously, its not surprising that it would make spiritual practice a very grim pursuit. This is why Zen teachers the world over repeatedly recommend the cultivation of a sense of humor.
 
In the words of Mark Twain, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." Not even egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Nothing dissolves the illusion of separation like a hearty laugh. We cannot laugh and be identified with a “self” at the same time. “Wholeheartedly absorbed in the moment” is instantly available when we are laughing hard.
 
Laughter certainly is very special. Your whole body laughs. Each atom, each cell of your body laughs, participates in it. Seriousness can never be total. It is always partial, the very other extreme of laughter. It goes on becoming narrower and narrower and narrower. The more serious you are, the narrower you become. The more you go towards laughter, the wider and the more open, the more vulnerable, the more total you become. Laughter has something religious. Seriousness is sick and irreligious. —Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
 
Laughter restores a wholeness that is fractured by the illusion of separation. When we laugh the ego out of existence, it may dawn on us that what we are seeking is not merely to “have fun” but a more permanent connection to eternal delight.
 
Saints are neither double-minded nor half-hearted, but single and, however great their intellectual gifts, profoundly simple. The multiplicity of Legion has given place to one-pointedness not to any of those evil one-pointednesses of ambition or covetousness, or lust for power and fame, not even to any of the nobler, but still all too human one-pointednesses of art, scholarship and science, regarded as ends in themselves, but to the supreme, more than human one-pointedness that is the very being of those souls who consciously and consistently pursue man's final end, the knowledge of eternal Reality. --Aldous Huxley.
 
To ego-I, the single-minded pursuit described above, implies giving up everything that is fun, denying all pleasure and enjoyment, eliminating all that makes the human experience what it is.
 
While it’s true that if we are not having fun we are not practicing awareness, it might also be important to recognize that what we are seeking on this path is of a different order than mere “fun,” and what it takes to achieve what we are seeking does require “effort.”
 
We’ve been bamboozled into believing that fun and effort are incompatible. We are told that if “effort” is involved, it cannot be fun, and if it is not fun it’s not worth doing and we should quit. Ego is especially vociferous in articulating this argument around any activity that is in the service of transcending the ego. 
 
It is in doing the work of transcending the illusion of a separate self that we arrive at the “cosmic joke,” the source of the Buddha’s serene smile or the jolly laughter of Ho Tai, the ah-ha that is expressed in the spontaneous laughter of insight.
 
There are things that even the wise fail to do,
While the fool hits the point.
Unexpectedly discovering the way to life in the midst of death, 
He burst out in hearty laughter.
—Sengai
 
It must bring a smile to our face that we’ve chosen a tradition of spiritual practice that uses humor as a tool for awakening and in which the highest form of wisdom is the fool.
 
The fool in the Zen tradition is the warm, simple, kindly, tolerant, and generous vagabond who plays with children and dances in the street from the sheer joy of being in the moment. Because he has let go of the ego, the monkey mind that is “not-fun,” he is the embodiment of the Zen attitude toward life described by Bhagvan Shree Rajneesh as “that of laughter, of living, of enjoying, of celebrating. [For] Zen is not anti-life; it is life affirmative. It accepts all that is!”
 
There’s a Zen story about Hotei. When asked “What’s the significance of Zen?” he put his sack down on the ground. When then asked “What’s the actualization of Zen?” he picked his sack back up and walked away. 
 
It seems that the only thing that does not have fun is ego-I. So we can take a page out of the Laughing Buddha’s practice by just dropping it and walking away.
 
Practice Tip:
For the next 48 hours, practice having fun and doing awareness practice. Like the Laughing Buddha, drop whatever you are carrying, whatever it is you are clinging to, whatever conversation has your attention. Then practice enjoying whatever is thisherenow. Practice having a good time! R/L

Gasshō

Ashwini

July/August 2016 Musings

Student: I could use some guidance. But I’m afraid what I say may sound unskillful! Can I just say what’s going on?
 
Teacher: By all means. How can you end suffering if you can’t bring what is causing you to suffer into the light of awareness?
 
Student: Ok, here it is in a nutshell. It seems to me that “Practice” is a rarified space in which a small group of people hangs out and talks about kindness, respect, love, presence, compassion.... It feels so out of touch with reality!
 
Teacher: And reality is….?
 
Student: Reality is people killing each other because of differences in color, religious belief, sexual orientation; the privileged manipulating power to protect their way of life, and if you follow the media, a prurient fascination for the stupid, the hateful and the divisive. How can I believe Life is intelligent and compassionate when there is so much unconsciousness and hatred?
 
Teacher: It’s the age-old question isn’t it?
 
Student: Perhaps. But it seems to me that “intrinsic purity” could be a little more pro-active! The negativity today is so ubiquitous. I can’t have a conversation with anyone without touching on the current political situation in the U.S. and what the country is coming to. I can’t walk down the street because I’m afraid the criminal element is going to open fire randomly in a crowd. I can’t open my computer without seeing something hateful about something! I can’t buy food at the grocery store for fear of how some greedy corporation might have doctored and lied about the ingredients. I don’t feel like I have a say in the kind of world I live in and that makes me feel powerless and angry and depressed!
 
Teacher: I happen to know you have a wonderful little girl at home. What did she do recently to make you laugh?
 
Student: I beg your pardon?
 
Teacher: What do you enjoy about your daughter?
 
Student: What do I enjoy about my daughter? Well… I love her innocence, her little form; she’s perfection in miniature! And now I think about it, I can’t stand the thought of her growing up in this world of violence, fear, and hatred.
 
Teacher: What’s your favorite thing to do with your daughter?
 
Student: My favorite thing to do with my daughter? Well, she loves to play in the park. We sometimes spend hours watching bugs and chasing butterflies and feeding the ducks in the pond. Just yesterday we came upon a patch of tall, wavy grasses and she decided she wanted to dance like they were dancing in the wind. It was the cutest thing! We spent a good twenty minutes standing in front of those yellow stalks, imitating their wave dance. Her world is one of perpetual delight and wonder!
 
Teacher: And when you are with her, isn’t yours?
 
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
As you read this, were you able to experience the delight of a child dancing with the waving grasses in a sunny park? If you didn’t quite get to delight, take a moment to direct attention to what you love, what you find beautiful, what you are grateful for…. Really drop into the experience. Perhaps for you it is

  • the dance of the hummingbird
  • the taste of a fresh apple
  • the soaring notes of your favorite symphony
  • the laughter of a baby
  • the peal of the wake-up bell at the Monastery
  • gazing at the silvery moon in a starry sky
  • a taste of cold water on a hot day
  • the Mentor’s reassuring presence

Directing the attention is a powerful tool to bring the mechanics of the suffering process to a screeching halt. It’s one of the best ways to put a spanner in karma’s workings. This is perhaps why you might have heard a SIBILANT whisper, dismissing the efficacy of directing attention in dealing with “violence, hatred and greed” while attempting the exercise above.

********

“It is because we don't know Who we are, because we are unaware that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, that we behave in the generally silly, the often insane, the sometimes criminal ways that are so characteristically human. We are saved, we are liberated and enlightened, by perceiving the hitherto unperceived good that is already within us, by returning to our eternal Ground and remaining where, without knowing it, we have always been” Aldous Huxley
 
The Buddha taught that ignorance is the root cause of suffering.
 
A synonym for ignorance is an absence of awareness. When attention is on a conversation in conditioned mind, there is no awareness of any reality other than the illusory one fabricated by the conversation. In this state of “collapsed awareness,” nothing exists other than negativity, despair, fear, intolerance, and darkness—the “reality” of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. What the voices say is designed to deflect attention from the awareness that there is more to Life than

JUST what’s “wrong” and
that our day-to-day experience,
INCLUDES goodness, kindness, innocence, and love.
 

When we redirect attention to compassion, kindness, innocence and love, we are

EXPANDING AWARENESS
to “perceive the goodness” that is eternally present and also is,
but gets “ignored”
when all the attention is on a conditioned conversation.

This is why we are encouraged to practice what Wendell Berry models so beautifully:
 
“When despair for the world grows in me 
and I wake in the night at the least sound 
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, 
I go and lie down where the wood drake 
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. 
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought 
of grief. I come into the presence of still water. 
And I feel above me the day-blind stars 
waiting with their light. For a time 
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
 
*******
To keep itself alive, ego-I devises some clever maintenance strategies. One of the more pernicious ones is to use “goodness” as “content” for separation and suffering.
 
Let’s take an example of a young woman whose inherent goodness is expressed in taking care of the environment.
 
This person is a vegetarian, recycles, always takes bags to the grocery store, carries her own cup into her favorite coffee shop, drives a hybrid, cycles everywhere she can, and switches off lights before leaving a room. She lives what she believes.
 
How do the voices get her?
 
She is checking out at the grocery store, and her gaze falls on a newspaper headline: “Legislature debates selling clearing rights in State Forest.”
 
She feels genuine despair. “How could anyone bear to cut down those trees?”
 
Enter Stage Right: The voices rubbing their hands with glee.
 
Voices: “That’s right! Who would cut down trees? Someone unfeeling, short-sighted and focused only on what benefits them! Guess that describes all our elected officials. I hate politics! I just heard that X Corp funded Mr. Y’s campaign. What chance do trees have in the face of rampant human greed! I guess I just wasted that money I donated to the Redwood Fund.”
 
Cue water running down the sidewalk from neighbor’s sprinklers…
 
Voices: “See there! People are so unconscious! Doesn’t he know there’s a drought? Why can’t people see that water is precious? I can’t believe I live in a town that does not have the sense to pass laws to enforce water usage. It’s hopeless…”
 
An analysis of how separation and suffering is created…
 
Input: Anything we care about.
Process: Convert into a conversation about “What’s wrong with a world and everyone else who doesn’t care about it!”
Result: A separate someone (delusion) attached (greed) to a point of view that she needs to defend against those (hate/aversion) who do not care about what “I” care about.
 
The takeaway from catching this bamboozle in action is that the content of the conversation is irrelevant.
 

Being in a conversation about how goodness is being violated is
STILL BEING IN A CONVERSATION!

*******

When we are talked into believing the “world needs to be different,” we buy into the assumption that we are not PART of all that is. Blaming an “outside force” for how the world is removes the need for us to take any responsibility for the only transformation that is possible: Ours. How we are is how the world is. The world does not have to be different; we do.
 
Here is a little Zen story to illustrate the movement we are all called to make:
 
An old woman decides to join a Zen temple famed for its beauty. She is inspired by the way the monks tend to and take care of their surroundings. Every cushion, every tree, every rock, every plate is treated with exquisite reverence and tenderness. One day, on her way to the meditation hall, she notices a bucket of dirty water near the side gate.
 
“This is so not like the monks,” she thinks. “I hope they remember to put it away. It looks so out of place where it is.”
 
The next day, she notices the bucket is still there. “I can’t believe someone did not notice this dirty bucket!” she exclaims.
 
The bucket is still there when she walks to meditation…

The next morning,
            and the morning after that,
                        and the morning after that.
 
Each time she walks by the bucket she gets angrier and more puzzled. Her beloved temple is being “despoiled by a bunch of unconscious monks who won’t pick up after themselves!”
 
A month goes by and then it drops in. “I’m a monk! This is my temple. Perhaps putting away the bucket is for me to do.”
 
We have a saying in Practice that “we grow up spiritually when we stop thinking about what we can get and start thinking about what we can give.” Conditioning fights to keep us small, to keep the awareness collapsed so we never admit to ourselves that we canbe the change we want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
 
When awareness is expanded, it’s not that “greed, hate, and delusion disappear.” But it appears, from the vantage point of ALL that is, that “greed, hate, and delusion” cease to occupy a disproportionate amount of space and time. Expanded awareness allows for something other than a conditioned reaction. From center, we experience what the lives of our spiritual heroes demonstrate: that it is possible to counter hatred with compassion, greed with generosity, egocentricity with unconditional love.

Conscious compassionate awareness
      will not respond in a way
            that continues
                   to perpetuate greed, hate and delusion.

*******

When we believe the voices that say there is something wrong with you, we are robbed of an acceptance of our divinity, of the awareness that we are inherently the light that dispels darkness. Perhaps spiritual maturity is accepting and stepping into the responsibility, that we are and can choose to be the light in the darkness.
 
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge to ourselves
            that our spiritual aspiration
                                    is nothing short of becoming the Buddha.
 
“The saint undertakes appropriate training of mind and body,” … the aim of training “is primarily to bring human beings to a state in which, because there are no longer any God-eclipsing obstacles between themselves and Reality, they are able to be aware continuously of the divine Ground of their own and all other beings ; secondarily, as a  means to this end, to meet all, even the most trivial circumstances of daily living, without malice, greed, self-assertion or  voluntary ignorance, but consistently with love and understanding.” Aldous Huxley
 
Cue voice: “Wait a moment. Who says we are going for sainthood?”
 
It is easy to get caught up in the results achieved by “saints” of our time such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa and create a standard of sainthood that feels out of reach. Here we might turn to another saint for a perspective.
 
“God requires a faithful fulfillment of the merest trifle given us to do, rather than the most ardent aspiration to things to which we are not called.” St. Francoise de Sales.
 

Perhaps we train to be saints in the lives we live.
Perhaps we aspire to sainthood through simple acts of love and kindness.
Perhaps our saintliness is expressed by dancing with little children in the park and taking out the garbage cheerfully.
Perhaps we are saints because we
choose to put ourselves on the difficult path to practice compassion instead of judgment in each moment
 
And when the voices cause us to feel
that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,”
we can remember
the ocean would be less because of that missing drop
AND DO IT ANYWAY!

****** 

Practice:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who liked walking to the beach in the morning before beginning his work day. One morning, after a huge storm, he noticed the beach littered with starfish, stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can see.  A little child was also walking on the beach. Periodically the child would stoop, pick up a starfish and throw it back into the sea.
 
 “I don’t want them to die when the sun comes up,” the child explains when asked.
 
“But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference,” said the old man.
 
The child picks up a starfish and throws it into the sea and smiles. “It made a difference to that one!”
 
- adapted from “The Star Thrower”
 
Assignment:
Practice living in an experience of expanded awareness.
 
What is your experience of being the little child on the beach? Record the many ways in which you have made a difference. How have you “faithfully fulfilled” the “trifles you were called to do?”
 
Record your experience of being the STARFISH that was returned to the sea. How has Life treated you with kindness, compassion, and unconditional love? 

Gasshō

Ashwini

June 2016 Musings

Some of us had the great privilege of attending a retreat at Carmel recently, the subject of which was the mystical poems of Rumi. Deep Gasshō to those who shared their insights and experiences and inspired this edition of Musings.
 


Student: Since the last Musings article, I have been looking at the practice of “Yes. Please. Thank you. I Love you.” It seems to suggest that everything in Life is a gift for me that I should gratefully accept. I am trying to practice with this but am having trouble with both acceptance and gratitude.
 
Teacher: Nothing in practice is a “should.” Say more about what troubles you.
 
Student: Well, I grew up in horrible circumstances and went through some really painful stuff. I can accept that it happened, I suppose, but I don’t feel any gratitude that it went the way it did. In fact, I keep wishing it had not!
 
Teacher: Does this line from Rumi resonate?  Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror up to where you are bravely working.
 
Student: I am not sure. Are you saying that what I’m feeling is not wrong and that I’m working up to feeling gratitude for what happened?
 
Teacher: Well… Perhaps acceptance is a process? Perhaps acceptance comes over time through letting go the orientation that what happened should not have happened? Perhaps we have to learn that we are “ok” not with what happened but despite it? Perhaps gratitude arises because we are required to find compassion for ourselves as we learn to accept what is?
 
+++++
 
The human shape is a ghost,
made of  distraction and pain.
Sometimes pure light, sometimes cruel,
trying wildly to open,
this image tightly held within itself.
 
“There is suffering.” If this were not the First Noble Truth, the significance of this simple statement of the shatteringly obvious could be easily overlooked. Through it the Buddha offers a powerful and important teaching to those making the spiritual journey. If we seek to awaken to the mystery of All That Is, it seems that we are required to accept ALL that is as it is, not just the parts “I” prefer.
 
A candle is made to become entirely flame.
In that annihilating moment, it has no shadow.
It is nothing but a tongue of light
describing a refuge.
 
As the verse suggests, spiritual transformation is nothing less than metamorphosis. It’s as dramatic a process as the word suggests, for it appears that the ignorance limiting the awareness of our intrinsic purity can only be dissolved in the fiery crucible of practice.
 
I am amazed at the seeker of purity
who when it's time to be polished
complains of rough handling.

 
Accepting that “rough handling” is par for the spiritual course is an important realization. It takes practice to comprehend that what complains of “rough handling” is what gets rubbed away. The ego kicks and screams and protests and resists its annihilation.
 
Our default identification with the illusion of a self separate from life causes us to believe that the pain, humiliation, shame, guilt, and resistance we sometimes experience on the spiritual journey is ours. If we stick with it, we are blessed with a growing sense of acceptance that “the blows are not against the rug, but against the dust in it.” What’s more, it opens us to the question of who or what is delivering the blows.
 
The thirsty man is moaning, “O delicious water!”
The water is calling, “Where is the one who will drink me?”
The thirst in our souls is the magnetism of the
Water: We are Its, and It is ours.
 
The path demands an all-consuming energy, effort, and willingness from us, and yet it’s accomplished by a grace that we don’t command. The realization of Grace is the joyous comprehension that we are part of a force of attraction that has union as its trajectory. Now everything in our life, no matter how difficult or painful, becomes a spiritual opportunity, something we get to work through to experience the fulfillment of magnetic resonance.
 
In the words of Alan Watts:
Spiritual awakening is the difficult process whereby the increasing realization that everything is as wrong as it can be flips suddenly into the realization that everything is as right as it can be. Or better, everything is as is.
 
While all this may be true, the last thing we want to hear when we are experiencing something painful or difficult is a glib comment along the lines of “Everything happens for the best” or “It’s a gift from Life, accept it gratefully.”  What we’re really looking for in those moments of struggle is unconditional acceptance of our experience, validation of our pain, reassurance that there’s someone on our side—some sympathy, kindness, and support.
 
We seldom if ever receive what we need if, like most conditioned humans, we are listening to voices of self-hate.  
 
Practice offers us a way to embrace all that arises in our lives in conscious compassionate awareness. Two-handed recording is the practice tool often recommended when the “going gets rough.” Here are the mechanics of the exercise.

  1. Place the recorder in your right hand and start recording. Talk to the recorder as you would a close friend or a therapist. Really allow yourself to express what you are feeling, without censoring. Say everything you ever wanted about what you are going through.
  2. Stop the recorder. Breathe. Sit with this experience. Then, placing the recorder in your left hand, listen to the recording you just made giving it your full attention. Really listen.
  3. Keeping the recorder in the left hand switch it on and offer what comes up for you to assist and comfort the person you just listened to.
  4. Listen to the recording you just made. 

Those who have done this exercise often report feeling healed by it. This might not happen the first or even second time through. Just keep doing the exercise until you feel heard. Sometimes it is a person’s first experience of truly feeling heard, listened to, and understood. This tool, however effective, is not just a way to “feel better.” Each step is a powerful training in unconditional acceptance that transforms the candle into a flame of refuge.
 
In step one, we train to be present to our experience, to bring conscious awareness to what is. We learn to transcend the conditioned process of ignoring, avoiding, suppressing, rationalizing, denying, or intellectualizing our “reaction” to what is arising that only serves to maintain the ego-identity.
 
In step two, we learn unconditional acceptance. In listening without judgment, we open to the possibility that Life can and does contain in awareness all of the energies of existence—anguish, rage, fear, betrayal, disappointment, bliss…
 
In step three, we practice being the wisdom, love and compassion that can offer clear and practical comfort and assistance. This step may prove elusive but is essential. When it most counted for each of us, we received and believed the message “there is something wrong with you.” Only through the lens of compassion can we experientially arrive at the truth of the inherent goodness of Authentic Nature.
 
In step four, we learn to receive unconditional love. We make real for ourselves that who and how we are is unconditionally accepted and loved.
 
As we deepen our familiarity with this tool, we open to the fundamental spiritual truth that Life is, and that we have the tremendous capacity to be present to All that is as it is. As we practice this process of unconditional acceptance, we realize that the love we offer and receive is the Unconditional Love that we are. In the words of Rumi:
 
You are gazing at the Light
With its own ageless eyes.
 
As we practice this process of acceptance, there still may be that lingering question as to why, despite our willingness and sincerity, we continue to fall into karmic traps. We might have to accept that we may never know the answer to why it is so. Perhaps faith is the ultimate expression of the Unconditional and the portal through which we meet the Buddha within. Absolute acceptance of what is seems a small price to pay to live in the Mystery of Unconditional Love and Joy. 
 
Practice Tip
What stands in your way of being a flame of refuge?
 
For the next 48 hours, choose an issue in your life that causes suffering where absolute acceptance is still difficult and the conversation is still about wanting it to be different than it is. Practice the two-handed recording exercise as a way to expand the container of compassion, train in unconditional acceptance, and participate in the process of removing the “barriers to love” so the lover can be “consumed by the Beloved.”
 
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article are by Rumi. 
 

Gasshō

Ashwini

May 2016 Musings

Student: I’ve heard you say many times that we can end suffering in this lifetime?
 
Teacher: Yes. It is the possibility that the Buddha offered us.
 
Student: So how do we end suffering?
 
Teacher: We learn to say yes.
 
Student: We learn to say yes?
 
Teacher: Yes. Suffering ends when we say yes to what is.
 

 

 
At the entrance to the Monastery garden stands a smiling statue of St. Francis of Assisi. (Yes. St. Francis! We do mean it when we say we practice “Everything (and everyone) is the Buddha!”) This statue has been an inspiration recently for many lively group discussions around the topic of “non-separation.”
 
“Non-separation” might sound like an esoteric subject to discuss, but it is the Holy Grail for Awareness Practitioners. To be with Life, to be completely one with all that is, to embody unconditional love and acceptance, to be empty of the ego process that creates the illusory world of opposites, preference, something wrong and not enough is what we spiritual aspirants ardently long for.
 
St. Francis serenely models (even in stone) what it means to have “achieved” spiritual bliss. One can project that he’s so in tune with inherent goodness, so profoundly still, so completely full of Life and absent of ego that he poses no threat to any form of life. As if he were a tree (a gorgeous expression of the Intelligence That Animates), birds and squirrels, butterflies, ants and bees nonchalantly alight on St. Francis, responding to the open invitation of his outstretched arms.
 
As we pause before this statue on our way to the Monastery garden, or when we stop in front of anything in our lives that calls us to a longing for this mystical experience of union with the Divine, however we might say that
 

“When the sweet glance of True Love caught my eyes,
Like alchemy, it transformed my copper-like soul.” - Rumi
 
“Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.” – Ryokan
 
“And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts;
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” – William Wordsworth
 
“I wish I was safe enough for a sparrow to land on me.” - An Awareness Practitioner at the Zen Monastery

 
…we become aware that longing stands in the way of having this experience of oneness.  
 
In the moment we notice the longing to be that quality we so respect and admire in St. Francis or the Buddha or Jesus or Gandhi or Mother Teresa, we are actually being it. Our direct experience of that state of being is projected onto the person with whom we are associating the quality.
 
When we say:
 
“Oh, she is so kind and generous. I wish I could be that loving,”
 
what we are really saying is
 
“My present experience is kindness, generosity and love.”
 
We’re experiencing awareness being aware of kindness, generosity and love in that moment. We are experiencing these qualities NOW.
 
We are seldom, if ever, allowed to stay with an awareness of oneness, with a deep recognition of a quality of True Nature. Attention is immediately hijacked by conditioned mind and
 
presence,
receiving, and
union (belonging, connection, acceptance, joy, peace, compassion, love) are believed to be experiences we desire but rarely have.
 
How absurd it would be if the sun, instead of basking in the life-giving radiance of the light that it is, hung around in the universe longing to be like the silvery light of the moon?
 
This is the way with us…until it’s not.
 
We spend our lives seeking to be something we already are and we suffer terribly as a result
 
…until we come to Practice.
 
Practice assists us to awaken to Authentic Nature.
 
As we practice cultivating the skill of paying attention, we notice the movement of attention that mutates an experience of “what is” to an illusion of “what is not.” We can then train to simply stay with what is, whatever it is.
 
Whatever it is might be a mosquito and not a butterfly.
 
As far as we can tell, St. Francis did not say no to the mosquito and yes to the butterfly. All the heroes that have gone before us on this spiritual path have reported that
 
an unequivocal and universal acceptance of All,
a peaceful surrender to Life’s terms,
an attitude of “thy will be done”
 
are requirements for spiritual bliss.
 
If there is even an iota of attention going towards wanting something to be different than it is (I wish it were a butterfly not a mosquito), we are attending to “what is not.”
 
There is nothing wrong with preferring a butterfly to a mosquito. It’s simply a missed opportunity. We cannot be attending to a preference and also be here for what is—the wonder of the mosquito.
 
To be St. Francis is to achieve that state of surrender from which whatever arises in life is welcomed and gratefully received.  
 
This is why many in our Practice enjoy the mantra “Yes, Please, Thank You, I Love You.” It is the practice of ending attention on “what is not.”
 
Yes = Acceptance
Please = Surrender
Thank You = Gratitude
I Love You = Unconditional Love
 
When we can live from the perspective of “everything in life is a gift, everything in life is for me,” we have ended suffering.
 
In practicing acceptance, surrender, gratitude and unconditional love, we are no longer indulging the illusory belief that another reality where “this is not happening” exists. There is no resistance to what is, no rejection of what is so, no desire for what is not. We embody the empty teacup open to seeing what Life is offering because it “has been sent as a Guide from beyond.” (Rumi)
 
Saying “Yes” is peacefully surrendering to the possibility that we might have to train with ants, mosquitoes and flies first, before we train with butterflies and birds. (Insert any content for ants and butterflies!)
 
This attitude of “Yes, please, thank you, I love you…” frees us up to be with all expressions of the Intelligence That Animates, painful and pleasurable. What we learn in the process of “being with” is that “all of it,” whatever “it” is, is divinity itself and is always changing. Contrary to what the voices say, we discover we can stand the anguish of endings and the exquisite delight of beginnings. In fact, it is in the awareness of the trembling transiency of the moment that we feel intensely and joyously alive. In that moment, we embody “spiritual bliss.” We are St. Francis, the butterfly and the mosquito, and “non-separation” is no longer simply a subject of discussion but an immediate and vivid experience.
 
In that moment… there is no longer longing
                            there simply is…
 
Practice Tip
For the next 48 hours, practice receiving everything arising in life as a Life offering. Greet the offering with the mantra of “Yes. Please. Thank You. I Love You.” Stop and ask the question “How is this a gift for me? What can I receive from this gift?” Let Life reveal the answer. Record and Listen.
 
 
Note: This Musings Article was inspired by a recent interaction with the Guide. Click here to listen to this group.

Gasshō

Ashwini

April 2016 Musings

Student: I’ve been working on a project for someone I love. It isn’t something I enjoy doing, but I’ve felt tremendous joy as I do the work. I feel connected to this person and very loving because I project what I’m doing is of value to him.
 
Teacher: I sense a “but.”
 
Student: Well, while I was working on this project, this person called me to discuss something unrelated, and in the course of the discussion made a comment that cut me to the quick. It was trivial but revealed a level of insensitivity to “me” that I felt the joy in the project evaporate. I am not sure I can be enthusiastic or joyful or wholehearted about the project anymore!
 
Teacher: So, there is a story, perhaps, that “he” robbed you of joy by what he said?
 
Student: Yes! He hurt my feelings and I can’t get past that. There’s no energy or inspiration to work on the project.
 
Teacher: Is he going to appreciate it any less now than previously?
 
Student: No. But I don’t feel the same way about him.
 
Teacher: Do you think you were doing the project for him or for how it made you feel?
 
Student: I’m not sure. There was definitely joy, and then the joy evaporated. It was a shift in energy. That’s all I know. Now I don’t want anything to do with him or the project.
 
Teacher: So he is the enemy, you are the victim, and the project is abandoned?
 
Student: And there is no joy. I want the joy back.
 
Teacher: Are you sure the joy came from doing the project for him?
 
+++++++++
 
It’s a familiar process to be excited by an idea, thrilled by an experience, enamored with a person, stimulated by an activity, inspired by something we hear or read, and come away believing that the idea, experience, person, activity, book, or teacher is the reason for the way we feel.
 
We are then surprised to find ourselves not feeling the way we felt previously when we pursue the idea, experience, person, teacher, or activity. So the idea, person, experience, activity, author, teacher, or practice is discarded as we go off in pursuit of a new idea, person, experience, teacher, practice, or activity that promises us the experience we are seeking. To be disappointed again!
 
We are deeply conditioned to believe that our well-being, happiness, joy, and peace of mind stem from “externals”: from the job, relationship, event, project, idea, person, house, car, insurance policy.
 
If “externals” are the source of our happiness and satisfaction, it follows that if we are unhappy or dissatisfied the problem is with the “externals” and we need to “fix” those “externals” in some way.
 
This orientation traps us in endlessly rearranging the content of our lives.

  • Having problems with a partner? Get rid of the partner.
  • Coming up against a painful situation? Pop some painkillers to numb the pain.
  • The service was not good? Demand a refund.
  • Something is not going to plan? Find someone to blame.
  • Having issues at work? Look for another job.
  • That experience was not fun? Don’t do it again.
  • There’s too much to do? Work harder.
  • Excited by an idea? Figure out how to put it in action.
  • He said something to hurt my feelings? I am no longer going to do that thing for him.

It takes a lot of practice to “get” that when we experience “something wrong, not enough,” we don’t have to change the “externals.” Rather than firing the employee, breaking up with the partner, finding a new job, etc., we practice losing interest in, letting go, firing, ignoring, breaking up with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate!
 
With practice, it also eventually becomes evident that satisfaction in any flavor (joy, love, happiness, peace) is not the result of the external object to which it is usually associated (sunsets, vacations, perfect jobs, dream lovers).
 
In fact, joy, love, happiness, and peace are some of the labels we associate with being present. We might even say that whenever we are HERE, whatever the “external” circumstances, we feel joy, love, peace kindness, happiness or compassion.
 
To make that concrete…
 
It’s not the gorgeous sunset that fills me with a wonder that breaks my heart open. My heart breaks open when I am present to the sunset.
 
We know this is true, because we’ve all had the alternate experience. If I am attending to a conversation in conditioned mind—planning dinner, rehearsing an argument, reviewing an interaction with my boss—the beauty of the sunset doesn’t even register.
                                                                       
This has wide application in our lives!
 
Suffering as a process has many flavors—judgment, comparison, criticism, hatred, fear, anxiety, anger, intolerance, separation, longing, dissatisfaction, deprivation, resentment, hostility, inadequacy. When we are attending to suffering, we experience one or more attributes of the suffering process.
 
Awareness has many flavors—beauty, joy, peace, compassion, acceptance, oneness, equanimity, love, connection, adequacy, generosity. When we are attending to awareness, we experience the flavors of awareness.
 
Attention is either on the process of suffering or on awareness.
 
When we experience the attributes of suffering, we can redirect the attention to awareness and experience any flavor of awareness!
 
This takes practice. Don’t be surprised if the first hundred instances of redirecting the attention “don’t work.” This is what often happens when “it is not working.” Say I am practicing with anxiety.

  1. I notice I am anxious.
  2. I redirect attention to peace, say.
  3. Wait a minute! Am I feeling less anxious?
  4. No! This is not working. What am I doing wrong?

What happened?
 
Instead of staying with peace (step 2), attention rapidly moves to conditioned mind to see if “I am feeling less anxious” (step 3). The anxiety producing process says, “Of course not. You are still anxious! This is not working!” What else would an anxiety producing process say?
 
It takes practice not to check back with the suffering process to determine if we have stopped suffering. In fact, it takes practice to stay with the experience of attending to awareness.
 
So the next time you are thrilled by an idea, inspired by a book, enchanted by a beautiful flower, excited by a project, or enamored with a person, practice attending to what it feels like to be thrilled, inspired, enchanted, excited, or enamored. Recording the experience, feeling it in the body, being wholeheartedly present to the sensations allows us to register the experience in awareness and then return to that flavor of awareness at any time. Listening to recordings of what “is” also supports us in this practice of attending to awareness.
 
In the absence of the process of suffering that objectifies life, we have a direct experience of what is. What is is always a process—it is a how not a what
 
For example, when we feel joyful, we are in the process of joy. Joy is. We recognize that joy is object independent, and we can experience joy whenever we turn attention to Joy.
 
Conditioned mind is likely to chime in with an “object-ion” here.
 
“So,” it might say, “if I can attend to (as if that were possible!) peace or joy or love, does that mean I no longer want a loving partner, a fulfilling job, a project that excites me, or an activity that lights me up?”
 
Of course not!
 
Being present opens up the possibility of being in any flavor of awareness, and to bringing that flavor of awareness to whatever content is arising in the moment. With a shift of attention, a “dull” project can become exciting, a boring event can become fun, or an irritating person can be viewed with compassion. We can stay in the excitement of a possibility without putting it into action. We can feel connected to life even when we are alone.  
 
How we are becomes how we experience life.
 
In the words of Ram Dass:
Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It's love for no reason, love without an object.

And …
There is no Love greater than Love with no object. For then you, yourself, have become love, itself. ~Rumi
 
Practice Tip:
For the next 48 hours, practice directing the attention to a flavor of awareness.
 
Begin with an object, if it is easier—someone you love, some object of beauty, an idea that inspires you, the tree that fills you with awe, a child that delights you. Follow the projection and register the flavor of awareness in the body. Make a recording of this experience of awareness.
 
When you find yourself getting identified, listen to the recording and practice redirecting the attention to this flavor of awareness.
 
For extra credit: As you approach a task or activity that you normally avoid, dislike, or resist, practice turning your attention to a flavor of awareness. Can you stay in that awareness as you do the task or activity? R/L

Gasshō

Ashwini

March 2016 Musings

Student: Our whole practice is about unconditional love, how “Everything is the Buddha,” and how all of life is acceptable to Life, yes?
 
Teacher: Well, unconditional love is what we practice.
 
Student: So if nothing is outside of Life, would it be fair to say that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate is also Life? To transcend all dualities, all separation, wouldn’t we have to accept the voices as part of Life?
 
Teacher: It’s my favorite question not to answer! Let me ask you this: does accepting the voices as a part of Life assist you to transcend them? Does it move you away from suffering?
 
Student: It might stop me from feeling bad when I get identified. If the voices are part of Life, then when I am identified that’s not a mistake either.
 
Teacher: What has you believing that identification is a mistake?
 
Student: Are you saying that it’s an illusion that there are mistakes or that what has me believing in mistakes is the illusion?
 
Teacher: What is your experience?
 
Student: If I’m believing it, it’s real, and part of Life? It has to be.
 
Teacher: Have you heard the famous interchange between Bodhidharma and his student Huike?
 
Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”
“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”
 

+++++++

 
If there is nothing wrong, then how can the voices be something we need to overcome? If nothing is outside of Life, isn’t Mara the Buddha? If everything is Divine, does God condone evil?
 
It seems these inquiries are inevitable at some stage of Practice. Why do we ask these questions? Do we have a sincere desire to know the answer? Perhaps we want proof that our faith is well-founded. Perhaps we want irrefutable, logical Truth. Perhaps we crave the comfort of a certainty that’s beyond all doubt, an Absolute that cannot be impeached.
 
We may experience frustration when we ask this kind of “fundamental” question in all sincerity and receive a non-answer. Often, the Practice response is a faint, compassionate, and somewhat indulgent smile, accompanied by encouragement that we can see is a deflection! We retreat and stew in the impotent energy of being denied, however that manifests—discouraged, resentful, furious, fed up, determined, or curious.
 
When we read the stories of the Buddha’s life, we see how similar we are to every spiritual aspirant that has walked the Path before us. We relate to those disciples who speculated that the Buddha didn’t answer questions such as “why does suffering exist” or “why does the ego exist” because he himself did not know the answer. When Malunkyaputra, in frustrated fury, threatened to leave the Buddha’s side if he did not answer his questions on “the nature of the Self” and “the existence of the Divine,” the Buddha supposedly smiled and gently replied, “When you took to the spiritual life, did I ever promise you I would answer these questions?”
 
The Buddha went on to say, “What do I not teach? Whatever is fascinating to discuss, divides people against each other but has no bearing on putting an end to sorrow. What do I teach? Only what is necessary to take you to the other shore.”
 
Debating such things as duality, the existence of the ego, the nature of good and evil can be fascinating. But we can see how theological differences in the answers produce the deep divides of religious factions and warring nations, and we’ve experienced within ourselves the carnage of battle between one voice of ego and another, each advocating its position.
 
In the practice of transcending duality, it feels important to know if the ego is Life or not Life. In the practice of unconditional love, it feels necessary to extend kindness to the voices. But is it?
 
Not getting an answer when we ask such questions is a clue that we are asking in a way that’s not helpful in moving us towards what we seek.
 
A “Zen response” is meant to confound the questioner’s beliefs, not impart knowledge. As Alan Watts suggests, its “design is…to get rid of a false problem with which you are wrestling so that the problem will disappear, and produce an ‘ah ha!’ reaction in you of ‘Oh but I see! Now it’s clear!’”
 
In that moment of clarity, we see that what asks the question is what we are trying to transcend. Ego, asking if ego is real or a part of Life or acceptable to Life, is simply egocentricity maintaining itself. Something other than ego is required to startle us into the answer, from which the absurdity of the question is revealed—not the conditioned sense of “absurd” that mocks and judges but a delighted laughter arising from an awareness of the absence of that to which the question is important!
 
Conditioning bamboozles us into giving our attention to the content of the question—the reality of hearing voices, the irrefutable evidence of a self that lives life, the memory of having a history in existence. How can that not be true?  But, if we’re not distracted by the question, would we have an awareness of life that is outside the framework of conditioned mind? Why debate the reality of a voice in the head if it stands in the way of something more?
 
Yes, we hear voices. Yes, we get identified. Yes, our practice is to choose not to attend to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Yes, our language sounds as if it creates a preference for a Light Room versus a dark room. But nothing in practice advocates a choice for freedom because there is something wrong with suffering. In fact, only that which creates suffering would condemn it as wrong!
 
All the Buddha said was suffering exists, it has a cause, and it’s possible not to suffer.
 
As our practice deepens and the process that divides life into what is and is not Life gets planed away, our awareness grows more and more subtle. Our experience of “reality” moves beyond conditioned mind’s wildest imaginings; we drop into a place where identification and personality dance with awareness and nonseparation.
 
Life, we discover, has no absolute answers or promises of certainty, just a delighted and spontaneous laugh at its own futile quest to limit and know what is infinitely mysterious and beyond knowing! 
 
Practice Focus:
For the next 48 hours, through the magic of laughter, practice confounding ego’s desire to know, to be serious, and to understand. Walk out and witness a smile appear as you take in the mysterious perfection of a flower, the enchanting music of a tiny bird, the majestic movement of clouds across the sky, the towering wisdom of an ancient tree. Feel yourself bowing in deep Gassho, literally or metaphorically, at the dawning realization of the oneness of All That Is, that is “you,” mirrored in that experience. Watch with delight the disappearance of the illusion of separation and the absence of the desire to know.
 
Record and Listen.

Gasshō

Ashwini

February 2016 Musings

Student: I have been spending time with someone I care about deeply. And I have watched them consistently choose a karmic pattern that is self- destructive...or, rather, maintains the “self” instead of taking care of the human.
 
Teacher: It moves us to compassion, doesn’t it, to see someone tortured by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate in that way?
 
Student: I wish! That’s exactly what I want to explore. The practice success for me is that I didn’t have my typical conditioned reaction. I was able to refrain from participating in the karmic dance, but I watched a different orientation arise that perturbs me.
 
Teacher: Which was?
 
Student: My “detachment” felt like separation: “I can’t help you if you keep choosing suffering. I can’t be around you if you want your karma. Why do you want to suffer when it’s unnecessary and something else is possible? If you don’t care enough to make a different choice, why should I care about you?”
 
Teacher: So there was judgment?
 
Student: Yes, there was judgment! I felt there was something wrong with the person because they choose to suffer! Nothing I said made a difference so why bother? I guess I was not all that disidentified. 
 
Teacher: Good to see, yes? The attention moves from one process of suffering,  identity maintenance, to another, aversion, but behind it all is that familiar undertone of “something wrong.”
 
Student: So you are saying that “I” did not react as I previously would have, but the attention was still in the clutches of egocentricity.
 
Teacher: Exactly, and it’s not surprising, is it? It’s an old groove. How many times have you chosen suffering over freedom and received compassion instead of judgment?   
 
Student: Very true. Until I actively practiced cultivating a relationship with the Mentor, the judgment was directed towards “me” by the voices of self-hate. So how do I work with this? How do I relate to this person?
 
Teacher: How about practicing loving them unconditionally? What if they are in your life to assist you to choose lovingkindness no matter what?
 
Student: I almost knew you would say that! Does that mean I ignore or support my loved one’s karmic choices?
 
Teacher: Interesting isn’t it, how unconditional love becomes equated with condoning egocentricity. Perhaps that’s your koan? What would “love” do?
 

******

“The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the “monstrous” nature of the earthly human realm as well as its “glory,” the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed.” Joseph Campbell
 
One of the more challenging places in practice is to accept and live from the realization that everything in life is Life.
 
This requires us to drop all identities – including the “me” that feels affronted by what is perceived as karmic, evil, cruel, unjust, unconscious and hateful.
 
Immediate resistance arises when we contemplate this level of unconditional acceptance. It feels fine to give up an identity of “being bad” but to give up an identity of “being good”?   
 
We are deeply conditioned to equate complete acceptance of “what is” with a passive and tacit participation in the perpetuation of “something wrong.” How can anything be different/change if “I” don’t at least articulate or protest “my” objection to the status quo?
 
If we let go, even for a moment, the “self” righteousness of “my” emotional response, we realize that practice is not advocating tolerance of evil or giving up goodness. Its only encouragement is letting go the process that creates and maintains the illusion of separation and divides Life into what is and what is not acceptable.
 
If we pay close attention, we will see that one of ego’s ultimate stands is its assertion that “I” can change “what is.”
 
As long as we are busy discussing the impossibility of tolerating a pedophile, a Hitler, the corporation that destroys an ancient forest or the government that passes an unjust law, we don’t see the “conversation” as just another bamboozle to keep alive the illusory world of opposites with “I” at its center.
 
Greed, hate and their by-products have always existed and always will as long as egocentricity exists. Only in transcending the illusion of a separate self can greed and hate be dissolved. It’s no small wonder then, that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate’s best strategy to maintain itself is bamboozling us into believing the answer lies in solving (or at least talking about) the problems created by egocentricity – drugs, war, discrimination, prostitution, trafficking, environmental destruction, government, social evils, poverty – rather than dissolving the ego. In fact the voices are quick to turn this deeper realization of the need for inner transformation into an indictment of a “passive” response to the world’s ills!
 
This is why the Buddha taught, “Love heals hate.” For where there is unconditional love, there cannot also be an “I.”
 
But how do we practice/cultivate unconditional love?
 
“Love focuses on the goodness of Life in all its expressions and augments that which is positive. It dissolves negativity by re-contextualizing rather than by attacking it.” Daniel Hawkins
 
This quote gives us a clue to a potent karmic circuit breaker in the face of “other” people’s unconsciousness and a practice doorway to the unconditional.
 
Ego’s response to unconsciousness is aversion, anger or intolerance often expressed as judgment or criticism. If we can expand awareness to acknowledge “all formations are subject to suffering,” we have access to compassion.
 
Compassion arises in accepting that the seed of what makes “you” behave unconsciously is also in “me,” that we’re all tortured by the same process of self-hate and we’re all subject to the universal process of karma. It’s the human experience to be identified with an ego. It’s not personal. And there is nothing wrong with it.
 
Compassion re-contextualizes karma by dissolving judgment and breaking down the illusion of separation.
 
Tolerance becomes available as soon as we see the person suffering.
 
Assistance then becomes a possibility. Instead of attacking “Life” from a place of “something wrong,” we open to the grace of another way of being, an expanded awareness that is patient, kind and respectfully supportive of where someone is. In other words, there is a dawning recognition, that every human being is a node of the Intelligence that Animates waking up to itself.
 
We could say that compassion arises as the recognition that we all suffer because we are all deluded by the same process to believe that we are separate from Life. Unconditional love arises as the recognition of the reality of the oneness of all that is, joyfully engaged in the process of transformation.
 
Unconditional love is a powerful process of “being not doing.” It takes tremendous practice not to believe the voices that dismiss it as a weak, vulnerable, or futile response to the “problems” created by the “ego.” As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
 
When we move from judgment to compassion to unconditional love we have transcended the “mind that created the problem.” We are no longer in the process of ego that created the duality of self and other in the first place.
 
What arises as a response towards “unconsciousness” from this place of non-separation will be dictated by the moment. We can never know what that will be. What we can know is that, in that moment, a node of the Intelligence that Animates has awakened to the joy of knowing itself and ended suffering for all.
 
Practice Focus
 
“Compassion dispels the illusion of separation
Unconditional love confirms the reality of oneness.”
 
For the next 48 hours, practice the movements of the karmic circuit breaker…
 

  • Watch judgment arise.
  • Breathe.
  • Re-contextualize: Expand the awareness to recognize ego in action.
  • Does compassion arise when you acknowledge that the source of suffering is the same for all?
  • Breathe
  • Re-contextualize: Expand the awareness to acknowledge authenticity awakening
  • Does unconditional love arise from a sense of connection to the suchness that is all that is?

 
Note: Do not check with conditioned mind to determine if compassion and love are your experience.
 
Be patient!
 
R/L your practice experience.

Gasshō

Ashwini

January 2016 Musings

Student: I have been spending time with someone I care about deeply. And I have watched them consistently choose a karmic pattern that is self- destructive...or, rather, maintains the “self” instead of taking care of the human.
 
Teacher: It moves us to compassion, doesn’t it, to see someone tortured by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate in that way?
 
Student: I wish! That’s exactly what I want to explore. The practice success for me is that I didn’t have my typical conditioned reaction. I was able to refrain from participating in the karmic dance, but I watched a different orientation arise that perturbs me.
 
Teacher: Which was?
 
Student: My “detachment” felt like separation: “I can’t help you if you keep choosing suffering. I can’t be around you if you want your karma. Why do you want to suffer when it’s unnecessary and something else is possible? If you don’t care enough to make a different choice, why should I care about you?”
 
Teacher: So there was judgment?
 
Student: Yes, there was judgment! I felt there was something wrong with the person because they choose to suffer! Nothing I said made a difference so why bother? I guess I was not all that disidentified. 
 
Teacher: Good to see, yes? The attention moves from one process of suffering,  identity maintenance, to another, aversion, but behind it all is that familiar undertone of “something wrong.”
 
Student: So you are saying that “I” did not react as I previously would have, but the attention was still in the clutches of egocentricity.
 
Teacher: Exactly, and it’s not surprising, is it? It’s an old groove. How many times have you chosen suffering over freedom and received compassion instead of judgment?   
 
Student: Very true. Until I actively practiced cultivating a relationship with the Mentor, the judgment was directed towards “me” by the voices of self-hate. So how do I work with this? How do I relate to this person?
 
Teacher: How about practicing loving them unconditionally? What if they are in your life to assist you to choose lovingkindness no matter what?
 
Student: I almost knew you would say that! Does that mean I ignore or support my loved one’s karmic choices?
 
Teacher: Interesting isn’t it, how unconditional love becomes equated with condoning egocentricity. Perhaps that’s your koan? What would “love” do?
 

******

“The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the “monstrous” nature of the earthly human realm as well as its “glory,” the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed.” Joseph Campbell
 
One of the more challenging places in practice is to accept and live from the realization that everything in life is Life.
 
This requires us to drop all identities – including the “me” that feels affronted by what is perceived as karmic, evil, cruel, unjust, unconscious and hateful.
 
Immediate resistance arises when we contemplate this level of unconditional acceptance. It feels fine to give up an identity of “being bad” but to give up an identity of “being good”?   
 
We are deeply conditioned to equate complete acceptance of “what is” with a passive and tacit participation in the perpetuation of “something wrong.” How can anything be different/change if “I” don’t at least articulate or protest “my” objection to the status quo?
 
If we let go, even for a moment, the “self” righteousness of “my” emotional response, we realize that practice is not advocating tolerance of evil or giving up goodness. Its only encouragement is letting go the process that creates and maintains the illusion of separation and divides Life into what is and what is not acceptable.
 
If we pay close attention, we will see that one of ego’s ultimate stands is its assertion that “I” can change “what is.”
 
As long as we are busy discussing the impossibility of tolerating a pedophile, a Hitler, the corporation that destroys an ancient forest or the government that passes an unjust law, we don’t see the “conversation” as just another bamboozle to keep alive the illusory world of opposites with “I” at its center.
 
Greed, hate and their by-products have always existed and always will as long as egocentricity exists. Only in transcending the illusion of a separate self can greed and hate be dissolved. It’s no small wonder then, that egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate’s best strategy to maintain itself is bamboozling us into believing the answer lies in solving (or at least talking about) the problems created by egocentricity – drugs, war, discrimination, prostitution, trafficking, environmental destruction, government, social evils, poverty – rather than dissolving the ego. In fact the voices are quick to turn this deeper realization of the need for inner transformation into an indictment of a “passive” response to the world’s ills!
 
This is why the Buddha taught, “Love heals hate.” For where there is unconditional love, there cannot also be an “I.”
 
But how do we practice/cultivate unconditional love?
 
“Love focuses on the goodness of Life in all its expressions and augments that which is positive. It dissolves negativity by re-contextualizing rather than by attacking it.” Daniel Hawkins
 
This quote gives us a clue to a potent karmic circuit breaker in the face of “other” people’s unconsciousness and a practice doorway to the unconditional.
 
Ego’s response to unconsciousness is aversion, anger or intolerance often expressed as judgment or criticism. If we can expand awareness to acknowledge “all formations are subject to suffering,” we have access to compassion.
 
Compassion arises in accepting that the seed of what makes “you” behave unconsciously is also in “me,” that we’re all tortured by the same process of self-hate and we’re all subject to the universal process of karma. It’s the human experience to be identified with an ego. It’s not personal. And there is nothing wrong with it.
 
Compassion re-contextualizes karma by dissolving judgment and breaking down the illusion of separation.
 
Tolerance becomes available as soon as we see the person suffering.
 
Assistance then becomes a possibility. Instead of attacking “Life” from a place of “something wrong,” we open to the grace of another way of being, an expanded awareness that is patient, kind and respectfully supportive of where someone is. In other words, there is a dawning recognition, that every human being is a node of the Intelligence that Animates waking up to itself.
 
We could say that compassion arises as the recognition that we all suffer because we are all deluded by the same process to believe that we are separate from Life. Unconditional love arises as the recognition of the reality of the oneness of all that is, joyfully engaged in the process of transformation.
 
Unconditional love is a powerful process of “being not doing.” It takes tremendous practice not to believe the voices that dismiss it as a weak, vulnerable, or futile response to the “problems” created by the “ego.” As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
 
When we move from judgment to compassion to unconditional love we have transcended the “mind that created the problem.” We are no longer in the process of ego that created the duality of self and other in the first place.
 
What arises as a response towards “unconsciousness” from this place of non-separation will be dictated by the moment. We can never know what that will be. What we can know is that, in that moment, a node of the Intelligence that Animates has awakened to the joy of knowing itself and ended suffering for all.
 
Practice Focus
 
“Compassion dispels the illusion of separation
Unconditional love confirms the reality of oneness.”
 
For the next 48 hours, practice the movements of the karmic circuit breaker…
 

  • Watch judgment arise.
  • Breathe.
  • Re-contextualize: Expand the awareness to recognize ego in action.
  • Does compassion arise when you acknowledge that the source of suffering is the same for all?
  • Breathe
  • Re-contextualize: Expand the awareness to acknowledge authenticity awakening
  • Does unconditional love arise from a sense of connection to the suchness that is all that is?

 
Note: Do not check with conditioned mind to determine if compassion and love are your experience.
 
Be patient!
 
R/L your practice experience.

Gasshō
Ashwini

December 2015 Musings

Home for the Holidays
 

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she's unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling over it.
I'm always moved by disaster, always eager to oppose vitality
But timid also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
According to nature.
 
For my sake she intervened
Brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down
Across the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to God, that nothing else explains
My aversion to reality.
She says I'm like the child who
Buries her head in the pillow
So as not to see, the child who tells herself
That light causes sadness-
My friend is like the mother.
Patient, urging me
To wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person-
 
In my dreams, my friend reproaches me.
We're walking
On the same road, except it's winter now;
She's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:
Look up, she says.
When I look up, nothing.

Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
Like brides leaping to a great height-
 
In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.

It's this moment we're trying to explain, the fact
That we're at ease with death, with solitude.

We're very quiet.
It's peaceful sitting here, not speaking,
The composition
Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-
It's this stillness we both love.

The love of form is a love of endings.

--- 
 
We come to the end of another year.
 
Endings seem to have particular flavors – flavors of rest, celebration, contemplation, transition, renewal...
 
But what does a year ending actually mean? A journey of 584 million miles around the sun, who we’ve become, what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve left undone, what we look forward to?
 
Tradition marks this arbitrary passage of time through space with the observance of the holidays.
 
A holiday or “holy day” used to be a special time set aside to contemplate the divine, welcome a new season or commemorate a passing phase of life.  Was there ever a time when an occasion for peace, love and joy was untainted by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate?
 
For many conditioned humans, the holidays are fraught with anxiety, depression, frustration, dissatisfaction, irritation, disappointment and guilt. Celebration takes a back seat to surviving the karmic crucible of family, travel and tradition.
 
It is perhaps for this reason that Zen Practice does not set aside holy days or seasons of celebration.
 
We are training to be here, to be present, to be in life, for whatever it is, not for how “I” think it should be, how “I” want to feel, or how “I” want it to go.  The attitude of mind we cultivate is that every day is holy, every season is a cause for celebration, every moment is an opportunity to witness the sacred.
 
We practice learning not to shut our eyes, to notice without judgment, to see with unconditional acceptance and let go without effort that which stands in the way of “loving the world.”
 
Nothing authentic wants a holiday from existence. Awareness is always joyfully “on.” Why miss the glorious experience of Life unfolding through an instant of inattention? 
 
If we bring awareness to the “longing for a holiday,” we would see that what we really want is respite from the noisy, incessant and persistent conversation in conditioned mind. Without egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, Life would be a holiday in the true sense of the word.
 
Perhaps this holiday season it is time to reclaim the holy. Instead of seeking relief from the “voices in conditioned mind” through behaviors that cause us to go unconscious, let’s practice giving Life the best possible gift – the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.
 
A Recipe for Presence
 
Prep Time: Now
 
Ingredients: This

  • A sprinkle of laughter
  • A touch of the sacred
  • A dash of joy
  • A taste of kindness
  • A bit of compassion
  • A pinch of glee

 Instructions: Here

  • Mix with gratitude
  • Garnish with celebration

Serves ALL
 
Practice Focus
As this year comes to an end, practice

  • Sitting peacefully in the love of stillness
  • Celebrating your love of Life
  • Dancing to celestial music
  • Offering a gift of lovingkindness
  • Serving a recipe for presence

Record and listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

November 2015 Musings

 

An ABC of Awareness Practice.
 
In a recent workshop, the Guide offered a startling observation that stopped the group in its tracks: “The Mentor’s job is not to make you feel better,” she pointed out. Really? Wow! It seemed a good idea to interrupt the conventional format of the Musings to explore the importance of that statement and its application to our practice.
 
Three years ago, we committed to stop feeling bad. This quote from Aldous Huxley summarizes why: ”Self reproach is painful; but the very pain is a reassuring proof that the self is still intact.” Feeling bad keeps the attention on an “I” at the center of the universe while obscuring the ability to see how we are conned into doing the unskillful things that self-hate can beat us up over. Feeling bad reinforces the very process of egocentricity that the spiritual practitioner is attempting to transcend.
 
“Feeling better” is the same process as “feeling bad,” it’s just the other side of the duality egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate uses to keep the “I” as the focus of the attention. When the “mentor” gives encouragement that condones conditioned behavior so that we “feel better” about what we “feel bad” about, it’s time to stop and take stock of who is in charge of our Awareness Practice.  This is not to say that the “real” Mentor is not kind, helpful, encouraging, and unconditionally accepting of the human. But the Mentor seldom provides comfort in lieu of clarity.
 
The voice of the Mentor is the guide of a practice of Awareness, a tough and kindly advocate for the heart, a trustworthy friend willing to hold the line and give us information that will be most helpful to waking up. We recognize the attitude of mind with which we turn to the Mentor in these lines from the Way of Transformation.
 
The one, who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers refuge and comfort and encourages the old self to survive. Rather, they will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help one to risk oneself, so that they may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it.
   
Risking the “self” is not in the interest of the ego-survival system. And so the ego, masquerading as the “mentor,” directs the conversation to endlessly examining and reporting on the ego-process. The result of ego contemplating ego is that the karmic loop continues uninterrupted.
 
With conditioning at the helm, “practice” becomes: “I make a commitment to meditate daily. I am talked into not meditating. I don’t feel bad since that is no longer the thing to do. My R/L practice invites the person not meditating to talk about what’s going on for them. I report on how the voices do what they do to stop me from meditating. And then I feel comforted because the Mentor tells me I am doing my best.”
 
Suffering happens. Meditating does not.
 
Yes, we need to pay attention to how the voices do what they do. But once we see how the process of unconsciousness happens around a particular piece of content, the next step on the path to freedom is to practice bringing conscious awareness to the process. Awareness Practice is not just understanding karmic chemistry; it is alchemy—transforming karma into consciousness.
 
The practice tool to catalyze a change in consciousness is a change in behavior. Behavior changes require us to pay close attention, to expand awareness, to be very present so we can short circuit the conditioned reaction before it has a chance to unfold. It’s not so much the behavior change as the awareness being brought to changing the behavior that is the transformation.
 
For example, instead of focusing on the ways I am talked out of meditating, (what the ego-I would prefer to do!), there begins to be a focus on what needs to be done to ensure that I meditate.  I begin to pursue how to make something work instead of being stuck in the analysis-paralysis of why it’s not working.
 
Conditioning’s focus is on what’s wrong, what’s not working, what’s not enough. When we are identified with conditioning, we see through the negative lens of ego-I and the world is reduced to a singularity of negativity. There’s no awareness of anything else. This is why the Buddha taught that “ignore-ance” is the root cause of suffering. Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate reduces “All” to “me.”
 
To escape the black hole of the dark room where awareness has collapsed to what’s wrong, we have to expand awareness. The practice phrase we have adopted to describe this process is Appreciative Inquiry. Turning attention to appreciation of what is allows us to do exactly that. Attention moves to the field of awareness and suddenly life is sky, warmth, breath, flowers, birds, trees, people…. We have access to gratitude, delight, compassion, acceptance, curiosity and insight.  
 
If ego is chiming in at this point to say that appreciative inquiry is not different from “feeling better,” it behooves us to have the experience for ourselves. In this practice, we use appreciation in the same way we use acceptance. We point to an orientation of acknowledging what is without employing the conditioned dualistic process that divides what is into negative and positive, right and wrong, good and bad.
 
Appreciative inquiry is the expanded perspective that looks at the garden and sees and enjoys the flowers, the fruits, the butterflies and the weeds. There is awareness that weeding is only one aspect of gardening and an obsession with weeding misses the totality of a garden experience.*
 
You are the aperture through which the universe explores itself.  --Alan Watts
 
Appreciative inquiry becomes the practice of expanding the aperture of awareness and being one with the experience of the joy of Intelligence knowing itself. A moment of presence allows for an alchemy of consciousness where a conditioned reaction can be transmuted to compassionate response.
 
So when Life offers difficult content to practice with, we can employ the ABC of Awareness Practice.
 
·     Appreciative Inquiry – trade negative ego lenses for an appreciative, expansive, and open focus that leads to an inquiry of a
·     Behavior change – that supports an authentic life response instead of perpetuating a conditioned behavior in discussion with the Mentor who offers
·     Clarity not comfort – that we may be assisted in receiving the wisdom that allows us to transcend the karmic process of suffering.
 
*The garden reference is from a Zen story explored in I Don't Want To, I Don't Feel Like It, How Resistance Controls Your Life And What To Do About It, by Cheri Huber and Ashwini Narayanan.
 
Practice Tip
For the next 48 hours, practice the ABC of Awareness Practice. Record and Listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

October 2015 Musings

Student: I have been sitting with something I heard you say in group recently. “Until we have suffered enough, we don’t make the choice to end suffering.”

Teacher: Yes. Takes the pressure off the process of transformation, doesn’t it?

Student: Well, I never thought of it that way. In fact, I had trouble accepting the teaching. It sounded harsh to me!

Teacher: Harsh?

Student: Yes, an indictment of sorts. When I hear you say that suffering is a choice, it makes me feel misunderstood and a little resentful. I am doing my best! It’s not like I want to keep suffering. I am not making a choice to suffer. More often than not, the conditioned reaction happens and it does not feel like I have a choice in the matter.

Teacher: Hmm… Let me tell you an old Zen story.

A student came to study at a monastery. The teacher gave him this koan to work with, “ What is the sound of one hand clapping.”

The student meditated for three years but could not pass the koan test. He came to the teacher in tears and admitted his failure, declaring that he had no choice but to return to his homeland in shame.

The teacher advised him to stay another week and give the koan one more try. A week passed and the student was no closer to the answer.

“Another week,” said the teacher and the student obeyed but his meditations were in vain.

In this way another year passed by.

Finally the student begged the teacher to release him. The teacher considered his request gravely and then said, “ All right. Meditate for another three days and three nights and if you are not enlightened on the morning of the third day, I think you should kill yourself.

The student retreated to the zendo and sat in meditation.

On the second morning, he awakened.

******

What do we mean when we say we have a choice?

Choice is defined as the ability to make a decision between one or more alternatives.

Does “not having a choice” mean there are no options and only one course of action is available?

More often than not, it seems we say “I don’t/didn’t have a choice,” not when there aren’t alternatives, but when it seems the alternatives are sub-optimal, when we have to settle for the least unpalatable option, when we feel we are “compelled” by unavoidable circumstances to choose a direction.

Here is an example: I have a job that I don’t like very much, and on occasion I am asked to do things that I don’t agree with. But I need the money and so I put up with the work environment. I could look for another job, but there are a dozen reasons why that won’t work.  My alternatives are stay and be miserable or leave and be without money. And since I need money, “I don’t have a choice” but to stay and be miserable. (Note: the alternatives do not include find a job I love that provides plenty of money!)

What’s interesting about confessing to being a “victim of circumstances” is the accompanying need to absolve ourselves of the “responsibility.” If we look deeply, a hint of an excuse, a tinge of defensiveness, a trace of shame, or a dash of rationalization accompany any admission of having “no choice.” This brings us to the question: What does shifting the blame to circumstances really buy us?

It would surprise no one doing Awareness Practice that this process of “I don’t have a choice” buys us nothing.

The “victim stance” simply maintains an orientation of a “me” in opposition to a problematic existence. The conversation of being choiceless perpetuates the process of something wrong. It keeps “ego-identity” as the focus of attention.

We are deeply conditioned to be the right, good, person who does the right, good thing. If what we do does not meet the conditioned standard of “good” or “right,” (both the standard and the assessment of performance are “made up” in conditioned mind) then we have to find a way to justify our actions or rationalize our behaviors to avoid being labeled as bad. From within this conditioned program, we fail to see that attention is on a conversation through which an “ego” that has no interest in right or wrong is using our life force to perpetuate itself. In other words, right or wrong is not really the point as long as a “someone” who is occupied with the question of right or wrong is maintained.

Any opportunity to transcend the ego world of opposites—to see what is, without the lens of good and bad/right and wrong—has to be thwarted by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. A conversation that frames my choices, defends “my lack of choice,” and casts me as a victim of circumstances is just another way to control and capture the attention.

Outside the illusory ego world of opposites, from the vantage point of nothing wrong, we can see what the Buddha taught: it’s possible to suffer and it’s possible not to suffer. There is no “better” choice. But there is a choice.  The choice is the focus of attention.

We are either attending to that which causes us to suffer, or we are not. When we cultivate awareness of attention, we have the option of directing what attention attends to.

When we become aware that we are “the voice” that is defending choosing suffering over ending suffering, we have a choice to drop the voices! It is a perfect occasion for ego to hijack the awakening process by getting us to attend to a diatribe of how “listening to voices” makes us unworthy spiritual aspirants! When we are no longer willing to entertain one more beating, we will stop entertaining those voices. This is simply how it is.

Participating in the process of transformation, of training attention on awareness, is the willingness to choose not to indulge what condemns, judges or makes meaning of how “ending suffering” unfolds.

It’s hard for conditioned mind to wrap itself around willingness without “a someone who wills.” But if attention is not on conditioned mind, it is possible to discover what conditioned mind cannot grasp.

Perhaps it takes the threat of death (as in our Zen story) to summon the willingness to make the choice for something other than a conditioned orientation to life. Since life or death is the choice in every moment, for both the ego and the human incarnation, isn’t it marvelous that it is possible to awaken simply because we can and choose to?

Practice

Exercise 1

Recall some of the instances in your life where you felt you did not have a choice. Record the story of this person. Without the lens of judgment, spot the conditioned identity that was defended and maintained through those “choices.”

Exercise 2

What are some of the ways in which the voices keep you believing you are a victim of circumstances? How are you talked into defending choosing ego over Life?

Exercise 3

For 48 hours, practice attending to the process of ending suffering. Set a timer. When it goes off direct the attention to thisherenow, to a process of gratitude, love, appreciation, acceptance, kindness. Record and listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

August 2015 Musings

Student: Being asked for money or having to ask for money is a hard place for me. I really struggle with it.  I watch a deep cringing sensation arise when someone mentions making donations at the end of a retreat or starts to talk about fundraisers for the Bridge Walk.  I don’t want to be asked for money, and I don’t want to ask for it!
 
Teacher: What have you seen about it so far?
 
Student: A lot of conditioned beliefs!  Here are some things the voices say: ”I pay for my participation and its unfair to ask for more! Why can’t the programs be priced to cover the expenses? I feel manipulated – they make me feel expansive and then take advantage of my gratitude. Gratitude might give if it were not asked! Even this Practice is not above commercial concerns! I don’t have enough to give!  If I could give more, wouldn’t I? This can’t be a well-run organization if it can’t be financially viable without handouts! I don’t want to have to ask other people to support something that they are not even interested in!”
 
Teacher: Hmm. So an identification with a process of separation and scarcity?
 
Student: I am not sure I know what you mean when you say that. What do you mean?
 
Teacher: I project the conversation leaves you feeling alienated from Practice. If Practice worked differently in terms of money, you wouldn’t feel so bad.
 
Student: Yes. That is exactly what I feel. And I see what you mean about an orientation of scarcity. I project the organization does not have enough, and I don’t have enough, and lack becomes what I get focused on.
 
Teacher: Yes.  So you are told you don’t have enough, but you need to give to something you have benefitted from. You can’t do that but you should, and you feel resentful that you must! So what do you do?
 
Student: I just avoid the whole thing. I don’t give when I am asked and I don’t do fundraisers.
 
Teacher: Do you value this practice?
 
Student: Of course I do! It’s changed my life. I don’t know where I would be without it!
 
Teacher: So you were grateful that it was there for you when you needed it?
 
Student: Yes.
 
Teacher: Do you want Practice to be available so others can benefit from it the way you have?
 
Student: Of course I do! It never occurred to me that I might take responsibility for the continued availability of Practice.
 
Teacher: Exactly. Conditioned mind has a very narrow and transactional lens: “I” pay for what “I” get. It is all about consumption! But Life is anything but transactional! Do you know the story of the King who had a shortage of milk in his kingdom?
 
Student: Vaguely.
 
Teacher: Well, to ensure that everyone had milk, the king ordered a milk collection drive. The subjects were each instructed to bring a measure of milk to the storehouse at an appointed time. Everyone in the kingdom assumed that everyone else had enough, and that they were the only one’s enduring a shortage. So almost everyone watered down his or her jar of milk, assuming that the dilution would be unnoticeable when mixed with everyone else’s undiluted milk. The appointed day arrived and each person emptied their watered down jar of milk into the great vats that had been set out. And to their dismay, when each received their portion, there was more water than milk and all of them left disappointed—what they’d put into the vat was no longer usable.
 
Student: So what you are pointing at is that if we are identified with ego, there is no awareness of being part of all that is?
 
Teacher: Well actually, what is is made up of all of us. What we are and what we do is what is.
 
Student: Yes, I see. It is only because someone showed up to give that I was able to receive the benefits of Practice.
 
Teacher:  Yes. And if we extend that perspective, how is any of Life “mine” to give away in the first place? It’s all Life, and we are just revolving doors for Life’s abundance - sometimes giving and sometimes receiving.
 
+++++++++++++++++
 
There is a Precept that reads: “Not to be avaricious in the bestowal of the teachings.”  We often translate this Precept as “the teachings are freely offered.”  Looking at what  “free” means in the context of charging for practice programs is an interesting exploration.
 
“Free,” to conditioned mind, gets limited to mean “without a financial cost.” There seems to be a deep belief that anything money related sullies “intrinsic purity,” and so spirituality and money cannot be mixed.
 
If we recognize that it is the ego that is greedy, avaricious, grasping, coveting and stingy, that the ego is an orientation of consuming, lack and deprivation, we would want to do everything we can to let go the ego! Conveniently, egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has made the content of money the scapegoat for all evil. “People with a lot of money are greedy and selfish; you shouldn’t have a lot of money; you should have a lot of money; you should feel guilty about what you have; you should have more; you’re greedy for wanting more.” Attention is so pre-occupied with our beliefs about money, that we fail to see the real culprit behind our confusion about wealth, giving, having and wellbeing is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.
 
It is true. Everything in practice is offered freely – without any agenda, thought of gain or profit, or belief in outcome.
 
Pricing philosophy is simple and practical–how can we remove cost as a barrier to participation, while also being responsible for the expenses related to offering a program?
 
We attach a price to a practice offering to bring awareness to “value.” As Oscar Wilde put it, “ Nowadays everyone knows the price of everything and the value of nothing!” Practice looks at value not in monetary terms but from the perspective of acknowledging the worth of the person one gets to steward and save. How much time, effort, priority, and attention are we willing to bring to the practice of waking up?
 
On a side note: Ego dismisses what is “freely offered,” despite its hoarding mentality. It is true that conditioning will most likely convince us to show up for what we have paid for! Authenticity has the last laugh when Practice leverages conditioning to ensure participation in the very things that liberate the human from the grips of ego!  
 
Practice does not confuse greed and sustainability. Nothing the Buddha taught indicates that money is intrinsically bad or spiritually dangerous. Practice models compassionate livelihood and compassionate endeavor. When avarice is not the orientation and profits are not the intention, then it is possible to be kind, mindful, respectful and reverential in generating what is needed to freely offer what we have to give. This is as true for us in our own lives as it is for Practice.
 
Practice can operate freely because it does so without the fear that it may one day cease to exist.  At the heart of the way Practice is offered is a surrender to Thy Will Be Done. Life decides. It would seem that so long as Practice is beneficial to Life, Life will provide what is needed to support its continuation.
 
The structure of Practice always assists us to make the movement from suffering to freedom. In inviting us to take an active role in supporting the continuity of practice, we are encouraged to explore what it means to stop being a consumer and to start being a steward. We are given the opportunity to see what arises for us as we go beyond the orientation of scarcity and separation. What is it like to live in the recognition of our place in the “family of things”?
 
 If we pay any attention at all, we instantly “get” that the sense of feeling outside of Life is illusory.  We are here, living, breathing and being animated. We are a necessary aspect of existence-in-the moment, simply because we ARE. If we accept that, would there ever be a question of not participating wholeheartedly and contributing to the wellbeing of the whole?
 
Chief Seattle wrote a marvelous letter that Joseph Campbell quotes in Power of Myth. One of the powerful lines in this letter states, “Humankind did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves and to all of Life.”
 
Practice Tip:
How does egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate keep you in an orientation of scarcity and deprivation? What are you not allowed to receive in your Life? What aspects of the Intelligence that animates you are you not allowed to express or offer to Life?
 
For 48 hours, practice accepting that what you are is what IS. If that is so, how would you want to be?
 
Record and Listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

July 2015 Musings

Rescuing Aspects of the Personality.
 
In the last Musings article, we brought awareness to the possibility of egocentric karmic conditioning /self-hate’s masquerading as the Mentor, using practice language, and even coming to workshops and retreats. In this issue, we attempt to clarify one of the five processes that are the foundation of our awareness practice: subpersonalities, or aspects of the personality. It seems that conditioning has co-opted this awareness tool to create suffering and capture the attention. (The other four processes are projection, beliefs and assumptions, disidentification and centering.)
 
A subpersonality is an adaptation to social conditioning. It is a childhood survival strategy that arises when a basic impulse encounters a conditioned standard and is forced to adapt to the standard. A child that is teased too much might develop a Protector or Defender subpersonality. If a child is not given enough attention, a Rebel might emerge, or a Loner without needs. (There are many possibilities.) Every rejected need, every belief and assumption created as a result, and every defense mechanism put in place to compensate becomes a subpersonality, an “aspect of the personality.” In this way, the illusion of an “I” or “me” comes into being. But we are not the monolithic “I” we believe we are. Indeed, we are each a wide array of identities.
 
The Buddha taught that each person is made up of these aggregates, and that a constant, unchanging self is an illusion. When we mistakenly believe we are the personality, which is “an ever-changing blend of ingredients or skandas—form, sensation, perception, conditioned desires and self-consciousness,” we live in ignorance of our true nature and we suffer as a result. Our spiritual practice is to transcend the illusory “self” and recognize conscious compassionate awareness as our authentic nature.
 
But if there is no “self,” finding compassion for aspects of the personality as a way to end suffering can seem like a contradiction. However, when we first come to Awareness Practice, patiently teasing out subpersonalities is a remarkably helpful way to cultivate awareness . Along the way, we practice embracing all aspects of the personality in the wisdom, love, and compassion of the Mentor, as we stop taking personally the condemning, judging, and rejecting voices of self-hate. We practice moving attention from the process of personality to the process of compassion. Instead of reacting as a “someone” stuck in an out-of-date survival system, we spot subpersonalities as they are triggered, and we allow conscious compassionate awareness to respond spontaneously to Life arising.
 
So how has conditioning taken over this enlightening, liberating awareness tool?
 
Conditioning appropriates the process of identifying subpersonalities and uses it to author a narrative in which the “child” that was injured in the “process of social conditioning” becomes the inconsolable focus of attention. It creates a “someone” to whom something “wrong” has happened, and then it tells and retells the “story” as if it were “true.”
 
We hear practitioners referring to “young” parts of themselves that are wounded, afraid, anxious and unable to meet the responsibilities of an adult life. No matter how much mentoring is offered, these aspects of “me” remain immune to unconditional love, continuing to act out, hide out, and indulge their conditioned behaviors. The focus of practice becomes a process of offering “compassion” to “little people,” who aren’t little people at all. The practitioner is bamboozled into believing that because the “self” claims to be young, vulnerable, helpless and victimized, it is a “genuine little child” that needs to be rescued. With this clever, dexterous deception, the survival system has managed to redirect the attention from transcending the illusion of a self to maintaining it.
 
Once this is pointed out, conditioned mind wants to go on a campaign to banish subpersonalities, to remove “aspects of the personality” from the vocabulary of practice, to strategize how to avoid talking about “parts of me,” while spending time trying to figure out “what is ego, what is authenticity, and how do we tell the difference.” 
 
The point of practice is not to “know” but to be aware. We use the framework of a practice structure such as subpersonalities to encounter and transcend what we’ve been tricked into believing we “know.” In the words of Wei Wu Wei, “One must know that one is not in order to be able to understand that we are.”
 
To beat ego at its own game, we use every opportunity where a “sub” digs in its heels and refuses to be embraced in conscious compassionate awareness to let go yet another way conditioning creates and maintains suffering. Once we recognize ego maintenance in action, we can redirect attention away from the story of the “young part of me/I” to thisherenow and an experience of authentic nature.
 
This movement does require us to grow-up! As we choose to let go a survival system that no longer serves us, we step into an orientation of living life instead of surviving it. We practice realizing we no longer are dependent or needy but completely adequate to our Lives.
 
Wei Wu Wei poetically describes this.
 
A myriad bubbles were floating on the surface of a stream.
“What are you?” I cried to them as they drifted by.
“I am a bubble, of course” nearly a myriad bubbles answered,
and there was surprise and indignation in their voices as they passed.
But, here and there, a lonely bubble answered,
“We are this stream,” and there was neither surprise nor indignation in their voices, but just a quiet certitude.
 
Practice Tip:
In cultures across the world, gods and goddesses represent the different energies of existence--as in the god of thunder and the goddess of compassion. Divinity animates us. Is there a spark of the divine trapped in a survival system that can be brought into the light of conscious compassionate awareness? Pay attention to conditioned behaviors and see if the Mentor can access and liberate an aspect of the personality that is serving ego instead of being freely available to Life.

Gasshō

Ashwini

June 2015 Musings

Student: I have been looking at the precept around anger. I’ve been so aware of it in different forms lately – a flash of irritation, simmering resentment and just outright rage.
 
Teacher: You are aware of course that the precept says, “Not to be angry.” It does not say, “Not to get angry.”
 
Student: Actually, I hadn’t seen that nuance. But I see what you’re saying. “I am angry” is an identity being maintained through a story?
 
Teacher: Yes. We can experience ALL energies and we do, in the moment. It’s a classic ego maintenance strategy to be a “someone” with anger issues. So what is ego “angry” about?
 
Student: Well, I consider myself a sincere practitioner who has wholeheartedly participated in everything practice has to offer. After years of struggle, it feels like I am finally in a good place. Life is happier, kinder and sweeter. Then I heard you say that having “a more comfortable egocentric life” is not what practice is about. It was like being slapped. I felt criticized. I felt like my practice success was being dismissed.  I have been sitting with a simmering resentment that could best be described as “What right have you to say that about me!”
 
Teacher: Hmm.  So instead of “Interesting, I get to find out what that means,” the ego took it personally and turned it into “something wrong with you?”
 
Student: Yes! I see how being angry stops me from examining what is actually going on. And, I suppose my reaction is a signal for me to look more closely.
 
Teacher: Yes. Conditioning would love to lull us into being “comfortable” with the “depth” of our practice so we stop practicing. It is a spiritually dangerous place when ego-I is “happy” and can persuade us to consult how it feels as a way to make practice choices.
 
Student: Since “I” had such a violent response to your comment, it is clear that ending suffering is not about “being comfortable.” What is it about, then?
 
Teacher: You get to find out, yes? Here is a place to start looking: Is it possible to be comfortable with discomfort?
 
 
All things are without a self.
One of the core teachings of the Buddha is Anatta or “All things are without a self.” As long as there is a sense of “me,” there is suffering. Letting go of “me,” what “I” am, allows us to embrace what is.  The path of waking up and ending suffering, therefore, involves the transcendence of “identity.”
 
The willingness to bring the spirit of inquiry to the process that creates and maintains the illusion of a self separate from life, is Awareness Practice. When we stop being curious about what “I” says it prefers to do or not do, we have stopped pursuing identity transcendence and moved into identity maintenance. The life force is still in service to the ego, even if it currently feels “enjoyable.”
 
When there is a challenge or an invitation from practice, ego-I focuses on the content of the invitation or challenge and decides, “That is not for me,” “That’s not who I am,” “I don’t want to do that.” In Awareness Practice, it is never about the content. Whether we actually implement or execute the content of the invitation/challenge is never the point. The point is to remain willing to explore and let go the “me” that is being maintained as a result of the “no.”
 
If our focus is on waking up to what is, then we are on the quest to let go anything, “positive or negative,” that stands in the way of seeing what is so.
 
It is always more difficult to transcend a socially acceptable identity than to transcend a socially unacceptable one. For example, why would I not want to be the kind of good person who is helpful, easy-going, responsible and caring? This is exactly the kind of question that “I” would ask to deflect the attention from truly looking to see the beliefs and assumptions operating behind the “someone” who is that “good person.” If I am not defending my identity as a good person, if I had nothing going about being good, then would there be any resistance to examining what good is?
 
Most of us who start down a spiritual path are aware to some degree that there has to be more to life than what “I” am experiencing. Perhaps we even superficially comprehend that letting go the “I” doing the experiencing may be the key to resolving our dissatisfaction. What we are never prepared for is how violently opposed the “self” is to being transcended, nor the forms resistance can take to the process of transformation.
 
With practice, we realize that from within the ego maintenance system it is almost impossible to recognize we’re inside it. Karma hides in plain sight and counts on us being desensitized to its familiar presence. It is essential that we practice paying attention to resistance because it may be our only clue that we have encountered an unexamined realm of ego.
 
Once we encounter ego’s resistance, we recognize the wisdom of surrounding ourselves with the mirrors that can reflect, on a moment-by-moment basis, where we are—in Life or in identity maintenance.
 
This is especially true if we have been practicing for an extended period of time.  We can know that ego-I will use practice language, masquerade as the Mentor, be willing to “pay attention,” even agree to come on retreat as a way to maintain itself. In fact, ego has no problem assuming the identity of a spiritual practitioner. We must be ever alert to the very real possibility—even probability—that practice has become the content of identity maintenance.
 
Conditioning frames the choice for Life over ego as a hardship. We’re told that choosing Life, choosing practice, means we will have to give up something that’s important to “me.” This tactic is, of course, meant to scare us away from making Life choices. As tyrants around the world have proved, as long as we are afraid, we can be controlled. In saying yes to exploring what challenges the ego, pursuing what ego-I says no to, we are saying yes to freedom from the causes of suffering.
 
Practice Focus
Whenever we encounter an ego boundary that we’re preparing to transcend, we will run into ego-I’s resistance. The resistance can manifest in different ways—anger, anxiety, fear, preference, procrastination, rejection, inattention, disinterest, indifference, derision, complacency….
 
For the next 48 hours, pay attention to ego boundaries. Notice where the “Do Not Trespass” signs are posted. Practice taking the risk of making the ego uncomfortable as you step past the ego border control point. See if you can discover the Life experience being denied you by the identity maintenance system. Record and Listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

May 2015 Musings

Student: I love the focus on training. It has completely changed the way I set up practice commitments. In fact, I have been trying to model the principles I see used at the Monastery in the practice structures I create. The principle that has been most helpful to me is the non-negotiable nature of guidance.
 
Facilitator: Would you say more, please?
 
Student: There is an explicit encouragement to explore whatever comes up in my practice, and there is an implicit protocol for interaction. Guestmaster notes are a great example. If I receive a note that says please close the doors carefully, then I pay attention to how I close the doors.
 
Facilitator: So the structure provides a direction, and it is your job to implement it while working with everything that comes up for you around that?
 
Student: Yes! I’m so conditioned to want to explain that I did not mean to bang the door shut, that it was an accident, that I was trying to rescue a bug, that it happened only once and it will never happen again and it would be unfair to judge me on this one instance for not doing something perfectly and beg for forgiveness and ask for absolution.
 
Facilitator: And not being able to do all that allows you to practice something different?
 
Student: Yes. First, I get to practice making it not about “me.” When I do that, I open to being “guided” to see something other than the conditioned process. And then I can make the movement from an orientation that regards the world as “something wrong and to be defended against” to something I am part of and can participate in.
 
Facilitator: So there is an opening to being assisted?
 
Student: Yes. Appreciating that the guidance is for my benefit allows me to discover what the benefit is of attending to things like doors in a way that I never have and seeing how everything can assist me to wake up. I get to be interested, curious and receptive instead of closed, suspicious and defensive.
 
Facilitator: So letting go the ego orientation opens the door to an experience of life that is not limited by karma.
 
Student: Yes. Ego interprets the note from the guestmaster as “I” did something wrong and focuses the attention on maintaining “I” by using the content to defend, explain or justify what “I” did. The note was really an invitation to presence – what would my experience be if I attended with care to the door?
 
Facilitator: What was your experience?
 
Student: I have never attended to something like I attended to that door to the Meditation Hall. I am so totally in love with it. I discovered that wholehearted attention is really unconditional love!
 
*****
 
Buddhism is often described as the negative way – “neti, neti, not this, not this.” From conditioned mind’s dualistic perspective, “negative” is “bad.” Therefore, it is not surprising that the negative way is defined by ego as lack, deprivation, austerity and denial. It takes practice to step out of the karma of “no” to recognize that “not this” is actually pointing at “then what?” “Not this” is really an invitation to get off the conditioned karmic wheel and set off on a journey of discovery of ALL that is other than “not this.” All structures in practice, from Precepts to guestmaster notes, are designed to assist us to see beyond the limited perspective of conditioned mind and respond to the invitation.
 
Training is designed to challenge the ego, to reveal the conditioned process and give us the opportunity to choose “then what.” When challenged, the ego-identity maintenance system leaps to “self”-defense. If we pay attention to that process, we see the defense strategy consists of making the challenger (practice, the Monastery, the Guide, the facilitator) the enemy and recruiting the human to protect the ego against the threat. It becomes “me” versus “them,” firmly ensuring the “me” stays alive. This can be as subtle as rolling the eyes at receiving a note or as blatant as the urge to curse the monk who posted it.
 
As a result of the attention being hijacked by the conversation of how mean they are or how awful I am or how silly this all is, we lose sight of the fact that we signed up for the training and asked for the assistance that is being freely offered. The willingness to acknowledge that everything in our experience is assisting us in the path of our choosing (despite ego’s grousing and churlishness) is an excellent way to practice something other than the conditioned default.
 
From there, we can up the training ante by exercising the choice for “not this” in every encounter in our daily lives. Where ego might resist, we graciously accept; where ego would confront, we agree to collaborate; when ego wants to criticize, we show appreciation; where ego holds back, we give generously; where ego judges, we offer compassion; where ego withdraws, we forge connections. In this way we train to dissolve the ego-I’s orientation of fear, worry, anxiety, resentment, suspicion, doubt and hate. We build the exit ramp off the karmic wheel and reclaim our authentic orientation to life – open, curious, unbiased, trusting and adequate to what arises.
 
This is an especially hard practice when we encounter cruelty, hatred, prejudice, intolerance, bigotry or injustice. It feels impossible to access unconditional love and acceptance when faced with something that breaks the heart open. Instead of staying with the compassion that arises in the opening, we are conditioned to respond with some form of the same hateful process that hurts our heart in the first place.
 
We can all recall examples of feeling intolerant of the narrow-minded, prejudiced against the bigoted, critical of the judgmental, dislike of the hateful. Conditioned mind would like to debate the validity and appropriateness of these “feelings.” Awareness Practice encourages us to examine whether the response is helpful. Does it help us awaken?
 
As the Buddha taught:
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
 
Stepping out of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate is the only choice that leads to transformation of consciousness. This is why practice constantly challenges us to choose unconditional love, no matter what. Whether it is a hate crime that is the news of the moment, an unjust accusation from a co-worker, or the self-hate that arises when the guestmaster posts us a note, we bring the attention back to “what would love do?” How do we bring it all into conscious compassionate awareness?
 
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”  --Buddhagosha

Making the choice for unconditional compassion, keeping the heart open, ends suffering, not just for “me” but for all beings. When attention moves from separation/duality/egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to unconditional love and acceptance, what divides self from other ceases to exist.
 
Even “not-this” dissolves into all that is.
 
Practice Tip:
For the next 48 hours practice following “then what.” See if you can use the mantra “What would love do?” to short circuit conditioned reactions and choose the unconditonal.
 
Create a training regimen that allows you to practice collaborating when ego wants to confront, being generous when ego holds back, communicating when ego wants to withdraw, being appreciative when ego wants to criticize, offering compassion when ego wants to judge, accepting when ego resists.
 
Record and Listen to what arises.

Gasshō

Ashwini

March 2015 Musings

Student: While I was meditating this morning, I had an experience that I want to ask about.
 
Teacher: Yes?
 
Student: I heard the usual, droning voices opining about how I should be leading my life—nothing unusual there. And then I had an exciting idea related to an activity that I’m passionate about. I felt that surge of energy that comes with inspiration, and I knew with clarity that I wanted to pursue this. It took everything I had to stay on the cushion for the rest of the sit!
 
Teacher: But you did?
 
Student: Yes, but it was almost impossible to keep attention on the breath. It kept wandering to the exciting idea.  
 
Teacher: You are familiar with the expression, “When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. Above all don’t wobble?”
 
Student: Yes I am. The teaching there is that no matter what happens in meditation, the guidance is to return to the breath. 
 
Teacher: Yes.
 
Student: So does that mean I should ignore an exciting idea because it is a distraction in meditation?
 
Teacher: Not necessarily. Perhaps you can look to see if it is really the idea that is exciting.
 
 
Mind of Meditation
Many of us are familiar with the story of Prince Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree, being tempted by the demon Mara. Mara, reportedly, offered passion, lust, fear, boredom, death, failure, and doubt to distract the Buddha-to-be. But none of the “elements of conditioned existence” deflected the Buddha from his meditation. His only response at one point was to touch the earth. “Here, now, this,” that was his choice.  In the face of that “understanding,” Mara disappeared, temporarily defeated, supposedly muttering, “This is not over yet!” And, although we seldom hear about it, he continued his attempts to distract the Buddha.  
 
We can take this story as inspiration for our sitting practice. On the cushion, in the compassionate, silent container of a sit, we face down egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate—Mara, the hungry ghosts, the illusion of being separate from Life.
 
There is a reason to keep the wisdom of the meditation posture (pelvis tilted forward, spine extended, eyes softly unfocused) sacrosanct. It trains us to dissolve the karmic orientation to look to conditioned mind for direction.
 
The instruction to return to the breath, no matter what the distraction, develops the capacity to be with Life, with the “earth,” with what is so. We train to dissolve the default relationship with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate and to cultivate intimacy with the Intelligence that Animates. We practice calibrating to Life’s wisdom, while that which separates “us” from the “real-ization” of “our” true nature is worn away.
 
Attending to the breath—no matter what—symbolizes the willingness to choose freedom over suffering. Attention is either HERE or on the conversation; it is with Life or ego, with Awareness or conditioned mind. Attending to every breath, we practice learning not to “choose something over ending suffering.”
 
HERE is Exciting
“All beings in the universe appear and disappear in a moment. The term ‘impermanence’ expresses the functioning of the moment. All of us experience a gap between our minds and the reality of time—that’s why we suffer. Even though your mind cannot keep up with the quick changes of time, you already exist in the domain of impermanence, together with everyone and everything. As a human being, you inherently have a great capability that enables you to realize this truth and experience your life with deep joy. To know this joy, we practice looking at ourselves with a calm mind. That is Zen meditation called zazen.”
- Dainin Katagiri
 
Consider this: Each moment contains the entire universe—all possibilities, all processes, all content, everything. When attention is on awareness, when we are “calm mind,” we are present to this experience, which we would perhaps label bliss, aliveness, joy or excitement, yes?
 
Conditioned to believe that the “content” in a moment of presence is the source of the excitement, we leave the moment to pursue the content, only to watch the exhilaration drain and the enthusiasm wane. How many relationships start on a high note and end in disappointment? How many projects start with anticipation and end in drudgery? How many weight loss programs, gym memberships, new jobs and New Year’s resolutions litter the path of good intentions?
 
Without awareness practice, we fail to see that it is presence itself that is exciting. The lens of conditioned mind prevents us from realizing that the rush of energy, that feeling of vibrant possibility, is the function of the moment; it is neither conditional nor dependent on content.
 
Instead of accepting that boom and bust, trough and crest are the norm, is it possible to practice being in excitement, in delight, in aliveness in each moment? Can we train to bring excitement to whatever we do? Can we reprogram our relationship with attention such that the life force of the moment is not siphoned off by a karmic process into a coffin of content?
 
The training principle of attending to the breath in the controlled environment of a sit shows us the answer is yes. As we practice, we learn to stay with the tempo and energy of the moment. Bringing the attention back to the breath is the process of getting back into step with Life, short-circuiting the dissipation of the energy through wandering attention. We train to be in the “mind of meditation” through the more challenging gradients of walking and working meditation, in harmony with the pulse of life unfolding as we go about our daily lives. This is the practice of being alive, of living in excitement and deep joy.
 
Instead of pursuing an exciting idea and hoping it will give us the promised high when it comes to fruition, we can embrace any idea as a training opportunity to bring the process of excitement to whatever we do. The excitement is in practicing excitement. A corollary benefit of practicing excitement is that we wear away the process that divides “what is exciting” from “what is not exciting.“ Then, we are available to steward what Life finds exciting.
 
Life is the endless creative process of transforming potential to form and form to potential. “As the ocean waves, the universe peoples.” By practicing being here, with Life, through the simple act of returning to the breath, we are invited to experience these lines from the Tao Te Ching.
 
“Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.”

 
Practice Exercise:
For the next 48 hours, see if you can apply the mind of meditation as you go about your daily life. What is the experience of “practicing excitement without content”? How is living in the moment, exciting? What is your experience of “non-action”? Record and listen to what arises.
 
Recommit to your sitting practice with the training perspective offered in this article. Can you bring the process of delight to each breath on the cushion?

Gasshō

Ashwini

February 2015 Musings

Student: I am having a really rich workshop around the recent blogs on “what is spiritual.” It truly challenges some core beliefs.
 
Teacher: Excellent! We want to encounter everything we need to transcend, yes?
 
Student: I feel some resistance to that statement because of where I’m stuck.  I have never distrusted the process of practice before. I have absolutely trusted the Guide and guidance, but now the seeds of doubt are being sown and it feels like they are taking hold.
 
Teacher: So what are the voices saying that “you” are believing?
 
Student: Well – it goes something like this. If everything is spiritual, then nothing is “immoral” or “wrong” and everything goes. I am having a hard time with a spirituality that condones everything.
 
Teacher:  You mean ego is having a hard time?
 
Student: Well, I suppose.  I am watching the frustration that arises at a response like that. Everything is the “fault of the voices.” We say things like the “wisdom of no explanations,” “don’t believe anything,” or “there is nothing wrong.” But all it seems to mean is that practice does not have to answer to a standard of morality! I can do the “right” practice thing and keep looking at it and saying I don’t know and questioning beliefs and assumptions and recording about there is nothing wrong! But I can’t escape the evidence of my eyes that there is “wrong” and it’s everywhere!
 
Teacher: Well, I suppose the question then is, do you want to be right or do you want to be free?
 
******
Not what but how...
 
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
- The Dhammapada
 
Most of us experience the world through the lens of karmic conditioning. It is our default orientation. All information is received, processed and interpreted through this lens. It creates “me,” “my” world, “my” point of view, “my” identity, “my” orientation to life. Most of us are not aware that we wear this lens until we start an awareness practice.
 
Practice constantly encourages us to pay attention, to watch “our” process, to see how suffering works, to notice how the illusory world of ego-identity is created and maintained. In training to pay attention this way, we start to get a sense of this “lens” and what it feels like to see through it. We start to build a vocabulary to describe the experience of “attention on conditioned mind”: something wrong, not enough, loss, lack, deprivation, closed, negative, self-hating, feeling bad, isolated, resistant, discouraged, dissatisfied, identified.
 
This practice of paying attention, of noticing “ego,” trains us to make an important movement – out of conditioned mind into awareness. Just as the eyes cannot see themselves, conditioned mind cannot “see” itself. To “see” conditioned mind, attention has to be on awareness.
 
As we keep practicing this movement of dis-identification, redirecting the attention from the voices to thisherenow, a mysterious process occurs. In a flash of insight, we become aware that we are the awareness that notices, rather than that which suffers. This experience is sometimes described as the “joy of Intelligence knowing itself.”
 
We have to practice this movement over and over again to have the experience being described. This is why practice declines to provide explanations, does not answer questions, ignores accusations and serenely refuses to rationalize, defend or justify itself or its methods. What would be the point? Conditioned mind would simply receive the information, argue, analyze, debate, judge, resist, condemn, and use whatever is offered to perpetuate itself!
 
So practice endlessly and compassionately directs us to see “our” process, to redirect the attention, to make the movement into awareness. It holds that line for us until we can “see” the identification with the process of suffering for ourselves and make the movement out of it.
 
In the exchange above, the teacher does not defuse the student’s frustration, explain the moral stance of practice, or address the content of the question of morality. To do so would simply train attention to stay on conditioning. Instead, the teacher gently directs the student to the process of suffering as the place to look, with the question, “You mean ego is having a hard time?”
 
It takes a lot of practice to see this direction as a training signal to make the movement into awareness and to recognize the compassion behind the suggestion!
 
A word about morality...
So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.
- Alan Watts
 
The Four Noble Truths capture the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. He simply states that suffering exists, there is a cause and there is a way to stop suffering.  He does not say suffering is “bad” or ending suffering is “good.” The Precepts are the closest we get to a moral compass in Zen. Even here, the Buddha offers morality as a process and not as an absolute standard.  We are asked to train to harmonize with heart-wisdom, to use the structure of the Precepts to calibrate the attention to that which leads us away from suffering and towards liberation, moment by moment.
 
When we practice in this way, we train to be with life as it is. As far as we can tell, in the absence of the process that divides, labels, judges, condemns, avoids and excludes, everything goes, everything is Life.  And from that place of non-separation, we get to choose love, kindness, compassion, joy, happiness, respect, care and attention. In fact, awareness is inclusive in its orientation and expansive in its compassion.
 
Only ego’s world seems to need “morality” because right and wrong, good and bad only exist in its world. Once we recognize that we are training to go “beyond right-doing and wrong-doing,” we can see the “debate” about morality as an ego process to grab the attention, to distract us from thisherenow, the only place from which the sacred choice for conscious compassionate awareness is possible.
 
Practice:  Joshu’s Zen
Joshu began the study of Zen when he was sixty years old and continued until he was eighty, when he realized Zen. He taught from the age of eighty until he was one hundred and twenty.
 
A student once asked him: "If I haven't anything in my mind, what shall I do?"
 
Joshu replied: "Throw it out."
 
"But if I haven't anything, how can I throw it out?" continued the questioner.
 
"Well," said Joshu, "then carry it out."
 
Pay attention to how egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate focuses the attention on content. How are you talked out of “seeing” process? Practice the movement into awareness and see if you can experience the joy of Intelligence knowing itself, as you “throw out” or “carry out” conditioned mind by redirecting the attention.

Gasshō

Ashwini

January 2015 Musings

The Gift of the Daily Recollection
 
“There is a way between voice and presence where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.”
– Rumi
 
This Musings article deviates from its normal structure in order to explore a principle of practice that has come up in guidance recently.  Several of us have had the courage to articulate a question that many might have wondered about but never asked, which is:  Why do we recite the Daily Recollection?
 
Supposedly, Zen is not ritualistic, is celebrated for being non-dogmatic, laughs at conformity and encourages questioning everything. In fact it is known to have had its origins in the wordless transmission of wisdom – the famous sermon of the flower where Mahakasyapa was awakened when the Buddha held up a lotus. So then why is a recitation a “required” structure of our daily meditation? Why are there scriptural references? Why does it include Pali words?
 
The fact that the inclusion of the Daily Recollection in the morning sit spurs these questions is perhaps its greatest gift. Structures are wonderful training tools in Awareness Practice. They exist so that we can encounter what we need to transcend. Resistance to anything in practice is a fabulous clue that the training has begun.
 
Most of us were introduced to the Daily Recollection at our first orientation. A monk or facilitator rang a large bell and then waved an 8.5 X 11-inch piece of paper at the room. “We recite this each morning after the large bell. You are welcome to join us if you wish.” And then helpfully, “The first bead, the first line is recited silently.”
 
If we were paying attention, the reaction to receiving this invitation to participate would have told us volumes about what we would need to let go of in our practice.
 
Did we comply just because we were asked to?
Did we rebelliously not participate because it was contrary to our notion of identity, tradition or expectation of Zen?
Did we demand an explanation, before we submitted for having to recite this?
Did we object to the arcane words in the text?
Did we turn up our noses in disgust because we did not believe in mouthing a meaningless text?  
Did we rationalize the decision to conform as not wanting to rock the boat?
Did we recite the words to look like we were doing what was expected?
Was there a sparkling curiosity to know more?
Was there a deep spark of resonance that seemed to awaken when the words were heard?
 
Interestingly enough, the trainer doing the orientation never told us to watch for our reaction.  The Daily Recollection was never introduced as a “learning opportunity.” We were left to have our own experience, whatever it was, and if we challenged this practice in any way, there was always a “helpful” note from the Guestmaster that never directly answered our questions!  Did we ever stop to consider how Zen that is?
 
Practice constantly challenges us to choose between ego and Life so that we build the ability to consistently choose Life. We might protest that being given an explanation of the methodology of practice might be helpful and considerate to those with crusty and resistant egos. We might ask, “What if we left before we realized the benefit of the practice process?”  But the sublime gift in “no explanations,” which no conditioned identity can ever accept, is that there is nothing wrong with anything. No choice is “good” or “bad.”  Every experience is completely acceptable to Life. Practice models ever-expanding faith. There is complete trust in the process, in the adequacy of Intelligence knowing itself, in the fullness of Life’s time.
 
Over time, some of us have grown to cherish this practice of reciting the Daily Recollection with Sangha. Perhaps the familiar, resonant rhythm of the recitation anchors us in a peaceful sense of belonging. Regardless of whether we understand the words (or pronounce some of them correctly!), we may experience a quiet and unconditional acceptance of the structure of our morning meditation. Resistance melts into love, comfort, curiosity, inquiry and insight. We learn through direct experience what it means to surrender the “barriers to love.” We are trained to “know” in a way that conditioned mind cannot grasp. As our practice wears away the conditioned beliefs and assumptions of ego-identity, we are opened to the mysterious rhythm of Life. In a flash of intuitive grace we understand the gift of this way of transformation. Nothing is explained because awareness erodes the veil and unmasks the mysterious. We “get” that awakening is really a process of revelation.
 
The conditioned belief that drops away is that we are doing spiritual practice to get somewhere, to find answers, to know the “Truth,” to become more secure in this seemingly chaotic and alarmingly fragile existence. But the more we practice, the less we know and the more real the mystery. We relish living in the question. The flower sermon becomes our experience as we slide our hands mindfully over each bead. Each line that is recited is potent with wisdom. We smile delightedly because the words that catch our attention in the moment miraculously articulate a recent practice triumph or insight we just recorded.  The joy of Intelligence knowing itself becomes the koan of the rosary.
 
Structures challenge the ego, but they are also the scaffolding that allows for the flowering of “faith;” our faith in practice, faith in the process of practice, faith in the wisdom of the path that calls to us over and over again with infinite patience and compassion.
 
As we move to introduce this practice to others, perhaps we might be challenged to facilitate the experience of those who are struggling with accepting this aspect of training. Maybe the greatest gift we can offer is seeing how we can be with that, how to hold them in compassion, trusting their adequacy, and above all trusting the process of practice that assisted us in our transformation.
 
After all, whether or not it has dawned on us, we all have a sacred responsibility to keep the integrity of the practice structure that has succeeded from time immemorial to “reunite all beings with their intrinsic purity.”
 
In this way I do most deeply vow to train myself.

Gasshō

Ashwini

December 2014 Musings

Student: I have been wrestling with a problem all weekend and would like some guidance. I have a feeling the answer is in this line from Hsin Hsin Ming: “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”
 
Teacher: Yes?
 
Student: Well. I love what I do. I am paid well. I work with a great team. I look forward to the work. I like where I live. I have a great group of friends to hang out with. I am close to the things I like to do, including this practice. Life could not be better!
 
Teacher: But?
 
Student:  My boss suggested last week that I should look into a new position that is opening up. It’s a challenging project, more money, benefits, etc. It would be good for my career. But I would have to relocate to a new city, where I don’t know anyone and would have to start my life over.
 
Teacher: You don’t sound excited.
 
Student: I don’t know any more what I am feeling! I feel I should be excited and it could be fun. But I like my Life right now. I would prefer not to move. Am I too attached to having everything be just the way I want it? Is the fact that I don’t want to move just ego resisting change? I’ve heard you say that Life’s response is always yes. If Life is offering this new challenge shouldn’t I say yes?
 
Teacher: Life’s yes is a process. It’s not a yes to any specific content. What we practice is presence not preference. And as you can no doubt see, conditioning creates suffering by focusing the attention on content. We never know how life is going to unfold, and if there are no mistakes, we guess the only outcome of debate is to feed the suffering process.
 
Student: Ok. So there is really no “best” choice. It could be yes to stay or yes to go based on where the yes is coming from?
 
Teacher: Have you heard the story of Zen Master Banzan? He wandered from temple to teacher seeking enlightenment. One day, as he walked through a crowded marketplace he overheard a conversation between a customer and a butcher. The customer was asking for the best cut the butcher carried, and the butcher replied, “Each one is the best.” Hearing that, Banzan was enlightened.
 
+++++++
 
Practice wisdom is often appropriated by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to cause suffering. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the wisdom of “no preferences.”
 
The most sincere Zen student’s attention can be distracted if the voices slip in these questions: Is this a Life choice or an ego choice? Does exercising a preference mean I am not doing the right spiritual thing? Is having a preference wrong? Is it egocentric to do something I like? If I don’t want to do something, am I closed and resistant to Life? Is it wrong to be disappointed about not having or doing something I want?
 
Practice creates the awareness that any conversation in conditioned mind is unhelpful. Even if the subject is practice, the voices have nothing meaningful to say. The conversation is simply a ploy to capture the attention. When the attention is on the voices, we are absent to the information that is arising in the moment. And the moment has all the clarity we need.
 
We practice the wisdom of no preferences by ceasing to indulge the conditioned preference for consulting ego-I for clarity! Then we are free to be here, in the moment, with whatever is arising. In the absence of the conversation, there seems to be no “I” that prefers. What is is Life’s preference, and Life chooses appropriately.
 
So what is being pointed at in the Hsin Hsin Ming concerning no preferences?
 
Life seems to have no issues with preferences, per se.  All preferences are accommodated without judgment. Only ego excludes, divides and isolates on the basis of what “I” like and prefer.
 
There is nothing wrong in exercising a preference if that option is available and being offered by Life in the moment. We can happily opt for the burrito over the burger at the deli, since both are available. On the other hand, ego would rather hanker after whatever preference it has that is not on the menu.
 
Life seems completely adequate to making appropriate choices. From center, there is never an indulgence of a preference that is harmful to the being. Conscious compassionate awareness is unlikely to eat a box of sugar doughnuts, however much “I” likes sugar.
 
Life also seems able to fully and joyfully receive all that is being offered in the moment, regardless of preferences.  Only ego-I would deny itself from a misguided sense of being unworthy or undeserving. Only ego-I would refuse an afternoon off to go walking in the woods because “I have not finished everything I should be doing to be the person who deserves the afternoon off!”
 
Life’s orientation is compassionate for all. Ego-I, on the other hand, lauds martyrdom. Sacrificing one’s preferences to take care of someone else’s feelings or needs is held up by conditioning to be the right-person thing to do. Ego-I martyrs itself so that it can maintain its position as a helpless or resentful victim that hates the person or persons that gave it no choice!
 
Center seems to accept what is. Fixing, changing, denying, avoiding or railing against what is is an ego choice. Only ego-I seems to live in a reality where something other than what is arising should be possible. In fact, only ego-I is confused about the choice that is arising. Ego-I might say that when it’s standing in front of a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, the choice is between doing the dishes and a Caribbean vacation. But what Life is presenting is a choice between doing the dishes and not doing the dishes—and, if we are training at a Zen Monastery, between being happy or unhappy doing the dishes!
 
What the voices obscure is this: If Life is presenting a choice, then all options arising are equally valid. There is no “better” choice. Only conditioned mind wants to weigh pros and cons and argue the morality, ethics, and spiritual consequences of a decision. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Life might present the opportunity to curl up on the couch for a nap or to take a walk. The fact that both of these arise imply that both are in fact options, and we are free to do what we prefer. Ego would prefer to spend the afternoon debating the merits of these choices or muddying the water with “other” options (meditate or finish those emails!). In engaging the voices in a decision to determine the right thing to do, what we should do, what would be efficient, spiritually good etc., the opportunity to do something pleasurable that would take care of us slips by. 
 
In quoting the Zen story, the teacher is inviting us to consider the real truth of the wisdom of “no preferences.”  When there is no conversation, there are no preferences. There is only the moment, and in the moment any and every choice is the best choice. And, in truth, Life is never confused about that. 

 
Practice Tip: 
Over the next 48 hours, pay attention to how you get bamboozled into a conversation about what you would rather have or do. Notice how conditional is ego’s sense of being okay. Can you see how the conversation obscures the real choices that are arising in Life? Practice dropping the conversation and tuning in to the clarity that Life is communicating about what is and how to be with it. Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip
We are often talked out of communicating our needs because we are conditioned to believe that is egocentric. Much suffering can be avoided if we just say what is going on for us, what would take care of us, what we might enjoy doing, what we would prefer. Practice a change in behavior and experiment with ways in which Life can express its choice without ego’s censorship.

Gasshō

Ashwini

October 2014 Musings

Student: In last evening’s group, you brought our attention to the fact that the stool on the east porch was out of place. I notice that each time you are on the property, you notice some detail that has not been attended to.
 
Teacher: Yes?  So what are you seeing about that?
 
Student: I have watched a lot of things come up around it: from defensiveness that I didn’t see it, frustration that I/we never seem to get it perfectly right, and now just bewilderment as to why it matters. It’s a stool on the porch after all! If there is nothing wrong, then why is it so important that the stool is in the right place on the porch?
 
Teacher: Let me ask you to consider this. It’s a stool on the porch. What is it that makes this such a big deal for you? Why does it bother you so much that it’s pointed out?
 
******
 
Everything Matters. Nothing Matters
Awareness Practice teaches us to be in the present moment, paying attention. If we are here, we are aware of what is here. If we are not here, we are not aware of what is here. The east porch of the Monastery is a high traffic area. Many residents pass by the stool several times a day. Not noticing that the stool isn’t in the designated place is perhaps an indication of the level of inattention being practiced.  The teacher invites the community to use this simple piece of furniture as a compass for their training.
 
After each sit, we state why we are all practicing. “We are not here to create and cling to beliefs. We are here to pay attention.” Are we paying attention, in every moment? This is the koan being offered by the stool.
 
Awareness practice reveals that being lost in a conversation in conditioned mind is what keeps us walking by the stool on the porch and not noticing it. If we see the stool, we are here, paying attention.  If we don’t “see” the stool, we are not here.
 
Some of us, perhaps, have the experience of walking by the stool and seeing it out of place, and then getting stuck in a conversation of what to do about it! What do I do? Should I or shouldn’t I move it? Should I ask first before I move it? Do I really know how it needs to be placed? Why does this place have so many rules? What difference does it make? And, perhaps, finally, This is so stupid. We attend to the conversation and we leave the moment. The stool disappears. If we stayed here, perhaps the stool would tell us something about where it wants to be! By not being present to the stool, we never get to have the experience that the moment has everything we need.
 
In the moment, there is only what is, right here and right now. It is all there is to attend to. Whatever is in the moment is everything. Now is all there is. Everything matters because there is only this moment.  There is no moment that matters more or less than this one, because there isn’t another moment. This is IT. This IS everything. And everything matters.
 
Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate would have us believe that there are things we should attend to and things we don’t need to attend to, big things and little things, the right way and the wrong way.  Debating the pros and cons of what deserves attention simply maintains attention on the conversation. Judgment of “my” performance, defending “my” lack of attention, feeling bad, and being frustrated with the teacher, the practice and the place is simply conditioned mind’s way of distracting us from being here.
 
In fact, a curious and magical experience is possible if we pursue the teacher’s question and look at the process that prevents us from noticing the stool, that gets worked up when it is exposed, and that resists assistance to come back here. What we see—in the absence of the conversation that creates the world of opposites, that pits right against wrong, good against bad, everything against nothing—is that it is the conversation that creates “something” and “nothing.”
 
When we practice in this way, we recognize that paying attention is a binary process. We either are or we are not. In other words, it is not possible to practice paying attention if we pay attention sometimes. When we pay attention sometimes, we are practicing “paying attention sometimes.” To be wholeheartedly present in the moment is living without a trace. In the moment, there is nothing left over – no trace of the ego, no voices, no disease of the mind. In the act of paying attention in this way, we can have the experience of  “nir-vana” no trace – blown out.
 
Now we “see” the meaning of  “nothing matters” from the perspective of Hui-neng’s, “From the beginning no thing is.” We understand what Seng’Tsan points to in Hsin Hsin Ming: “Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.” And in that moment of compassionate comprehension, where no-thing matters, everything matters again.
 
Living wholeheartedly, being here, attending to what is here, offers a “way” to live. Putting the stool back where it belongs on the porch reflects an attitude of mind. It is an act of presence. It is an act of respect for the stool, the practice, and the place. It means that “I” am not here. There is no trace of “me” both physically and spiritually. In leaving no inkling of “my” presence, I am wholly here.
 
In living without a trace, “no-thing” is. Everything matters and nothing matters.
 
Practice Tip:  For the next 48 hours, practice wholehearted presence. What trace is “I” leaving behind? Notice what conditioned mind talks you into ignoring.  What aspect of Life is denied to you? What “appears” in awareness, what do you see, when you pay attention. Record and listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip
The breath, the blank wall, and having something like the stool on the porch as a compass for our training is helpful as we do this exercise. It’s a helpful way to practice being lived.

Gasshō

Ashwini

September 2014 Musings

Student: I sent a friend request on Facebook to someone in the Sangha the other day. And I received guidance to look to see if that was in keeping with the Privileged Environment.
 
Teacher: And?
 
Student: I am trying to unpack the “Privileged Environment,” which seems to be a manifesto on “right” relationship in Sangha. I love Sangha. I think they are the coolest people in the world – kind, wise, compassionate, supportive. They are my tribe – they speak my language, share my practice, are interested in what I am interested in, get what I am talking about – I mean who else would know what it means to “reflect” or “get identified!” If I have to define the kind of person I want to be friends with, or be in an intimate relationship with, or work for, it would be someone from the Sangha. And yet these people, the ones I feel most connected to, are the one’s that are off limits in terms of relationship! Why is that?
 
Teacher: Are you familiar with the Prime Directive?
 
Student: You mean in Star Trek? Yes. The highest moral obligation of any member of Star Fleet is not to interfere with the natural evolution of an alien species. But what does that have to do with the Privileged Environment?
 
Teacher:  You could say that honoring the integrity of the Privileged Environment is the Prime Directive of this practice. It is the same policy of non-interference in someone’s practice: never be the reason someone is practicing; never be the reason someone stops practicing.
 
Student: So I date someone in the Sangha. We break up and now I don’t want to participate in practice because I feel constrained that this person who broke my heart is part of the Sangha?
 
Teacher: Yes
 
Student: How about coming to practice because I am drawn to the charismatic teacher?  
 
Teacher: Perhaps what you are drawn to is the teacher’s presence – a presence that reflects the teacher’s depth of practice. In other words, it’s the authenticity that shines forth because she is committed to practicing and waking up that we resonate with. But conditioned mind cannot see that. It takes everything personally, so it makes it about the person!
 
Student: Yes. I know that experience in reverse! I receive guidance that threatens ego and that identity starts to argue to leave practice but blames the teacher, the facilitator or the Guestmaster for being mean to “me.”
 
Teacher: You see why we practice within the Privileged Environment?  We want to make it clear that practice is NOT personal.
 
++++++++
 
Unlike other practice principles that can be pithily and succinctly stated, the Privileged Environment defies simple definition. Perhaps because it is a composite teaching of many principles, we have to practice patiently with it so that it can reveal its myriad facets. Here are some areas for exploration.
 
The Buddha recognized that the spiritual path can’t be walked alone. This is why he left us with Bodhi, Dharma and Sangha. If we practice by “ourselves,” then we will be guided by the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning self/hate. They are, after all, our most intimate relationship (see Cheri’s latest blog.) So we are invited to walk together with others who are walking this path. But without some guidelines, we might as well walk with ego by our side.  The Privileged Environment is the finger pointing to how we “relate” as Sangha and how practicing as Sangha assists us to awaken.
 
The dictionary defines relationship as a state of connectedness. We are conditioned to believe that we can “achieve” this feeling of fulfillment by finding the perfect person and being in relationship with them. However, experience tells us that conditioned human interaction, even with loved ones, can leave us depleted, frustrated, empty and misunderstood.
 
“The ego is the veil between humans and the Divine.” Rumi
 
We cannot see, in the course of daily conditioned interaction, that the feeling of emptiness we seek to fill is the result of deep identification with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. The veil of ego creates the delusion of being a “self” separate from all that is.  When the veil drops, when we are with all that is, we feel complete, fulfilled and satisfied. It is a coup for egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate that it has bamboozled us into believing we are needy in some way and should leave our awareness of belonging to Life to seek wholeness through a process of “something wrong and not enough!”
 
The container of the Privileged Environment is constructed to mirror life, authenticity, conscious compassionate awareness. Within it is our best opportunity to drop the veil of ego and reclaim our experience of being an integral part of a non-separate whole.
 
 
We can’t define the Privileged Environment but we can articulate its components:  silence, custody of the eyes, custody of the mind, an inward focus of attention, bells to mark the passage of time, bows for greetings. There is a specific protocol for interaction: communication via notes, refraining from touching, no profanity, facilitated conversation, speaking from experience. There is an explicit invitation to reveal the ego,  to put it out there, talk about it, scrutinize it under the microscope, deconstruct it, disown it, and, ultimately, transcend it.
 
By following the guidelines, we learn to recognize that the vociferous resistance of the ego is not who we are.  We learn to trust the practice process as we experience the benefits the structure offers– the sense of intimacy, safety, belonging, connection, ease and compassion. There is an opening to a more authentic way of being. We are introduced to presence, awareness, and intuition. We learn to bring our issues into guidance. We develop a faith in life honoring the deepest wishes of the heart. We recognize that when ego takes over, we can return again and again to the Truth (Bodhi) and the Teachings (Dharma) as the pure frequency of Life that guides us back to harmony with the wisdom of the heart.
 
Practicing within the Privileged Environment trains us to leave the ego out of the interaction. By offering an alternative to our conditioned ways of interaction, by insisting that practice is the sole reason we come together, the Privileged Environment gives us a chance to explore how life relates to life in the absence of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.
 
Honoring the Privileged Environment is saying yes to Life’s “friend” request.
 
Practice Focus:  
As Sangha, we follow the Prime Directive of this practice and experience its benefits – connection, support, unconditional love. For 48 hours, explore practicing this policy of non-interference in relationships outside the Sangha. How does taking ego out of relationship transform the experience of the interaction? Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip: As you go about your day, notice the various ways in which Life invites friendship and relationship. How do you accept? Record all the ways in which Life has been a friend.

Gasshō

Ashwini

August 2014 Musings

Two Zen Stories
 
Student: I have been looking at the story of the Zen Master Hakuin.  Wasn’t he the one accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when publicly condemned by his community responded, “Is that so?”
 
Teacher: Yes.  The story goes on to say that when it was discovered many years later that he had been wrongfully accused, and the community gathered to apologize to him, he responded the same way: “Is that so?”
 
Student: Yes.  Well, I have been trying and failing to reach that equanimity with my new and particularly rambunctious neighbors!  That family seems to have some celebration every other night.  The kids scream and play loud music.  And if that weren’t bad enough, they all gather in the parking lot around 10.00 p.m. and conduct their endless farewells at decibel levels that could wake the dead! 
 
Teacher: What are you seeing about that?
 
Student: I am astonished at how angry I get!  I feel resentful that I have to be subjected to their unconsciousness in the first place, and then be put in the position of having to say something.  Why can’t they just realize the impact they’re having on everyone else?  I want to go out there and yell at them.
 
Teacher: What stops you?
 
Student: Well, it isn’t polite, is it?  I have to be nice.  I have to live with them, after all.  I can’t make them feel bad.  I mean, they are just having a good time!  I’m the one with the problem.  No one else seems to mind!  And it’s so not Zen, is it?  It’s certainly not Hakuin’s, “Is that so?”
 
Teacher: Perhaps you have not heard this Zen story.  An old woman had been supporting a monk’s practice for twenty years.  Every day she would send a young girl to him to serve his food.  One day she asked one of the girls to give the monk a hug and ask him how he felt.  The girl reported to the woman that the monk’s response was, “An old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.” The old woman was shaken when she heard this. “I’ve been supporting this monk for 20 years and he has made no progress,” she said. She then burned down his hut.
 
Student: Actually, I’ve heard that story, but I don’t get it!  It seems to contradict the principle in the Hakuin story. And how does it apply to my neighbors?
 
*********
 
“Is that So?”
This attitude of mind is often misinterpreted by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to mean that Zen practitioners should aspire to be calmly unaffected by life circumstances.  Au contraire.  Hakuin demonstrates that equanimity stems from a supreme indifference to ego’s version of events, ego’s moral standards, ego’s code of ethics and ego’s opinions of what is socially acceptable.
 
Instead of getting worked up about his reputation, defending his identity, feeling humiliated and suing for libel, Hakuin accepted the child he was wrongfully accused of having fathered and loved it as his own.
 
Taking things personally forces us to interpret life through a narrow lens of what it means about “me.”  Then “I” am hurt, upset, betrayed, humiliated, ashamed or angry and must go on the offensive to defend, protect, justify, and rationalize “my” actions against an unfriendly “you.”  The payoff is that “my” identity is maintained, either as a victim, or victor, of circumstances.
 
When we see that it is not about “me,” we are present to what is and can ask the question, “Is that so?”  From that disidentified place, we see the process of karma and make a choice for freedom.  This choice confounds the ego – it can’t wrap its “head” around this choice simply because ego can never make that choice.
 
“Burn the hut down.”
Contrary to what conditioning says, “Is that so?” is not passive.  In the absence of egocentricity, life always responds appropriately – and that can include what conditioning would judge as harsh or “not nice.”
                                                    
We are deeply conditioned not to “hurt someone else’s feelings,” not to “make someone feel bad,” not to “rock the boat,” not to say anything to “upset anyone.” Many of the occasions in which Life responds with “high” energy are those in which some form of ego-unconsciousness—arrogance, injustice, ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, hatred—is acting out.  Instead of acknowledging the “energy” and using it skillfully to facilitate what is compassionate for all, ego’s directives are to suppress those feelings or be beaten up for not being “nice.” Being nice from a conditioned perspective is really being nice to ego so that unconscious and conditioned behavior can reign unchecked.
 
Burning down the hut as a teaching might strike some as extreme, but the story allows us to see our beliefs around being polite, appropriate, and nice.  In fact, the old lady burns down the hut precisely because the monk’s practice has ceased to include ALL of life – warmth, compassion, and joy. So with infinite compassion she takes away the support that is allowing him to stay stuck in ego.
 
Life is always kind but its teaching methods can challenge our conditioned beliefs about what is “nice,” which is why we train ourselves to be grateful for those “hard knocks” from Life. Life’s compassionate teachings shock the ego but assist us to see what we have to let go and transcend. 
 
Two Zen Stories
At first glance the two stories seem to offer paradoxical principles that frustrate and confuse “me.”  That is precisely the point of a Zen story–to confound conditioned mind. Conditioned mind is all about rules so it can parse the world into right and wrong.  Zen paradox points out that there are NO rules in Life and “contradictions” exist only in the illusory reality of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. It is possible to love someone and not condone his or her unconscious behavior.  It is possible to be a kind person and suggest to one’s neighbors that they might consider lowering their voices.  When we buy into conditioning’s narrow definition of anything, we lose out on being able to experience ALL of Life, “paradoxes” and “contradictions” included.
 
Life’s sense of humor!
The student took the teacher’s advice and, from a centered place, walked down one night and with a great deal of kindness and humor suggested that the family might consider lowering their voices in the parking lot.  The father apologized profusely and the children looked suitably abashed.  Silence reigned for about ten minutes and then everyone started screaming again.  Life never fails to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously!
 
Practice Tip
For 48 hours observe how conditioning controls you with its definition of “nice,” “polite,” and “appropriate.”  What aspects of Life are you not allowed to express because of that?  Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip
Choose a situation in which you wish you could say something but have not done so historically, because the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate say that it would be “inappropriate.” See if you can allow the heart to record what it wants to say.  Work with the Mentor to hone the message.  Watch for an opportunity to deliver the heart’s message with compassion.  Record and Listen to what arises.
 
The next time you feel high energy, grab the recorder and record what you are feeling, practicing having the energy that conditioning would rob you off.  Record and Listen to what arises.

Gasshō
Ashwini

July 2014 Musings

Volunteer:  I am seeking guidance on what to do about an email I received today.  Someone who registered for a retreat and cancelled is asking for a full refund. We refunded the amount minus the administration fee of $75. But now they want the $75.
 
Teacher:  Was our cancellation policy for the retreat communicated clearly?
 
Volunteer:  It is on the website. But I will email the person with the information again.
 
Two days later:
 
Volunteer:  I received a response to my email. They accused us of being in it for the money and insisted on the full refund! It makes me angry to think that someone out there thinks we are greedy! That is so absurd! And over $75! My first impulse was a rude reply. My second was not to respond. But in sitting with it, it occurs to me that I might send a note that corrects their misconception of us. Would that work?
 
Teacher:  No. Just refund the $75. No explanations required.
 
There are many practice principles to explore in this exchange.
 
Everything is practice:
There is a conditioned temptation to believe that an office email about a refund is not the subject material for spiritual practice, certainly not something to bring to the Guide. Spirituality supposedly deals with the “big” issues in Life. But as Alan Watts so eloquently phrased it, Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoesZen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
 
Everything is included in the practice arena because what excludes, separates and divides is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Hence, the guidance to bring all of Life into practice. What a coup for karmic conditioning if it can ensure that huge swathes of existence are beyond the purview of conscious awareness, that it is in control of what aspects are never examined!
 
If our practice is to be conscious compassionate awareness, then in the spirit of “how we do anything is how we do everything,” nothing is done from a place of unconscious assumption. There is no trivial pursuit in Awareness Practice. If we really understand the stakes, we bring as much attention to the spiritual aspect of a response to an email as we do to a question of “life and death.”
 
Taking responsibility - not taking it personally:
Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate automatically jumps to what’s wrong – wrong with you, wrong with me, wrong with the situation. Blame is an automatic, conditioned reaction. When receiving information that sounds like criticism or judgment, the impulse is to take it personally, to defend the ego point of view, to deflect blame, to point the finger.
 
The injunction to see if we had clearly communicated the cancellation policy points to an attitude of mind that comes from a different place. It is the practice of transcending the limited, dualistic ego context of right and wrong and moving into taking responsibility for bringing consciousness to the situation. From center, it is possible to see if there was a lack of attention/skill in our process and to address any ego identification from a place of compassion. Or as Rumi put it, Out beyond wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.
 
No “self”
We are deeply conditioned not to examine our beliefs around how we react to injustice, bigotry, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, arrogance, hatred and cruelty. The voices of self-hate have a lot to say when we don’t stand up for what is “good” and “right” and “fair.” It can seem justified somehow to lash out against what feels unconscionable; in fact, self-righteousness can feel good.
 
To defend the integrity of the Practice, the Monastery, the Guide, could feel appropriate in this situation. Why not take this opportunity to point out the unconscious conditioning operating?
 
As we accept that it is our practice to transcend the “ego-self,” it becomes possible to see that self-hate and self-righteousness only keep the “self” alive, no matter how justified the context. In other words, the teaching is not referring to the morality of the content or an appropriate response to it. It is pointing us to the process we need to practice – transcending ego-identity maintenance no matter what. As Aldous Huxley put it, So long as attention is fixed on the delinquent ego, it cannot be fixed upon God, and the ego (which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld) cannot be dissolved in the divine Light.
 
Practice Integrity
This brings us to the final principle to consider. We are this Practice. What we say, what we do, the way we are is how this Practice is perceived and experienced. We are each called to maintain the integrity of that which supports our spiritual transformation. In walking this path, we accept the responsibility to steward the practice so it is available in its purest essence to all who are approaching the Path.
 
In refunding the individual, the volunteer models the most complex teaching of the Buddha:
 
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
- the Dhammapada
 
Practice Tip:
For the next 48 hours, practice the ancient law. As you encounter places where conditioning reacts in ways that are out of harmony with the heart, see what Conscious Compassionate Awareness might say, think or do. Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip
Make a recording that reminds you of all the ways you walk this path, practicing integrity and harmony with the teachings.

Gasshō

Ashwini

June 2014 Musings

Student: I recently went to a vacation spot I love only to discover the landlady has dogs! I don’t like being around dogs. She said they are friendly and, like all dog lovers, seemed to think that I will “get used” to them. Well, I don’t want to get used to them. They make me uncomfortable.  But I so want to go back there.
 
Teacher: Perhaps you can use your next vacation there as an opportunity to see if the story of discomfort around dogs is really true.
 
Student: How can it not be true? I’m afraid of dogs. Besides, why is it that dog lovers are not told to examine their preferences? Why is not liking dogs something to look at while liking them is not? That feels unfair.
 
Teacher: Whose salvation are you working out diligently?
 
******
 
Principle: We are here to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer so we can drop that and end suffering.
 
One of the greatest gifts that we can be given in our practice is to be asked to examine a belief that is so intrinsic to our sense of self that our first reaction is violent resistance.
 
There is much to learn from this experience. 
 
For many of us, the conditioned reaction when a preference, a belief, or an assumption is challenged is to feel that our concerns are not understood. We feel dismissed and invalidated. The ego-identity is threatened and moves into “self” defense. “What gives him the right to say that to me?”“You don’t know how I feel.”“Why is she allowed to do what she prefers while I’m not?” “Why do I always have to accommodate other people’s preferences?”“Why is what I want not acceptable?” “Why can’t I just be how I am?” It can be difficult to see, in the midst of all that self defense, that what’s being protected is ego-identity.
 
The territory around an ego-identity is always surrounded by fear. We are well trained not even to approach that territory, to avoid it at all costs. This keeps our attention on the realms of “self” defense instead of examining the processes of resistance and fear. For if we looked at it directly, what we might discover is that there is no “self” to be defended.
 
Practice seldom challenges content. It always invites us to look at process. We accept the invitation because we are not on the path to live an unexamined life. We are here to be open to looking at anything that stands in the way of freedom.
 
The guidance to the student is not to stop being afraid of dogs but to examine the process of fear itself, to see how she is kept from examining fear.  As long as we cannot look at what causes us to suffer, we are forever bound in the coils of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. It is a true act of kindness to be gently and firmly encouraged to keep looking. The invitation is to embark on an exploration that very likely will result in being free to return to a favorite vacation spot without fear of friendly canines!
 
When ego can no longer use fear as its weapon, it’s out of business. For that reason it is a worthy practice to look under the bed and realize there are no monsters. When we practice being open to looking, we train ourselves to confront and transcend what keeps us “in fear.” We build the muscles that assist us in reinforcing our adequacy to be with Life, no matter what presents itself. We stop fueling the story that discomfort is something we must spend our time being afraid of and avoiding.
 
Practice: Examine a “preference,” something you have never questioned, something you take for granted. Notice if there is resistance to choosing an alternative. What beliefs and assumptions and identities are being maintained around this preference? What does that reveal about how karmic conditioning controls your experience? Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip:  Conditioning always focuses on content. Life is a process. Overcoming a fear or examining a preference is usually framed by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate as a “do that once and for all and perfectly” situation. Allow yourself the luxury of living Life as a process. Notice how that changes the exploration.

Gasshō
Ashwini

May 2014 Musings

Teaching
A very famous calligraphy artist and teacher had an unusual way of selecting new students. All aspiring to study with her were required to produce a copy of the title page of an ancient manuscript. On the appointed day, the students assembled in the courtyard of the school and presented their copies. The creativity on display was astonishing. One could see the original in each creation but there was something subtle or obvious in every work that suggested the style and personality of the creator. Students had played with color, texture, shape, size, meaning and medium to catch the teacher’s eye.  The tension in the room was palpable as the teacher walked past each piece slowly shaking her head.
 
She finally selected one student that day.
 
His piece was an exact replica of the original. On a sheet of white papyrus, the manuscript title was etched word for word, stroke for stroke.
 
This story illustrates the practice principle behind the guideline against entertaining “better” ideas.
 
Principle: We are not here to create and cling to beliefs. We are here to pay attention!
 
One of the sayings in our practice is “How we do anything is how we do everything.” In paying attention to the process of how we do anything, we cultivate an understanding of our conditioned karmic orientation; we are introduced to directing the attention, the “how” of a practice of Awareness.
 
The guideline against better ideas provides a structure for us to practice seeing our “habitual approach.” It is an invitation to examine the possibility of being in relationship with Life in a different way – really present to what is arising as is, instead of a conditioned interpretation of it.
 
What is having these “better ideas” is, of course, egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. As a process, it is always in opposition to what is arising in the moment.  Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate is the “better idea” of how Life should or should not be and is therefore focused on what is wrong, what is missing, what is not enough. Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate is a process of desire – of want, lack and deprivation. We are trained to consult this process of suffering as the authority in our lives. We are deeply conditioned to believe it is “who” we are.
 
This guideline against “better ideas” points us in the direction of one of the most important shifts we make in spiritual practice, which is to give up the authority of ego-I and surrender to Life, to conscious compassionate awareness, as our compass. “Thy will be done,” no matter what, is the submission that sets us free.
 
The “I” that has been in charge does not sit on the sidelines and cede control. It is highly invested in remaining the authority in our lives. Any threat to its survival is strongly resisted.
 
Ego’s brilliant maintenance strategy is to recruit us as its defense attorney.  Because we identify so strongly with the ego, because we believe it is “who” we are, we take it personally when it is challenged. We fight its battles, collude with it, protect it, hide it, and defend it.  
 
The guideline against better ideas supports us in becoming an advocate from Life rather than ego-identity. As Aldous Huxley famously stated: “So long as the attention is fixed on the delinquent ego, it cannot be fixed on God, and the ego (which lives upon attention and dies only when that sustenance is withheld) cannot be dissolved in divine light.”
 
With the practice structure of no better ideas, we train ourselves to receive Life with curiosity, openness and the spirit of inquiry. We experience the inclusivity of Life to all ways of being. We practice true humility, opening to the possibility that there is a context for existence larger than the narrow perspective that “I” might have.
 
Practice Tip
Someone described surrender as the peaceful submission to Life’s terms. Practice peaceful submission when ego wants to assert its better ideas. For 48 hours, see if you can notice ego’s attempts to defend its point of view, assert its will or maintain its position. Practice not going with the conditioned behavior. Record and Listen to what arises.
 
Practical Tip: Contrary to what the voices might say, not having better ideas does not mean that we turn into automatons that do whatever we are told. Not entertaining “better ideas” is an invitation to an active process of inquiry. The encouragement is to begin an exploration of how we cause ourselves to suffer and to drop that and end suffering. Practice this orientation of inquiry without indulging “ego-I’s” better ideas in your next guidance appointment, working meditation session, coaching call or group discussion.

Gasshō
Ashwini

April 2014 Musings

Teaching 

Student: I’ve been looking at the principle “Everything is the Buddha.” Some of the implications are profoundly disturbing to me! If everything is the Buddha, does that mean that all the violence, perversion, and evil in the world is Buddha-nature? How can that be? I don’t want to accept that.

Teacher: Acceptance is a doorway, a portal to what lies beyond, to all that exists on the other side of a wall of resistance. It is the first step in letting go. Consider, please: What is the “I” that does not accept? By not accepting “Everything is the Buddha” will violence and evil go away? 

Principle: All of life is acceptable to Life.

****
Almost daily we are bombarded by news of what is wrong in the world—corrupt leaders, rigged elections, atrocities of war, stupid decisions, decimated rain forests, unspeakable acts of cruelty to animals, unfair laws, crushing poverty, rife injustice…. This can leave us feeling angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, depressed, disappointed. How do we practice with this? 

There can be intense resistance when the suggestion is made to accept what is so. What? Ignore poverty? Be okay with abuse? Be passive in the face of injustice? Agree with an unfair policy? Accept my awful job? Not dump my annoying partner? No way! 

If we pay attention to the resistance, we see the conditioned belief that acceptance equals agreement, as if to accept is to condone the unacceptable, close the door to possibilities of change. In other words, conditioning wants to focus on the content that is to be accepted and what it means about “me” if “I” accept.   

In practice, however, we are encouraged to look at the process of acceptance rather than the content of acceptance.

Suffering, egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, is a process of separation. The function of a process of separation is to divide. All divisions are created in conditioned mind—me from you, us from them, right from wrong, good from bad, liberal from conservative. Conditioned mind divides up the world and, based on which side “I” identify with, it defines who “I” am and vigorously resists anything that threatens that definition.  

As the Buddha taught, “In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”

We experience ourselves as separate from Life not because we are separate but because we have the ability to identify with a process of separation. Our experience of Life, when we are present to what is, is not dualistic; our experience is non-separate.  

There are thousands of visible stars. It is the mind’s eye that sees Orion the Hunter, Cassiopeia the vain queen, and a Saucepan, or is it a Big Bear? Right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly are not real. They are also what conditioned mind makes up. So, when we find something unacceptable we want to remember that in practice we are not asked to condone or agree with unconsciousness, injustice, or evil. We are asked, as a first step, to examine the conditioning that creates the division of acceptable and unacceptable. 

We want to remember that we are not practicing changing or fixing the world. We are practicing awareness—being present to how life is, not how the “I” thinks it should be. 

In accepting what is so, we free ourselves to enter a world where “goodness” is not defined relative to “badness, evil or injustice.” In letting go the process of ego, the process of separation, the illusory definitions of the world as it should be, we are free to be conscious compassionate awareness. 

Instead of being trapped in a world of right and wrong, we are free to participate in the glorious dance of Life exploring itself.

PRACTICE TIP:
Practice the difference between acceptance and agreement. Can you accept and be present to exactly what is arising in the moment without agreeing with it, judging it, criticizing it or condoning it? Try this practice with a particularly difficult relationship—a boss, co-worker, family member or loved one. See if you can direct the attention away from wanting to fix or change that person, and choose unconditional love and acceptance instead.

PRACTICAL TIP:
For a week stop tuning into the “world” as manufactured by the media. Don’t watch tv, listen to the radio, or read the news. Allow yourself to be present to Life as is. What is your experience of the world as Life reports it? Record and Listen.

Gasshō

Ashwini

March 2014 Musings

Teaching

We have to encounter what we need to transcend.

Student: I am having a difficult time with the many rules at the Monastery- custody of the eyes, changing shoes, washing hands, not being social...it goes on and on. I thought Zen was laid back, but instead I am finding out how rigid and structured it is! Why do you have so many rules?

Facilitator: We have many guidelines but only one rule: We will use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer so we can drop that and end suffering.

The guidelines in our practice help us to see how we cause ourselves to suffer. They are structures that assist us to pay attention, to notice, and to be present to what is arising in the moment. They shock us out of our conditioned behaviors, shake us out of our default orientations, and compel us to scrutinize unexamined beliefs and unconscious assumptions.

  • What am I doing that I can't remember to wear socks to the meditation hall?
  • Where is my attention that I forgot to wash my hands before fixing my dinner plate?
  • How is it that I am not aware of the way my eyes follow people all the time?

In other words, guidelines assist us to see how the process of suffering-egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate-operates. Guidelines call ego out of hiding. No wonder ego resists all those "rules"!

"This is stupid."
"I don't want to."
"I'd rather not."
"I can't do this."
"How is this Zen practice?"

Following guidelines is training in cultivating conscious compassionate awareness. It is a gentle and compassionate introduction to the larger struggle that we are engaging in! We may not realize it when we start out in practice that what we are saying yes to is a way of transformation that involves nothing less than the demise of the ego.

The ego has no interest in departing. It will struggle mightily to hold on. In fact one of its primary tactics is to make practice so miserable we will quit.

We have to remember that we are not that which struggles! Guidelines provide the structure within which to practice our walk to freedom.

PRACTICE FOCUS:
The voices talk us into avoiding anything painful or difficult. We are conditioned to believe that being free of suffering is to eliminate, escape, or alter the content of our lives. "Get rid of the pesky partner, give up the practice, quit that job, fire that troublesome employee." Freedom, on the other hand, is being all right in the middle of the hardest circumstances. So the next time ego has you on the ropes, see if you can stop resisting the process. Can you see it as interesting, as an encounter of transformation, as a gift that assists you to see how suffering operates? Notice how that changes your relationship to the circumstances. 

PRACTICAL TIP:
Make a recording that reminds you that you are an adventurer, that you want to encounter the karma you need to transcend, and that you welcome any guidance or information from Life that will assist you in the process of awakening. Make sure to include a reminder that when the going gets rough what struggles is ego and what emerges is conscious compassionate awareness.

Gasshō

Ashwini

February 2014 Musings

Teaching

Student: For the last 8 months, I have been trying to make it on time for meditation at my local sitting group, but I have never quite managed to get there! I get caught up in work, the traffic is bad, something always happens. It is frustrating to arrive just in time to be met with a closed door and a "meditation in progress" sign. I don't know what to do. Could we institute a 5-minute leeway policy?

Teacher: Perhaps you might consider whether or not you actually want to meditate.

Principle: If I am suffering, I am choosing something over ending suffering.

The Zen teacher always gives the most surprising answers! A conditioned response could be sympathy for the effort, accommodating to be inclusive, critical to make a point, or care taking to cater to perceived inadequacy.

But the teacher models a compassionate clarity. Not making it on time to meditation, or not meditating, is a choice. There is nothing wrong with making that choice, but it is not a choice for freedom. Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has a field day when actions are not aligned with intentions.

Spiritual practice is not a casual endeavor. It demands willingness to do whatever it takes to wake up. We are attempting to do nothing less than working out the salvation of a human being. What could be more important? And yet, the ego talks us into approaching practice as a way to accommodate the ego rather than transcending it.

The conditioned world is constructed for the ego's convenience and comfort. Whatever rules there are don't apply to "me." I can always seek better accommodation. I can cajole or complain my way into what works for "me." I am the exception. Everything is negotiable. I can pick and choose what I want to do. And if things don't go my way, I can show my frustration and take my business elsewhere!

Our practice structure succumbs to neither ego's blandishments nor its willfulness, and is often vilified as a result. It has been called unkind, hard, inflexible, anachronistic or downright ridiculous-by ego. But it is a sanctuary for the heart, a structure we can trust always to draw the line to protect what is compassionate for all. Every practice guideline, from the way we enter the Meditation Hall to maintaining the privileged environment, assists us in practicing the "how" of choosing freedom over suffering.

Within this practice structure, we play a very specific kind of game with very specific "rules." All who wish to play this game are welcome. In joining the team we commit to maintaining the integrity of the game we play. The door is left open for anyone seeking to change or play by different rules to find another game-no hard feelings!

PRACTICE TIP:
For 48 hours, notice how ego is constantly angling for what it wants and how it tries to circumvent, change, control or fix Life arising in the moment. Watch its attempts to thwart anything (structures, suggestions, commitments) that threatens its position as the center of the universe. In each of these instances, what would your choice for freedom be? Record and Listen.

PRACTICE TIP:
A note from the Guestmaster with a reminder of a guideline not followed is an encouragement to choose freedom, an opportunity to learn to play by Life's rules instead of karmic conditioning's.

Gasshō

Ashwini

January 2014 Musings

Happy New Year!

As support for “Upping Your Game,” the practice focus for this year, we are upping our newsletters to two issues a month. At the beginning of the month, we will receive the familiar newsletter with a new section, Everything Is the Buddha. Mid-month there will be a shorter issue entitled Musings.

The objective of this second issue is to explore the principles of practice, to enable us to get really clear on the "how" of this practice. Unless we're attending closely, we can be lulled into receiving the teachings passively, on the surface level of what is being said. But what's being said in this practice is "a finger pointing at the moon," a koan, a practical suggestion for the process of waking up and ending suffering. We might think of it as receiving coded messages. We "up our game" by learning the skill of decoding the messages, intuiting the meaning, looking where the finger points, allowing the moonlight to illuminate the teaching at a new level of "knowing."

When we are in life, the view is very different from when we are behind the veil of conditioning. The teaching is therefore a clue to an "in life" perspective. The teacher offers us that view, inviting us to follow the trail to the place beyond the veil. In shifting our practice from passive receipt to inquiring wonder, we realize that we are in life and the veil has vanished. The transformation happens in the movement and we are left laughing in delight at the sheer magic of the process.

This movement embodies one of the core principles of our practice: the process is the outcome.

So here is a preview of how a principle will be explored in each issue:

Teaching

Student: Is it important to meditate every day?

Guide: If you want a practice that fits into your life, you can sit however and whenever you want. But, if you want your life to fit a practice, then you sit as if you mean it, as if it's important, as if you care. And there is nothing wrong with either choice.

Principle: The process is the outcome. What you get is what you do. What you practice is what you have.

This principle is an invitation to practice as if we mean it, for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is not a casual exercise but one we do as if our life depends on it—which it does! We sit diligently, with our whole heart in it, realizing it is essential, critical, and that it really matters to this human being. To sit this way requires devotion, dedication, compassionate self-discipline, lovingkindness and an element of selfless service. We don't sit to cultivate this attitude of mind and heart—though it does grow and deepen with time and practice—we sit in this attitude of heart/mind. We are exactly where we need to be to work out our own salvation diligently.

Decoding the mystery messages:
Choose something, anything, and practice it as if you mean it: sitting, washing dishes, eating breakfast, going for a walk, breathing. What is the experience of wholehearted participation in Life living?

Practical tip:
Many people experience pain while sitting. This is because they sit on zafus (meditation cushions) that are flat because the kapok used to stuff the cushions has compressed. To sit without pain, make sure that your zafu is stuffed to a height that releases the tension in the back and the hips. Putting your cushion in the sun or near a heater can dry and restore the kapok. If that doesn't do the trick, purchase additional kapok and re-stuff your cushion.

Gasshō
Ashwini