Posts by Bodhipaksa

derek walcottThe Nobel Prize-winning poet, Derek Walcott, asks us to imagine a time when we meet ourselves, with elation, at the door, and invite ourselves in to become reacquainted with this “stranger who has loved you / all your life.”

It’s a beautiful image, and one that has strong resonances for those who practice meditation. We are often strangers to ourselves.

Consider this: How often do we, in our lack of integration, tell ourselves that we’re going to do one thing and yet, a day, or perhaps mere seconds later, we find ourselves doing another? The self who made the first decision is in some way a different self from the one who actually caused the action — whether it be to eat that cookie after saying “enough” or to skip the gym session we committed ourselves to — and the two selves are strangers to one another.

Derek Walcott: “You will love again the stranger who was your self”

Derek Walcott

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott asks us to imagine a time when we meet ourselves, with elation, at the door, and invite ourselves in to become reacquainted with this “stranger who has loved you / all your life.”

It’s a beautiful image, and one that has strong resonances for those who practice meditation. We are often strangers to ourselves.

Consider this: How often do we, in our lack of integration, tell ourselves that we’re going to do one thing and yet, a day, or perhaps mere seconds later, we find ourselves doing another? The self who made the first decision is in some way a different self from the one who actually caused the action — whether it be to eat that cookie after saying “enough” or to skip the gym session we committed ourselves to — and the two selves are strangers to one another.

Consider this: Scientists have shown that unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede our conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words a “stranger within” makes our decisions some seconds before we become consciously aware of the intent to act, while the conscious mind merely claims in retrospect to have initiated volitional acts.

But there are deeper resonances than these. Some Buddhist teachings draw a distinction between mind and consciousness, the former being comprised of the more or less deluded stream of thoughts, feelings, and other mental constructions, while the latter consists of innate, pure awareness. Consciousness is said to be like a mirror, while mind is like the images reflected in the mirror. The mirror, being inherently pure, is never touched by the images it reflects, no matter how impure they may be. The images, although we may take them to be real, are merely illusions.

We all have the tendency to identify with mind — with the illusory and transitory images — rather than with the mirror, despite the fact that the images are fleeting and insubstantial, while the mirror itself is primordially present and enduring. And so we are caught up in our own experience, believing that the judgments and evaluations we impose on our experience represent how things really are, thinking that our thoughts and emotions define us, and thinking in fact that they are us.

But some day, if we practice looking in the mirror and see through the images, looking deeply into their transitory and illusory nature nature, we may catch a glimpse — perhaps more than a glimpse — of the mirror itself. And to see that mirror will be to see the stranger who is our own deeper nature, our own uncontrived purity, and the stranger that is ourselves will be a stranger no more.

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Albert Einstein: “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

In the Buddhist meditation called the Six Element Practice, we reflect in turn on each of the six elements—the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—plus Space and Consciousness.

In each case we reflect on the presence of the element within our being: for example, with Earth we note the presence of bone, tissue, teeth, hair, etc.

We then reflect on the element outside of ourselves; in this case we consider rocks, stones, earth, buildings, plants, the bodies of other beings, etc.

Then we note how everything that is in us that pertains to the element under consideration came from the element outside.

Originally our body started as the fusion of one cell from our mother and another from our father—neither of whom was us. Then our body grew as our mother passed on nutrients that she’d ingested from the outside world. Again, those nutrients weren’t us. Later, we ate on our own, but still everything that went into building up the body was and is merely borrowed from the outside world.

Finally, for each element we recollect that everything in us that is that element is constantly returning to the outside world. Our muscles and other tissues, and even our bones, are constantly dissolving and being rebuilt (which is why your muscles and bones waste away through inactivity). We lose hairs, shed skin cells, and have to make regular trips to the bathroom to rid ourselves of waste. All of this returns to the world outside us and to the wider element. And when we die, we stop even trying to hold on. Everything that was “us” returns to the wider element.

This practice is completely liberating. It frees us from the “prison,” as Einstein called it, of the delusion that we are separate from the universe. We come to realize instead that we are nothing but interrelatedness, that we exist only in relation to the world, including other people, and that we have no separate existence in any real sense. We are completely and inseparably connected on a physical, mental, and emotional level with other beings.

The six element practice gives us a realization of this truth—a realization that goes far beyond the intellectual—and other Buddhist practices such as the Brahmaviharas help to ignite the emotions of relationship that follow from this insight into interconnectedness, widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.

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Maya Angelou: “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”

Maya Angelou

It was an interesting process, deciding (as an experiment) to make our courses available on a donation basis rather than having fixed charges.

Why did we decide to do this? Well, we liked the idea of being generous by allowing people to participate in our courses in return for whatever they feel moved to give, and we also liked the idea of giving people the opportunity to practice generosity themselves. What a great start to a relationship it would be to say to people, “Come on board. Join us. Take what you need and give what you can.”

Although we’ve always been flexible with our class fees, allowing people to take our courses for little or nothing if they request it, a fee is still a fee; it’s still us saying to a potential student, “Give us the money and we’ll teach you.” We felt very happy to experiment in this way.

But it was challenging as well. Quite a few people gave very small amounts – some have given as little as a dollar, which was the minimum that the donation system would allow — and we tried to come to terms with that. Our initial response was, to be honest, “They’ve got to be kidding! Here we are offering them in-depth personal feedback and guidance from an experienced meditation teacher for a month, and these people think that’s worth less than a cup of coffee!”

We wondered what to do when people offered such small amounts. After all, teachers need housing, food, transport, clothes, medical insurance. What were these people thinking? Could they really only afford a dollar? Had they misunderstood that this course involved personal feedback? Were they trying to rip us off? Could we have communicated ourselves better? Might this whole experiment be a big mistake?

In the end though, we realized that it was liberating to let go of attachment to the idea that people “should” give us a certain amount. Sure, we have needs, but let’s take people on board first, establish a relationship, and then see where that goes. If people have misunderstood and thought that perhaps they were just paying for a PDF download or something of that nature, then at least we’ll be able to explain what our costs are and they’ll have an opportunity to consider giving more. And if they could only afford a dollar, then fine, we’re happy to accept that if it’s all they can afford to give. That’s what we’ve always done.

So we’re gave that experiment a shot. And you know what? So far Maya Angelou is right, and giving was liberating, even though ultimately it turned out not to be a viable method for supporting our operations.

[Update] Our experiment with running our courses purely by donation turned out, by a large margin, not to be sustainable. In fact it was financially catastrophic. I don’t think people understood it at all. They may have thought Wildmind had some rich backer who was supporting everything. There was no rich backer. We returned to charging fees for our courses, but offering higher and lower charges people could choose between, in to accommodate their different financial situations. We also had some free places, although usually people who signed up for these never actually participated in the courses.

In April 2019 Wildmind pivoted to being what we call a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. People contribute various amounts each month to support Wildmind, and in return they get various benefits, including access to dozens of courses I’ve developed over the years. That’s just about working, but we don’t have quite enough supporters for us to break even, so please do check out the Meditation Initiative and see if it’s something you feel moved to support.

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“One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism,” by Joseph Goldstein

one dharma joseph goldstein

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Goldstein has been meditating in the Theravadin tradition since the 1960’s, and is one of the founders of the Insight Meditation Society. So it’s interesting that for the last few years he’s also been practicing in a Tibetan meditation tradition called Dzog-chen.

Although the practices of Insight Meditation and Dzog-chen are quite similar, their theoretical and metaphysical underpinnings are very different indeed, and One Dharma has emerged from the creative tension that comes about from practicing two very different forms of Buddhism.

Goldstein is not alone in following teachings from more than one Buddhist school. In the cultural melting-pot that is the West, more and more people are seeking spiritual advice from more than one teacher. This inevitably brings up important questions such as, what is essential in each tradition? Strip away the cultural accretions, and what are you left with? If traditions differ on important points, is only one of them right? Or could it be that all Buddhist teachings are simply “Skillful Means” — fingers pointing at the truth, where the finger itself is just showing the way? This is the territory that Goldstein explores.

He expounds an approach to the Buddhist path that is nonsectarian, and which is based on the practice of Mindfulness and the cultivation of Wisdom and Compassion. He skillfully outlines the universally applicable practice of Buddhist ethics, gives an explanation of mindfulness and lovingkindness (practices taught on Wildmind), explains various approaches to cultivating Compassion, and elucidates the cultivation of Wisdom through the practice of non-clinging.

This is an ambitious book, and with any ambitious project there is scope for improvement. The meditation instruction is rather thin, for example. But on the whole this is a fascinating book, of interest to anyone who is exploring the Buddhist path and who is trying to make sense of the bewildering array of Buddhist teachings on offer in the West. Goldstein offers a clear outline of the most fundamental Buddhist principles. Having understood those we are in a far better position to reconcile apparently contradictory teachings and approaches.

This book is, as Daniel Goleman says on the dust-jacket, “a brilliant map of the spiritual path.”

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Susan O’Brien: “Mindfulness is remembering to come back, over and over again.”

(L to R) Susan O'Brien, Michael Grady, and Sara Schedler

The other day I was being interviewed by a journalist and he asked a question about meditation that comes up very often: “So, when you’re meditating are you going into a trance?”

I said to him that it was exactly the opposite, that when you meditate you’re coming out of a trance. Actually, I could have said that when you’re meditating you’re continually coming out of trances. In normal, non-meditating life we’re constantly slipping in and out of trance states without even realizing it. You’ll recognize what I mean when I give some examples:

  • You’re in a conversation with someone and you’re so busy thinking about what you’re going to say in response to something they said thirty seconds ago that you’ve entirely missed the last thirty seconds of the conversation.
  • You’ve found yourself lost in an imaginary conversation in which you’re really letting someone have a piece of your mind.
  • You’ve just arrived at the place you were driving to and you can’t remember anything about the journey there.
  • You can’t remember where you put something that you had in your hand just two minutes ago.
  • You spend time thinking about your failures, telling yourself how nothing ever goes right.

All of these examples are instances where we’ve been in a trance state, so caught up in our thoughts—so “en-tranced”—that we’ve been in an altered state of consciousness. Common names for these trance states are: distractedness, daydreaming, spacing out, obsessing, and wool-gathering. We don’t think of these as trances because we think that trances are connected in our minds with some kind of mystical and perhaps scary mystical states of consciousness. But actually these trance states are happening to us all the time. We slip in and out of them—and from one trance state to another—without even noticing.

In meditation, what we’re doing is noticing when we’ve been distracted—when we’ve been en-tranced—and mindfully returning our awareness to some mental “anchor,” such as the breath. In other words, our meditation practice involves noticing, and letting go of, trance states. Meditation involves coming out of trance states and instead mindfully observing our experience.

The problem with trance states is that we have surrendered any sense of direction. Trance states (or distractions, in simple language) are like fast-flowing rivers. When we’re caught up in one we’re swept along by the force of the stream of thoughts. We’re so caught up in thinking that we don’t even realize that we are thinking. Mindfulness starts with realizing, “Oh, yes, there’s some unhelpful thinking going on.” We scrabble for the bank, and then, all going well, we can sit by the side of the fast-flowing water, observing it as it passes us but not getting drawn in. Although often of course we start to lose our mindfulness; a particularly compelling thought is passing by and we lean closer in, and then before we know it we’ve fallen in and we’re being swept away, without (once again) realizing what’s happened.

The Greeks had a myth of the Waters of Lethe, which separated the world of the living from that of the dead. Lethe is the Greek word for forgetfulness, and this metaphor of thought being like a river works best if we think of the river as having this quality of inducing forgetfulness. When we fall into the river—when we become absorbed in a distracting thought—we forget our original purpose, we forget that we were meditating, we forget that we have a choice about whether to continue with the particular thought that we’re obsessed by, and we even forget that we’re thinking. Perhaps that’s why the word sati, which we translate as “mindfulness” has the root meaning of “remembering.”

Mindfulness is the opposite. It literally means “remembering.” And we cultivate mindfulness by, as Susan O’Brien says, “remembering to come back, over and over again.”

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Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi never actually said this quote, which is commonly attributed to them. Instead he said something similar: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

So that’s a little teaching in itself. Do we want to see more truth in the world, or more falsehood? I know which I prefer.

When we look at the world around us, with its many serious problems, including poverty, injustice, war, overpopulation, and environmental degradation, we can become angry and frustrated, or passive and despondent. Not only are these responses ineffective at bringing about change, they are also part of the problem to begin with.

In order to bring about positive change in the world we need not only engagement with the outer world, but also engagement with our inner world. If we want to see greater awareness in the world, we have to cultivate awareness. If we want to see more love, we need to cultivate love. If we want to be genuinely helpful we have to learn to be less hateful and frustrated, and more compassionate.

Meditation can of course help here — a notion that Mahatma Gandhi would have agreed with. Meditation helps us to recognize unhelpful emotional patterns and to develop the mental freedom to choose more helpful responses.

The cultivation of mindfulness helps us see what’s going on within us. It lets us see our own reactivity, and also our potential for change.

The cultivation of lovingkindness helps us to find alternative and more compassionate responses to life. If we want to see greater harmony and less strife in the world, we need to learn to respond to frustrations with more patience and kindness than we do at present.

Trying to change the world without changing ourselves is largely pointless. We simply inflict our impatience and ignorance on others, and there are enough of those qualities in the world already. So we need to work on developing the qualities that the world most needs — awareness and compassion.

Of course changing ourselves without attempting to make the world a better place is just a form of selfishness — trying to curate personal experiences of happiness with no regard to others — and there’s enough of that in the world as well.

The world needs our help, so we need to do what we can to help ourselves to be better, so that we can make the world better as well.

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Anais Nin: “The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself”

Anais Nin

It’s easy to think of a spiritual life as trying to escape who we are, or as being something that we can only aspire to in the future. But a true sense of spirituality comes from looking deeply into our present-moment experience and seeing more truly than we currently do.

When we sit to meditate we don’t try to escape who we are, rather we learn to be comfortable with who we are and what is arising within us. All too often we look at our experience and don’t like what we see. We have aversion for what’s there, dislike and even hate it, and crave to be or to experience something else.

Living deeply, in the context of meditation, means unlearning our habits of craving, aversion, and delusion: habits which prevent us from acknowledging our experience fully.

In practical terms, this means opening up to whatever happens to be present in any give moment. We call this acceptance, or in Buddhist terms, equanimity (upekkha).

Fear arises, and we fully acknowledge and experience it. Anger arises, and we don’t indulge it, but neither do we push it away. Instead, we notice it; take an interest in it; even have compassion for the suffering that accompanies it like a shadow. Craving arises, and we appreciate its qualities of aliveness and its tender beauty, until it fades back into the void from where it came.

Ultimately, we learn to appreciate in meditation, by means of this process of mindfully observing phenomena, that all experiences whatsoever are impermanent. All experiences pass; both the painful ones and the pleasant ones. And in time we can come to see not only that they are transient, but that they are not, never were, and never can be a part of us in any real sense. They’re simply experiences that arise and pass. This is a truth, “beyond ourselves,” that we can only realize by living life more fully, not at some distant time or place when conditions will be perfect for living spiritually, but right here, right now, in this very moment.

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“Swallowing the River Ganges: A Practice Guide to the Path of Purification,” by Matthew Flickstein

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

The curious title of this book comes from a Zen Koan set the author by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn: “You’ll understand what I am thinking when you can swallow the River Ganges.” The koan, in case you’re wondering (and I’m sure you are) seems to point to the arbitrary way in which we divide our experience into “inner” and ” outer.” So that’s the title.

The rest of the book is concerned with Theravadin rather than Zen meditation practice, and is a presentation of material from the 5th century Buddhist scholar-monk Buddhaghosa’s guide to practice, The Path of Purity (Vissudhimagga).

This book is an excellent, and very detailed, guide to Insight meditation practice, based on a seven-fold path of purification, including (in order) the purification of virtue, mind, view, purification by overcoming doubt, purification by knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path, purification by knowledge and vision of the way, and purification by knowledge and vision.

If this sounds a little dry and abstract, this is both accurate and inaccurate. You may well be surprised how elegantly Flickstein correlates these seven stages of purification to related practices such as: ethical living, developing concentration, initial insight training, the four foundations of mindfulness, cultivating choiceless awareness, and focusing on unsatisfactoriness, selflessness, and impermanence as doorways to enlightened experience. I found the overall schema to be fascinating and the author’s depth and detail of knowledge are highly impressive. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a coherent picture of the path to awakening from an insight meditation perspective.

On the other hand I found Flickstein’s writing to be a bit on the dry side. It was a surprise to discover that he is a psychotherapist as well as an insight meditation teacher — some examples from his or his patient’s experiences would have leavened the book considerably. The first mention of any contemporary meditation experience is on page 146, close to the end of the book.

I also have a minor quibble (one that often crops up when reading a certain strain of insight meditation teaching) which concerns focusing almost exclusively on mindful breathing as a practice and ignoring the development of lovingindness. The development of lovingkindness practice strikes me as an almost indispensible prerequisite for spiritual development, and yet it is mentioned almost in passing in Swallowing the River Ganges.

Still, my overall impression of this book is highly favorable, and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in insight meditation practice. Even the experienced insight meditation practitioner is likely to come away with an enhanced appreciation of the many dimensions of that practice tradition, and those who are entirely unfamiliar with this tradition will perhaps be surprised by how rich and nuanced it is.

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“Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior,” by Phil Jackson

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

I’m no sports fan, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated by Phil Jackson’s book about spirituality and basketball. Jackson was coach of the famous Chicago Bulls, and Sacred Hoops is not only the biography of a spiritual seeker, but details how Jackson introduced the Bulls to Buddhist meditation practices so that the players could quiet their minds and concentrate on the game, and to practice non-reactivity in response to on-court violence. The team even developed a playing strategy based on Taoist principles!

How did it work out? Some of the players found it hard to get into meditation, but under Jackson’s leadership the Bulls won three NBA championships, which suggests that more teams should try combining meditation with basketball.

I was occasionally baffled by the basketball terminology — I never did work out what a “steal” is — but the points Jackson makes aren’t dependant upon knowing the rules of the game, and in fact the beauty of the book is that the lessons Jackson transferred from meditation to basketball can just as easily be applied in any other sphere of life. For example, when he says,

“In basketball–as in life–true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it’s no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you’re going to win or lose and focus your attention on what’s happening right this moment”

that’s a lesson that can be applied in anything you do, whether it’s being with your kids, filling in your tax returns, or conducting a meeting.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the sometimes unexpected ways that eastern philosophies and practices are effecting western culture. The book also contains important lessons for anyone who wants to learn how to be a better leader and to learn how to create a coherent and effective team. Sacred Hoops explains that “selflessness is the soul of teamwork” and powerfully illustrates the collective and individual gains to be made by “surrendering the ‘me’ for the ‘we’ “.

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“Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha,” by Tara Brach

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

This will be a very helpful and practical book for many people, dealing as it does with how we can work with our feelings of unworthiness in order to transform them through awareness. It’s a much needed book as well, since this is a topic that traditional Buddhism scarcely touches on, self-loathing being a particularly western phenomenon (the Dalai Lama was completely perplexed when told that many westerners had problems with self-hatred, and had never come across this amongst eastern Buddhists).

Brach introduces various tools to help deal with the scourge of self-hatred, and incidentally introduces the very moving stories of some of her patients who have worked through these issues using those same tools. I really was close to tears as I witnessed people accepting feelings that they had been running from for years, and making strides towards self-acceptance.

First and foremost amongst the tools offered is of course mindfulness, which introduces into our experience what Brach calls a “sacred pause”. Mindfulness is a nonreactive state of mind that avoids running away from or indulging in our problematic emotions, allowing us to fully acknowledge what is present. Brach teaches how to use an awareness of the body to escape from the “trance of unworthiness”. She teaches the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and the closely related Tibetan Tonglen meditation practices, in order to cultivate more self-love, as well as the karuna bhavana (development of compassion) to help us become less self-absorbed. And lastly she touches on the Tibetan practice of Dzogchen, or “great perfection” which involves relaxing into an awareness of the mind’s inherent purity.

Over the course of this book then, we are taken from learning to acknowledge and accept who we are, including our self-hatred and sense of unworthiness, to seeing the inherent purity of the mind that Buddhism says is always there beneath the surface. At every stage of the way, Brach supplies meditation exercises (sometimes more than one per chapter) to help make the material experiential rather than merely theoretical.

And in making her points she quotes widely; from Sufis, modern western poets like David Whyte and T.S. Eliot, and from teachers from all of the Buddhist traditions — Theravadin, Tibetan, and Zen — from past and present. In fact the breadth of her knowledge is quite astonishing, and I felt privileged to be given a glimpse into so many different worlds, all unified within a single perspective.

The tone throughout is compassionate and confessional, and in showing how she has worked through her own difficulties Brach gives one of the highest teachings that anyone has to offer — that of exemplifying the path.

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