Posts by Steve Bell

Mindfulness for Dummies, by Shamash Aladina

Book plus CD available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

If I could put a book in a drawer in every hotel room across America, across the world, it would be Mindfulness for Dummies by Shamash Alidina. Alidina’s website describes him the following way:  “He has taught mindfulness in a secular way for over a decade to adults, and has taught eastern philosophy, physics and mindfulness in a progressive childrens’ school for 8 years.”

As an experienced practitioner I was worried I wouldn’t find much new here. Instead, Mindfulness for Dummies is a fascinating, well-researched tour de force.  

Alidina seems to cover all the important bases with complex and yet simple bullet points of the Dummies series style of writing.  I can’t read books like this cover to cover, but it’s a great book to have around to dip into.Because of the lovely quotes, epigrams, insights, and the wide casting mind that finds many jewels amongst the world traditions, I recommend this thorough and subtle account of the many ways of thinking about mindfulness.  

This book also comes with a CD, which includes a range of short mindful meditation introductions.  He is gentle, positive, and calm in his instructions.  “Mindfulness is to fall awake, not asleep.”  There are many gems on the CD as well.

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“The Yogi’s Joy,” by Sangharakshita

"The Yogi's Joy," by SangharakshitaHow would you feel if your teacher burned your book collection? A new book by Sangharakshita highlights a challenging friendship between a Tibetan guru and his disciple.

A good dharma book is humbling. It is like a spiritual friend who isn’t afraid of cutting through our defenses in the service of positive change. Sangharakshita’s new book, exploring three songs of Milarepa, challenged me in this way. The material is compiled from edited transcripts of seminars Sangharakshita gave to members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) in the late 70’s, about Milarepa, his songs and the spiritual life. The songs chosen are about spiritual friendship and its challenges. We get to see Milarepa beginning a relationship with one of his close disciples, Rechungpa. We get to watch as they get in tune with each other.

Title: The Yogi’s Joy: Songs of Milarepa
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 1-899-57966-4
Available from: Windhorse Publications (UK), and Amazon.com.

Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived 1052–1135 C.E. in medieval Tibet. The basic outline of Milarepa’s life is that he was cheated out of land by some relatives. He used black magic to create a storm that killed the thieves, and then, fearing that he would have a bad rebirth, he turned to the spiritual life in order to save himself. He went to Marpa for teachings. Marpa made him build, tear down and rebuild a tower, as a way to cleanse his karma. (You can go see the last tower Milarepa built, it still exists, the tower is situated in Lhodrak district, north of the Bhutanese border.) When Milarepa was ready and his karma was cleansed, Marpa told him to go and meditate in caves.

 Legend has it that in Milarepa’s last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate.  

Milarepa is famous for his rigorous practice and his asceticism. He is said to have turned green from eating nettles, which formed the main component of his diet. One day the wind was so fierce that Milarepa passed out, and when he awakened his robe was gone. He liked to flout convention, and there are many stories of him being naked, or showing his body. Legend has it that in his last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate. There is a spiritual intensity here that’s not for dilettantes. This is more of a spirituality of confrontation than of comfort, and Milarepa’s spiritual intensity and commitment, while it can seem inspiring, can also seem extreme and frightening.

The songs in The Yogi’s Joy are taken from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, which is the written records of Milarepa’s songs: the spiritual poems that he would sing as a way of teaching people the Dharma. Apparently it’s not too hard to improvise songs in the Tibetan language because of its structure. Ordinary folk would often sing as they worked, and Sangharakshita met many Tibetans in Kalimpong in the 1950’s who would improvise songs. The Yogi’s Joy is good at setting the historical stage, and at translating Milarepa’s teachings into a modern context.

 We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.  

Milarepa’s relationship with his discipline Rechungpa is at the heart of this book. Rechungpa went off to India to get some teaching, and comes back haughty and puffed up. He no longer wants to hang out with his guru Milarepa in caves, and instead wants to find some sponsors to give him a good meal and lodging. But Milarepa gets Rechungpa to go out for water, and while he’s away on this errand, Milarepa burns his books. This would have been a challenging moment in a spiritual friendship, I imagine. There’s something emotionally challenging in being receptive to another person, because of the level of trust and vulnerability involved. It’s not easy to be open to a true spiritual friend.

As well as being a story about the friendship between Milarepa and Rechungpa, The Yogi’s Joy is the meeting between Milarepa and Sangharakshita — two people of great spiritual depth. Sangharakshita was born in England in 1925 and spent almost 20 years in the east practicing Buddhism. In 1967, in England, he founded a Buddhist order — the Triratna Buddhist Order — which has spread around the world. Sangharakshita says, “If any westerner practices even a hundredth part of what they have read, they are probably doing pretty well.” You could say this about reading Sangharakshita’s book. He has many intense spiritual teachings, which it would be easy to just keep reading past as we move on to the next one. But to connect with spiritual teachings, to let them percolate into the deepest part of us, requires lingering reflecting, and — most importantly — putting the teachings into practice in one’s life.

Sangharakshita goes so far as to suggest that the many Dharma books we read, often quickly and superficially, hinder our spiritual progress. My spiritual friends read very slowly while I have gobbled Dharma books over the past seven years, and I even read this book quickly when it first came out. Rereading it has been a sobering lesson on how little sticks when you rush. In another way it heartens me because there’s so much depth, I can return and return to the book and still find things I’ve not understood or forgotten. We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, “Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment”

Buddha mind, buddha body, Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhah Hanh’s spiritual genius shines through this new book, despite some poor organization and quirky translations.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment offers instructions on dwelling in the body and mind, on metta (or universal lovingkindness), and on Thich Nhat Hanh’s distinctive teaching on “interbeing.” The book includes–as bookends, teachings on walking meditation–but many other practices are discussed in between. The book is in fact quite a collection of Dharma teachings.

Title: Buddha Mind, Buddha Body
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: Parallax
ISBN: 978-1888375-75-6
Available from: Amazon.com and Parallax.

Buddha Mind, Buddha Body is based on The Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses by Master Hsuan-Tsang (ca. 596-664), though the connection to that text is not readily apparent, and nowhere does the author explicitly state he’s discussing Hsuan-Tsang’s work.

Sometimes Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanations neatly encapsulate major struggles from my own practice and remind me of why I seek the freedom that mindfulness brings:

“Dispersion is when you allow yourself to be carried away by emotions. When we feel out of control of our lives, as if we don’t have any sovereignty, that’s mind consciousness in dispersion. You think and speak and do things that you cannot control. We don’t want to be full of hate and anger and discrimination, but sometimes the habit energy feels so strong we don’t know how to change it. There’s no loving kindness, understanding, or compassion in your thinking, because you are less than your better self … you say things and do thing you wouldn’t say or do if you were concentrated. You lose your sovereignty.” (page 77)

In these flashes of clarity, I wonder: where did this guy come from? Who is he? Thich Nhat Hanh started practicing when he was 16 in Vietnam, in a tradition that draws heavily from Zen, although Thich Nhat Hanh seems to value the whole Buddhist tradition.

Conditionality is a key idea in Buddhism, and is always present in one form or another in this book, mostly in his emphasis on “interbeing.” Conditionality is the idea that we, and everything, are predicated on conditions. Being separate is a mistake and a delusion.

I found the lack of footnotes confusing. I like a Dharma book that notes exactly where a particular story comes from in the vast tradition, so I can look it up and reinforce what I’m learning, or see if I agree with an author’s interpretation of a text.

Also his translations are sometimes different from standard definitions. Instead of the usual translation of “patience” for kshanti, he translates it as “inclusiveness.” He likens it more to growing larger, so that little things do not bug you. He translates sila as “mindfulness”, though usually it’s considered “ethics.” Not that ethics doesn’t require mindfulness, but we have the tradition of the precepts to guide us here. Virya isn’t translated as “energy” but “diligence.”

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the language of theism when he says, “a kingdom of God or Pure Land.” This language might be helpful to some, and unhelpful to others. It’s pretty clear that the Buddha said questions about God’s existence, is not pragmatic on the path to Enlightenment, it’s a red herring. But Buddhism isn’t a stickler for dogma. What ever practically helps you on the path to enlightenment. If thoughts of god help you, then well it doesn’t matter what the Buddha said. Of course because the Buddha has said something, according to the tradition, there’s a good reason to look into it and take it seriously.

The last chapter of the book is a guided walking meditation, derived from past books, and then there are appendices, which leads to a clunky kind of ending, a mishmash of information that is not well strung together. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the book over all, and look forward to reading more from him. He’s clearly a spiritual genius, a star Buddhist in a great sky of wonderful Buddhist stars, and well worth your notice.

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What Rikers Island taught me about meditation

Prison can be a tough environment for those who work there as well as for inmates. Psychotherapist Steve Bell reflects on a few tough months spent in Rikers Island and realizes how much he learned.

I find myself on Rikers Island

For four months last year I worked with women detainees on Rikers Island in the Intense Treatment Unit, or ITU. Those four months were an adventure, but I won’t easily forget the trauma and abuse the women reported, and eventually the need to live a simpler life led me to give up working there.

The idea of the ITU was to try and apply the work of Marsha Linehan — who created Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) — to an incarcerated population. One of the core skill areas was mindfulness, and we began every skill group with a short meditation.

Some of the women were waiting for trial: there because they couldn’t pay the $500 bail before their trial for possession of drugs. A few were doing their sentences there or were detoxing before going upstate. If you’re sentenced to less than a year, you stay in Rikers instead of going upstate.

Most of the detainees on the intense treatment unit (ITU) did not initially buy into meditation and mindfulness. At times the women would mutter in frustration during meditation sessions as they tried to stay focuses in the face of the noises outside our group room. A few, more mentally disorganized, gave up, jiggled and sat there during the short meditation, not participating. Many initially thought meditation was weird but after a while took to it and could see the benefit.

Lovingkindness and mindfulness are one

I was there to teach mindfulness, but I learned a lot about mindfulness as well. The first thing I realized in teaching meditation was how important it is to bring metta, or loving-kindness, into the mindfulness of breathing practice. Usually I regard the practices as separate, and alternate them, but I came to see them as two sides of the same coin. When I made a suggestion like, “Kindly and gently bring yourself back to the breath,” I realized that lovingkindness had become integrated into my practice of the mindfulness of breathing meditation. One woman took this idea and used it to the maximum, seeing care and gentleness towards herself as an essential skill she’d never been taught. Kindness towards herself, at a very basic level, unlocked something within her. She came in to the program very upset, detoxing off drugs, and could not talk without crying. She left with more self-possession, more in control, more aware of herself, and with a new tool to fight her addictions.

Mindfulness and acceptance

Mindfulness isn’t “clearing thought” or “stopping distractions” but merely being aware what is going on, with whatever arises. If you’re patient and diligent, things settle and there will be more space, and you can become less distracted, more concentrated, and have more continuity of purpose; that is more long-term goal, the fruit of the practice.

The immediate goal in meditating is to just observe what arises as you try to follow the breath or connect with your metta. Afterwards you may feel more concentrated and mindful, but while meditating you might not. You might realize how distracted you are, and almost feel like meditation is making you more distracted. It’s not the meditation, though; that’s how you really are and you’re just not aware of it.

You may hope “distractions” go away when they are present, but that’s not always helpful. I worked to develop a curiosity about the contents of my mind, not being judgmental about what was going on in my experience. Seeing others’ frustration helped me to identify my own impatience and frustration.

Start where you are

When we watch our mind in meditation we can perhaps notice layers of judgment, impatience, and frustration about what is happening when we tune into ourselves. We can be mindful of that too. We have to know what is present before we look to change it. I heard someone say the essence of Pema Chödrön’s teaching is, “start where you really are,” and that expresses what I’m trying to describe. Only after we accept ourselves can we can begin to explore what tools we have for transforming ourselves, evaluate what works, and experiment with new ways of working with what is really going on. Learning that balance of acceptance and of exerting effort is a very important skill, not just in meditation.

If you see an express train coming, get out of the way

Another thing I had the privilege of learning while teaching female detainees is that it’s mettaful not to attempt the impossible in meditation. Sometimes I have thoughts that are like an express train; they have so much momentum that focusing on the breath isn’t even an option for a time. What’s the best thing you can do when an express train is coming through? Make sure you’re not standing on the tracks. Get out of the way. Let it go by. Don’t try to stop it. Watch it pass.

Meditation becomes less exhausting when I don’t try too hard, don’t try stop express trains, stop trying to do the impossible. There is a quality of metta in dropping the impossible project, accepting what you find, and opening up to new more subtle ways of working with your mind than unmindful and crude brute force.

You can even learn from your “distractions” – “Why am I having this daydream?” It’s important to not get too caught up in the investigation, but it’s also helpful to employ a sense of kindly curiosity.

“Metabolizing” distractions

Instead of doing something to get rid of difficult feelings, I observe them, honor and validate them, face and “metabolize” them. I met someone who thought doing that was masochistic, but I think distracting oneself, tuning out from your experience, can be masochistic because it’s more harmful in the long-term not to deal with difficult mental states.

The thing about accepting whatever arises is that often I’m not going to like what I find when I tune in. I might find a closet full of unwanted bric-a-brac: unwanted memories, racing thoughts, unpleasant emotions and memories, unresolved nagging questions I have avoided, etc. I stay with my experience, and watch how it evolves. Have you ever noticed that if you look at a cloud long enough it will subtly change shape?

I tune out for a reason. It’s a fundamental axiom of Dharma, and I think human nature, that we push away the unpleasant and pull towards us the pleasant. That includes the contents of our mind. There is a cost for denying our experience, a kind of violence towards ourselves.

In teaching meditation, I saw my own maneuvers to avoid my painful feeling reflected in what others were doing, and this helped me be aware of my own habitual tendencies. I worked to try and draw people out and put words to their experience, and listening to others’ accounts of meditation was fascinating and an opportunity to learn. I also saw the importance of articulating to others my experience.

Marsha Linehan points out that those who face their suffering mindfully learn from it. Being abused isn’t a predictor of how good a parent someone will be — it’s whether they have faced their traumas. Those who don’t look at the whole of their lives, even the unpleasant bits, do not learn from it. Meditation can be a way of facing our suffering and metabolizing it, making use of it. That’s the best thing you can do in a bad situation.

Suffering becomes a trigger for mindfulness

We can even make suffering into a trigger for mindfulness. Milarepa says a dog chases sticks that are thrown. The tiger turns and faces the stick thrower. I sometimes feel like that is what therapy and meditation have in common: Facing the stick thrower.

When people expressed what was really going on I saw the most spontaneous and genuine outpourings of support and empathy from others in the group — and these were tough women not prone to flights of spontaneous empathy. I found myself saying often, “I’d probably be dead if that happened to me,” when they recounted their traumas.

There’s something about talking simply and directly about the content of our minds that makes for a connection. It’s a model of communication, more accurate, less blaming, pure. Simply saying “I feel this way,” has the power of connection. When you say, “you did this,” someone can debate that. But our descriptions of our feelings isn’t really something to debate about.

And so by teaching meditation to these woman who were damaged and suffering, I saw more clearly how I try to avoid my experience, how I could work to start where I really am. I closed the distance between us, could see the circumstances that swept them into a more negative life, see myself not as so separate and not so different from them. By teaching others, I learned about myself; we learned together. I was proud to work to metabolize their suffering for a short time.

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Parenting and practice

Steve BellHow do we maintain an active practice while being immersed in the world of parenting and work? Are children a hindrance to spiritual practice? Or can parenting also be a path? Steve Bell, Buddhist practitioner and social worker, speaks from his experience of meditating while parenting two young boys.

I tell prospective parents to make a list of all the things they enjoy doing in their spare time. What are your hobbies? Do you like to go to the movies? I ask them to list the obscure little things they would miss. Do you like timely haircuts? Do you like to luxuriate in the bathroom, on the toilet, in the shower, and grooming? Then I ask them to cross off half the things on their list — those that are least important. Then cross out half of the remainder. Keep whittling the list down, until there is just one last thing, the thing you couldn’t give up.

The last thing on my own list was meditation. I’d give up everything but that. I love meditation and what it gives me. And I wouldn’t have known all that if I didn’t have children. The narrowing of possibilities as a parent has focused me onto what’s most important in my life and helped me to see what’s most important to me.

Parenting is a kind of crisis that makes it more important for me to meditate, because meditating is a survival strategy for me. I underestimated the amount of work it would take to raise children. The pressure of having no sleep and caring for children has challenged me maybe more than living in a hermit’s cave would. I’ve done the “mindfulness of my exhaustion and sleeplessness” meditation more than I care to. At times, when I’m tired and stressed, I feel moved to act in a way towards my children that I know is wrong. Somehow I’m primitively drawn forward, like there’s some archaic script that must be followed, some intergenerational trauma that must somehow be passed on. Meditation helps me to step aside from that, to act in my own best interest and in my children’s best interest.

The age of the children, the number of children you have, their disposition, how much support, and other circumstances, determine the constraints that you practice under. Here are the factors that affect me: My children are aged two and three. My wife works. My sons are not good sleepers. They’re very loud, active boys who like climbing, jumping, shouting and exploring. It’s been a challenge to get them into their beds, and to have them sleep through the night in their own beds. I wake up in the morning and they are in bed with us. They sneaked in while we slept.

All these conditions effect whether I get to meditate uninterrupted. My wife leaves for work during the time I meditate, and if the boys wake up I need to stop what I’m doing. There will no doubt come a time when I can ask them to let me finish meditating, or when they will just know to leave me alone until I’m finished. But for now I have to cultivate patience. To help with this I’ve taken to reading the chapter on patience in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara after I meditate, if there’s time. Rarely is there time.

My boys challenge me in unexpected ways and constantly catch me out. They are my gurus, pointing out the aspect of my practice I need to be focused on: patience. Nobody can unravel me and find my weak spots more easily than they do.

When I complain about not being able to meditate, my friends say, “Just be mindful in your day-to-day life.” I get irritated at that because on the one hand it is actually the answer. On the other hand, I feel that meditation is an essential way for me to increase and even just to maintain my mindfulness. The challenge for me is finding the right balance between the depth of sitting practice and cultivating mindfulness in everyday life.

When I don’t meditate I feel less capable, less positive, less open, and less flexible. I am more easily overwhelmed and unbalanced, more small-minded and selfish. When I meditate I can relax into the challenges of parenting. I am grounded in my body, and I’m not as reactive. I have more objectivity.

When I don’t meditate, I resist my circumstances more. One of my core understandings of the Dharma is that we hurt ourselves when we resist our circumstances. The struggle to accept my situation as a father, and in particular being interrupted when I meditate, is one of my key spiritual challenges.

The Satipatthana Sutta says that you should cultivate mindfulness when your mind is “restricted, scattered, unconcentrated.” I have more of a restricted, scattered, unconcentrated mind when my children wake up early and I don’t get a chance to meditate. Meditation is my main method for increasing mindfulness.

So how do you develop the mindfulness to parent well when parenting prevents you from meditating? How do you get inspiration in the very situation that seems to be drying it up? I can’t find the answer in the life of the Buddha. He left his family to pursue a spiritual journey that resulted in enlightenment. He never went back, though his wife sent his son to live with him at age seven, and he took him on as a disciple. Later his wife even joined the Sangha. But that’s not a reunification of the family unit — they joined his spiritual movement.

With my literal mind, in moments of weakness, I sometimes wonder if I have to leave my family to seek more spiritual depth and challenge. But of course I couldn’t leave my children. My father left me, and it was deeply painful. His leaving was perhaps the central event in my life. Because of my childhood experiences and my commitment not to harm others I could never do the same thing to my own children. So I need to find a more metaphorical kind of going forth that will benefit me and my family and that takes into account my circumstances and commitments.

Meditation is essential to me. I’ve practiced meditation daily for the past six years, and my sitting practice has been the biggest catalyst for positive change in my life. Some people are amazed that I meditate for 40 minutes most days despite having two small boys. For me, it’s vital, necessary, and not negotiable.

Retreats are very important to me. I want to squeeze the most out of the few retreats that I get to go on. On retreats it’s easier to meditate and we meditate more than I do normally, but my hunger for meditation is such that I never feel there is enough. I have an urgency I would not have developed if I was able to go on retreat more.

And I’d love to get on retreat more, but it wouldn’t be fair to leave my wife alone with the children. She’s not a Buddhist, though she is very kind, and because she doesn’t go on retreat we can’t have a straightforward quid pro quo arrangement. I won’t go on retreat against her wishes, so the retreat negotiation is yet another struggle on the spiritual path, attempting to get my needs met while also taking my wife’s needs into account.

You parent well by giving attention: by giving a particular kind and quality of attention. I don’t usually see that as mindfulness, but in a way it is. I have the challenge of trying to remain calm when flummoxed, to remain kind when my conditioning tells me to crack the whip in an unskillful way by imposing my will rather than relating empathetically. I have to watch for being so tired that I just want to let some of my children’s undesirable behavior slide by unaddressed.

Although my practice is important to me I worry about pushing Buddhism onto my children. I dislike the coercive indoctrination of religion on children. Yet my practice and my parenting are inseparable. There are many ways my boys learn about my Dharma practice. I chant to them to help them fall asleep. They see me meditate. They have met my Buddhist friends. They have gone to a Buddhist naming ceremony. They had naming ceremonies themselves, although they were too young at the time to be able to remember. They can identify the Buddha on the cover of books I read. My practice subtly diffuses out of my pores, and they pick up on it, without my proselytizing or forcing anything on them. Most of the time they appreciate my kindness and my mindfulness. So in a way I have done what my friends suggest, and infused my parenting with my spiritual practice.

I wish I could say I act gracefully all the time, that I go around in a state of equanimity, that I’m always a “good Buddhist.” The fact is though, that my boys have exposed some of my fragility and inflexibility of mind. They show me that I have lots of work to do. They are my gurus, and they humble me because they help me to see more clearly who I am and who I want to be. Pema Chodron talks about “the big squeeze”: when we realize the pressure of our ideals and how far we are from them. I have learned to clarify and use ideals, like the ten precepts, in a positive way, and not to turn them against myself in the pressure cooker of parenting.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, tells a story. There was a fellow who meditated on lovingkindness every morning. Every day, his servant boy would quietly bring some tea into the meditation room so that his master could have tea after meditating. One day, during meditation, the servant boy spilled the tea. The man roared at the boy for interrupting his meditation, “Can’t you see I’m radiating universal loving kindness throughout the world!”

So when my son comes up to me while I’m meditating, and says, “Do you want to play?” my heart melts, and I get up from my cushion — even if I’ve only been sitting for four minutes — and go play with him. That is how I express my metta.

Parenting is a challenge, but it also brings direct spiritual rewards. Kevin Griffin points out in One Breath at a Time:

Sometimes we are focused on developing concentration or investigation or some other quality. New parents have to work hard at cultivating and maintaining a lot of spiritual qualities: patience, generosity, renunciation (as they give up so much of their freedom and time). But the gift that they receive is love, as well as what’s called mudita, or appreciative joy. There’s no work involved, no effort in developing metta and mudita for our children, they just blossom. Appreciating that this is happening for us can help us to be easier on ourselves when other aspects of our practice seem to be crumbling.

I love my sons. They are utterly precious to me, even if they sometimes stop me from meditating. My love for my boys is as at least as powerful as my feelings of frustration about not being able to meditate. I sometimes catch myself speeding home from work: I am rushing to get back to them, to see them, urgently, passionately.

This is not the spirituality of being on retreat, of meditation, dharma study, and sangha. I contrast my life with a retired friend’s simple life of meditation and reflection, his walks in nature, his artistic and social activity, with no television or internet. His children have grown up and he no longer needs to work. Is that the only way to be spiritual, with free time, with no pull of responsibility? Do you have to be a monastic to move towards enlightenment? Can I be spiritual while immersed in my parenting and working life?

My spiritual practice is about staying with my experience, and not running away internally in order to cope with difficult experiences. It’s the same as with an itch on my nose in meditation — I don’t have to react, I can just experience it. I must stay with the challenging experience of parenting, not do the violence of wishing I was elsewhere, taking myself out of the here and now. It’s in this way, staying with and accepting my experience, that I become less scattered and restricted.
I wouldn’t have known all these things if I didn’t have children. Maybe I would have learned different lessons — I can’t say, and there’s no point in trying to second-guess myself. The challenge of losing my free time, of being needed so much, has taught me something vital: My children are my gurus. They help me blossom.


Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.

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The Bliss of Inner Fire, by Lama Thubten Yeshe

the bliss of inner fire, lama thubten yeshe

I have the fantasy that there is a perfect book out there for my next spiritual step. A book like The Bliss of Inner Fire by Lama Thubten Yeshe complicates things. It’s the kind of book that spawns a list of other books to read: First off, Tsongkhapa’s Having Three Convictions, or The Six Practices of Yoga by Naropa, which Lama Thubten Yeshe refers to quite a lot because they are his root texts.

The Bliss of Inner Fire by is based on Lama Yeshe’s talks on the last two intensive retreats that he gave before he died in 1984 at the age of 49. He chose to talk about tummo, one of the six yogas of Naropa, which is explored in Tsongkhapa’s Having the Three Convictions. Tummo is the practice of inner fire. It’s the practice where you can sit outside in the winter and not feel cold — but that’s the exciting magical explanation. Lama Yeshe isn’t into these exotic claims, he’s a real Buddhist. It turns out that it’s like every other practice — it’s designed to move you towards enlightenment. The sense of concentration and insight of deep meditation has a kind of convergent tendency.

Lama Yeshe is from the Gelugpa school, but appreciates the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu schools, which are the four main schools of the Tibetan Tradition. You probably know this but it’s worth repeating: while the Dali Lama is a world spiritual leader, he is also from the Gelugpa school.

Lama Thubten Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935. At the age of six, he entered Sera Monastic University in Tibet where he studied until 1959, when he was 24. He had to flee the Chinese invasion. His main teacher was Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. When he finally got to the Tibetan community in exile in India, he resumed his studies. These studies are rigorous and involve much debate, study and even all night sessions. He’s a favorite of the Gelugpa tradition perhaps because of his young death; he’s a kind of James Dean of the Gelugpa tradition.

One theme of the book is the importance of practice over “book Buddhism” — a kind of dilettante Buddhism. Lama Yeshe says, “These days we have no shortage of intellectual information, but I truly believe there is a shortage of fertilization. We collect so much information, but we do very little with it. This is why we have so little success in our spiritual practice.” The dharma lives in people, not just in books. Books represent people in a way, but they are not fully embodied, not interactive. A book is circumstantial speech; it just goes on and on regardless of the reader and the reader’s needs.

Lama Yeshe has encouraging advice for people who regret the time it took to finally find Buddhism, “Try to be reasonable in the way you grow, and don’t ever think it is too late. It’s never too late. Even if you are going to die tomorrow, keep yourself straight and clear and be a happy human being today. If you keep your situation happy day by day, you will eventually reach the greatest happiness of enlightenment.”

The book is based on talks, and so once you get past the three introductions, it reads like smooth encouraging advice for the most part. Then it gets into more complicated visualization practices, where it seems like it would be better to see these teachings live, and be able to seek clarification for yourself.

Lama Yeshe makes some interesting distinctions about western thinking. Lama Yeshe says, “In the West, desire seems to refer to sense gratification. However, in the Buddhist view, desire is not a craving of the senses but the mental concepts and projections that we build up on an object, thereby bring us problems.” And, “If you know the nature of desire, you can really control your mind because you are able to question and to understand your own view of desire’s object. Otherwise, you cannot see the mind’s trick. With it’s constant “I feel, I want,” desire plays tricks on you, leading you to a constant restlessness that can mess up your life.”

He seems to be saying that desire as we know it, wanting the latest electronic gadget, or a new DVD or whatever, isn’t how to think about desire. Noticing how we add on to the story of our desires, is his point. Like “I need to maintain my status,” or, “My life is so difficult I deserve some pleasure and a DVD is the most efficient route to pleasure,” on top of the whole pleasure story. Having pleasure itself is not problematic; it’s our relationship with the pleasures. It’s not the gratification itself, but the story about it. “Ah, now I can relax now that I have a whirlpool bath.” Or, “Now that I am married, I can get on with the business of life” as if these projects truly make us happy. Not that you shouldn’t get a whirlpool bath or get married — just don’t center your story on stories of gratification so superficially.

He also says, “Even though it is sometimes said that something is nonexistent because it is like an illusion, a dream, or a reflection in a mirror, this is not philosophically correct. It is speaking loosely to say, ‘This phenomenon does not exist because it is an illusion. It is just one of my projections.’ In fact, the reverse is true. The phenomenon exists precisely because it exists as an illusion, which is independent. A reflection in a mirror is also interdependent; it exists because of the mirror.”

What he seems to be saying here, is that these illusions we build up are part of our life, you can’t just do an “illusion extraction,” because they are based intimately on your life. In a way it’s our whole world view that’s needs the liberating reorientation of a deeper understanding in Buddhism, the cultivation of insight.

At times he makes intriguing statements without explaining, like “ordinary exercise increases superstition”. Perhaps what he’s saying is that exercise is likely to distract one into the cult of the beautiful body — but we’ll never know because he didn’t expand on it.

For me, this book has too much talk of practices I don’t do, so it was difficult for me to read. Nonetheless, it’s a book worthy of a Buddhist library, for the contemporary section of one’s Tibetan Buddhism section, an informal but useful commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Having Three Convictions, which is itself a commentary on The Six Practices of Yoga by Naropa. If The Six Practices of Yoga is your root text, or you are interested in the Gelugpa tradition, you shouldn’t ignore this book.


Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.

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