Posts by Sunada Takagi

In the moment, in the sweep of time

Sunada sometimes hears skepticism about the idea of being “in the moment.” Does it really mean we should cut ourselves off from our past and future? Are we to drop all our cherished memories? Should we naïvely stop planning for our future? No, she’s quite certain this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he taught about mindfulness. So let’s take a closer look at what it might really mean.

In the Buddhist scriptures, mindfulness is described as having several different aspects. One of them is sati, which is Pali for recollection, memory, or recalling to mind.

we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

When we’re present with ourselves, we don’t just pop into existence at that moment. We also come with a whole lifetime of learning, experience, skills, and knowledge, all of which are manifesting in some form for us at that moment.

For example, right now, I have all that I’ve learned from my Buddhist studies at my disposal. I don’t discard that in order to be in the moment. They are PART of my being in the moment. My past informs and gives a cumulative shape to my present. And my past is what has equipped me with all the skills and experience I have at my disposal NOW, to act on things in the moment. So as you can see, we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

Another aspect of mindfulness is sampajañña, which translates to something like “mindfulness of purpose.” This is about being conscious of where we’re headed — a sense of direction or where we intend to go.

It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future.

Intention could simply mean, for example, a commitment toward being kind and compassionate toward others. It doesn’t have to be anything as grand as a life purpose. It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future. Without it we’d drift aimlessly like an idiot sitting smelling the roses, having no clear sense of values or direction. But at the same time, it’s quite a different matter from living in the future – such as wishing for things we think we lack, or worrying about dangers that we think lie ahead.

So in the course of our daily lives, returning to the breath and coming back to the present doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from our past and future. Rather than limiting ourselves down to a tiny, stunted slice of ourselves, I think it means quite the opposite. It means seeing our full breadth and depth clearly within a broad sweep of time, but from the standpoint of where we are now.

It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience.

By analogy, it’s sort of like stopping during a hike up a mountain and taking in the panorama of the trail behind and ahead of us. Of course, we want to be fully present and take in the view – after all, that’s what hiking (and life) is all about. At the same time, we stay aware of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, without getting caught up in either. And with all that in mind, we make informed choices about what steps to take now – including which trail to take, the pace of our walk, and so on – to reach our destination safely and enjoyably.

So with this definition of mindfulness, I think “staying in the moment” is a tremendously helpful, but challenging thing to do. It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience. Clear seeing also means understanding what we can and cannot change, and maintaining the wherewithal to make wise choices in the midst of it all. Wouldn’t you agree that this is how we’d like to be ALL the time?

Read More

Fear is my ally

Eagle in flight

Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

…what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

Read More

“The Mindful Leader” by Michael Carroll

The Mindful Leader by Michael Carroll

In The Mindful Leader, author Michael Carroll’s premise is that the best leaders aren’t those who take charge and make things happen. They’re the ones who are willing to be fully human and inspire the best in others. Sunada reviews this book that shows us how to pursue excellence at work and do so with decency, dignity, and authenticity.

Pick up a typical book on business leadership and what do you get? Advice on how to motivate others to do more, do it faster, and win in a zero-sum game. But on the first page of The Mindful Leader, it’s suggested that we sit quietly and do nothing for a while.

Outrageous? Not at all!

Michael Carroll takes a decidedly unconventional, but thoroughly refreshing perspective on the subject. He explains as follows:

“When we lead a career that is sharply focused on being more successful, more admired, or just more comfortable, we can deceive ourselves into neglecting the world around us. We end up managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them. Consequently, for mindful leaders, cultivating this ability to be at work and throughout our lives is not just a nice idea or an interesting thing to do. Rather, by learning to be at work we discover how to stop kidding ourselves and … to open respectfully and realistically to our workplace as it unfolds in the present moment.”

If this strikes you as too soft and “touchy-feely” for the take-no-prisoners business world, I urge you to read on. He isn’t advocating becoming a nice, well-liked person who gets left behind in the cut-throat race to the finish. Carroll would argue that being a genuine human being and an effective leader are not contradictory. In fact, there’s a synergy between these two realms that’s greater than the sum of their parts.

In the introduction, Carroll talks about the concept of the bodhisattva-warrior. A bodhisattva is a highly advanced spiritual being whose sole purpose in life is to help others. A bodhisattva-warrior is a courageous figure who uses his power and ingenuity to overcome the forces of arrogance, aggression, and greed in the world. This book is in effect a training manual for modern-day bodhisattva-warriors. It’s not a job for sissies.

Michael Carroll has the background to know what he’s talking about. In his 25-year career, he held executive positions in major corporations like Shearson Lehman/American Express, Simon & Schuster, and Walt Disney. During that time, he also studied Tibetan Buddhism in the Shambala lineage, graduated from Buddhist seminary, and is now a senior teacher. Drawing on his training in these two worlds, he now consults to businesses on how to be respectfully in the moment while confidently pursuing one’s work objectives. (Note that I also wrote a review of his related previous book, Awake at Work.)

The heart of the book lays out the Ten Talents of the Mindful Leader: Simplicity, Poise, Respect, Courage, Confidence, Enthusiasm, Patience, Awareness, Skillfulness, and Humility. He discusses each talent by introducing a common business challenge, and then shows how mindfulness naturally expresses a quality perfectly suited to countering the situation. He discusses how to cultivate this quality through meditation or conscious reflection, and how to bring it out into our work world.

Title: The Mindful Leader
Author: Michael Carroll
Publisher: Shambhala Publications
ISBN: 978-1-59030-620-8
Available from: Amazon.com and Shambhala.

One chapter at a time, he shows how we can heal “toxic” workplaces, cultivate courage in the face of risky situations, pursue long-term goals without sacrificing what’s here and now, and lead with wisdom and grace instead of ambition and power. Every chapter is filled with real world anecdotes and parables from the Buddhist tradition that bring his points colorfully to life.

It’s the section that follows, Bringing Our Full Being to Work, that I appreciated the most. Here, Carroll draws out a higher level of integrative skills that I think are the mark of a true leader. It’s where all the previous ten talents meld into a holistic vision of masterful leadership. These skills are Synchronizing, Engaging the Whole, Inspiring Health and Well-being, and Authenticity.

I particularly enjoyed his story of a capsized ferry disaster in ancient China, which is an illustration of Engaging the Whole. I’ll let the story speak for itself.

… all the villagers dropped what they were doing and raced down to the ferry … except for the blacksmith. … He ran in the opposite direction. People stopped and grumbled, ‘Now we know who to depend on when things go wrong. Look at that cowardly blacksmith scurrying away when he is most needed.’

As people rushed to the capsized ferry, they struggled valiantly to save those in the water, but they were too late. Those who had fallen into the river had been pulled downstream by the strong current, and the villagers could see people struggling in the rapids as they were swept out of sight and around the bend. No one could see the blacksmith, however, just past the curve of the river extending a bamboo pole to those in need, pulling them to shore one by one.

Unlike the well-intentioned villagers, the blacksmith ‘engaged the whole’: his behaviors were as much an expression of the circumstances as they were a reaction to them. He knew that ‘results’ – saving the drowning passengers – were inherently defined by the river, terrain, and timing, not by his personal need to help. Going downstream rather than rushing in panic to the scene of the disaster was a choice that followed the contours of his world: because he was synchronized, he was skillfully in tune with the facts, and his presence was, in many respects, an expression of the situation’s intelligence.

Let me mention a couple things you WON’T find in this book. First, it doesn’t teach you how to meditate. There is a section on meditation and reflection, but it’s clear the intent is to provide just enough guidance to engage with the reflection exercises. It won’t help you start a full-fledged meditation practice, which is really beyond the scope of this book. You’re better off using the chapter as a reference and seeking instruction elsewhere.

Second, you’ve probably figured out by now that this book isn’t about management methods and competencies. You won’t find anything that you can bring to your office on Monday and get cracking on. What it does is invite you to pause and reflect. It gives you lots of food for thought about what it means to be more fully and authentically human. And it encourages us to cultivate the basic attitudes and mental skills that form the ground upon which great leaders naturally emerge.

There’s one other important point from the book I’d like to emphasize. Although the subject is leadership in a business context, I think the principles can apply to anyone. Leadership isn’t something that only CEOs do. Each and every one of us can be a leader in whatever we do – whether we’re teaching children, designing software, or driving taxis.

As Carroll says:

… all human beings instinctively want to offer their best to others and in turn inspire others to do the same, and this can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

In that regard, I hope this book is read by a much wider audience than just business people. If everyone followed these principles and engaged with the world in this way, our planet would be a very different place indeed.


Here’s a YouTube video of Michael Carroll speaking at a “Meet the Author” event at Northeastern University in Boston MA.

Read More

A leap of faith

child placing its hand in an adult's hand

Learning and growing as an individual is a do-it-yourself project… up to a point. Sooner or later, there comes a time when we need to take a risk and leap into something new and unknown, beyond our control. Sunada shares a recent experience and how it reinforced her understanding of faith.

One of the things that Westerners tend to find appealing about Buddhism is its emphasis on rationality and self-reliance. A lot of the Buddha’s teachings are very much about taking ownership of our lives. Meditation, study, and living by the ethical principles are all about objective, self-directed efforts that help us grow as individuals.

This is all accurate… up to a point.

To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand.

Here’s the irony. The more I practice in this self-directed way, the more I’m growing in faith. To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand. And there are forces greater than me that I can tap into to my benefit. So what’s that all about?

I’d like to share with you something that happened yesterday. I participated in a voice workshop in which I sang a solo in front of a small audience. Many of you know that musical performance anxiety is one of my biggest fears. I’m OK performing with a group, but solos are a completely different matter.

It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. On the one hand, music has always been my passion. I’ve been told by many people that I have a lovely voice. I’ve also been told I have a gift for communicating with an audience, and really enjoy doing so in other contexts, like speaking and teaching. But I didn’t get much encouragement as a child to pursue music – in fact got DIScouragement from some key people in my life. So that’s how my “I’m not good enough” demons came into being. Even though I know better in my head, those inner voices still taunt me, decades later.

I can put my boat [in the river] and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

For years, I did all the objectively “right” things. I’ve taken music lessons of one kind or another for my whole life. I studied music in college. I honed my technique by practicing diligently. I figured that if I felt more confident technically, I’d feel more self-assured as a performer.

That was true… up to a point.

But yesterday, I took some leaps. When the nerves started tensing my body up, I breathed more deeply, and lower into my belly. I put my trust in my body — and its ability to calm me down. I focused on the story I wanted to tell, and what emotions they brought up. I put my trust in my feelings — and their ability to connect me with my audience. When a difficult passage came up, I dropped more deeply into my present experience. I put my trust in my breath — and its primary role in supporting and gliding my voice through the tough parts. When my fear threatened to shut me down, I looked it in the face and risked being even more open. I put my trust in my authentic self, flaws and all — and how my willingness to be vulnerable makes me more engaging.

I’d known all these things in my head for years — that they were the best ways to get through an attack of nerves. But this time I really did it. I took a leap of faith.

It’s not a blind faith. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river. I now feel I understand [it] well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in [it].

For me, my faith grew out of the deepening of my awareness. The more I learn about the nature of my body, my breath, my feelings, and the world around me, the more I see how they are not really in my control. They all have a certain energy about them, a way of moving and flowing that I can tap into, but not own. I suppose they’re like the flow of a river. I can put my boat into it and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

Faith is like putting my trust in that river. It’s not a blind faith at all. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river – in this case my body, breath, and so on. I now feel I understand them well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in them.

I also know that they are part of forces in the world far greater than this small self that I think I am. To fight against them is futile and self-defeating. It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along. And what I’m seeing is that by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. That was certainly the case when I sang my solo yesterday.

It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along… by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own.

I’m sure we all have situations in our lives where we’d like to do more and be more. And it’s likely we’ve taken many of the objectively “right” steps to try and get there. This is all well and good. We need to understand ourselves, our situation, and how to make our way through them. It’s a positive and constructive way to go about it.

This is all good… up to a point.

But then we come to the end of the path. We see that we have a choice. We can either stay stuck there doing what we’ve always done, or take a leap of faith into the river. And those are our only options.

So this is my understanding of where the Buddha’s path leads us. First, take responsibility for ourselves — make our own efforts to understand, to grow in awareness, sharpen our skills, and learn how the river flows. But at some point, take everything we’ve learned and put our boat in the river. Sure, it might be a rough trip. But we understand the river and ourselves well enough to ride it out. The more we do that, the more our confidence in that greater flow grows. With that faith, we’ll go much farther, and faster, than we ever could on our own.

Read More

Playing our way through life

Girl playing, blowing bubbles

Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.

According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.

Play as a positive approach to life issues

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.

These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?

What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.

Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?

As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?

The spiritual dimension of play

In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:

“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”

It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1

My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.

When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.


1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.

Read More

Mindfulness and authentic creativity

Every time Sunada watches Bobby McFerrin or Yo-Yo Ma perform, she’s left in awe. It’s not just their amazing musicianship, she says. What uniquely comes through in their music is their generosity of spirit and totally engaging way of expressing their individuality. As a musician herself, she muses on what it takes to cultivate that kind of open-hearted spontaneity and creativity.

I recently read an interesting discussion that’s given shape to my thinking on this subject. It was about the difference between spontaneity and impulsivity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some subtle but important differences.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “spontaneous” means

  • Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.
  • Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.

To illustrate, it uses this quote from Woodrow Wilson: “The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.” So the implication is that a spontaneous act is something positive that expresses one’s higher nature.

The same dictionary defines “impulsivity” as:

  • …a sudden urge or feeling not governed by reason

Even more telling are the synonyms I found in the related thesaurus: brash, foolhardy, hasty, ill-considered, impetuous, rash, reckless, and unconsidered!

Spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So, yes, both spontaneity and impulsivity are about unplanned, in-the-moment actions. But the implication is that impulsivity is a reaction to something, and arises from an irrational place ruled by our baser emotions. Spontaneity, on the other hand, arises on its own from a deeper and nobler place. It’s governed by reason and experience, but is still perfectly natural and uncontrived. I get an image of someone who is fully present, and able to marshal his knowledge, skills, experience, and values in the moment as a springboard for a focused and creative response. In short, spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So there are some clear parallels to meditation here. Impulsivity is the product of our ordinary reactive mind. Anyone who meditates knows that this is what our minds are like more often than we like to admit. It’s like a runaway train, spinning off on its own stories and daydreams, obsessing over self-centered desires and fears, or just plain chattering away for no apparent reason other than to occupy itself. Most of the time it’s operating in this mode without our awareness, sitting in the driver’s seat of our lives! (YIKES!)

Now seriously, would you want to settle for this lesser side of you as the basis for your creative endeavors? For those of us for whom our craft is synonymous with an expression of who we are, we want and expect something much more of ourselves.

I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

But how we do that? Obviously it’s a contradiction in terms to TRY to be spontaneous. Again, I see a lot of parallels to meditation. When we meditate, we can’t make our minds calm down on command. But we can set the proper conditions – i.e. step back and allow our minds to return to their natural state of calm. The less we interfere, and the more we trust in the mind’s inherent ability to do its own thing, the better off we are. I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

And how do we set conducive conditions? First, it’s really important to start by tuning into our bodies and settling in. Particularly if you’re engaging in a physical activity like playing an instrument or dancing, it’s vitally important to stretch and liven up one’s energy. But there’s another reason. If we slap dash jump right in, we’re still caught up in our reactive, impulsive mind. By taking the time to slow down and mindfully turn our attention to our physical bodies, we bring ourselves more fully into our present experience. We settle into a quieter place beneath the chattering mind and touch a deeper core within us. This brings us closer to our totality as a person – including our bodies, perceptions, and feelings — and all the richness they hold.

Our life experiences and values, and all the intuitions and emotions associated with them reside much more as inchoate inklings and gut feelings, not neat words or concepts. Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things. We’re preparing the fertile soil for our creativity to arise.

Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things.

Next, it’s critical to tune into our hearts. When we sit down to do something creative, chances are we’re arriving with a lot of extraneous baggage. We may be stressed out, maybe anxious over deadline pressures, or perhaps tired, bored, and lethargic about this task that we need to get done. Anyone who practices a musical instrument daily knows that it can seem like a real chore at times.

But these are all objections from our impulsive mind. So let’s stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place. I do it because I love it and can’t imagine life without it. How can I reconnect with that inspiration every time I sit down to practice? How can I get back in touch with the warm and vital humanity within me that wants to create? What’s helped me is to shift my thinking from “I have to practice” to “I’m going to sing the music I love.” See the difference?

Thirdly, while practicing I find it really helpful to focus in on my senses and stay as openly curious as I can. As a singer, I can pay attention to the vibrations in my throat and body as I sing, or experience in detail the qualities of sound within my voice. I know a painter who lovingly feels each brush stroke as it works the canvas. The idea is to bring our attention fully into what we’re doing, without adding any extra judgments, interpretations, or effort. Just stay 100% present to what’s happening.

What’s the point? When I stay intimately engaged and yet refrain from trying to “do” anything in particular, a different side of me starts to come forward. I’ve had times when the feeling tone of my voice prompted me to shape my phrases in a new way. Floating the lyrics on top of the natural ebb and flow of my breath gave it more life. Neither of these were conceptual ideas that my mind decided to “do”. It’s as if my body wordlessly and instantaneously knew and just did it.

Paradoxically, it seems that the times I stop trying are the times when I’m at my best. All the ways I struggle — trying to get it right, be perfect, do it beautifully — are ways my impulsive mind muscles in and gets in the way. If I just step back and be simple – i.e. just sing — that’s when things start to happen. I’m told that’s when I’m most engaging, authentic, and seemingly most comfortably who I am. Mistakes and imperfections? Well, that’s all part of the package of who I am right now. It makes me more real and human, I’m told.

Ultimately, I think that any creative endeavor is a form of meditation. It’s about staying completely focused on what you’re doing, free of distractions. But at its best it’s also about being so relaxed and open that your true inner nature shines through. My music and meditation practices have informed each other for years. Both continually challenge me to nurture that higher being within me and bring it more out into the world.

Read More

A Buddhist’s rethinking of the Law of Attraction

As a pragmatic Buddhist, I felt a lot of skepticism when I first encountered the Law of Attraction (LOA). Many things I’ve seen really stretch my credulity. But the more I think about it, the more I see nuggets underneath the hype that make sense to me, if reformulated a bit.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the Buddha was a Law of Attraction proponent, I do think there is some common ground to be found between the two. Read more in Sunada’s blog.

Read More

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

When Reginald Ray speaks of “touching enlightenment with the body”, he isn’t just saying that we can touch enlightenment with our bodies. What he really means is that there is no other way to do so. Sunada just finished her first pass through his 20-disc meditation CD series, Your Breathing Body, and gives it her ringing endorsement.

I first encountered Reginald Ray’s approach to meditation when I read his most recent book, Touching Enlightenment (excerpted elsewhere on this site), and attended one of his retreats on the same subject. As a yoga practitioner and a kinesthetic learner, I immediately took to it like a fish to water. And so I decided to invest in his CD series, Your Breathing Body – and I have to say I’m hooked.

Title: Your Breathing Body
Author: Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D.
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN Vol 1: 978-1-59179-659-6
ISBN Vol 2: 978-1-59179-662-6
Available from: Sounds True or Amazon.com.

In one sense, we could say that Ray’s perspective is unique. While many meditation teachers speak of working with the body, Ray goes so far as to say that the body is the only gateway through which we can find our most authentic core being and its ultimate connection to all of reality. But that doesn’t mean this is some minor, sideline approach. Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture. So this represents Ray’s efforts to bring meditation back to its intended roots.

Why the big emphasis on the body? Ray explains by taking us back to our prehistoric origins. When we were a hunter-gatherer species, we had to rely on our more intuitive, bodily cognitive functions in order to survive. Sensing predators in the wild, finding prey for the hunt, surviving the vagaries of nature – all this required that we lived rooted in our senses, keenly attuned to our environs. It was also a life in harmonious balance – our bodies and our sense of self were holistically embedded in our larger reality around us.

Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture.

But when we evolved into an agrarian species, our lifestyle changed to one of controlling, planning, and organizing – a more cerebral and disengaged approach to our world. This evolution has continued at a steady pace to the height of disembodiment that we find in our technological society today.

In our modern way of life, we mostly deal with our world through concepts and abstractions and much less, if at all, through experiencing it directly. In fact our society rewards those who are most adept at this kind of thinking and controlling. But of course, neither our bodies nor our world conform to our small-minded plans and desires. Such a view is bound to lead to suffering. And it’s this realization that gave rise to the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The path back to balance is through somatic awareness. And Ray suggests that our capacity for that awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup. Your Breathing Body is like a complete graduate program in reawakening our natural capacity for awareness. It’s a two-box set, each containing ten CDs. You can buy each box individually, or buy them together as a discounted pair. (If you buy the latter from the publisher, Sounds True, they throw in his Touching Enlightenment book as a bonus.)

In total it’s a goldmine of over 20 hours of in-depth teachings and guided meditations that go deeply into the subtleties of perceiving through the body. Many of the practices are based on Tibetan Yoga. If you’re a yoga practitioner, the emphasis on working with the breath and prana (a more subtle form of bodily energy based on the breath) will be familiar territory.

And Ray suggests that our capacity for somatic awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup.

I especially appreciated the very solid foundation and orderly progression of this series. Ray spends a lot of time teaching how to find one’s optimal posture, and then starts us on what are called the Ten Points and Earth Breathing Practices. These are in effect very detailed and extensive body scan and relaxation meditations.

But he leads us much further. It’s not just about bringing our awareness into our bodies. What happens is that by fully relaxing and continually letting go to our present experience, we start peeling away more layers of tension and holding. That holding, we begin to see, is not just physical. As our awareness goes more deeply inward, we find further emotional and psychological layers to release, such as doubt or fear.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness – the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise. This is how we begin to explore who we really are and what’s our unique place in this world. And isn’t this what we took up a spiritual practice for?

My approach in working with this series was to go slowly through all the discs over the period of several months. Ray says that some practices will resonate for us better than others, and that it’s good to follow our instincts to explore those more fully. So I spent longer on some discs than others. I’m now starting on a second pass, and I’m still gleaning insights from it. It’s a mark of an excellent teacher that Ray’s talks can be so clear and inspiring on the first pass, and still have more to give on repeated listening.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness—the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise.

What level meditator should you be to use this series? While he does start from the basics with an extensive talk and guided practice on posture, I don’t think it’s intended for complete beginners. I personally think that embracing these practices requires some degree of stillness and concentration off the bat.

But if you do have experience with breath-oriented/samatha meditations, dive right in! Even if you think you already know all about posture, I would encourage you to start from the beginning. He offers helpful perspectives that are often overlooked by other teachers. Overall, there’s enough depth and richness to keep you going for months, if not years.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Reginald Ray — he has been practicing for over 40 years and is a master teacher in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. He is also an academic by training, and has been on the faculty of Naropa University since the beginning. He brings all that depth, knowledge, and clarity of thought to his teaching. I find him a great model of what someone well-grounded in his body should be: he has a warm, inviting, and down-to-earth way of speaking that makes you feel like he’s sitting right there talking to you personally.

So as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Your Breathing Body to be excellent all around. It’s not only brought more depth and focus to my meditation practice, it’s helped me gain a perspective on my life that I’m sure will continue to unfold with discoveries well into the future. I highly recommend it.

Read More

If there is no self, then who’s sitting here?

Silhouette of woman meditating against an umber sunset sky

If I asked you who you are, what would you say? Many people might begin by telling me what they do for work – teacher, software engineer, accountant. But no, I’d say. That’s the work you do, not who you are. If you changed or lost your job, that identity would disappear. So who are you really?

OK, then next you might tell me something about your family and your people – perhaps you’re a mother or father, a person of African descent, an American citizen, and so on. But no, that’s you in relation to others. So who are YOU, independent of them?

There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.

So then you might bring up your personality or values – an introvert, a romantic, or that you have a deep love of beauty. But I’d say these are descriptors of ways you behave or what motivates you. They aren’t who you are.

The thing is, we can continue this exercise forever, but we’ll never find anything we can nail down as “who we are.” That’s because everything we come up with is superficial and impermanent. There really isn’t anything we can point to within ourselves that we can confidently say is a core essence that will never change.

Let me be clear that this idea isn’t saying we don’t exist. If we walked into a wall, our bodies would bump against it and we’d feel pain. Yes we exist! Instead, what it’s really saying is that we’re constantly changing beings, always in flux. We’re not permanent, fixed entities. We’re more like rivers. If you stood on a bank and watched a river, the water molecules passing by now would be different from what passed by a moment ago. So then how can we say it’s the same river? Giving it a fixed name and identity is just a convention that humans came up with so we can talk about it. The whole idea is a fiction.

The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it.

At this point, you might argue that there are core aspects of our character that don’t seem to change over our lifetimes. OK, now we’re getting into some tricky territory. The problem is that as soon as we attach labels and concepts onto something, our egos kick in and start objectifying it, nailing it down, and spinning off stories to make something permanent out of it. And that’s what can get us into trouble.

Let me illustrate with an example of my own. Some of the traits that emerged very early in my life were my hard-working and self-motivated nature, and that I enjoyed accomplishing goals I set for myself. The various labels I took on included “high achiever,” “Type A personality,” “motivated by excellence.”

But labels are traps. With every one of them comes a whole string of stories, assumptions, and beliefs. And for the most part, they don’t match with reality. I took my labels to mean I should go after a high-paying, high-status professional job, become part of a “respectable” (i.e. conventional) community … you get the idea. But more than that, I felt I had to do my absolute best at everything I did. I was driven to excel at everything I took on because it made my ego feel good.

Many of you know my life story, so I’ll keep it short here — but basically, my house of cards came tumbling down hard in my thirties. I had so taken in my own stories of what being excellent meant that I wasn’t seeing any of the signs around me that were telling me otherwise. My physical health collapsed and I fell into a depression. Then on top of that, 9/11 happened, which among other things, pretty much closed the door on my career.

…look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment.

So what did the idea of “no self” have to teach me about all this? First and foremost, drop the stories. In any given moment when I’m faced with a choice, look at what I’m bringing to the table RIGHT NOW. Not my concepts of who I think I am or should be, but the full, raw potential of what I have in this present moment. Of course, this doesn’t mean I disregard everything from my past. I have all that I’ve learned from my life experiences, all the skills and knowledge that I’ve acquired, and all my personal strengths and talents. But the real question is, how are those things actually manifesting in me right now, and how do they apply to the situation at hand? It’s not about the degrees I have, or the idea that I strive toward excellence, or that I want to succeed. Those are my stories. What’s really present for me right now, and what’s the most positive choice I can make based on that?

The Buddha’s teaching of no-self is about letting go. Let go of our stories, or in short, our egos. Our egos think those stories bring us security, but in reality they act more like ill-fitting glasses that distort our vision. But at the same time, the teaching isn’t telling us to be passive and let the winds blow us around. It’s about being so completely immersed in and open to the present moment that we know clearly and fully what the situation is – including our own strengths and weaknesses. With that clarity of vision, we can choose to flow more in harmony with the way things really are by confidently relying on our known strengths, rather than fighting to hold up our version of a fool’s paradise.

This is where the practice of mindfulness is vitally important. At some point in our practice, we begin to let go of our grasping to uphold “me” as something opposed to “the world out there.” We start subtly shifting away from being dualistically MINDFUL OF various things to sensing that we are just awareness itself, inseparable from our surroundings. We stand naked just as we are, the pure potential present in us right now, and flow intimately with the world as it is. That’s the real gift of mindfulness — to feel so confident and in harmony with the world that we can trust and let go of our lives to it.

I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how.

Back to that notion of character traits that don’t change much – yes, I still have many of those qualities that keep me motivated to do my best at everything I do. But my way of thinking about them has really changed. I now know I’m at my best when I stand back and let the world around me augment what talents and skills I have. I suppose it’s sort of like sailing. Rather than me doing a lot of rowing, I’m learning how to harness the wind so it propels me toward where I want to go.

So if there is no self, then who’s sitting here? I guess the answer is a growing, changing being. In my case, this being also wants to grow toward becoming wiser and more open-hearted, and so every moment, I try to make the best choice I can to point myself in that direction. Where am I going? I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. Because the more I make positive choices, the more strongly the flow of my life seems to move in the direction I aspire toward.

I find the Buddha’s teachings profoundly optimistic and hopeful, because it says that we can change, and we can choose how. And paradoxically, I’m finding that the more I take in the idea of no-self, the more I’m becoming who I really am.

Read More

Getting past boredom in meditation

Does meditation leave you feeling bored and restless? Maybe you took it up so you could find a refreshing oasis in the midst of a too-stressful life — but it’s just not doing much for you. Sunada offers her perspectives on how to work through this all-too-common situation.

Most of us come to meditation with varying degrees of expectation that it’s supposed to make us feel good. And really, that’s a very normal human reaction. We seek out things that make us feel good, and lose interest in things that don’t. Even when we know intellectually that meditation is good for us and we want to keep at it, we get that irresistible urge to do something, ANYTHING other than sit there.

Even when we know intellectually that meditation is good for us and we want to keep doing it, we get that irresistible urge to do something, ANYTHING other than sit there.

Certainly a good place to start examining this issue is to take a closer look at the rest of your life. Like most of us, your days are probably pretty packed. How much have you gotten into the habit of filling up your time with things to do? Are you constantly multitasking throughout your day? Do you feel the need to fill every spare moment, including you leisure time, with tasks, projects, and doing, doing, doing? Are you constantly checking your email, phone messages, Facebook and Twitter? When we have a momentum of speediness in our life, it will inevitably carry over into our meditation. What can you do to slow that down a bit?

But I think another even more important place to look is around our views of meditation itself. I’d like to suggest that feel-good meditations aren’t really what we’re after. I think what we really want is not to feel held so captive by the ups and downs of our lives. To not get so blown off course when things get tough. More sturdiness and resilience.

Am I right? If so, I’m going to ask you a challenging question. Is boredom bad? Just because it’s uncomfortable, does that mean we should avoid it? What if we were to get to know boredom so well that we could prevent it from happening in the first place? Or knew how to deal with it confidently when it arrived?

The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests what this might be like in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape.

“There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is. If we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or fearful thing.”1

What she’s alluding to here is a kind of contentment and confidence that comes from a deeper place than simple ego-driven pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of discomfort. Rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we learn to stay and hold our ground from a different place of knowing. We’re able to stand firm no matter what’s going on, whatever storms blow us around. We make our choices from a fuller awareness of who we are rather than what feels good. And because we’re acting with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, we can choose to flow in harmony with the world as it is, rather than fighting our way through it.

Rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we learn to stay and hold our ground from a different place of knowing.

So when we sit in meditation, feeling bored or restless, what can we do? Start by taking a deep breath and bringing your awareness to what’s coming in through your five senses: what are you seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling? What’s the quality of your physical experience? Is your energy high or low? Are you tense or relaxed? What thoughts are running through your head? Acknowledge those thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. (Recent research suggests that just noting these thoughts weakens their hold on us.). Notice that we’re not judging anything, but simply observing and taking in everything that parades before us.

And what does that do for us? When we do that over and over, something subtly starts to shift. At first it will feel really hard to stop judging everything, wanting the boredom to go away, wishing it will all end. (When that happens, it’s OK. Just try to observe those thoughts too.) But after a while, a small space begins to emerge between “me” and those seductive thoughts. It may only be a tiny crack, but it’s just enough to take the edge off the experience. When that begins to happen, celebrate it. THAT is the start of your connecting with a deeper awareness. It’s a far more stable and satisfying place to be than just “comfortable”!

So if you’re feeling discouraged by your meditation practice, please don’t give up! I think the arrival of boredom is actually a good sign. It means you’re ready to progress to a new level, and you’re being shown the doorway in. It’s about as direct and concrete an invitation as you’ll get. Why waste the precious opportunity? With patience, it IS possible to let go of our likes and dislikes, and to see through them to a deeper layer of sturdiness, resilience, and yes, contentment. It’s a place that’s much more free and unburdened. We can stop investing all that energy into running around, chasing after this and that, and instead BE the stillness and calm that we were seeking all along.


1. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness by Pema Chodron (Shambala, 2001), p. 3.


Read More
Menu