Meditation on happiness

girl sitting on a doorstep, laughing with joy

Happiness – we all seek it and want to know the secret of it. Self-help books on happiness line the shelves of book shops and libraries and there are all kinds of theories about happiness.

Over the years what I thought about and desired as a means to gaining happiness have changed as I have… matured (I like the word matured better than aged). Here is my list, organized by decades.

From ages:

0-10 I wanted to be cared for, safe, nourished and nurtured to be happy (although I could not articulate all this at the time).

11-20 I wanted friendships, fun, freedom, popularity, a car and someone interesting and sexy to date.

21-30 I wanted a college education, to go to lots of parties, a satisfying career, a marriage partner, pregnancy and healthy children, and a nice house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

31-40 I wanted to further my career as a Social Worker and Educational Consultant, a happy marriage, and healthy, independent kids.

41-50 I wanted to understand what spirituality meant, to know the meaning of life, to go beyond my self and live in an altruistic manner.

51-60 I want freedom, health, prosperity, deep friendships and to simplify my life more and more.

Throughout these decades there have been some things that did not change from decade to decade, including:

  • health, love and happiness for myself, my family members, friends and all people
  • stimulating work that helps people
  • a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home
  • good friends, a happy marriage and independent children
  • peace in the world
  • that everyone have food to eat

For the past ten years, my quest for happiness has focused on things that, at younger ages, I would not have thought important, including:

  • a spiritual practice and community
  • deep friendships based on caring, trust and mutual generosity
  • a life simplified by having less – fewer material things, a small living space
  • simple pleasures – watching otters and ducks on the pond by my cottage, watching the seasons change, spending time in natural settings, cooking for friends, phone calls and visits from my kids
  • peace, tranquility, compassion, and acceptance of myself, my children, my friends and acquaintances
  • acceptance for all that is
  • living mindfully, ethically and compassionately

I realize happiness comes from what I value most, what brings me pleasure, challenge, contentment and peace.

Whatever is on your list of things or values that bring you happiness, I hope you revel in them.

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The art of ditching old friends, and of finding new ones

What do you do when you find you’ve changed — but your friends haven’t? Bodhipaksa recounts how he found himself growing apart from one set of friends, and closer to a new set who were more supportive of his spiritual quest.

I was at university when I started practicing Buddhism. I was surrounded by fellow students who were like me. We thought the height of happiness was to party, to drink, to trade insults, and to find someone to have sex with. I was at vet school, and most of us thought that meat-eating was natural and right, and that animals existed in order to be devoured. When I took up meditation I found myself changing. Over time I started to find myself more at home with the people who hung out at my local Buddhist center — people who were vegetarian, interested in philosophy and meaningful conversations, and people who valued tranquility as an opportunity to deepen self-awareness.

I started to find many (although not all) of the people that I used to hang out with at college to be rather negative and shallow. Their conversations often didn’t interest me. Since I hadn’t gone very deep in my practice, I was rather judgmental, and socially inept to boot. I experienced a lot of ill will towards people because they weren’t spiritual enough, which is rather richly ironic. This caused me a lot of pain, and probably didn’t make others happy either.

   Thinking that we’re ‘spiritual’ while others aren’t is an ego trip.

But I was relatively lucky in that I made new friends in the Buddhist community, and had a gradual switch over from one set of friends to another. I experienced tensions between the two communities I was involved in, but at least I wasn’t isolated. A lot of people find themselves in a similar situation as they begin to practice. They start to find their work colleagues gossipy and trivial. They can find that family members resent the fact that they’re changing. How do we deal with this?

I think you have some valuable spiritual opportunities when we’re in this kind of situation. One opportunity is to practice patience with your old friends. It’s good to remember that at one time you did fit in with them, and at that time presumably you had much the same conversational style and interests as they still have. Thinking that we’re “spiritual” while others aren’t is an ego trip.

Another opportunity we have is to learn to be more skilled in communication. This can have a big effect on people. I had a friend in Scotland of whom I can honestly say that I never heard him criticizing anyone at any time. In fact if he heard me being critical then he would almost always present another point of view about the person or thing I was criticizing, which shifted the perspective and really brought me up short. And he did this in a very friendly way that gave me no cause for reactivity. He never pointed out, for example, that I was being critical — he just quietly came in with a more considered point of view. I’d suddenly realize that I had been unkind and one-sided in my speech.

   We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others.

And there’s an art as well in steering people into deeper levels of conversation. You can bring the topic back into focus when people are wandering off into other areas. You can ask questions to go deeper (basically being a good, active listener). You can challenge in a friendly way. If you’re challenging how the group as a whole communicates, then it’s far better to talk in terms of how “we” communicate rather than how “you” communicate. You can share something deeper from your own experience (although you have to be careful about this since it’s not helpful to offer up your soul to be trampled on). You have the opportunity to be, in short, a leader — the proverbial one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

We can also practice “rejoicing in merits,” or “giving positive feedback”, as it’s more commonly known. We frequently overlook the positive, especially when we develop a habit of judging others. When we’ve decided that other people are “unspiritual” we can find ourselves focusing on what we consider to be their faults, and filtering out anything positive that they do. Our perceptions of others can be very selective. People are “stubborn” when they stick with a point of view we don’t agree with; they’re “committed” when they stick with a point of view we find favor with. People are “fickle” if they change their minds and disagree with us; they’re flexible when they change their minds and support our opinions. We need to learn to see the positive in others, and also to support its development. Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

   Tell someone she’s just done something that’s friendly, and she’s more likely to act in a friendly way in the future.

If, as sometimes happens, we find ourselves stuck with “old” friends but haven’t found a new community to practice with, we have an opportunity to seek out people who are more like-minded. We may have to take the initiative and to be more out-going, rather than hoping people will magically find us. If we make the first move, the magic may well happen. I had a lovely experience some years ago when I was speaking at a conference in Missoula. At lunch time someone sat beside me (because I looked friendly, he said). It turned out that he, like me, had recently moved to Missoula, he had lived in Scotland (my homeland), had an interest in the relationship between Buddhism and business (my master’s degree topic), and had like me run a retreat center. It was rather eerie, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. But I had to make the decision to go to the conference, and be open to meeting new people.

But there may be some of the people that you currently hang out with that you don’t want to maintain contacts with. That would be a very sensible thing to do. The Buddha was forever warning people to hang out with friends who would actually support and encourage what is best in you rather than undermine it. If people have a very negative effect on you, despite your best efforts, those are relationships you may want to put behind you. At the same time there’s no point in isolating yourself. You need to find a balance.

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Wildmind’s top ten blog posts of 2008

fireworksIt’s been a busy year. We’ve redesigned the site, reorganized our news section, and added many hundreds of new posts on the theme of meditation and spiritual practice. So now it’s time to pause and look back with some fondness and appreciation at the most popular blog articles that were published on Wildmind in 2008. But before we do so, we’d like to thank you, our 1.5 million dear readers, for taking an interest in what we do and for posting interesting and insightful comments. All the best in 2009!

10. Back in February Wildmind welcomed the awesomeness that is Auntie Suvanna (aka Dharmacarini Suvarnaprabha of the San Francisco Buddhist Center). Auntie Suvanna dispenses wit and wisdom in equal measure as she helps mere mortals like ourselves with their problems, both spiritual and mundane. In her debut Ask Auntie Suvanna column she offered solace to a seeking soul who was comparing her breast-size unfavorably with the bodacious curves of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. For those of you who have been missing Auntie of late, do not despair. She’s merely taking a sabbatical and waiting for some good questions to come in.

9. In March, Bodhipaksa riffed on a saying by Søren Kierkegaard, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

8. In June, guest blogger, Buddhist practitioner, PhD candidate, and general good guy Justin Whitaker discussed The art of friendship

7. In October, our resident teacher and blogger Sunada shared heartfelt advice on Being an introvert in an extroverted world

6. Author, activist, and performer Vimalasara graced our pages back in March, with a fascinating account of Waking up into the moment

5. In his regular monthly “quote of the month” column, new dad Bodhipaksa shares some of what he’s learned through observing his young daughter’s consciousness evolving by discussing a quote by Muhammad Ali, “Children make you want to start life over.”

4. And it’s Bodhipaksa’s “quote of the month” column again, this time discussing Anaïs Nin’s saying, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” and sharing lessons he has learned the hard way.

3. Bodhipaksa once more, this time with some practical advice on how to use meditative techniques not to wake up but to get yourself to sleep: Meditation and insomnia

2. In March, Sunada reveals how we can see our “difficult” mental states as teachers rather than as problems in Anxiety, depression, anger… Paths to purification?

1. But our most popular post of the year was guest blogger Lieutenant Jeanette Shin outlining her vision of The Buddha as warrior. Lt. Shin was the US military’s first Buddhist chaplain, and she serves in the US Navy. Thank you Lt. Shin!

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Being an introvert in an extroverted world

solitary male figure seen at a distance, standing in a field with mountains in the background

Introverts can feel at a disadvantage when everybody else around them seems so comfortably extroverted. But Sunada feels that the world benefits from the influence of qualities that come naturally to introverts. She explores ways that quieter types can be more “out there” without having to compromise who they really are.

Are you an introvert? When you’re feeling tired or stressed out, do you prefer to be by yourself – and do things like curl up with a book, soak in a hot bath, or go for a walk alone? If you’re a meditator, chances are pretty good you’ve got introvert tendencies. I definitely do.

We pause and reflect before we speak … we’re conscientious and loyal … our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

But the world out there is mostly extroverted. I’ve heard that 75% of Americans are extroverts (though it varies from culture to culture). I used to work in business, where that percentage is even higher. Our world tends to reward extrovert qualities, like the ability to chat easily with strangers, be outgoing, and constantly on the move. If you look up “introvert” in a thesaurus you get the following synonyms: brooder, egotist, loner, narcissist, and wallflower. Not very flattering, is it? But the truth is, whenever we’re at big, boisterous parties with lots of people, the whole scene can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

My meditation practice has brought me to see things in a new light. Yes, we introverts may be fewer in numbers, and certainly less visible. But I now see that we naturally possess many qualities that the world could really use more of. We know how to slow down, take a deep breath, and smell the proverbial roses. We usually pause and reflect before we speak – so when we do have something to say, it tends to be meaningful. We’re conscientious and loyal. And though we may have small circles of friends, our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself … to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it!

So if you’re a fellow introvert, let’s stop seeing ourselves as outsiders or somehow “lesser” people. Let’s stop isolating ourselves because we’re “different”. The world has much to gain from us introverts bringing ourselves and our genuine strengths out there.

And how do we do this without having to fake being something we’re not? First and foremost, I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself, all alone, to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it! In the Myers-Briggs system of classifying personality types, the Extrovert-Introvert dimension is defined by where you draw your energy from. Extroverts prefer the outer world of people and things. They get energized by being active and engaged with others. Introverts prefer to focus on their inner world of thoughts and images. They regain energy through solitude. So it’s not about whether you like being with people or not. It’s a matter of energy, and where you get recharged. I know several people who seem quite social and outgoing, but would be considered introverts by this definition.

So it’s no wonder that we introverts can’t keep up with an extrovert lifestyle. We would burn ourselves out. To me, solitary time is as necessary to my well-being as food and water. I make sure I get some daily. My meditation time is of course part of this picture. If I’m traveling or attending a multi-day event with other people, I make sure to schedule some solitary time afterward to recharge. I’m now aware that any skimping I do is at my own risk!

It’s also very worthwhile to examine our own attitudes about our introversion. Being introverted isn’t a good or bad thing in itself. It’s the stories we’ve built around it that make it so. Do we see ourselves as inferior? Do we go to social events with a feeling of dread? Do we walk around with a self-image as someone who has difficulty talking with others? Are we constantly judging what we say? I have to admit I used to do all those things. And still catch myself doing them from time to time. But all these thoughts only serve to sabotage us even before we get out of the gate.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything. When I worked in business in the past, I learned that some of my natural but less visible inclinations were really valued by my colleagues. In addition to being an introvert, I’m also very intuitive and able to relate to people easily (I’m an INFJ, for those of you who know Myers-Briggs). Sure, I wasn’t among the socially active and “popular” ones. But I was usually the one who quietly figured out what was really going on behind the scenes. I might pick up on people’s unspoken needs, notice someone who was afraid to come forward, or play diplomat to patch up simmering disagreements among team members. No, these things weren’t part of my job description. But over time they became my signature strengths – and I came to be respected for my ability to keep a team running smoothly and congenially because of them.

In my current line of work, I need to be out networking and meeting people to promote my business. Sales and marketing are probably the things introverts hate doing the most! But this is doable in introvert-style too. I never do any “cold calling” or selling to total strangers (even extroverts have a hard time with that!). If I’m meeting somebody new, I usually establish contact first by email. The next step might be a phone call. For a face-to-face meeting, I go with an agenda in mind, with specific items I want to talk about, rather than leaving it open and freeform. I’ve also learned that if I talk from the perspective of what’s meaningful to me personally, my enthusiasm catches on – and my self-consciousness doesn’t have room to creep in. In fact, I think that it’s my low-key style that brings people to believe in me and what I have to say. I’m not pushing anything on them, so they feel free to decide for themselves.

So if you were born an introvert like me, I would urge you to make the conscious choice to live as an introvert, and be proud of it. On the one hand, it means respecting some very real limits we face. We need to preserve our energy through lots of solitude, and know how not to put ourselves into situations that make us feel tongue-tied or overwhelmed! But at the same time we can bring out our natural strengths in our own quiet way. I’ve learned that when I allow what’s authentic in me to shine through, people notice and really appreciate it.

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”

anne morrow lindbergh

Lindbergh’s comment reminds me that being fully aware of others involves awareness of oneself. There’s nothing particularly mystical about this — it’s just a question of psychology and neurophysiology. And without this awareness of oneself, friendship is simply impossible.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “If one is estranged from oneself, then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”

On a psychological level, next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to what’s happening on a gut level. You’ll notice that there are sensations in the body, mostly focused on the abdomen, that arise in response to the other person. In Buddhist terminology these are vedanas, which are often translated as “feelings.” Vedanas are not emotions, but are a basic response to perceptions. These responses are traditionally categorized as pleasurable, uncomfortable, or neutral.

Have you ever had an intuition about another person? Perhaps you’ve suspected they’re not telling the truth, although you can’t quite say why. Or perhaps you’ve had a sense that there’s something wrong, even though the other person hasn’t said anything overtly to indicate that. What’s happening is that you’re noticing, although perhaps not very consciously, vedanas that are arising in response to your contact with that other person.

I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon…

At one time I was running a retreat center which was short-staffed. While I was on retreat elsewhere, I had a conversation with a very charming man who not only had all the qualifications and experience we needed, but who really wanted to move to a retreat center. I was really thrilled to have had such a chance encounter. That night, though, I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon who grabbed hold of me and started twisting my limbs in all directions — much further than they could move in real life. I was completely helpless and worried that I was going to be severely injured. Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.

Unfortunately I ignored my instincts and we hired him. And my dream turned out to be remarkably prescient. He turned out to be a former drug addict with something of a split personality. Some days he was charming, kind, and thoughtful. Other days he was brooding, unreasonable, and cynical. You never knew whether you were going to meet Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. And life with him (or them) felt just like being grabbed by a demon who was twisting me around.

I’d ignored my intuition. Looking back I realize that I’d had a sense of unease right from the start. He’d been too charming. Something was a bit unreal about the way he interacted. I’d known that, but I’d ignored it. I’d ignored it because we we so desperate for staff. My subconscious had decided to step things up a gear and to make the message very clear in the form of a dream image — but then on retreat you can often have odd dreams, and a lot of my dream life featured demons at that time in my life.

Being out of touch with myself was a big mistake. Had I paid attention to my initial unacknowledged vedanas, which were whispering “there’s something wrong here — look deeper” I’d have saved myself, and others, from a lot of suffering.

In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on.

In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on. When you’re with another person you’re picking up on cues such as their tone of voice, the things they say (and don’t say), their posture, and even their breathing rate and the bloodflow to their facial skin. Research by Paul Ekman has also shown that we can pick up on what he calls “micro-expressions” — brief movements in the muscles on the face that reveal what’s going on inside, even if the other person is trying to disguise their true emotional state, and possibly even if they’re unaware of some of their emotions.

We can train ourselves to notice such things on a conscious level (and therapists and law-enforcement officers often do), but mostly we process all of this below the level of consciousness. While we’re busy concentrating on the actual content of a conversation there’s a whole world of activity going on below. It’s as if the conscious mind is the office of the CEO, up on the 20th floor, while down below there are another 19 floors of workers, busy collecting and processing information, having meetings to decide what’s important, and — where necessary — sending memos to the boss. Those memos are our vedanas, which might manifest as a feeling of unease, or discomfort, or frustration, or anxiety, or a feeling of pleasure, or a warm glow, or boredom.

And we may or may not pay attention to those feelings. Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below. Sometimes we’ve even developed a habit of ignoring the body and its feelings.

Being in touch with our feelings can be a way of connecting more deeply with others, however, and not just a way of avoiding getting into painful situations! Sometimes when talking with others there will be a pang at a gut level — something akin to a feeling of pain. And if we pay attention to this we may be impelled to ask the other person if there’s something wrong. An opportunity for compassion has arisen. It’s this sensitivity to our responsiveness to others that makes friendship possible. Awareness of self — at least in a certain way — is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.

Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below.

On a neurophysiological level, what’s happening is that our mirror neurons are providing us with information about the other person. Mirror neurons are what allow us to connect with others — without them we’d effectively be autistic. I watch with amazement as my 19-month-old daughter sees and hears me saying a word and is able to reproduce it for the first time. How does she do this? How is she able to have a visual and auditory impression of me speaking and translate that into a physical pattern of movements in the diaphragm, larynx, tongue, lips, etc — all beautifully coordinated. It’s her mirror neurons that allow her to do this. And it’s my mirror neurons that allow me to share her joy at mastering a new word, or to empathize with her when she’s scared. Mirror neurons, it seems, are what allow us to connect with each other. I have no doubt whatsoever that they are involved in generating vedanas.

One last word of caution, however. Vedanas may be messages from the intel agents, analysts, number crunchers and committees that inhabit floors 1 to 19. But the memos they send up to the executive suit on the 20th floor are often cryptic: “sadness,” or “hurt,” or “this is fun!” Our executive levels have first of all to notice those messages and then to interpret them. Why do I feel uncomfortable at a given moment in a situation? If it because the other person has said something I have doubts about? Perhaps they’re making an assumption I disagree with? Or perhaps they’ve hit on an uncomfortable truth, something I’d rather not hear? The inarticulate speech from the lower floors needs careful interpretation. And this is something best done in dialog: “There’s something I feel a bit uncomfortable with here — can you say a bit more about what you mean?”

This too brings us closer to others. In noticing our vedanas and expressing them skillfully, we learn to look deeper, and come to know others more deeply. Awareness of self is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.

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The art of friendship

Spiritual friendship comes highly praised in Buddhist practice. But why are spiritual friends considered to be so crucial? What are the qualities of a spiritual friend? And do we have to leave our existing friends behind? Guest blogger Justin Whitaker investigates.

“But due to the fragility and perishability of human things, we should always be on the search for someone to love and by whom to be loved; indeed if affection and kindliness are lost from our life, we lose all that gives it charm…”

Sed quoniam res humanae fragiles caducaeque sunt, semper aliqui anquirendi sunt quos diligamus et a quibus diligamur; caritate enim benevolentiaque sublata omnis est e vita sublata iucunditas.

Cicero, Laelius de Amicitia

Friendship, and our human relationships in general, can at times be one of the most difficult aspects of our lives while at other times the most helpful. In Buddhism, friendship is an extremely important factor, perhaps even more so than you might expect. The most famous statement on friendship in Buddhism comes when the Buddha’s cousin Ananda is said to have approached the Buddha and remarked “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” And the Buddha replied, “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”

Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you.

So despite the common image of the Buddhist as the ultimate solitary wanderer, we see from this and several other verses throughout Buddhism the central importance of admirable friendship. Here I would like to discuss two sides of admirable friendship. The first is finding and cultivating admirable friendships, as opposed to our ordinary, everyday friends. The second side is in how we, as friends, may best support one another on the path.

The first thing to note in finding and cultivating admirable friendships is that we don’t have to dump our old set of friends and replace them with so-called “spiritual” people. Our current friendships, even with people who have no affiliation with Buddhism, can serve as fertile ground for admirable friendship. In the very short Mitta Sutta, or discourse on friends, the Buddha tells his monks to seek out friends with seven qualities: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.” Notice there is no mention of being well-versed in the dharma, mastery of meditation, or possessing great wisdom. Friendship, the Buddha knew, is far more foundational, far more simple.

I once sat before a great teacher and asked him, “why then do we feel extraordinary synchronicity around certain people [supposedly our spiritual friends] and then not with others?” “Delusion!” he exclaimed. Once we get the idea that so-and-so is a spiritual person and so-and-so is not, we are on the wrong path. Seek out the simpler qualities in others such as their service, kindness, discretion, fortitude, and generosity. In some esoteric Buddhist texts it is said that the Buddha may appear to us as a stone, as a dog, as a beggar, and so on, so that we should always be alert to the teachings that may come from such “ordinary” beings and objects. Similarly, admirable friendships may arise from a wide variety of situations. Meditating on Dōgen’s verses on the mountains and rivers of Eastern China, one can feel the sense of genuine friendship that this great master developed with the land.

Finding these qualities in the world brings us naturally to practice, to a sense of presence and awareness. Similarly, in good friendships these qualities are at the forefront. For example, if you were to get a raise in your job, a good friend would share in your joy, while an ordinary friend might reactively leap to comparisons and judgments: “Why didn’t I ever get a raise? Maybe the company is going to fail,” etc. That admirable friend might also kindly impart the teachings of impermanence, “don’t get attached to that job or promotion” and non-self, “a lot of people helped you along they way, haven’t they?” But the tenor is such that you are brought to a deepened sense of calm, connection, and joy, free of clinging, free of worry.

…each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships

Pema Chödrön puts it well when she writes, “The support that we give each other as practitioners is not the usual kind of samsaric support in which we all join the same team and complain about someone else. It’s more that you’re on your own, completely alone, but it’s helpful to know that there are forty other people who are also going through this all by themselves. That’s very supportive and encouraging. Fundamentally, even though other people can give you support, you do it yourself, and that’s how you grow up in this process, rather than becoming more dependent.”

Through this it appears that Buddhist views of friendship comprise a form of Virtue Ethics. The central theme is one’s personal development, the cultivation of skillful qualities and the abandoning of unskillful ones. But it is not forgotten that each of us is deeply interconnected and this is no more apparent than in our friendships. If our friendships are not in alignment with our practice, that practice will be ever more difficult to sustain. Quite often I have seen others and myself forgetting this, diving head-first into meditation and philosophical studies, only to see our practice crumble in the midst of unhealthy relationships.

So let friendship be a central part of your practice. Meditate on the relationships in your life to see how they bring you toward or away from awareness, toward or away from skillful and unskillful mental states and activities. As you become more aware of the friendships in your life that are indeed admirable, these relationships will naturally grow and deepen, while ordinary friendships will either fall away — the Buddha is also quite clear that solitude is far preferable to being in the company of those disinterested in cultivating positive qualities — or these friendships will begin to change for the better. The process is what western philosophers would call a dialectic, from the meditation cushion to the world, and from the world to the meditation cushion, a process of interrelationship and building toward awakening.

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“Hello At Last, Embracing the Koan of Friendship and Meditation,” by Sara Jenkins

Hello at Last Sara Jenkins was handed a dilemma in the form of two seemingly contradictory teachings: while on retreat, maintain silence and abstain from communication, and at the same time deepen your connections with others. Samayadevi reviews the book in which Jenkins explores the creative tension between those teachings and the vision of friendship that it gave birth to.

Sara Jenkins is a woman one would want to know, to have as a friend. In this little tome, Hello At Last, Embracing the Koan of Friendship and Meditation, she shares with us her experiences with the profound and perhaps surprising practice of spiritual friendship. We seem to grasp the importance of the Buddha and the Dharma in the Three Jewels (or three Refuges) in Buddhism, but it is the jewel of the Sangha that often gets short shrift.

Sara has studied with the Zen teacher Cheri Huber for over twenty years, and Cheri is quite clear about maintaining silence and not socializing with others on retreat. On the other hand, her injunction is to “Deepen your relationships.” It is this conundrum, this koan, that Sara tackles. How is it possible to deepen relationships in silence?

We are not often who we think we are, or who we think we should be

It was in Dapodi, India, that Sara came into contact with the Triratna Buddhist Order, and got her first glimpse of how friendship can be actively engaged as a practice. Her immediate response was to question what communication had to do with Buddhism. Until then the practice had been so much about meditation and working with a teacher that is came as a surprise that relationships might be a context of practice as well. In the sutta in which Ananda, the Buddha’s companion and cousin, says to the Buddha that he thinks spiritual friendship is half of the spiritual life, the Buddha’s response is: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”

In the Western Buddhist Order, Sara discovered that those who have asked for ordination often choose two members of the community as spiritual friends (kalyana mitras), friends who share the same ideals and support one another along the path. It is not a relationship based on a common background or temperament or life style, but solely on this shared ideal of transformation. Friendship becomes a fundamental aspect of the spiritual life.

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And so Sara, an editor by profession and a wholehearted practitioner of Buddhism, delves into the question of how it is possible to practice this spiritual friendship. She shares with us the specific practices of reflective listening, insight dialog, meditative communication and intentional retreats at home with a friend. “There is no need to wait for somebody else to impose structure and silence.” She shares her own experiences with these practices in the personal anecdotes interspersed throughout, and she does not clean things up for us. She reveals her own struggles and learnings. She shows us what a spiritual friendship would look like, as well as the effort it takes and the courage.

Hello At Last is a little gem of a book. It reads easily, and still conveys a profound practice.

It is refreshing to sit with Sara as she unfolds this deep practice for us. The fact is that “communication is at the heart of friendship, and the foundation is inner stillness.” Reflective listening is about “offering ourselves as mirrors for each other… (it) becomes a breathtaking act of love.”

As with so many of the practices in Buddhism, the place to begin is with oneself. It is easy to fall into patterns of social interaction that are a bit mindless and pro forma without ever acknowledging what is going on inside. The practice of insight dialogue begins with abandoning all those social conventions, and speaking from the inside, from an awareness of the feelings one carries around, the “background thoughts” we often cover up with pleasantries. “We are not often who we think we are, or who we think we should be.”

Yet the necessary core of self-knowledge is self-acceptance, a kindness towards ourselves that is not common in our American culture. The Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa have both spoken of the harsh self-judgments they found in America. Thich Nhat Hanh often writes about the need to leave aside critical self-judgments and actually learn to befriend ourselves. Sara’s exercises are “elegantly simple and still profound.” They begin in silence and solitude, to know the within so we can recognize our commonality with all beings. We will never be secure in our friendships and our sense of interconnectedness without knowing who we really are and seeing that in others as well.

Compassion is not pity, and empathy is impossible without self-awareness. Although we might sense that our feelings, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, are unique, it is through reflective listening and insight dialogue that we discover that is an illusion. Sara show us how to pause to see those feelings in ourselves so we can recognize them in others and know the confidence that we are really not other from one another.

…you will do for the love of others what you will not do for yourself.

Hello At Last is a little gem of a book. It reads easily, and still conveys a profound practice. It is difficult not to like this woman who grapples with the koan her teacher gave her.

“Here is the resolution of the koan I had been carrying around, the puzzle of how to deepen relationships while maintaining silence: communication is reined in from the claims of past and future, from the habit of reactivity, to the stillness of each moment, in which the right words will naturally arise.”

It is easy to trust her process, her practices, as she has shared it with us. She ends with a quote from a text by Allan Gurganus, an orientation address to those souls recently arrived in heaven. It ends with these words:

The Celestial offers you perfect, funny
Erotic company, eternally.
This is Paradise.
This, my dears, is all God has ever promised us:


We need not wait for Heaven. Here, now, many of us are just beginning to know ourselves, ourselves in others, others in us.

May we be clear mirrors for each other, for seeing who we are, and who we are not. In our practice of being present to one another, may we find inspiration in the words “because you’re mine.” Not that we’re in charge of anyone but ourselves, or that we can change things for anyone else. But because, as my teacher likes to say, you will do for the love of others what you will not do for yourself. Until you realize that “they” and “you” are one.

SamayadeviSamayadevi is a 66-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, step-grandmother of eight, and grandmother-to-be. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in the summer of 2007 on a three month retreat in Spain.

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“A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki” (DVD)

“A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki”

Avant-garde musician John Cage; Catholic mystic Thomas Merton; Beat writers Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; psychotherapists Carl Jung and Erich Fromm; Zen teachers Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger: 20th century giants all, and all have one thing in common — they were deeply influenced by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a gentle scholar-practitioner from Japan.

This litany of names is merely suggestive of the massive impact that D. T. Suzuki had on western culture — an influence that is documented in a new film, A Zen Life — because so far we haven’t mentioned the 100 or so books that have found their way (by now) into the hands of millions of people throughout the world: works that include classics such as A Manual of Zen Buddhism, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and The Essence of Buddhism. Simply put, the Buddhist world would be very different today had D. T. Suzuki not come to the west. Suzuki was in fact a “kalyana mitra” (spiritual friend / teacher) to an entire generation.

A Zen Life offers a blow-by-blow account of Suzuki’s life. Suzuki was born shortly after the Meiji restoration. After centuries of self-imposed isolation from the outside world and the adulation of the medieval Samurai warrior code, Japan was forced to open up by an encounter with US warships, eager for new lands to colonize. The Japanese reaction was, on the whole, to embrace modernity and to import (and improve upon) western technology. Before long, Japan took on a western superpower (Russia) and was victorious in war. But this was a time of internal turmoil within Japan as well. The deposed samurai class was becoming increasingly irrelevant and had lost its grip on power.

Suzuki was born in 1870 into a samurai family just as his father lost the patronage that he had formerly enjoyed. The father died when Suzuki was only six, and a brother died shortly afterward. Teitaro, who taught himself English, experienced further loss when, in his 20th year, his mother also passed away. This seems to have been the last straw, propelling the young Suzuki to explore Zen Buddhism.

He became a disciple of Shaku Soen, an enlightened master who recognized Suzuki’s worth as a translator, and who had him translate the talk he gave at the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago. The Parliament represented a new openness on the part of the West to learning from Eastern traditions. It was under Soen that Suzuki was given the Dharma name, Daisetz, meaning “Absolute Simplicity.”

Shaku Soen asked Suzuki to translate The Gospel of Buddha into Japanese, and the work was well-received. The writer, editor, and student of comparative religion, Paul Carus, invited Suzuki to move to the US and work at the Open Court publishing house, but Suzuki was concerned that he had not yet had a satori experience, and repeatedly deferred his move overseas. At last his satori happened while he was ascending a tree-lined staircase at a temple, and Suzuki experienced a sense of oneness: “I was the trees,” he later said. At the age of 27, in 1897, he was free to move to the West.

Suzuki worked for Carus’ Open Court publishing company for ten years, and he began his own writings. His life’s work of introducing the West to Zen had begun.

Suzuki moved back to Japan in 1909, and took up teaching, both at a university and in an aristocratic high school, where he influenced those who were to become the finest movers and shakers of that generation. Beatrice Erskine Lane, who had fallen in love with Suzuki in the US, followed him to Japan and the two were married and then adopted a half-Scottish, half-Japanese boy, at a time when mixed-race children were looked upon with great suspicion in Japanese society. The couple also started an animal shelter, much to the consternation of their neighbors. Both taught at a Shin Buddhist-associated university.

Suzuki visited London in 1936 and met Christmas Humphries, the founder of The Buddhist Society who went on to republish many of Suzuki’s works, and Alan Watts, who under the influence of Buddhism, abandoned his position as an Episcopalian minister to become a proponent of Zen.

Beatrice died in 1938, and Suzuki abruptly stopped teaching and founded a library in Tokeiji temple. And then war broke out, as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, determined to clear out US influence from the Pacific so that it could establish its own sphere of influence.

Suzuki has, quite inappropriately I believe, been accused of being pro-war, or at least not sufficiently anti-war (a criticism that perhaps is easy to make when one is at a safe distance from a repressive and fanatical dictatorship). In fact he is on record as saying that a war between the two countries he loved was ridiculous, and at a “going away” ceremony for students at Otani University he said, “What reason is there for young Americans and young Japanese to kill each other?” He urged them to stay alive at all costs, even if it meant becoming prisoners of war (a shocking thing to say at that time). He told them that after the war, “young people like you will have to rebuild the world” and that they must “come back alive.” His confidence in the eventual end of the war was absolute, and he continued to write in Japanese for eventual publication in English.

At the war’s end, Westerners started turning up on his doorstep in, it would seem, droves, including the renowned Philip Kapleau.

Suzuki’s travels began once again, and in 1947 he attended the second East West Philosophers’ Conference, having missed the first because of the illness that led to his wife’s death. Suzuki stayed on in Hawai’i for a few months to teach at the university there. (Roshi to-be) Robert Aitken recalls not understanding a word Suzuki was saying!

From ’51 to ’53 he gave a famous series of Open Lectures at Columbia University, where he deeply influenced John Cage. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg tried to impress Suzuki, but Suzuki was not impressed by them in turn. According to Roshi Aitken, the only one of the beats who really understood what Suzuki was about was Gary Snyder; the rest used Suzuki’s teachings as a springboard to do their own thing.

At the Eranos Conference in Switzerland in 1953-4, Suzuki met and influenced Jung, Heidegger, and Jaspers.

Later Suzuki lived in Boston, and because so many people were equating LSD experiences and satori, decided — at the age of 85 — to experiment with drugs. Suzuki’s conclusion? The two experiences are quite different.

After retiring from Columbia Suzuki returned finally to Japan, although he would still travel to conferences in the west. He kept fit into his 90s by walking. He complained that it was harder to concentrate, and that he could only work on a writing project for two hours (!) at a time without taking a break. Therefore he had to work on three projects simultaneously and he would switch to a new project when his mind began to flag.

Just before his 96th birthday he suffered from a strangulated intestine, and he died the next day. His secretary, a Japanese-American woman called Mihoko Okamura, said that there was “no demarcation line” between his life and his death: an appropriate comment given that Suzuki repeatedly pointed out that death is an illusion.

Suzuki was never an ordained monk, and he was not a historian of Buddhism in an academic sense. Nevertheless he was a significant contributor — perhaps the single most significant modern contributor — to Zen Buddhism and to Western Buddhism generally.

I was struck by the sheer age of most of the talking heads in A Zen Life. Many appeared to be in their 80s (at least) and it’s hard to imagine that many of them will be around in another ten years. These are cultural figures from another age — our teachers’ teachers — showing perhaps just how deeply embedded is the influence of D. T. Suzuki in the Western Buddhist world.

A Zen Life does an excellent job of outlining the wealth of connections that Suzuki established with prominent figures in western arts, psychology, and even within the Catholic church, and brings home the sheer depth of this gentle man’s influence. There is rare and remarkable footage and audio of Suzuki and his followers. From time to time the chronology skips around, and section titles would have helped maintain a sense of the main themes being covered, but these are minor reservations and I would recommend that anyone interested in this fascinating and seminal figure watch this video.

“A ZEN LIFE – D.T. Suzuki” (DVD: 77 minutes), Michael Goldberg, Executive Producer / Director, can be ordered at:

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Guided meditations versus “flying solo”

Head of a black man with goatee beard wearning headphones, meditating in a misty woodland setting.

Guided meditation CDs are undoubtedly useful, but can they become a reliance that actually interferes with our practice? On the other hand, what happens when you find that your meditations are so much better with a CD than without: should you give up meditating on your own? Bodhipaksa shares some advice that he’s offered to students over the years.

I often get asked by students how they much reliance they should place on guided meditations compared to meditating on their own. For example one person asked:

I used to meditate without any guided CD and the difference when I used your guided CD is quite amazing. The metta is so much more powerful. The thing that I’m wondering about is should I go back to practicing without the guided CD or would I be better off with practicing with it?

I always recommend that people find a balance of using guided meditations and “flying solo,” as I call it. Guided meditations are great for suggesting new approaches and for helping to keep bringing you back to the practice. When you’re being guided in meditation you’re actually experiencing a form of “kalyana mitrata” or spiritual friendship. Traditionally kalyana mitrata is the experience of being with someone who’s maybe just a bit further along the path than you are and who can give you some guidance. When we listen to a guided meditation CD (or are led by a teacher in a class) we want to be introduced to approaches and perspectives that we might not have come up with on our own.

When you’re being guided in meditation you’re actually experiencing a form of “kalyana mitrata” or spiritual friendship.

But the point of kalyana mitrata is that we become more skilled in the path ourselves. We’re not letting someone else do all the work for us. Instead we’re learning skills from the teacher: in effect becoming more like the teacher. So ultimately we’re aiming to internalize those skills, and the way to check to what extent you’re doing that is to meditate using your own resources — that is, to meditate without a recording.

However, meditating on your own will almost always, at least at first, be less intense than meditating with a guide (assuming that the guide knows what he or she is doing, of course). The added intensity of a guided meditation arises because somehow we’re more receptive to verbal suggestions that are made out loud. When we listen to someone suggesting that we pay attention to the sensations in our hands, for example, we find it easier to do that than when we just decide (wordlessly) to pay attention to those same sensations. So you can expect that generally your solo meditations will be a bit less intense, especially to start with.

However, with practice you’ll develop your own style and approach to any meditation that you do regularly. You’ll find “tricks” that particularly work for you and that allow you to go deeper into the practice. Eventually, you’ll have much deeper meditations unaided than with a guided meditation CD, especially if you manage to get on retreat. And that’s the other benefit of “flying solo” — it gives you the opportunity to develop your own approach, and to tap more deeply into your inner resources.

The appropriate balance of solo and guided meditations will vary from person to person and will change over your meditation “career” (for want of a better word). For most relative beginners it’s almost indispensable to have a high level of guidance, otherwise most of the time in meditation is spent daydreaming, although there are exceptions of course.

As you start to internalize suggestions from a guided meditation, try saying those suggestions to yourself as if you were the teacher.

As we become more experienced a guided meditation becomes something that we do only occasionally, in order to bring more freshness and new perspectives to our practice. We all have a tendency to get into a rut in which we don’t apply ourselves, or in which we keep doing things in our practice that don’t really work. A guided meditation will shake things up a little. But a very experienced meditator may go for months (or even years — although I’d say that was going too long) without being led by another person (whether live or on a recording).

So the balance changes over time, with more of our time spent “flying solo” and less listening to a guide. But early on there may have to be considerable reliance on guided meditations.

Just one more thing: I mentioned that we tend to go deeper in meditation when we follow another person’s voice. Somehow we’re more receptive. Well, I find that the same is true for me when I’m leading meditation; I have better meditations. My meditation when I’m leading a period of practice is more focused, less distracted, more engaged, more calm, and more enjoyable. And I’ve reflected over the years that this is precisely because I’m listening to myself teach, just as if I were listening to a guided meditation. So you can do this too!

As you start to internalize useful suggestions from a guided meditation, try saying those suggestions to yourself as if you were the teacher. You can say things like, “Now, bringing awareness to the sensations in the hands,” for example.

You’ll want to make sure that you don’t keep up a constant stream of self-talk and that you have time to process the suggestions you’re making so that you can put them into practice. It’s important to pause after you give yourself an instruction so that you can then actually do what you’re suggesting and observe the results. I think you’ll find that this kind of “self-guided meditation” is a useful bridge to the kind of deeper meditations that you have when you’re listening to a CD. As you become more experienced you can also to a large extent let go of even of that self-guiding voice, so that there’s more inner quiet.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: Connection before correction

Poster for Tod Browning's 1932 movie, Freaks

I am a Buddhist working in rehab, which is a very Christian environment, so I was happy to discover a co-worker sporting Buddhist memorabilia at her work site. I wanted to have a friendship with this woman because I believed we might have a lot in common, at least spiritually. However, all my attempts to get to know more about her have been thwarted.

When I ask her about herself she changes the subject or says let’s talk about that sometime… then we never do. She never reveals anything. Most of my co-workers don’t like her and the patients complain about her. They say she doesn’t listen and is not empathetic. One day she misinterpreted an innocent comment I made about her being new and inexperienced. She mentioned it to a coworker, completely distorting what I said. When I confronted her she wouldn’t answer me and just stopped talking. I’m starting to think she’s a bit of a freak and I don’t know if I should pursue this. Have any ideas?

Desperately Seeking Sanity

Dear Desperately,

 …rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation

In order firstly to determine whether or not this woman is a freak, I watched the definitive 1932 film “Freaks,” in which a gorgeous trapeze artist called Cleopatra becomes the lover of the strongman Hercules, but pretends to love the rich German midget Hans, who is in love with her. When The Living Torso, The Pinhead, and another German midget ask Cleopatra to spare Hans from the deception, the fact that Hans is an heir of a great fortune is leaked… But I won’t reveal any more. Apparently the bearded lady hated the film and ended up regretting her participation. I regret that the lady lived long before the appearance of my column on body hair. At any rate it’s clear at this point that your ersatz Buddhist friend at work is not a freak.

Still, you could rethink your approach. Consider the fact that almost all of us want to be seen as competent and can find it painful when we feel we are not. Many people will react badly to being referred to as new and inexperienced even if — perhaps especially if — they are. One of the slogans I like from Nonviolent Communication is “Connection before Correction.” This means that rather than being concerned with being right (or with showing how wrong the other person is) we shift the priority to finding a deeper understanding of the situation. Specifically, trying to see what is behind the words. Certainly she was upset by your comment. So rather than confronting her, you could see that she was upset and respond to that, or just tell her what you meant.

But that particular situation has already passed. At the end of the day she may not want to be your friend; you may not want her as a friend. But you can try being kind and see what happens.

Auntie Suvanna

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