interconnectedness

“Living as a river” – an interview with Bodhipaksa

Recently Wildmind’s founder, Bodhipaksa, was interviewed by Tami Simon, the owner of the renowned publisher of spirituality audiobooks.

The interview (transcript below) is part of a series called “Insights at the Edge,” which also includes conversations with Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield. The interview includes a discussion of science and spirituality together can help us appreciate the interconnected nature of reality, and of Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book on the Six Elements.

Here’s how Sounds True describes the podcast:

Bodhipaksa: Living as a River

Tami Simon speaks with Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist teacher, author, and member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1993. He currently teaches Buddhism and meditation to prisoners and is the author of several books, including Wildmind: A Step-by-step Guide to Meditation, as well as the Sounds True audio learning programs Still the Mind and The Wisdom of the Breath. In this interview, Bodhipaksa discusses the fluid nature of identity: what he calls “living as a river.” (56 minutes)

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa you submitted a very interesting book to Sounds True, which we’ve decided to publish and you called it in your submission, The Six Rivers of Becoming: What Science and Spirituality Teach Us about Who We Really Are and, of course, who knows, by the time Sounds True publishes it we might call it something like How to Be Happy Through the Six Rivers of Becoming. I’m curious first of all what brought you to writing this book and if you can tell us a little bit about what it’s about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, the book comes out of a practice that I do. It’s an Insight Meditation practice called the Six Element Practice, and it’s a reflective meditation where you are working on becoming aware of what it is that you identify with of being yourself You’re realizing that what you identify with being yourself is in fact not something static and not something separate from the outside world. So you’ve got these six elements, which are earth, what is whatever’s solid with in the body; water whatever is liquid in the body; the fire element, just all the physical energy in the body. There’s the air element, whatever is gaseous within the body. There’s the space element, which is not one of the classical elements. The way I understand that in my practice is it’s the sum total of space that all of that matter and energy take up. So it’s your form, your physical appearance, which we identify with being ourselves.

And there’s the consciousness, which resides within all of our functions. With each of these elements, what you can do is reflect on the ways in which there’s not a thing there, but a process. And what you might identify with, for example as the earth element or the solid matter within your body right now has come from outside of you. A little while ago the calcium that’s in your bones was actually in bread or milk. The protein that’s making up your muscles was in a burger or slab of tofu. And what you’re doing it you’re becoming aware that what you commonly identify with is just borrowed from the outside world. It’s not something that you can hold onto because it’s continually passing back to the outside world. What you identified with a few moments ago as being you is already beginning to depart. So skin cells are flaking off. Hairs are falling out. Your combusting carbohydrates in your body and you’re exhaling them as carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide is becoming trees. You go to the bathroom, you take a dump, that gets flushed away somewhere and gets broken down by bacteria and protozoa and gets built into plants, etc., etc. So when you start looking at yourself in this way you start to get a sense of yourself not as a thing, but as a process. And you start to realize that everything that you identify with as yourself is not yourself. It’s all borrowed. It’s all coming from the outside and it’s all returning to the outside.

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa I think most people even before deconstructing their body into these six different elements just think, well, of course who I am has a lot to do with my body because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a body, so my identity has a lot to do with my body. Correct? I might not be just my body, but I am kind of my body in a certain way, aren’t I?

Bodhipaksa: Well in a certain way, we are, yeah, What are we if we take away our bodies and our minds? It’s more a question of how we actually relate to our bodies. For example you look in the mirror and see yourself and notice that you’ve been changing. What does that feel like? You notice there’s a few more gray hairs there or some wrinkles that weren’t there before, You’re belly’s sagging a little bit more. Well, we suffer because we identify our bodies as being ourselves and our bodies are continually changing and so our basis for feeling secure about ourselves is continually changing because of identifying with something that’s insecure. So if you want to be happy what you have to do it embrace change and stop clinging to something that is continually changing because by clinging to something in an effort to find some kind of security, when that something is continually changing you’re going to end up suffering.

Tami Simon: Well, I think a lot of people have a great deal of panic, let’s say, if there’s a diagnosis of terminal illness kind of thing, of course. So without my body, I might not be here, so of course I feel identified with my body.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, right, and it’s quite natural. It’s and evolutionary thing, really. We have to take care of our bodies, and this practice wouldn’t suggest that we start neglecting our bodies. It just suggests that we stop seeing so much importance and significance in them and start accepting the fact that they do change.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea behind this deconstruction into the six elements is recognizing the amount of change that’s always going on and that’s just the fact of what’s happening?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, and those effects from that. This practice is traditionally regarded as an antidote to conceit. It can mean an inflated sense of self-importance. When we start being so proud of our bodies because they’re firm and good looking and people like them and that kind of stuff, that is setting up the conditions for future suffering because at some point people are going to be looking at our bodies and thinking, well, ten years ago she was pretty good looking. Ten years ago he had a body on him, but look at him now. So, this element of conceit gets let go that way. But there are other interpretations of the word conceit in this practice, which is that it’s conceiving ding. There’s a conceding of yourself as being either separate and of being either better than, equal to or worse than other beings. And all of those things are sources of suffering. We set ourselves up as being separate from the world or from other people and as soon as you start doing that, you set yourself up in competition with other people or separate and therefore we’re all competing for the same scare resources such as love, etc., and again we end up suffering because of that. We’re working on letting go of multiple levels of identification so we can be happier.

Tami Simon: This question that it seems like this six-element practice is exploring, what is the self, what is identity. It seems that is a core question in spirituality. Wouldn’t you agree?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s the core question, who we are, what we are. I think at the time at the Buddha people were asking this question a lot: what is the true self? And most answers came down to some kind of true self or soul that was within us that we couldn’t necessarily have direct experience of or some aspect of ourselves would be taken to be an unchanging and separate entity. The Buddha’s response to that seemed to be quite radical, that you should let go of any identification whatsoever. It’s quite a hard position for us. Even with someone who’s been practicing two or three decades, it’s not an easy position to grasp. I have some sense of what the Buddha meant by that. But I can’t I’ve in any way plumbed the depths of what he was pointing at.

Tami Simon: This idea of dropping any kind of identification. So when you do the six-element practice how does that take you through that process of disidentifying?

Bodhipaksa: it’s quite a subtle thing, really. You’re doing this with the physical elements, so you’re becoming aware that everything that constitutes your body, whether it’s solid, liquid, gaseous or energy—all of that really isn’t you, and it’s not something that you can really hole onto. It can do many things to you, and one of them is that it causes this sense of lightness. It’s like having had a fist and then it begins to kind of open again. And it’s hard trying to communicate that to someone because you’re been going around your entire life with your hands in fists, and someone says, yeah, you don’t really need to have your hands that way, you can relax them a little bit, you can let go of them a little bit. It’s kind of hard to see how you can do that and hard to imagine what that would actually feel like until you’ve done it. But there is that sense of lightness. There can be a sense of humility, as well. Because we go around thinking that we’re the center of the world and actually we’re just a little vortex or matter and energy and consciousness in an absolutely huge world. A huge and very, very complex world, which is full of billions of other vortices of energy and consciousness ang matter. And it can bring about a sense of humility.

It can bring about a sense of appreciation as well because you start realizing how much you’re dependent upon others and other processes in the world round about you. And I think all of these things are ultimately kind of liberating. They’re liberating ourselves from a sense of, hey, I’m so cool, I’m the center of the world, you know, I’m the center of the universe. Everything revolves around about me. Get out of my way, here I come. We start to be more appreciative.

Tami Simon: Now probably the main way that people identify is with their thoughts about themselves. Wouldn’t you say? I think I’m this, I think I’m that. You were talking about the physical aspects of the body in terms of the elements, but how do we work on this disidentifying from what we think about who we are?

Bodhipaksa: Well, I think the longer you practice the more you start realizing that things can change. When I started practicing I was a really, really bad tempered person. I was so moody and bad tempered. I didn’t realize I was moody and bad tempered. I just thought the world was just full of idiots [laughs]. It’s kind of funny thinking about it?

Tami Simon: How old were you Bodhipaksa?

Bodhipaksa: This was early twenties and I guess I was quite arrogant and also quite insecure, as well. So over the years I’ve gone from being full of ill will and contempt for other people to being much friendlier, much more approachable, much more compassionate person. And so I’ve experience myself this big change in my personality. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced that–that kind of change–still have the sense, well; you’re stuck with what you’re got. So if I’m a bad-tempered person that’s just how I am or if I’m full of craving and can’t stop eating or pursuing sensuous delights, and that’s just the kind of person I am. This is the way I was made. So people identify with the way that they are at a particular time and don’t realize—perhaps can’t realize—until they begin a process of changing. Actually, these things are quite malleable. There’s a lot of change that can go on.

Tami Simon: I guess still what I’m asking about is I have these ideas about who I am. I have these thought structures. I’m a person who is whatever. So what you’re saying is to take that lightly. That that could change?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, it might be true in a sense, right now, but a lot of things can change very, very quickly. Think of someone for example like Eckhardt Tolle who told us about his experience of having this radical shift in consciousness, where literally one minute he’s depressed and contemplating suicide and the next minute he’s completely at peace. When you’re experiencing depression you think that’s how it’s going to be. This is how I am. This is how it’s going to be. I’m stuck. But sometimes the underlying support for a mental state, an attitude like that and all the views that go with it about the kind of person you are and the kind of world that you live in, and how that world that you live in relates to you. The whole substructure for that can just completely collapse at a moment’s notice. Radical change can happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a long, long time not to be a bad-tempered person, but sometimes things can just change quite instantaneously.

Tami Simon: How do you think the practice of meditation affected this bad-tempered person in their early twenties? Or do you think there were other factors that created this gradual change in you? How did you become less bad tempered?

Bodhipaksa: Well I did a lot of metta badna [?] loving kindness practice and . . .

Tami Simon: Can you tell us specifically what you did? What were you focusing on?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, metta badna[?] or development of loving kindness is a practice for developing a more appreciative, friendly, loving, compassionate towards ourselves and toward others. I did that practice a lot where we start with ourselves, wishing ourselves well, more onto a good friend, and then a person we don’t have much emotional connection with, someone we have difficulties with, and then expanding that feeling of loving kindness to the world. I used to have a lot of enemies. I used to have a lot of people I didn’t like and so I would wish those people well. Sometimes things would change quite rapidly. I think I discovered within my first few weeks of meditation that my mood could suddenly shift.

I remember once I was a student at the time and I was sitting in the car with a bunch of other students I shared an apartment with and they were having this conversation and it was so trivial and I was just way above all this of course. They were talking about their fathers’ ties or something like this and to me this was so trivial and I was condescending and got myself into a real bad temper about it, and I remembered like just the week before I learned this loving kindness practice, so I just sat there saying may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering and after about four or five minutes I realized, Hey, I’m not in a bad mood anymore. I actually felt human and open and responsive to the people round about me, rather than judgmental of them.

So practice just does change you. I sometimes have to adapt the practice because there were parts of myself I just didn’t like. I became aware of how judgmental I was and I didn’t like that, so that became a problem in itself. I became judgmental of my judgmental attitude. So what I did was I created a version of the practice for myself, where in each stage of the practice it was just me. So I started off with wishing myself well, and in the friend state I would wish well the parts of myself that I liked and appreciated. In the neutral-person stage I’d take parts of myself I’d never really paid much attention to, and I would wish them well. And then in the enemy or the difficult-person stage I would take parts of myself I didn’t like and I’d wish them well. And that was very transforming as well, because it was because it was a practice of complete, unconditional loving kindness towards parts of myself that were not just difficult, but actually in pain.

I started to realize that underneath my prickliness and bad-temperedness was actually a lot of pain that I never really acknowledged. I guess I’d been brought up in a rather stiff-upper-lip culture where people are very reserved and you just dealt with it. If something happened round about you and it was difficult or painful it was kind of unmanly to show the world or even to admit to yourself that you found it painful. So I went through a long process of just allowing myself to feel pain and realizing that that was okay and welcoming the pain, and treating myself almost as a good friend who turned up on my doorstep. If you had a good friend who turned up on your doorstep and they were really unhappy about something, you’d probably want to just welcome them in and, “Sit down, dude, what’s going on? Tell me about it. I want to know.” And you’d kind of embrace their pain in an offshoot of kindly inquiry, and that’s what I started doing with my own pain as well, realizing that I could just welcome that in and [ask] what’s going on here? And that in itself was enough to take away the bad-temperedness, because the bad-temperedness was just an outward symptom of an inward problem of not accepting my own pain and my own vulnerability.

Tami Simon: And how did your view toward other people change–all those people you thought were idiots in your early twenties? [laughs]

Bodhipaksa: I still occasionally find people who I think are complete idiots [laughs], especially on the Internet and especially in political discussions. However, people that I actually knew I tend to be much more forgiving towards them. I’ve come to realize more and more that everything that everybody does comes ultimately from a good motive, which is that they want to be happy. It doesn’t matter how outrageous the behavior of that person or how unethical it may seem to be. They have a belief that in doing the things that they’re doing, it’s going to make them happy, and that in itself is actually a good motivation. It’s a good thing to want to be happy. It’s the strategy that is wrong or in error. When people are going things that generally pisses us off, sometimes it’s just us, the way we respond, but when someone’s genuinely doing something that’s unskillful or unethical it’s a strategy for becoming happy, but it’s a strategy that’s just not going to work, and that’s the problem with it.

There was a Buddhist text I translated once when I was studying Pali at university and it was quite staggering really. It was almost the antithesis of Buddhism–letting go of greed, letting go of hatred, letting go of delusion. And there was a passage where the Buddha said if greed, hate, and delusion make you happy I wouldn’t tell you to let go of them, I’d tell you to embrace them because the whole worth of the Buddhist path, the Buddha said is about one thing, which is suffering and how to get rid of suffering which in more positive terms is about happiness and fulfillment and how to find them. So the about greed, hatred, and delusion is not that they are somehow wrong, it’s that they don’t work. They’re strategies for finding happiness and they don’t actually create happiness, they create unhappiness.

So when you start having that perspective in mind—obviously, I can’t always keep it in mind—but when I can have that perspective in mind it’s much easier to be forgiving of people because you realize that at heart, right down in the core, there’s something very positive there, it’s just that there’s layer of delusion there, which is leading to strategies that aren’t going to work. And that in itself—that recognition—is a way to be more compassionate toward people, realizing that they’re doing something that they think is going to make them happy and it’s not. It’s going to make them unhappy.

Tami Simon: Now I was joking earlier with you Bodhipaksa that by the time your manuscript goes through the publishing process it’s going to be called something like How to Be Happy, but it does seem that there’s a connection between the six-element practice and that work of deconstructing ourselves that relates to happiness and I’m wondering if you can make that more explicit?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, it is ultimately what the practice is about and it’s ultimately what all Buddhist practice is about. I suppose the way it works is that we seek happiness in trying to find some sense of security and how do we find security? Well we cling to something. We identify with it. We try to hold onto it. So with the impermanent world that we’re living in and we try to cling to our sense of ourselves as being separate and special, for example. Those strategies just don’t work. We’re not separate and in a way we’re really not that special—in some ways kind of miraculous, but in other ways we’re surrounded by miraculous things, so we’re just one miracle amongst many and if you’re just one miracle amongst many you’re not really that special.

So in letting go of the unhelpful strategy I’ve tried to hold onto, what you can do is embrace change and find security in not finding security, which is rather paradoxical, I realize, but we find happiness in a sense of well-being in a sense of security by realizing that we can’t hold onto anything.

Tami Simon: So Where’s the security in that?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting. I’m not sure I can actually put that into words right now. What comes to mind, I suppose, is that a lot of time in our lives we’re at odds with the world. We’re trying to hold back change. We don’t like getting old, for example. We don’t like the thought that we’re not really that special and we’re in denial about the actually reality of things, so that’s kind of inherently insecure. And I think just realizing the reality of things is the only way that we can actually feel secure. Actually, I think I can probably give a better answer.

The practice ultimately leads much through the body but also through the mind and paying attention to our experience and noticing that that experience, too, is just flowing through us. We have feeling, thought, emotions, etc., that are just passing through, and what we’re doing in the practice is developing a sense of equanimity towards all of our experience, which means we’re just allowing it to be, we’re just allowing it to flow through us. And it’s that sense of equanimity that I think is real security. These things are real hard to articulate. I think even for the Buddha these things were hard to articulate.

But, equanimity is an extremely nonreactive, nongrasping state of mind, which just allows things to be. And I think it’s ultimately that state of equanimity which is real security.

Tami Simon: Now the metaphor you use throughout the manuscript is this idea of living as a river. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of the river.

Bodhipaksa: Well, in the practice you’re observing the flow of each of these elements. And there’s a number of images that come to my mind when I’m doing the practice. I’ll have conjured up this image of each element coming from the outside world, it’s passing through this six-feet length of body and passing back into the outside world again. And I’ll have the sense of observing something like a river. And sometimes I just imagine that I’m sitting by a riverbank, a six-foot length of riverbank that I’m seeing, and that’s me. But every time I say that’s me, the water there has already moved as soon as I’ve articulated that though—that’s me—the water’s already passed through. It’s already gone. You’re left with a sense of trying to grasp the ungraspable. We have the sense that our self is a thing, the body is a thing, but actually it’s a process and you can’t hold onto a process. A process by its very nature is something that’s continually changing.

Trying to grasp into the river and hold back this six-foot length and it’s just flowing through your fingers. That’s one way that the river image comes to me—probably the main way I start thinking about myself as being not a thing, but a process.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea of doing the six-element practice is that we become accustomed in some way and accepting of our “riverness.”

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, our riverness. I like that word. Yes, It’s embracing our riverness, truly accepting our riverness, I suppose, rather than embracing even. Embracing has a sense of grasping or trying to cling to.

Tami Simon: And then, I know you have this interest in science, and even though this six-element practice is an ancient practice that there are now discoveries in contemporary science that are confirming or at least shedding light in some way for you on the value of the practice and how it works and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this.

Bodhipaksa: Sure, I think the six-element practice was in a way a kind of a scientific practice. That’s the best understanding the Buddha and people of that time had of the world was that it was made of solid, liquid, gas, and energy, all existing within space and somewhere in there, there was consciousness residing. So it was in a way a kind of scientific practice. And when you read things like the description of what the fire element say—the fire element internally, that is within the body—and it describes it as that which digests and causes the heart to beat, etc., so it’s all the physical processes within the body. So I think he was trying to be scientific in the way that the practice is structured. Our understanding of how change happens in the body has changed a lot. The ways that we have of understanding how the body is not ultimately ours, have also changed a lot.

So for example, you start thinking about your DNA and for a lot of us, that’s the essence of who we are. There’s more viral DNA in your genome than there is human DNA. You’re mostly virus, a viral hybrid, which is kind of an odd thought. So you start realizing that a lot of stuff that’s at your core isn’t even human. You start looking at the body, and science can give us a much better idea of how solid matter flows through the body.

There were some interesting experiments done about how long various tissues lasted. And it was based on the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s there were a lot of above-ground nuclear tests, and the plus of radiation that came out from the nuclear tests caused the formation of carbon 14, which is a mildly radioactive, heavier isotope of carbon. Now that quickly got absorbed into living beings, producing a kind of time stamp. And it became possible to look at the turnover of carbon 14 in the human body and get a sense of how long different tissues lasted, so you find, for example that the tissues on your skin only last a few days, and the gut lining similarly. Your bones last for several years. Even your bones, which you think of as being solid and permanent, are in continuous process of change. There are cells in your bones and their only function is to break down your bones. Your bones are continually dissolving from within. Fortunately there are also some cells in your bones and their function is to build up your bone tissue again. So your bones are continually in this process of dissolving away and being rebuilt. So what you think of as being something solid is actually a process that’s continually changing all the time.

So sometimes science can illuminate processes that the Buddha was already probably familiar with in some way. Sometimes it’s a bit of things you never could have imagined, for example, that our cells in our body aren’t actually ours in a number of different senses. If you do a count of all the cells in your body 90 percent of them are bacterial. So 90 percent nonhuman, which is kind of strange to think about; 90 percent of the cells are protozoa. But they’re really very important. They’re living in our skin. They produce the oils that cover our skin. We’ve never really evolved to do that because we’ve never needed to because we’ve got these bacteria. We give them a home and they’re useful for us.

When we eat food the digestion is carried out by bacteria. There are compounds that we can’t actually digest ourselves, so the bacteria dissolve them for us. There are various chemicals the body needs that are produced by bacteria. So we’re not even biochemically complete as human beings. We can’t exist in biochemical isolation from things that are not human.

Tami Simon: Now the 10 percent of me that is human, what is that made of?

Bodhipaksa: That in itself is made of nonhuman stuff, ultimately The 10 percent is your body, your cell count that is human is all your brain cells and gut cells and your skin cells, etc., but ultimately none of that from the perspective of the six-element practice is human because where did your skin come from? Well, it was that sandwich you ate a few weeks ago and the curry you had a few weeks before that. All those meals you’ve been eating is where your skin comes from and that was not you, it was stuff that came from the outside world.

So ultimately none of you is human. But it’s very interesting to see things that are so obviously not human within you and not just within you, but a functioning part of you. Some people have suggested that all the bacteria within us should be regarded as an organ in its own right because it performs complex functions that are intimately tied in with the function of the body. I talked about digestion for example, but our immune responses are conditioned and partly controlled by these bacteria. Things like fat metabolism and sugar metabolism are also moderated by these bacteria. Bacteria-producing chemicals that are affecting the whole biochemistry of the body. Again becoming aware of things shifts us away from that sense that we have of being separate and in some way special.

Tami Simon: You talked about there being six elements and I can understand this process of investigation following along the lines you’ve been sharing with us related to fire, water, air, and space, but when you get to consciousness it seems like the approach might be a little different. What do you mean by consciousness being an element?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? What is consciousness? Nobody actually really knows what consciousness is. There’s no really adequate definition. In fact I don’t think you can really define what consciousness is because it’s its own thing. When scientists try to define consciousness they’re looking at activity within the brain. But activity within the brain is not the same as an experience. The experience of tasting an orange is the taste, color and smell of an orange and those are things that exist within consciousness, but you can’t see those things in the brain. You can see activities in the brain, which correlate to the experience, tasting and smelling and seeing and holding an orange. But there’s a world of different between the bioelectrical activity in the brain and that actual experience. So we can’t really define what consciousness is.

But the way that the practice is described, the consciousness element is a little bit different. What we’re doing is we’re realizing that again there’s a flow, but it’s a flow of perceptions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts and we’re observing that flow of these components of consciousness. And we’re observing them flowing, coming from nowhere. Appearing briefly and passing away again. So we’re observing the transience, the flowing riverlike nature of those aspects of consciousness.

The practice traditionally doesn’t include the same contemplation of inner and outer.
With each of the other elements what you’re doing you’re becoming aware of the element outside yourself of water. You’re becoming aware of the water element within you and how the water element within you is derived from the water element outside and how it’s passing back into the water outside. So you’re becoming aware of this entire process of flow. And there isn’t that outside-inside perspective as it’s described in the practice classically, but I found it’s actually a useful perspective to bring into the practice. To become aware, for example, of all the different aspects of ourselves that are conditioned by other people and our relationships with other people.

So very basic things like language, so if your weren’t exposed to language as a young child you’d never actually get to the stage of communicating linguistically. You’d never be able to learn any language whatsoever. There’s a narrow window or period around a year or fifteen months. If you don’t hear language in that period the language centers in your brain just don’t develop at all. So our ability to be able to think linguistically and communicate verbally that’s all depends upon other people.

All the ideas, culture, the music, thoughts, insights, traditions, religious practices some from outside ourselves. All the things we regard as being part of us and important parts of our identity mostly come from outside. That’s another way of thinking about the flow of the consciousness element and realizing, again, we can’t exist as separate entities and we’re not separate.

Tami Simon: So you’re saying that traditionally the practice of the six elements did not consider this outside-inside?

Bodhipaksa: No, traditionally it didn’t consider the outside-inside thing. That’s something I brought into my own practice and I’m writing about at the moment in the book. I have to say I depart from tradition when I think it’s useful. I tend to be quite pragmatic in my approach to meditation.

Tami Simon: Sounds good to me. That’s very interesting about the consciousness component, as you’re saying, considering it from the outside and the inside. This identification with our consciousness, even though we don’t know what it is, we still think we’re something like that.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, we do. There’s some level on which we tend to assume there’s something fixed and static and separate about us and it’s a natural thought and attitude to have, but it’s very, very limiting. It ends up causing us suffering and it ends up preventing us from experiencing a great degree of happiness than we have at the moment.

Tami Simon: Well, I love this idea of living as a river and I’m wondering how that type of awareness and recognition comes into your daily challenges. I know you have a young child—two young children, right?

Bodhipaksa: Yes, we adopted two young children from Ethiopia.

Tami Simon: Does this river concept help at all in the parenting world?

Bodhipaksa: It does actually help me. My daughter who’s almost three is out of the stage of the terrible twos and she’s not as bad as a lot of children. She has a complete meltdown from time to time, lying on the floor, drumming her hands and feet against the floorboards and screaming at the top of her lungs when you want her to do something that she doesn’t want to do. I find it really interesting to realize that this is just a flow, again, of events that are happening. It’s very easy to think of it as she’s being bad. There’s a she there and she’s doing this thing and she is bad and she’s doing it to me, and I take it personally and I get annoyed by it because I want her to do it and she’s not doing it. And it all gets horribly messy. I find it much easier to have a looser sense of her as an evolving being, almost like a river, but of these current of her being coming into consciousness—sometimes for the first time.

It’s very, very interesting watching a child growing up because you start off very, very simple. Basically pretty damned happy, almost like you’d think of as an enlightened person. Certainly of just being aware of the world in a raw, nonconceptual way and being pretty happy unless they’re hungry or their in pain. And then the craving starts coming in. the clinging starts coming in after about a year. Up to a year my children didn’t complain If you took anything away from them it was okay, the toy was there, the toy was not there, and they just babble away. And once craving starts kicking in so does ill will and anger and all that kind of stuff. I’m happy to say neither of my children has exhibited any kind of hatred yet. That’s still to come.

So these emotions are kind of coming into being, and what is that like for the first time to start experiencing frustration, for example. You’ve got to learn to handle that. And looking at my daughter more and more as being this evolving being who’s dealing with the upwelling of stuff that has never been there before, and it’s not personal even for her. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and it’s not something that she is doing. It’s almost happening to her. It’s not something that she’s doing to me. It’s not really about her, it’s the evolution of her consciousness. I’m finding that it’s easier and easier these days just to take her temper tantrums and surround them by a field of compassion, because I realize the magnitude of what she’s going through at the moment. And rather than setting myself in opposition to her just kind of embracing her and comforting her as she’s going through this transitional process.

The other day she had one of these meltdowns. She hadn’t napped all day. It was time to take her to bed. She was hyper, didn’t want to go to bed and I very gently kept saying, “Maya, Maya, you’ve got to go to bed. And I had to pick her up. I don’t like forcing her physically to do something unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I had to pick her up to take her up to bed, and she was kicking me and pinching, etc., and it was like none of this is personal, and it was easy to have that perspective. Being pinched by a three-year-old, it hurts. It’s not pleasant, but you don’t have to take it personally.

Tami Simon: So you’re not taking it personally, meaning it’s not about you, but you’re thinking that she’s meaning it in terms of her own personhood?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s not personal about her. It’s not personal about me, either.

Tami Simon: You know it’s interesting. I wonder if it’s ever worth taking any thing personally.

Bodhipaksa: I don’t think it is. I don’t think anything is personal. I think that’s a slogan for life, is that nothing’s personal. And it comes back to what I was talking about earlier, where people all have the basic desire to be happy, but they have strategies that will often make them unhappy and in the process of making them unhappy they’ll also make other people unhappy as well. So it’s the strategy that’s at fault. It’s not the underlying deeper concern that that person has. So in a way, nothing’s personal.

Tami Simon: Well, let’s take an everyday example. Somebody says something critical about you online, or worse there’s some kind of embarrassment that just seems terrible.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, well I can give you an example. Not too long ago this woman was writing about some of the work I do in prisons, and it so happened that according to what she wrote, the person who murdered her eighty-three-year-old grandfather was in the prison that I teach meditation and Buddhism in. She made this enormous attack on me, criticizing everything about me. I wasn’t really a Buddhist and if I was really compassionate I’d be working with the victims, not the people who perpetrated them. The people who were in prison weren’t really human and that whole kind of thing.

when you see where that comes from, if she lost her grandfather, it would be painful thinking dealing with the re sources that she has available, which might not be particularly well-developed resources. So her best resource that she can find is anger, hatred and resentment, and it’s a strategy for trying to deal with the pain that she’s got. So when I responded to her. I responded with that perspective in mind—that she was a suffering being expressing her suffering in a way that wasn’t really going to help her or help others. I was trying not to hammer that too much, but just to point out some of the realities of what I’m doing, for example, people who are in prison are going to get out. If they get out do you want them to become more aware and more compassionate or do you want them to come out more embittered and more hostile? Because those are choices we make in our punitive system.

Tami Simon: So do you think it’s a reasonable recommendation that if someone finds themselves taking something personally that that’s a good moment to pause and inquire?

Bodhipaksa: I think when you find that you’re taking something personally, the first thing that I do is become aware of the pain that I’m experiencing or become aware of the underlying need that’s not being met. So for example I’m driving along, somebody cuts me off. They drive way too close to me. There’s a surge of anger that comes up. Then I’ll think, what’s the root of anger? Well, okay, fear. That person passed way to close to me and I had a fence that’s not a safe distance and that invisible boundary becomes transgressed. I experience fear and suffering. My sense of security has been lost. And if I acknowledge that sense of fear, pain, insecurity, the anger vanishes. So to not take something personally start looking a little bit deeper at what’s going on with yourself and empathize as well as notice what’s going on with the pain and suffering, but you have to become aware of it empathetically. Then everything changes.

Tami Simon: You know, finally, Bodhipaksa, our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I’m wondering—this has been a deep inquiry for you, the whole writing of the book on the Six Elements Practice—what is your own edge in all of this, in writing this book and the work that you’re doing now?

Bodhipaksa: Well, the book is my edge, really. It’s the inquiry into the nature of the self. Are you asking what effects this has had on me? It has had quite a strong effect on me. A few weeks ago I lost my sense of having a self, which was a most interesting development, quite unexpected.

I was putting my daughter to bed and I think that’s significant because I’ve been having this perspective for some time now of not regarding her actions as being something personal to her or that I should take personally. And as I was watching her beginning to drift off to sleep, suddenly I realized I didn’t have a self. My sense of my self was just a continuous process of change, becoming aware of my mind and body, I was just aware of continuously evolving process of changing causes and conditions, different thoughts, feelings, sensations coming into being and passing away. I didn’t have any sense of there being anything permanent there or any kind of substrata. And that was awareness has been with me ever since to varying degrees and sometimes it’s like—imagine if you won the lottery, you’d be bouncing up and down every fifteen minutes saying, “Wow I’ve won the lottery!” and then after a while it becomes part of your experience. Day fifteen it’s like, “Yeah, I won the lottery didn’t I?” and then you don’t think about it for a while. So it’s been a bit like that. It was something that I was just watching with amazement for the first week or so, and then after that it’s faded into a kind of background awareness, and whenever I bring my attention to my experience I realize that it’s continually changing; that there’s nothing permanent there. It’s almost like I have a new self every couple of seconds. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope turning. There’s always a picture there, but it’s only there momentarily. It’s instantly replaced by a new picture and that at the moment is my experience of myself of it being a kaleidoscope.

Tami Simon: So, previously, something in you was more solid and firm and now it’s more changing and fluid?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s not so much that what’s there has changed. It’s my perception of what’s there has changed. I think I’ve always been a kaleidoscope of changing sense impressions and thoughts and feelings, etc., but there’s been an assumption of permanent and there’s something there that’s unchanging. So I think what’s happened is not that what’s there has changed, but my assumptions about it have changes. The way I look at it has changed.

Tami Simon: Wonderful. Thank you, Bodhipaksa. Living as a river, I like it.

Bodhipaksa: You’re very welcome. I enjoyed the chat. Well, maybe that’s a title for the book.

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Overcoming “change blindness”

Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

Eirik Solheim has put together an impressive time-lapse movie of a woodland scene that compresses an entire year into 40 seconds of footage. This kind of presentation helps us to see the world in a different, and in some respects more real, way.

The human mind and senses are not good at perceiving change. You look at a cloud once, and then again ten minutes later, and you think it’s the same cloud. Actually the entire shape and size of the cloud may have changed, but you simply don’t notice.

There are of course much more dramatic examples of this phenomenon, which is called “change blindness.” This YouTube link wil show you that 75% of people don’t notice when in the middle of a conversation the person they are talking to is replaced with a completely different person. And this second link will give you a chance to see how hard it is to observe change happening right in front of your eyes.

Now check out the Solheim video and see what change looks like sped up.

When watching the sped-up version of reality the mind becomes focused on the change that we usually tend not to notice because it’s happening on too slow a timescale for us to register or because we simply don’t pay attention.

Imagination and insight

I love this kind of presentation of reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and interconnectedness. We become aware of the body — not just those parts we can directly sense but the whole physical body as perceived in the imagination, right down to the internal organs and bone marrow — and sense each of the elements in turn: earth (solid matter), water (anything liquid), fire (the energy of metabolism), air (anything gaseous), space (the form that the physical elements take), and the consciousness that perceives those other elements.

In the case of the four physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, we not only notice the element within the body but we imaginatively connect with it in the outside world, reflecting that all the elements within the body come from outside. Not only do they come from outside, but they are in the process — right now — of returning to the outside world. The “self” is not a thing but a flow. In our imagination we actually see all this happening. When contemplating the earth element, for example, we see crops growing from the soil, we see those crops flowing into factories and stores, and into our bodies, and then back into the outside world as we defecate, shed skin cells and hair, and as we burn glucose in our cells. I see all this happening in a sped-up, compressed form, rather as in Eirik Solheim’s beautiful video. The body is no longer a static thing but is a fluid process.

To Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour (or less)

On one arts retreat I was co-leading (I taught the meditation, someone else was teaching the arty stuff) we were asked to go and connect with the landscape, and to choose one object that we could bring inside that expressed that connection. The retreat was in a beautiful glen in the Scottish highlands, and I stood on a spit of land where a river flowed into the loch (the very spit you see below). I found myself seeing the land as it once was, covered in a sheets of ice thousands of feet thick. I saw the ice melting, the loch forming surrounded by rock scraped bare, the flowing river dumping gravel and rocks, inch by inch building the very spit I was standing on as stones fell out of the flow and were deposited in a spreading fan. I saw trees rise and fall in the blink of an eye, wave after wave of them. I watched changes of ten millennia unfold before me in the space of a minute or two, until we reached the present moment in which I stood.

We’re often confined by the senses that we have. To us five minutes can seem like a long time. To a mountain a thousand years is a brief moment. Its only in our imaginations that we can perceive the world on different timescales, and come to see that the events of our lives are just flickers on a screen. Using our imagination in this way can reveal things in their impermanence, which means that we’re seeing them in a truer way than we usually do, where we fail to appreciate the reality of change.

In the Six Element Practice we free ourselves from the prison of our limited senses. We look at the body and we see a clear demarcation between self and other. Our skin marks the boundary between what’s inner and what’s outer. Yet in the practice we see that what’s “us” is made entirely of stuff that’s not us, and that this borrowed stuff is merely passing through. To realize that is to get much closer to reality.

Imagination allows us, as Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Seeing all beings as Buddhas

We tend to see ourselves as “things” — as relatively unchanging entities. We see others the same way. Sometimes as part of my practice I remind myself of the immense change that a person can go through by repeating a phrase from a Zen poem: “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas.” I take that like in this instance to indicate that even if someone is acting in a way that I don’t like and that I label as cruel or stupid, that person has the capacity to be a Buddha. If I relate to that person purely on the basis of who he or she is right now, I won’t encourage the emergence of their potential Buddhahood.

Relating to someone on the basis of how we see them right now is like seeing Solheim’s video reduced to a single frame. It’s a static way of seeing things. We’re disconnected from the reality of change. But imagine if we could consistently see that person not as a thing but as a process — if you could, at least in our imaginations — see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us?

When I manage to relate to another person as a potential Buddha — as a changing, evolving being who has the capacity for wisdom and compassion, I’m more likely to relate to them in a way that helps them grow into their potential. And I think it helps me grow into my own potential as well.

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Wildmind on Alltop

Alltop, all the top stories Links to Wildmind’s articles can now be found on the Buddhist section of Alltop.com (https://buddhism.alltop.com/).

As the name suggests, Alltop is an “online magazine rack” of popular topics. Alltop hand-picks sites offering exceptional content and aggregates articles into themed sections. Their Buddhist section is just one such example: they have categories covering everything from addiction to yoga and auto-racing to zoology.

Stories are updated every hour.

Whatever your interest, we highly recommend that you take a trip to Alltop and discover the web’s hidden gems. Get interconnected!

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Learning to receive

woman standing calmly in a field, with the sun behind her head like a halo

To think of generosity only in terms of giving can limit us. Sunada tells of her realization that being truly generous is as much about being open to receiving as it is about giving.

As a follower of the Buddha’s teachings, one of the ethical principles I try to live by is generosity. Most commonly, generosity is understood to be about giving freely, and putting others’ needs before one’s own. While this definition isn’t wrong, I think it’s a bit too simplistic. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

Generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

I know that those of us who feel committed to living by our spiritual values want to reach out and give in any way we can. While this is a great ideal, there are times when it can become a blinder. Ironically, focusing too much on the outgoing act of giving can sometimes put up a wall between giver and receiver. There’s a danger of getting caught up in our own ideas of what it means to be generous – of being a selfless helper and doing good – and losing sight of what this principle is really about. It’s about experiencing our interconnectedness in a way that knows no boundaries or hierarchies. Where there is interconnectedness, abundance flows freely in all directions, including back to myself.

Let me tell you my story of when I first started to see things in this new way. For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand, I’ve always felt uncomfortable accepting spontaneous gifts, especially if it’s money. One time when I was at a restaurant with a friend, she picked up the check and offered to pay for me. My immediate impulse was to protest, not out of politeness, but because deep down inside it didn’t seem right. I can afford to pay for it, I heard myself think. It’s not necessary. And since I knew that this person didn’t have a lot of money, it seemed like an unnecessary sacrifice on her part. Out of concern for her, I felt it was better for her to keep that money to herself, and not spend it on me for something I didn’t really need. This was my way of being generous and caring toward her.

My friend didn’t insist, but gently said, “Would you please allow me to give this to you as a gift?” That’s when it suddenly hit me on the head. Her gesture had little to do with how much money either of us had, or whether her offer was necessary. She wanted to honor me with a gift, pure and simple. In my foolish concern over her financial situation, I had lost sight of what she was really trying to do. I had been rebuffing the gift and blocking off her act of generosity. That was pretty self-centered of me!

I then started noticing other ways that I seemed to close myself off from others. One was my reluctance to ask people for help, especially if I thought they would have to go out of their way for me. It’s because I don’t want to impose, I’d say to myself. If I can do it myself, isn’t it better if I just take care of it on my own?

It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back.

Maybe this is a Western way of thinking, but I’ve heard many people say they don’t like asking for help. Somehow we feel we need to be independent, self-sufficient, strong, and capable of taking care of ourselves. Yes, of course, it’s good to be all those things. But when do we start to cross the boundary into isolating ourselves from the love and personal connection that others want to give to us?

I saw this very clearly the time I needed emergency surgery and was hospitalized for a week. There I was for days, lying in bed while doctors, nurses, family, and friends all hovered around for the sole purpose of taking care of me. I was the center of their universe. For the first couple of days, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the attention and hubbub. But given the circumstances, I really had no choice but to surrender to the situation!

Once I stopped fighting with the idea, I was amazed and humbled by how willingly people gave their time and energy to me. I had a steady stream of visitors, many of whom brought me books and music to entertain me while bedridden. Phone calls and flowers arrived from people who were too far away. My need for help continued well after I had returned home. Once I was home, I was surprised to find one friend, whom I hadn’t counted among my closest ones, called and offered to be my servant for an entire day – to run errands, shop, and cook for me.

I felt cared for, supported, and loved by many people from all different parts of my life. They didn’t want anything in return from me. The best thing I could do was to accept their gifts wholeheartedly and graciously. That’s really all they wanted. And actually, I was giving them something by doing this. By allowing myself to be open and vulnerable to them, I was giving them my trust.

I admit I still have a hard time with this idea of giving and receiving so freely and openly. It will be a lifetime learning process for me. Thomas Merton understood how challenging this is when he said, “it takes more courage than we imagine to be perfectly simple with other men.”

But at least I see more clearly now what that ultimate ideal I’m aiming for looks like. A true generous spirit is one that’s willing to give herself over completely to another person. It’s a willingness to share all of herself, especially her weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and flaws. It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back. This, I think, is the real vision behind the lessons the Buddha gave us on generosity.

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Mysticism: where the dharma rubber hits the road

Mount Saint Helens, Washington State, USA

In Sunada’s view, mysticism isn’t about indulging in out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping the world. It’s about meeting the world head-on and learning directly from it. It’s about as practical as it gets.

If you’ve been reading my blog articles for a while, you may have gathered by now that I’m a rather down-to-earth sort of practitioner, with a keen interest in how meditation and Buddhist practice interplays with the practical aspects of our daily lives. So when I heard that this month’s topic was Mysticism, well, my first impulse was to take a pass. How does Mysticism relate to everyday life? Like Bodhipaksa (as he mentions in his related article), my first stop was a dictionary. And I was somewhat surprised by what I found. It gave the following definition:

Mysticism: a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding.

With this definition in hand, I’ve changed my view of what mysticism is all about. It’s actually a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter. It’s our experience of spiritual intuition that moves the teachings from the realm of intellectual thoughts and concepts into one of personally meaningful truths that inform how we live our lives.

One of those experiences happened to me in 1995 during a vacation to the state of Washington, and a visit to Mount St. Helens. St. Helens had erupted catastrophically fifteen years earlier, causing the most destructive volcanic event in all of US history. After several weeks of rumbling earthquakes and steam-venting, it finally in May of 1980 erupted so violently that its entire north face blew off. Hot gases and ash spewed outward for miles in diameter, instantly roasting and flattening everything in their path.

My husband and I hiked to the peak of a nearby ridge where we came upon an unobstructed panoramic view of massive destruction on a scale beyond belief. As far as I could see, everything was dead and ash-covered. From where we stood, what I knew had once been a dense forest of 40-foot pine trees appeared as though someone had thrown down millions of charred toothpicks. Bare blackened sticks were all that remained — all lying on the ground. But strangely, they were all neatly pointing in the same outward direction from the epicenter of the blast. It was a terrible but beautiful and awesome sight.

Mysticism is a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter.

I have no idea how long I stood there taking in that vista. In my stunned silence, time had stopped. In one sense, I felt incredibly small and insignificant in the face of such vast power and devastation. But at the same time, I also felt empowered by its greatness. In an odd way that I can’t explain even now, I felt like I was a part of this greatness, that somehow its magnificence was something that was very much alive and part of me. It was my first intuitive inkling of life as something universal. I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater that incorporated the earth and sky as much as my own puny body.

These kinds of encounters can happen at any moment, in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can happen when talking with a close friend, when a shared moment seems to dissolve all boundaries between us. Or when reading a moving novel, or listening to evocative music, or seeing a work of art that touches us – when we get a glimpse into something in a way that we can’t put into words, but it hits home deeply within ourselves. We’re taken out of our small self-centered viewpoint and see something bigger, something beyond, something universal. I’m sure many of us have had experiences of this sort at one time or another. We may not know what to make of the experience as it’s happening. It may take years or decades for it to mature into something we can even begin to talk about. But something inside gets stirred.

I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater.

I know that Buddhism appeals to many people, myself included, because its teachings are rational and for the most part built upon observable phenomena. But to leave it at that would be to categorize Buddhism as a philosophy or an intellectual pursuit – which falls far short of its true significance.

To truly take up the practice of the dharma is to open ourselves up to the invitation of those intuitive experiences. We can’t make them happen, of course. But we can stay open and receptive, keep a stance of curiosity and wonder, and refrain from our habitual ways of sizing up situations and overlaying them with expectations or fears. As we practice this more and more, our skills at observing and perceiving become clearer and more refined. And that in turn allows us to see more deeply for ourselves the truth behind the Buddha’s words. We begin to change as well, as we become wiser in our ways of responding to our experiences, and that inspires us to go further still. And the cycle continues upward. This is true practice of the dharma.

So, mysticism is not about going into weird trances or out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping from our world. Far from it! It’s really a way of delving more and more deeply in the world, meeting it head-on, and learning from the school of hard knocks, as the saying goes. It’s about learning and growing from life itself. I can’t think of anything more practical than that.

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“Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World,” by Rubin Habito

healing breathZen and Christianity may have much to offer each other and to learn from each other. But is it possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Author Ruben Habito seems to think so. Reviewer Samayadevi is more skeptical.

Ruben L F Habito was for many years a Jesuit priest serving in Japan. He studied with both Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a spiritual pioneer in inter-religious dialog and with Koun Yamada, a renowned Zen teacher. He thus brings a fascinating perspective on the interplay of Christianity, as experienced in Catholicism, and the practice of Zen.

Healing Breath is aimed at those seeking a healing spirituality in their own lives and guidelines for a practice that integrates the personal, social and ecological dimensions of life. He assumes a familiarity with Christian concepts, beliefs and traditions and an unfamiliarity with Zen practice. These are fortuitous assumptions on his part as they allow Habito to explain and teach the four characteristics of Zen and the three fruits of that practice.

The overarching thesis of Healing Breath is that the Zen practice of being still, listening to the breath, and calming the mind all conduce to an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, to “seeing things are they really are.” The healing begins with a (radical) change in how we see the world, a “shift not of strategy but of cosmology”.

In this “right view” the spiritual path is “one with the path of active socio-ecological engagement,” and “healing the world is not unrelated to healing our personal woundedness.” Zen is presented as a practice that resonates with a Christian belief system and is compatible with a Christian faith commitment. “Christian expressions and symbols and practices point to transformative and healing perspectives and experiences opened to on in Zen practice.”

There are many lovely gems in this little tome. In writing about the second mark of Zen practice, not being limited by words or concepts, he writes: “The human capacity to name things takes its toll on our mode of awareness.” The implication is that Zen practice leads to the limitless spaciousness of the Heart Sutra. What an invitation to go beyond our analytical mind (our comfort zone), and, to go deeper into pure unfettered awareness!

Habito sees the violence and destruction in the world being caused by the illusion of “I” and “other”, and Zen sitting, following the breath and calming the mind, as leading to the dissolution of that false dichotomy. “The fruit of concentration is that the separation between subject and object is overcome and we can see our true nature.” It is from that dissolution that compassion for all beings flows.

The “art of living in attunement with the breath” is how Zen is described. These are all appealing insights and pretty much propel me to my cushion, or to my breath, as I sit here writing. On my first reading I was not so taken with the invitation to sit zazen (I tried that first in 1970), but on a second reading I could not help but be inspired. Especially in the midst of Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the image of quiet sitting to quietly realize an innate connection with all beings is pretty irresistible. It can even color and perhaps guide the potential frenzy of gift giving celebrations.

In discussing the Six Point Recovery to healing, Habito lists “integrating the shadow side.” Pema Chodron also often writes of befriending what scares us, what we want to hide, deny, or push away. It is an essential element in healing, in claiming our wholeness, and it cannot be said often enough.

In the section on Rekindling After the Burnout, Habito suggests that the very sense of “I” doing “good” to achieve good “results” is that cause of burnout! Again, we are reminded of the Heart Sutra: “Not even wisdom to attain, Attainment too is emptiness.” The practice is not to distinguish between the giver and the gift and the receiver. That is a high calling and a description of freedom.

So far, so good. However, I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. I am intimately familiar with Christian symbols and concepts. I am also a committed, practicing, ordained Buddhist. As Habito explains, the Christian corollary of “living in attunement with the breath” is found in Genesis, in the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning “the divine breath that is at the base of all being and all life.” This breath inspired the prophets to speak the word of God. Christian spirituality is literally a life led in the Spirit or Breath, of Jesus Christ.” Zen practice is then (seemingly) used to access this Breath of Christ, to allow us to “…become an instrument of this Breath.” I clearly have trouble with this. I find a quantum difference between realizing I am not a discrete, inherently existing entity but rather deeply one in “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn’s neologism) with all life, and believing that my ultimate truth is to be an instrument of the Breath of Christ.

Habito suggests that the koan practice of Zen is a means to “dissolve the opposition between subject and object.” The task of the practice is to remove obstacles to that realization. But this is followed by the suggestion that that realization is similar to glimpsing “the universe from the eyes of God; the one who hears is inseparable from the Word that is heard.” The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.

The implication throughout is that Zen practice and Christian commitment are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. My own experience is that while Zen practice gives me the tools of sitting, following the breath, and calming the mind, the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view. For a Christian, Zen may be beneficial in facilitating and fostering centering prayer, and a stillness of the heart.

Buddhists and Christians have so very much to learn from one another. Habito mentions at the beginning, that ‘Placing ourselves within differing religious traditions to discover mutual resonance, (leads) not only to inner healing, but to global healing.” I wish and hope that might be so. I just have trouble finding the resonance.


Samayadevi is a 65-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, and step-grandmother of eight. 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 Western Buddhist Order this summer on a three month retreat in Spain.

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Marguerite Young: “Every heart is the other heart … the individual is the one illusion.”

Marguerite Young, from the cover of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

“Every heart is the other heart. Every soul is the other soul. Every face is the other face. The individual is the one illusion,” wrote Marguerite Young in her novel, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.”

One of the great paradoxes of spiritual practice is that when we empathize with others — sharing their happiness but also their pain — we feel more fulfilled. We’re more alive. We’re happier.

You’d think it would be the other way around: that if we shared another’s pain we’d be more unhappy, and that if we were to steer clear of getting involved in other’s difficulties then we would be happier.

But we don’t seem to be built like that. Humans are inherently social beings, and need one another in order to be fully human.

We all seem to be equipped with brain cells — mirror neurons, they are called — that allow us to empathize with others. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that is active when we perform a certain task, like drinking a cup of coffee, and that also fires when we see someone else performing the same task. When Bill or Belinda picks up a cup of coffee these little mirror neurons start buzzing away like crazy, and we have the experience — without even realizing it, often — that we know what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and we know what that experience is like. Mirror neurons are empathy cells. They mirror in your mind what I am doing. They give you the capacity to understand the situation that another person is in.

Empathy goes a lot further of course than knowing what it’s like to pick up a cup of coffee. When Bill picks up his cup and waves it around with excitement, I know what it’s like to be excited. My “being excited” mirror neurons are tingling in response to Bill’s excitement. I perhaps feel a little excited myself, as I recreate his experience in the mirror of my mind.

When Belinda picks up her cup of coffee dejectedly, I know what it’s like to feel dejected. I know Belinda’s depressed, but I also feel this because the mirror neurons that fire up when I get depressed are pulsing now. I feel an inner ache and I wonder, “What’s up with Belinda?”

But Bill and Belinda have their own mirror neurons, and so things now get really interesting. Bill sees me responding to his excitement with my own excitement and he feels his own mirror neurons jumping up and down, as it were, yelling “Look! He gets it too! He understands what it is I’m thrilled about.” Belinda’s mirror neurons respond to the shared pain I’m experiencing and she knows that I understand. Circuits have been completed. Emotions are flowing from one consciousness to another.

We’re connected to each other. We’re not alone. And our experience becomes richer and more satisfying when we connect. Each one of us contains a million half-loops that only come to life when they meet their other half in another person and complete a circuit of emotion and understanding.

In meditation — especially in the Brahmavihara practices (the cultivation of love, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity) — we actively cultivate our ability to resonate with others. These meditations are a kind of mirror neuron workout in which we practice overcoming some of the cognitive barriers that so often prevent us from connecting emotionally with others. They’re mirror neuron aerobics in which we exercise our ability to empathize.

This, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been tested in the lab, but I’d be willing to bet that the signals that mirror neurons give out can be suppressed by negative emotions such as fear, envy, and resentment. (I should mention that mirror neurons have been studied in macaques and in birds, but because of practical and ethical difficulties they haven’t yet been directly observed in human brains. All the evidence, however, suggests that we have them too).

These negative emotions are the very things that we’re working to counteract in meditation. In the Brahmaviharas we work at connecting with the basic sense we all have that we want to be happy and want to escape suffering. In doing so we of course encounter ill will, attachment, resentment, etc. Those emotions manifest, and we practice acknowledging them, letting go of them, and then allowing our natural sense of empathy to kick in once again. In this way we allow the half-circuits of our own consciousness to connect with the half-circuits of another consciousness. In taking on others’ joy we become happier, and in taking on others sufferings we become more complete and more fulfilled.

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Bob Thurman talks on interconnectedness and compassion

Bob Thurman

In December 2006, Dr. Robert Thurman talked to an exclusive audience at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in New York City. Dr. Thurman discusses themes of interconnectedness, technology, and compassion. In this 12 minute talk he explains that in an interconnected world we can have instant access to the suffering in the world and that this can help to encourage our spiritual development.

He also discusses breaking through the misconception that we are separate from others and entering a state of compassion, and the paradox that in empathizing with the sufferings of others we actually become happier because we release ourselves from the iron bonds of self. Compassion, he says, is fun.

Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.

Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.

He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.

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“Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place” by Melvin McLeod

Support local booksellers: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop.org (UK).

Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place by Melvin McLeod, editor. (Wisdom Publications, 2006. Paperback, $16.95).

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

There are some books on engaged Buddhism that tend to be rather polemical or academic in style. ‘Mindful Politics’ is not one of them. Its editor hopes that it will serve as a guide or a handbook for those who wish to draw on Buddhism to help make the world a better place. His hopes are well justified. It is an anthology that draws on the accumulated experience of much learning – rich in flashes of insight and practical wisdom. Anyone who feels some connection between the transformation of self and world is sure to find some fresh perspectives and directions among its many and varied contributions.

All but a few of the contributors are American or America-based. Given the subject matter of the book, it is perhaps surprising that this bias is unexplained and barely acknowledged. And yet its rootedness in the American Buddhist experience is also a real strength. This is a book that could not have been compiled twenty or thirty years ago. It bears witness to a generation of practice in the West and engagement with real-life suffering in the world. It is a sign that the Dharma has not only taken root outside of the East but has begun to bear fruit, too. The result is a collection of pithy writings that have an immediacy and accessibility to any Western reader.

See also:

It is not, as several contributors point out, that Buddhism offers an alternative political program, nor even that it has the answer to every political question. Most of the book is about how we might bring about change, rather than what change we might seek to bring about.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The cause of peace has long been widely accepted as a Buddhist political value. To this end, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh both advocate a more effective, democratic United Nations. The Dalai Lama suggests that we each need to develop a sense of ‘universal responsibility’ for humanity. This means thinking beyond both individual and national self-interest.

Are there other basic political principles that we can agree on as Buddhists? Stephanie Kaza makes a clear, concise case for environmentalism, via non-harm, interconnectedness and systems thinking. Sulak Sivaraksa also cites interconnectedness in his response to globalization. Jigme Thinley, Home Minister of Bhutan, enlarges on the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an alternative economic agenda that his government is trying to pursue. And David Loy introduces his incisive analysis of institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion. This is the idea that the traditional root poisons can take on a collective dimension, and that they need to be addressed on that level as well as in our own hearts. All of these writers offer tools for clear thinking. Their ideas will be useful not only to those who are actively involved, but also to those who simply wish to make sense of politics, or figure out for whom to vote.

One of the most direct and thought-provoking pieces comes from the feminist political thinker bell hooks. She sees Buddhism as a means of letting go of all forms of ‘dominator thinking’. In order to do that, however, the institutions of Buddhism in the West need to transcend the ‘politics of race and class exclusion’ with which they themselves are permeated.

Most of the contributors focus on issues that may arise for the practitioner who might engage in politics, or who might even in some small way wish to be a positive influence. What if, for example, I find myself consumed by anger – how do I not bring more rage into the world? There is a wealth of practical wisdom in this book on that subject from which to draw. Pema Chodron, Ken Jones, Ezra Bayda, and Rita Gross all speak from many years of personal experience and give very useful from-the-heart advice and reflections on cultivating patience and non-enmity. These are teachings we need to constantly remind ourselves of if we really want to break the cycle of reaction, polarization, and revenge.

Other questions may arise. I want to change the world, but where do I start? Do what you care about, advises Stephanie Kaza. How do I know what is the right action in a situation? Don’t be afraid to stay with ‘not knowing’, advises Bernie Glassman. And do I protest like Allen Ginsberg or engage in the system to transform it, as advocated by Chogyam Trungpa? Do whatever works, suggests Joseph Goldstein – whatever helps you to cultivate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.

Some of the contributions paint a picture of what a politically engaged Buddhist might be like. Charles Johnson describes the ideal as someone who is ‘peace embodied – nonviolent, dispassionate, empathic, without attachment to recognition or results. David Loy identifies the three important Buddhist contributions as spiritual practice, nonviolence and the humility that comes from a sense that our liberation is inseparable from that of all others. And from the Order of Interbeing come the fourteen mindfulnesses, or political precepts. These are very practical guidelines for involvement in the world. Any of these chapters would be worthy of careful study, particularly by any group of engaged practitioners.

There is a still deeper level of questioning underlying all of the contributions to this book. What can it mean to live in a world of great suffering and danger? How can I seek happiness and peace in such a time? How do I even stay sane? Occasionally such questioning comes to the fore, as in Margaret Wheatley’s ‘four freedoms’. From her own years of practice, during which she has borne witness to much suffering, she describes how she has learned to practice being free from hope, free from fear, free from safety and free from self. Somewhere beyond these is the place we need to be coming from. There lies the wisdom that does not seek results and yet contains the most potential for change. The most poignant glimpse of it, containing, perhaps, the crux of the whole book, comes through a passing quotation from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – ‘when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.’

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Learning to let go

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

2500 years ago the Buddha taught a beautiful meditation to help us appreciate ourselves as part of an ever-evolving interconnected universe. The practice is called the Six Elements.

But why do this practice?

One reason is that having a narrow sense of ourselves – seeing ourselves as fundamentally different from and separate from what’s around us – leads to selfishness and unhappiness, and polarization, while recognizing that we’re part of a greater whole is nourishing, strengthening, and leads to healing.

By letting go of the delusion of separateness we become identified with something greater than ourselves. Another reason is that much of our suffering comes from trying to hold onto things that are impermanent and therefore inherently ungraspable; anyone who’s had the disappointing experience of seeing wrinkles or gray hair appear will know something about this, although there’s no limit to what we want to hold onto: goals, ideas, status, material objects, and even other people.

We can’t hold on to these things, but we try, and so we end up experiencing suffering.

This meditation – the Six Element Practice – involves looking at various aspects of the body and mind and seeing how these parts of “our” selves arise from outside (“not us”), and how they continually return to the outside, and consequently never really are ours. The meditation is known as the Five Element Practice because it’s structured around an early Indian conception of the world being made up of the four physical elements of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, along with the nonmaterial element, Consciousness.

So how do we do this practice? Perhaps you’ll get a flavor of the practice through reading these notes, and if you want to take the Six Element practice further, read through them again, pausing after each sentence or few sentences and letting the words sink into the depths of your heart.

Preparation

First we sit comfortably but upright, with a sense of dignity. We then take a few calming, deep breaths to help center the mind and to connect with the body, and we follow the breath until thoughts have begun to settle at least a little.

Earth

Then we call to mind the Earth element, everything that is solid and resistant, outside of ourselves: bricks and mortar, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, wood, concrete. We don’t think about these things but simply call them to mind as images.

Then we bring to mind the same Earth element within us. We experience the solidity and weight of the body, recalling whatever in the body is solid and resistant: bones, teeth, nails, hair, and tissues.

We normally think of these as being ours, as being ourselves, but here we recollect how everything of the Earth element that is within us comes from outside and returns to the outside. Our bodies started as a sperm and an egg from our parents, who are not us. That first cell grew as it absorbed nutrients from the world outside us, just as we now have to take in the Earth element in the form of food.

And the earth element within us is constantly returning to the outside world. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom. And of course when we die we’ll have to finally let go of everything that is solid within ourselves. So the Earth element is simply flowing through us during our lives. It’s borrowed, but never owned. And we can reflect that this body never was “us.” It never was “ours.”

Water

Then we call to mind the Water element in the world: seas and lakes, streams and rivers, dewdrops and raindrops.

Then as with the Earth element we call to mind the Water element within us: saliva and blood, synovial fluid and lymph, tears and sweat, and liquid filling and surrounding every cell in the body. And we recognize that all of this Water within the body, that we think of as “us,” and “ours” – as “ourselves” – is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world. We can’t hold onto it. It’s not us. It never was us.

Fire

The Fire element outside of us is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear combustion in the heart of the sun to the glow of a burning ember, from the molten core of our planet to the crackle of lightning in storm clouds. T

he Fire element within us is everything energetic. We can experience the heat of the body, and call to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, and sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves, and brain. And all of the energy within us is borrowed. We feed the body by taking in the sun as plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, whether directly or through fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. All of “our” energy is really not ours at all. It’s not us. It’s not ourselves.

Air

The Air element is represented around us by the atmosphere: winds and clouds, and breezes felt against the skin and heard moving through trees and grasses. And the air element is continually entering and leaving the body as we breathe in and out. Air enters, oxygen dissolves in the bloodstream, is taken to cells to provide energy, and then carbon dioxide is exhaled.

Our oxygen comes from trees and other plants, and our exhalations go to feed those same plants. We can’t hold onto the Air element any more than we can hold onto any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. The Air element is just borrowed and isn’t ours, isn’t us.

Space

One approach to reflecting on the space element is to think about the shape your body makes and how you get attached to that. By “shape” I mean the precise image of yourself that you see in the mirror — how we look.

I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror I’m often surprised — even disappointed — by the image staring back at me. I expect myself to look younger, better-looking. I’m attached to how I looked a few years ago and somehow feel betrayed that how I look has changed. Of course a few years ago I had the same experience.

So call to mind the image you see of yourself in the mirror. Not the idealized image, but how you actually look. And notice how you identify with that, or how you find yourself clinging to some image of how you’d like yourself to look.

And then reflect on how you looked when you were five years younger, ten years younger, when you were ten, five, one year old, a new-born baby. Reflect on how you might look in five, ten, twenty years.

And realize that change happens. The precise volume of space that your body occupies is always changing, and you can’t stop that process of change from happening. So you can’t hold on to the space element.

Consciousness

We may not think of consciousness as being an element in the same way as the physical elements, and in fact it’s not. It’s what allows us to know those other elements, and in fact we could say that consciousness is the four elements knowing themselves. In this stage of the practice we notice – and reflect upon – the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, and emotions come into being, persist for a little while, and then vanish into the void. None of these things is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the Earth, Water, Fire, and Air elements are flowing through us. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us.

So there is nothing we can hold onto and nothing, ultimately, to do any holding. We may ask then, what are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s response. When I’ve done this practice the answer I get is a sense that we are transparent; that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, divine energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise and loving; and that we are finally coming to know our true nature. And having done this we simply continue to sit in order to enjoy the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on.

I’d encourage you too to do this practice, not as an intellectual exercise but as an experiential exercise in letting go, so that you also can begin to connect with the divine energy and infinite love that is the eternal and essential core of your being. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.

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