On Desire

This evening we recited our Bodhisattva Vows as we do every evening after sitting. Our sangha recites the English version of the second vow (Bon No Mu Jin Sei Gan Dan) as “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” but bon no is really Sino-Japanese for the Sanskrit kleśas, usually translated as “defilements” or “afflictions,” most notably the three so-called “poisons” of desire, aversion, and ignorance.

It’s a pretty grandiose vow when you come to think of it. The idea that you and I are going to put an end to our desire, aversion, and ignorance is, on the face of it, patently absurd. Let’s just focus on desire, for one thing. As the Sephardic Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, might have said, desire is an example of “natura naturans,” nature doing what nature does, and our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. It’s the nature of the hypothalamus to make us thirsty when we’re dry and hungry when our energy’s run low. That’s what brains do. That’s how mammalian species survive.

Above and beyond that, we can rightly ask if desire is always something that must carry such a negative connotation. Do we really want to put an end to it? All of it? What about our aspirations to do and be better? What about our aspirations to help others, be more present, be more kind? What about our wish for the aesthetic enjoyment of unspoiled nature or of great music, art, and literature? What about wanting a hug or a cup of hot chocolate? Can there really be a plausible description of human well-being that doesn’t honor these basic human desires?

So how are we to meaningfully understand and make use of the second Bodhisattva Vow? What are we really supposed to do about desire? The Sino-Japanese word dan in the vow literally means “cut off,” but extirpating desire never seems to work out all that well. Consider how well the celibate priesthood has worked out for the Catholic Church. Or just as an experiment, try counting from one to ten without thinking of a white rabbit. As psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, attempting to suppress psychological processes often ends up only ironically reinforcing them.

The Buddha’s first talk after his Enlightenment was his discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The Four Noble Truths are like an Aryuvedic prescription, diagnosing the nature of the human dilemma, its etiology, and its treatment. The First Noble Truth is a description of the problematic nature of human existence, namely, that our lives are, in some fundamental way, unsatisfactory. This is sometimes translated as the “truth of suffering,” but the Pali word dukkha is more nuanced then that, suggesting something out of balance or off-kilter. In any case, the First Truth points to a fundamental dissatisfaction with our lives, and the inability of any relationship, achievement, attainment, experience, or object to plug that gap and make our lives wholly satisfactory.

Why does anyone come to a zendo to sit for long periods (often uncomfortably) in silence and chant in an incomprehensible alien tongue? People only come because their lives are not completely satisfactory as they already are. Maybe they want a little less suffering or a little more inner peace. Maybe they want to be happier. Maybe they are looking for more meaning in their lives, something deeper. Maybe they want to be kinder to others, or to be more present. Maybe they are looking for something beyond the materialism and gospel of success preached by our culture. Maybe they are looking for something to replace their old religion with which they grew disenchanted. Whatever the reason, there is some present dissatisfaction that motivates people to become “seekers.” It’s that desire for “something more” that brings us to Buddhism, and there’s more than a little irony in the fact that “wanting something more” is also part of Buddhism’s definition of the problem, and that often, what people genuinely derive from Buddhist practice is not the “more” they were initially seeking.

The Buddha identified the source of human dissatisfaction in the never-ending process of desiring itself. We are forever wanting something else, not wanting what we already have. Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are always wanting, wanting, wanting. We want to have a better job, or do a better job. We want more money, better health. We want more loving relationships. We want to be thinner, younger, and more beautiful. We want to be more popular, better appreciated and respected. We want to do something more substantial, more important. Our lists never end. When we get what we want we find it wasn’t what we thought it would be, or that it doesn’t last, or we grow weary of it, or we soon find ourselves wanting something different or something more.

So we sit down to do zazen, hoping for a respite, but as soon as we sit, we notice the inexorable desire for things to be different than they are as it manifests in the present moment. Nothing has changed just because we are sitting down to do zazen. We want the room to be warmer or cooler. We want it to be quieter. We want our thoughts to slow down. We want our mind to be more focused and concentrated. We want our meditation to be the way it was yesterday when it was so pleasant and peaceful. We want to be more alert and awake. We wish the pain in our back or leg would go away, the itch on our nose to cease. We want our stomach to stop gurgling. We wish our posture were better. We wish the bell would ring. We want to be better at this meditation thing. We want to be Enlightened. And so it goes.

If you attempt squelching these wishes and try making them disappear, you soon discover that you are setting yourself up for a battle with the impossible. It’s like struggling with quick sand — you just sink deeper. The trick is to simply notice the desire and allow it to be as it is, but at the same time, in the very act of recognition and noticing, we are in a very real way unhooking from the desire. It’s there, but we’re no longer driven by it. We can step back and watch the urge grow and intensify, and then wane and pass, only to return again later. We can surf the desire like a wave that ebbs and flows. The trick to desire is mindfulness and non-attachment. Once we can step back and watch desire, we can use discerning wisdom to analyze its pros and cons, to decide whether pursuing it is something in our own and others’ best interest — or whether it’s just another one of those endless desires to open our hands to and let go of.

The problem with desire isn’t that it exists, but that it drives us — that it controls us whether it’s good for us or not. Desires have an inherent velcro-like stickiness to them, but mindfulness, to pursue the metaphor beyond the boundaries of good taste, Teflon coats them. In Zen we say that while ordinary people are pushed by their desires, Bodhisattvas are pulled by their vows. The real intention behind the second vow is to remind us to deal skillfully with desire, to live guided by the North Star of our aspirations rather than being tossed hither and yon by the passing currents of our whims.

So we sit zazen and watch desire come and go. And the golden rule is: Don’t live driven by desire. If you want to move, don’t move. If you have an itch, don’t scratch. Just sit. See what happens.

Gesshin Greenwood explored this “don’t move” policy in a recent post in That’s So Zen. She was about to undergo the traditional trial period in Japanese Zen monasteries when newly ordained clerics must sit still for a week, excepting bathroom breaks and meals. Dreading this, Gesshin asked her teacher:

“What do I do if I have to move?” A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture.

“You can’t move,” he said.

“But what if I really have to move?”

“Don’t move,” he reiterated.

“But what if I really, really have to move?”

“Well, then you move.”

It sounds so simply when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don’t move, and don’t move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment– a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can’t anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it’s the only thing left to do.”

The end of zen training is learning how to be with each moment as it is — letting go of the desires and aversions that interfere with just being present. All of these desires only reinforce the network of me-ness, our narrative of identity. They are all about “me:” what I want, what I want to have. The universe is supposed to go the way I want it to. When we loosen our attachment to desire, we are also loosening our attachment to “I,” learning to get our “selves” out of the universe’s way. We’re learning to see reality from outside the confines of our necessarily limited point of view and see it, as Spinoza would say, sub specie aeternatatis — from the vantage point of eternity.

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Good Sitting, Bad Sitting

After the evening sitting, we stow the zafus and return the zendo to its pristine state. William regrets not being able to meditate properly tonight. His head is filled with thoughts of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — the family he has not seen for ages, the tasks remaining to be done. Matthew sympathizes with him. His sitting didn’t go so well either. He is consumed by impotent rage about the conflict in Gaza. He wants to knock heads together to bring about peace. I am the grizzled Zen veteran in this conversation. I tell William to lighten up, that getting lost and returning is the very heart of Zen practice. I tell Matthew that his passionate anger is understandable, but can he sit with it and see what it is doing inside of him? Can he breathe and observe without feeding it, without denigrating it? Can it be transmuted into skillful and compassionate action? The world is, at times, a violent and terrible place, and we are only one drop of water in this storm-tossed sea. Can we see what’s possible for us to accomplish as this one drop — committed, firm and resolute — but without grandiose aspirations to omnipotently control the ocean? Show up, pay attention, do what’s needed — and then let go?

William and Matthew are at the start of their Zen journey. They’re beginning to learn that sitting isn’t about perfect concentration and bliss, but about seeing the mind as it is — a mirror that reflects everything — including the energies of holidays and far-off conflicts. Thoughts about these ongoing events rise and stir the emotions. The goal is not the elimination of these thoughts and emotions, but developing our capacity to observe them in a kind and interested way. If all that we can observe is how helplessly caught up we are in them — how our minds have a mind of their own — then that, in and of itself, is the beginning of wisdom. We are not the masters of our own house, and learning to work skillfully with the energies at play is the work of a lifetime.

We tend to label our experience — good sitting, bad sitting. Zen is about dropping labels. Every sitting reveals the mind as it manifests in this moment. If we haven’t slept, the mind is drowsy. If we had an argument, the mind is agitated. Everything is the result of “causes and conditions.”  Our minds too. That’s the way it is.

If we try to stay with being with things as they are, if we try to stay present and aware, sometimes the mind calms down. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the energies that are roiling the mind are too intense to be conquered by our weak intention to be present. That’s how this moment is. The next moment may be different.

Can we see that and let it be — without judgment?

Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game.

We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.

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Does All This Sitting Get Us Somewhere?


Our way is to practice one step at a time, one breath at a time, with no gaining idea. — Suzuki Roshi

Novice meditators often ask “will all this sitting get me somewhere?” By “somewhere” they mean somewhere else than where their sitting currently gets them — countless cushion-hours accompanied by states of desire, aversion, judgment, pain, boredom, torpor, fantasy, reminiscence, doubt, planning, philosophizing — and, yes — moments of presence and clarity. By “somewhere else” they mean their fantasy of whatever-it-was the Buddha experienced at the moment of his Enlightenment. They wonder whether they will ever have an experience like the Buddha’s.

The answer is “no.”

The Buddha’s experience was his own. Ours is ours.

The Buddha’s experience was the final end point of everything in his lifetime(s) that preceded it — his meditative practice, his ethical development, his philosophical understanding. Our experience is the end product of everything leading up to this moment in our lives — our virtues and vices, our sleep patterns and eating habits, our discipline and skill, the quality of our relationships and our health.

Meditation never gets us anywhere — we’re always “here.” When we meditate we steep ourselves in “here,” the whole of life held before us in a clear reflecting mirror. Not some perfect idea of life, but life as it is. Not bypassing or escaping life, but sitting with, recognizing, and acknowledging it. Breathing with it and letting it be.

We marinate in life and are cooked by it. It’s a process that happens, not something we accomplish. We didn’t build that. Things shift. We tire of hanging onto things. We cease repeating old mistakes. We laugh at ourselves. We open and soften. We come alive.

It’s not the sitting alone that does this. It’s every step we take on our path. It’s our understanding of impermanence, suffering, non-self, and emptiness. It’s our practice of compassion and generosity. It’s our letting go of past insults and injuries. It’s our growing respect for our bodies, our selves, our neighbors, our planet. All of this is reflected in each moment of sitting.

Does all this sitting get us somewhere?  No.  Sitting always gets us here.

But the nature of “here” changes as we journey on our path. Usually not in dramatic, awe-inspiring flashes, but little by little, bit by bit.   Be patient.  You have this whole lifetime (at least) ahead of you.

This isn’t to say you won’t have profound experiences during deep meditation or on prolonged retreats. They happen often enough. They can help our practice as long as we don’t cling to them and struggle to repeat them.

But sitting isn’t about having a spiritual experience. It’s about living a spiritual life.

Sitting isn’t where the miracle occurs.

Our life is the miracle.

Sitting is the mirror.

It’s the pot we’re cooked in.

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Are We There Yet?

Robert Kennedy, S.J., Roshi

I recently attended a talk at Fordham University by Roshi Robert Kennedy.  A Fordham student asked Roshi, “What’s the biggest obstacle for beginning Zen practitioners?”  He answered that at first Zen students are infatuated with the idea of practice and meditate with enthusiasm.  Then after a year or two, not so much. They haven’t gotten enlightened and their problems haven’t changed — their practice hits a wall.  At this point students focus in on the imperfections of their teacher and other sangha members and wonder if there’s a better practice somewhere else.  A lot of Zen students drop out.  Those who persist eventually develop a more mature view of practice:  Enlightenment is no longer just around the corner — or even if it is — sitting won’t make it happen.  As Ma-tsu inquired, “How can polishing a tile make a mirror?”  We just do the work — without expectation of gain — because it’s the work of being human.

Roshi’s words resonated because I’d recently completed a teleconferenced Dharma course offered through an on-line organization. The course was fine, but I was struck by the achievement-oriented striving permeating many of the participants’s questions.  They’d read about Daniel Ingram’s stages of enlightenment and wanted to know exactly where they were along the path.  Some of them despaired because they couldn’t afford to go on long retreats or take time off from work to do so.  How would they ever achieve stream-entry? They were in a hurry, and Enlightenment was their destination.

Practicing “like your hair’s on fire” is all well and good — practice needs sincerity and determination.  But in practice, as Ayya Khema noted, we’re “being nobody, going nowhere.”  Larry Rosenberg says pragmatic Americans want to know the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B, but in meditation we go from Point A to Point A.  We stay where we are, over and over.  We’re always beginners — no starting practice, no advanced practice — just practice.  We’re in it for the long haul.

If we practice in this way, without gaining idea, our practice takes care of itself.

Where are we on the path?

We’re always here.


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The Five Hindrances

How’s your meditation practice coming along? If the answer is “not so good,” what’s getting in the way?

Often the number one thing getting in the way of meditation practice is our idea about how our meditation practice should be going. We have beliefs about how our mind ought to be during meditation instead of simply observing it as it is. Or we have an idea about the kind of progress we ought to be making, comparing our meditation today with how it was during certain moments idealized in memory.

The Pali Canon speaks of five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni) or obstructions during meditation: sense desire (kāmacchanda), ill-will (byāpāda), sloth and torpor (thīna-midda), restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca), and doubt (vivikicchā). We have all had moments — perhaps eons — when these have been present in our sitting practice.

Sense desire includes wishing for our sitting space to be warmer, cooler, or quieter; wishing we were more comfortable or in less pain; wishing our nose wasn’t so stuffy or our stomach so full; wishing that attractive person had taken the cushion next to ours in retreat. Sound familiar?

Ill-will includes resentments from the day that carry over into our practice as well as anger arising from emerging memories of past hurts. We can spend countless cushion-hours imagining what we’re going to say the next time we see that so-and-so. We can rehearse rationalizations that justify our anger, and reinforce our narrative about being the aggrieved party. We can dig the hole deeper.

Sloth and torpor refer to mental states of dullness, boredom, sleepiness, and lack of alertness. These states are often due to physical causes such as sleep deprivation, exhaustion, or postprandial “coma.”

Restlessness has two facets: motor restlessness and mental restlessness. You may feel jittery or have an urge to get up or shift position. Your mind may race about without focus like a hyperactive mongoose. Remorse is a sore spot in memory where you wish that you could redo something — your mind keeps returning to it, endlessly replaying “woulda,” “shoulda,” and “coulda”.

Doubt could be doubt about the Dharma, the path, your teacher, or your practice. “Is this the right practice for me?” “Should I be trying something else?” “Does practice get you anywhere?” You may be doing mindfulness of the breath and wonder whether you should be counting your breaths, doing mental noting, reciting metta phrases, or engaging in choiceless awareness instead.

Calling these mental factors hindrances, however, is a fundamental mistake. It’s better to think of them as grist for the mill. They are the contents of our consciousness. Instead of wishing them away, can we invest them with interest and simply observe them as they are? When we do this, the hindrances become our very practice itself rather than obstacles in the way of practice.

If boredom presents itself, what happens if we investigate boredom? What are its qualities? What is its intensity? How does it vary from moment to moment? Is it just a quality of mind, or can it be experienced in the body as well? What happens if we don’t wish boredom away, but allow it to stay for as long as it wishes to be around?

If ill-will is present, what if we observe it in a friendly manner? What if we embrace ill-will with mindfulness, and treat it, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “like a kindly older sister or brother?” How is it experienced in the body? What thoughts act as accelerants to it? How is our sense of self involved? Can we observe how it makes us burn inside and adds to our misery?

If we keep drifting off into dreamy mental states, can we watch the process of beginning to nod off again and again, and invest energy in observing the process? Can we observe the very moment when we drop off? Were we experiencing an in-breath or an out-breath at that moment?

If sense desire is present, can we just watch desire? Can we “urge surf,” watching the desire arise, peak, and subside? Can we see how it catches and ensnares us, and then mysteriously fades away without our acting on it?

If these “hindrances” persist, if we remain “caught,” if we are the victims of a “multiple hindrance attack,” can we stay with this process without getting discouraged or disturbed? Can we let go of expectations that our minds will always be clear, calm, and steady? No matter how much practice you have had, it’s unreasonable to expect anything else. After all, our minds, like everything else, are affected by causes and conditions. Can we extend compassion and lovingkindness to ourselves in such moments?

It’s said that when we practice meditation we are actually practicing three separate skills: 1) staying with the object of meditation, 2) recognizing when we’ve drifted off, and 3) returning to the object without fuss or judgment. When we have a “good meditation,” i.e, when our concentration is good and we’re able to stay with our object of meditation, we are developing the first skill. When we keep drifting and returning, even if we do it 100 times in a sitting, we’re developing the second and third skills. These, in fact, may be the most important skills in terms of improving our daily lives: recognizing when we’re no longer present and returning to mindfulness.

The poet William Blake wrote in the Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Keep watching your mind just as it is. Turning poison into wisdom is the path of the Buddhas.

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Letting Go

Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away. — Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Meditation is practice in letting go.  In meditation the ten thousand things arise, and we let them be.  A kaleidoscopic cacophony of sensations, thoughts, and reveries arise and vanish — fleeting specters in the Cartesian Theater of the mind.  We have hopes and expectations for what each moment of meditation will be like:  “I will stay alert, focused, calm, and peaceful.”  “My meditation space will be quiet and comfortable.”  “I will learn something… make progress… taste Enlightenment.”  Our practice is to continually let go of these hopes and expectations and let the ten thousand things be as they are.  We effortlessly open to each moment, accepting each moment as it is, embracing it, experiencing it fully.

Why practice letting go?  Polly Young-Eisendrath recently made the following point about practicing mindfulness, but it applies to letting go as well:

“The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”

We meditate in order to learn how to let go in our daily lives.  We need to learn how to let go because trying to hold onto anything is like trying to nail jello to a wall:  Nothing sticks, nothing stays.  When David Chadwick [1] asked Suzuki Roshi to express the heart of Buddhism in just a few words, Roshi replied “Everything changes.” (If David had asked him another time, would he have gotten a different answer?)  We can’t hold onto a world that’s constantly changing and transforming — we can’t make the world stop being the world.

“Clinging” is another word for “holding on.”  The Buddha taught that clinging was the ninth link in the chain of Dependent Origination.  In that chain, craving led to clinging, and clinging to “becoming” (bhava), i.e., to continued stuckness in cyclical existence.  There are two places where the chain of dependent origination can be broken: at the point where a pleasant feeling turns to craving, and at the point where craving leads to clinging.  We can break the link of craving through awareness of its dangers and insight into where it will lead us.  We can break the link of clinging by simply letting go.

Sometimes the Buddhist message about craving, clinging, and attachment is misunderstood.  People misinterpret it to mean that we should be free from desire and interpersonal relationships.  In Buddhism there are good desires — the desire to help others, to be happy, and to become enlightened are prominent examples.  The desire to be a good parent or a good spouse are others.

Another way of saying this is that aspiration is all right, but craving is not.  Cravings are intense desires that are fixated on a particular object or experience.  There is a tightness, rigidity, stereotypy, or “must-ness” about them — like the addict craving a fix; the overeater, a binge; the miser, more wealth.  Satisfying a craving leads to transitory pleasure, but as the pleasure fades, more craving ensues.    Cravings have a way of taking over our lives and enslaving us.

Similarly, in Buddhism attachment is not the same thing as relationship. The Buddha never intended to discourage relationships.  Affection, love, care, and concern are the very essence of enlightened life.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche explained the difference between love and attachment this way in a recent tweet:

Love is when you are thinking ... "how can I make you happy?" Attachment is when you are thinking ... "why aren't you making me happy?"
Dzogchen Ponlop R.

In Buddhism attachment refers to a rigid, tight clinging and holding on to something, as if it were an existential life-raft.  Think, for example, of a person clinging to a relationship that’s already dead and unable to move on.  He keeps returning to a dry well, hoping for water, stuck in recurrent despair.  He may even resort to stalking and violence, hoping against hope to control the other person who wants nothing more of or from him.

Similarly, nothing kills relationship as quickly and thoroughly as clinging — clinging stifles and suffocates the loved one, dragging the loved one down into the swamp of the clinger’s neediness and efforts to exert control.

We can cling to other things besides relationships.  We can become stuck in an unrewarding job, or stuck on a goal that’s beyond our talents (or a poor match for what could really make us happy).  We can become attached to money, possessions, popularity, and status.  We can believe we’re promised or owed these things by life, and become resentful when they’re not delivered, thinking life has given us a raw deal.

We can become attached to all kinds of beliefs about how life is supposed to be.  “Life is supposed to be easy!”  “Life is supposed to be fair!”  “Bad things are not supposed to happen to me!”  “I should be further ahead in life!” “I’m not supposed to be ill, sick, handicapped, or dependent!”  “Raising children (or working for a living, or marriage) shouldn’t be this hard!”  “Other people should appreciate me more!” “I should be better, smarter, braver, more loving, more perfect!”  Psychologist Albert Ellis used to jest that whenever we placed demands on how life “must” be, we were engaging in “must-erbation.”  We are happier when we let go of our demands on life, and accept life as it is, and ourselves as we are.  That doesn’t mean we cease making efforts to improve ourselves and our circumstances – it’s just that we don’t demand that our efforts always succeed.  We understand that when we want to make God laugh (as Anne Lamott[2] so aptly wrote) we tell Her our plans.  We understand that there is no such thing as perfection.  There is just life as it is.

So we sit in meditation, practicing letting go.  Breath by breath.  Moment by moment.  Again and again.  We observe the places where we get caught, where we get stuck, the places where we get tight, the places where we separate ourselves from the moment with thoughts about how the moment ought to be.  And we breathe.  And we let go, loosen, and unfold.

Special thanks to L. J. Kopf ([email protected]) for permission to use Metaphysical Phunnies in this post.

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  1. [1] D. Chadwick (1999).  Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. New York: Broadway.
  2. [2] A. LaMott (1995).  Bird by Bird.  New York: Anchor.

Mindfulness is Intimate Attention

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” –Dogen Zenji

There are two types of attention.

One is a kind of critical scrutiny.  It’s the kind of attention in which we set ourselves up to be judges rating and evaluating some aspect of our behaving, thinking, or experiencing.  We watch ourselves in a distant and detached way like scientists observing a specimen under the microscope.  We make our behavior the focus of a series of inquiries:  “Why did I do that?” “What happened in my past that caused me to establish such-and-such a pattern?” None of this really helps us much: it distances us from life rather than joining us to it.  It leads to a proliferation of thinking rather than dropping us into a deeper space of awareness.

The other kind of attention involves genuine contact with what is being attended to.  It’s an empathic attunement to our own experiencing; an open listening without judgment; an intimacy with our own stream of consciousness.  Meditation brings this open, noncritical, intimate listening, seeing, and feeling back to our life again and again.

The Pali word for this kind of attention is sati (mindfulness).  Mindfulness is a bare-bones attention that lightly touches its object in an intimate way.  It is free from judging, comparing, and thinking.  It notices both sensations and the mind’s emotional, cognitive, and somatic reactions to them.  It is for and against nothing.  It doesn’t take sides or wish for things to be different from the way they are.

Mindfulness involves adopting an intentional stance vis-à-vis one’s own experiencing.  That stance can best be described as both a “letting go” and a “letting be.”  When we are mindful we let go of aspirations to achieve any particular outcome.  We temporarily suspend acting on our desires to prolong or avoid experiences and our tendency to label experiences as either “good” or “bad.”  We let experiences be.  We give them space and let them breathe. We let them speak for themselves.  Experiences manifest without effort on our part, and subside without effort on our part.

When we are mindful we don’t allow experiences to take us for a ride, however.  We sit like a mountain, intimately experiencing phenomena blossom, persist, and fade.

When we are mindful, we are not observing the world.  The world is manifesting through us.

A bird is singing in a tree.  Where is the birdsong?  In the tree?  In the vibrating air molecules?  In our ears?  In our auditory cortex?  In our minds?  In the bird’s mind?

When we are mindful we co-participate with all things as they co-arise in the world/mind.  We are an integral part of the seamless web of being.   How could it be otherwise?

“Conveying oneself towards all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion.  All things coming and carrying out practice-enlightenment through the self is realization.” –  Dogen Zenji

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Good News For Amateurs

At age sixty-two, I’m a beginning classical piano student. I’m usually pretty disciplined and practice most days. I’m terrible at it, but love everything about it, including the hours of practice I put in each week. I suspect I’ll never be very good at it. I lack a certain natural aptitude and I’m getting a late start. I’ll never be a concert pianist.

My meditation practice is a little like my piano playing. I love everything about it, but I’m never going to be an olympic-level meditator. My concentration is only fair. I’ll probably never go on a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat or even a three month insight meditation retreat. I’ll never spend years sitting in a Himalayan cave. I’m strictly amateur.

Why practice either piano or meditation despite the fact that I’ll never advance beyond amateur status?

A) Because I love the practice itself.

B) Because there are benefits to each.

Playing piano increases my understanding and appreciation for music. I can hear and appreciate more when I listen to Chopin’s nocturnes and Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Meditating builds mindfulness and equanimity in my daily life. It allows me to understand and appreciate life more deeply.

Jean Kristeller, the Director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, first brought this idea of different levels of meditative practice to my attention in her chapter “Finding the Buddha/Finding the Self: Seeing with the Third Eye” for my book Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press: 2003).

Jean noted that while she found meditation practice extremely valuable, she was not a “natural contemplative.” She went on to say:

“While more practice may bring with it better ability to access the contemplative side of being, there is a danger in imposing expectations better suited to those seeking a particular state of “enlightenment” or level of mastery. Considering a parallel to training ourselves in other aspects of human endeavor, such as music or athletics, is helpful. We now realize that maintaining physical fitness is a process, the effects of which can be best understood as lying along a continuum, rather than in a dichotomy of the “unfit” versus the star athlete. Even elderly individuals in nursing homes are now known to benefit remarkably from mild exercise. A less dramatic contrast can be considered with musical training. Few would argue that virtually everyone has some ability to appreciate and understand music — and that such understanding is improved with even modest training. We don’t mistake the skills needed to provide such training to school children with the discipline and skill needed to become a professional classical musician, nor do we minimize or disparage the value to the individual of whatever level of musical experience someone wishes to seek out.”

Amen, Jean!

So it was with great interest that I read a recent scientific study suggesting that even very modest meditation experience can make measurable changes in the brain.

The study is called “Short-term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate,” and it will appear shortly in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Its authors are Yi-Yuan Tanga, Qilin Lua, Xiujuan Geng, Elliot Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael Posner. The study involved the collaboration of researchers at the University of Oregon and the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Lab for Body and Mind, Dalian University of Technology. Long live East-West collaboration!

In this study, forty-five college students received a mere 11 hours of training in what the authors called “integrative mind-body training,” or IMBT. IBMT involved body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training. It involved “no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body and mind.”

Sounds a lot like mindfulness meditation, huh?

Here comes the technical part:

After the college students received the 11 hours of training, the researchers performed a type of brain imaging scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of their brains. The ACC is responsible for monitoring and resolving conflict among competing response tendencies. Problems in ACC activation have been implicated in a wide variety of mental disorders including attention deficit disorder, addictions, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.

The results? The college students who were trained in IMBT showed increased fractional ansiotropy in brain regions associated with the ACC, meaning that the neural fiber tracts in that region either underwent a certain degree of reorganization or increased their myelination. In plain English, there were measurable brain changes associated with the meditation. Were those brain changes beneficial ones? Prior research with IMBT showed that it could improve conflict scores on an attention network test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, decrease stress-related cortisol, and increase immunoreactivity. It sounds all good to me.

There have been previous studies that have shown brain cortical changes in meditators. Back in 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues found increased cortical thickness in dedicated long-term insight meditation practitioners. What’s remarkable about this new study, however, is how little practice was needed to result in measurable brain changes.

So, fellow amateurs, keep up with your meditation practice, even if your practice is not perfect. Even if you don’t sit every single day. It’s good for you. (This is not, by the way, an invitation to slack off in your practice. More practice, more improvement.)

Not that you needed any brain studies to tell you that. You knew that already, didn’t you?

Still, for those of us who love and respect hard science, its nice to see science “validate” what we already know from our own introspection.

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Taming the Mind

“Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.”

–The Dhammapada

Meditation is often misunderstood as entering into a kind of hypnotic trance or a blanking-out of the mind.  It’s actually just the opposite: a deliberate and intentional paying attention to whatever we are experiencing right now.  It’s an opening-up and awakening rather than a closing-off or shutting-down.

We do it sitting motionlessly in a non-stimulating environment to simplify our field of attention.  If we went rushing about in a stimulus-rich environment we couldn’t develop and cultivate intimate attention.  Too much would be happening too fast.  Meditation is a slow walk down a country road rather than a fast drive down a superhighway.  We can take our time to notice things.  We can begin to discover what kind of listening and being is possible in any given moment.

As you sit down to meditate, the first things you may notice are sensations, sounds, and  thoughts.

Thoughts like:

“Am I doing this right?  What is it I’m supposed to be doing?  This is boring!  I can’t believe I’m going to have to sit here for a full 30 minutes!  Uh, oh!  I don’t like the position I’m in.  I’d like to change to a different posture.  There’s an itch!  I sure want to scratch it, but the directions are I’m not supposed to move.  But who will notice if I move?  These are dumb directions.  I can’t stand this itch for the whole rest of the time! Uh, oh!  My ears are beginning to ring.  I wonder why?  Uh, oh!  My leg is going to sleep. Will I get gangrene if I don’t move?  Is the thirty minutes up yet?  Maybe I didn’t set the timer right.  Uh, oh!  Someone outside is blasting a boom box.  How on earth can I meditate with that infernal racket?”

These thoughts generate and maintain a series of corresponding emotional states: irritation, boredom, frustration, worry, and so on.

All of these thoughts and their ensuing emotional states are mental objects we can attend to, just as we can attend to the itch on our face, the sound of the boom box, or the feel of our breath.

We pay attention to it with the light, nonjudgmental attention known as mindfulness.

When we are mindful of mental phenomena we are aware of them but not ensnared by them.

When the thought  <I can’t stand this itch> occurs without mindfulness we assume the thought is reality.   As a result, we can’t stand the itch; we end up scratching instead of observing, reacting without reflecting.

On the other hand, if we’re mindful of the thought <I can’t stand this itch>, it’s just a thought, neither true nor untrue; just an object of observation itself.  It doesn’t lead to action; we just sit and pay attention.  Over time we discover the itch doesn’t last forever; it goes away on its own accord.

Why is it so important to learn <I can’t stand this itch> is just a thought?

Because there are a great many just like it that cause harm to ourselves and others.

Thoughts like:

“I’ll go crazy if I don’t have a drink of alcohol right now.”

“That chocolate cake looks so good.  I can’t resist it, even though I’m supposed to be on a diet.”

“I can’t stand being lonely!  I need a relationship right now, even if it isn’t a good one.”

“I can’t hold this anger in forever.  I need to explode.”

Cravings and impulses are transient mind states that pass on their own if we do nothing to satisfy them.

It can be particularly useful to pay attention to the moment in your meditation when you have the desire to leave off.  Maybe you set the timer for 30 minutes, and somewhere 15 minutes into your meditation you experience an urge to cut it short.  Usually there’s some unpleasant mind state occurring at that moment: boredom, frustration, restlessness, discomfort.  When this occurs, it’s useful to focus your meditative attention on this unpleasant mind state and identify the qualities of the mind state and the thoughts that are generating and maintaining it.  Often they are thoughts related to your desires for how your meditation ought to be instead of how it actually is.  If you can let go of attachment to these desires and invest new interest in how the moment actually is, a valuable lesson can be learned.  This is how meditation teaches us to unhook from unskillful attachment in our daily lives.

It’s also useful to explore what’s happening at the moment before you lose focus on the present moment.  Often there’s some very subtle mind state that makes staying with the present moment uninteresting or unpleasant, and makes going with thoughts and reveries more interesting and enticing.  As we deepen our meditation practice, we become more skillful in identifying these subtle mental states and not allowing them to control us.

Learning to be mindful of mental states that lead to harmful behavior and the thoughts that generate and maintain them is a first step towards liberation.  Through mindfulness and the application of skillful means we learn to tame our minds and come into full possession of ourselves.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

–The Dhammapada

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Minding the Body

We rediscover our bodies in meditation.  It’s as if a previously silent realm has begun to speak.

The brain normally privileges vision and hearing and assigns a lesser priority to somatic sensations (unless they are quite strong) arising from the body.  The brain also prioritizes sensations and perceptions that are socially relevant, or that pertain to either our safety or successfully attaining our goals.

When we meditate, however, we avoid all the sensory data we usually privilege or seek out. We limit incoming visual and auditory sensation and suspend (or at least try to!) goal-directed striving. Neglected streams of information blossom into awareness.  For many first-time meditators, listening to the body can come as a revelation.

Many people ignore their bodies, either due to deliberate inattention, habituation to repetitive information, or information processing style.  The sexually abused, for example, often learn to ignore sexually-related sensations.  People who habitually tense their forehead, shoulders, or abdomen when stressed often habituate to sensations from those muscles; they aren’t even aware they are tensed-up.  Intellectuals live in their heads, experiencing themselves as purely mental beings who dwell behind their eyes and between their ears; their bodies are a means of transportation for their mental selves, but their bodies are not them.  These dissociations from the body all weaken and unravel, however, when one begins to meditate and the body begins to speak.

Novice meditators are often surprised by just how “noisy” their bodies are.  The body, which was formerly thought to be relatively silent, is now a veritable three-ring circus, with messages streaming forth from every square centimeter of skin and from the muscles, joints, and organs.  The mouth, for example, contains a torrent of sensations from the lips, tongue, gums, palate, throat, salivary glands and teeth.  As we breathe we become aware of the movement of the ribs,  diaphragm, intercostal muscles, abdomen, chest, spine and shoulders; we also become aware of  the sensations of air moving through our the nostrils, windpipe, chest, and sinuses. We become aware of feelings of warmth and tingling in our limbs, aware of our pulse and the circulation of our blood.  All of these sensations compete for our attention in an ever-changing kaleidoscopic cacophony.  How is it possible that we didn’t even notice this world before, except when we were ill or in pain?

As we attend to this awakened world of the body we begin to notice the subtle connections between body and mind.  We notice the thoughts that arise in response to physical sensations and how they feed back and alter the perception of the sensations themselves.  For example, we may become aware of pain.  We then may notice a cascade of thoughts in response to the pain:

“Oh, no!  Not this again! I can’t stand this pain!  Is it going to last for the whole rest of this meditation period?  What’s causing this pain?  Is it due to serious illness?  I hate the way this pain is ruining the tranquillity I’m supposed to be feeling while meditating!”

We might notice how the muscles around the area of pain tense up.  We might notice how our mind withdraws from the pain and tries to distract itself.  We may also become aware of ways to alter our response to pain.  What if instead of treating these pain-related thoughts as reality we  observed them as just thoughts?  What if we relaxed into the pain?  What if  we observe pain as pure sensation without reaction?  What happens when we do that?

As we begin to re-own our bodies we can hear what our bodies are saying. This body that we inhabit, or better yet, this bodymind which we are, needs proper care and attention.  We need to listen to internal messages that tell us when things are out of joint.  If we are constantly on the verge of drowsing off, this is our body’s message that we are sleep deprived.  If we hear rasps and rales in our breath, this is our body’s message that we need to stop smoking.  If we can’t breath freely because we’re overweight, this is our body’s message that it’s time to eat less.  If we experience lower-back pain, this is our body’s message that we need to  lift objects more skillfully.  These messages are often ignored during the normal daily rush of ongoing activities.  Listening to the rasps and rales of our breath during meditation, however, with the instruction to “pay attention!” can be a powerful transformative experience.

We often have negative attitudes towards our bodies.  We hate our size or shape.  If we have straight hair we want curly hair; if we have curly hair, we want straight hair.  We hate the infirm and damaged parts of ourselves.  We hate the way we age.  This negative narrative about the body often eclipses our direct experience of the actual body.  In meditation we experience our actual bodies. We also become aware that our narrative is just narrative, not reality.  We can  compare the fresh lived experience of the body with our stale old narrative about it.  We can let the old stories drop off and let our bodies be.  This is how we can grow into self-acceptance.

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