Oct 252012
 

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A hundred thousand repetitions of anything is daunting, when we look at the whole thing like a goal. There are a series of ‘things’ like this that I’ll be doing in the next few years, the preliminary practices, and I can really freak myself out by imagining the entirety of them, nearly a half million somethings. The first one is prostrations, while chanting a prayer and holding a visualization. As a scientist and engineer, it would be good to know what 100,000 feels like. But how the hell can my body bend down and flatten so many times?

It is even worse as I’m preparing to begin. Memorizing the prayer in Tibetan is hard. The syllables dance around in the back of my brain, out of order, like a stuck song. It’s like committing to hike over the Himalayas, standing at the base of the first 24,000-foot peak, wondering how I can make it over this, then endure the forty other peaks, the series of challenges to reach the goal.

(Hey, perhaps I will lose the 20 extra pounds I carry around my midriff! There’s a motivation!)

But the truth is, I’m not taking on a project as much as a change in lifestyle. From this point of view, I simply need to create a space where I can do my practice, and find some way to engage in it each day. It’s now more than three weeks since the opening weekend for the Sukhasiddhi Bodhi program, and I’m progressing steadily. Some of my fellow students have made major progress, some have done many thousands of prostrations already, some have done these preliminary practices before. But this is not a competition, this is a basic change in the way I look at the world, what is important to me. I simply need to set aside time each morning, and creating a beautiful place for practice is just one way of caring for myself, finding my own preferences, building what I desire.

So I’ve been moving forward, I have the prayer almost memorized, and I’m turning a bedroom into a practice room. The bedroom conversion is more of a project, as I’ve had to clear out many more bags of Nancy’s clothes, move in some furniture from her father’s house, install closet doors. This weekend, I should have my practice room, and it will be the first room I’ve designed and filled according to my own preferences in many years. It feels like a major step.

The photo is the empty bedroom, with my Buddha thangka, the new shoji closet doors, a Tibetan rug. By the end of this weekend, it will be my practice room, with an alter, statues, candles, incense, more thangkas, pillows and my zafu for sitting in meditation. And then the real work starts.

phenomena

 Buddhism, Reflection  Comments Off on phenomena
Oct 102012
 

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An unexpected evening alone at home, and I’m filling it. It’s so interesting to watch what I do, I’m pretty highly directed inside.

  • Give a co-worker a lift home to SF, with a little side tour of where I grew up
  • Pick up groceries, a roast, shiitake mushrooms and golden beets
  • Make my first stew of the season, messing up and cleaning up the kitchen
  • Work on memorizing a buddhist prayer
  • Balance three checking accounts, for my mother and myself
  • Pay bills in Canada, for things Nancy and I bought together
  • Put on a James Bond movie (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”)

It’s just 9pm, and I’m getting ready to dine. Diana Rigg graces the screen in the background, one of my favorite actors. But it seems worth pausing, and looking at my last three hours. I’m loving the phenomena of my life.

In buddhism, phenomena are all the things that we experience and sense as incarnate beings. There is a lot written about this, for example, Steve Tibbetts says,

All objects that can be encountered or taken up by the mind are, while appearing clearly, devoid of inherent self or essence…. all phenomena, inner and outer, mental and physical, have no inherent essence or existence. They merely appear. The true nature of phenomena places them beyond the extremes of existence or non-existence. The true nature of phenomena is luminosity, selwa, the unity of appearance and emptiness.

Good to remember, since it’s all so pleasurable, and easy to get attached to. I feel so joyous cooking and eating a lovely stew, I’m happy watching the movie, keeping the paperwork together. I won’t die wishing I had seen more movies! But on the personal level, I’m having a delightfully sensory evening, with a sense of accomplishment.

Ah, the stew is excellent, with a touch of apple vinegar and red wine, the slight sweetness of the beets and carrots, sauce thickened by potato, fresh herbs, well-carmelized pieces of beef that I still consume with a blessing. The pleasure of taste and smell, after bringing my touch and sight and mind to the creation, is so full.

There is an urgency to what I do. I notice that I want to fill every moment of my life…I awake at night, and I meditate to soft presence. I have a few minutes while dinner sautés, and I move things up and down through the house. Even in this moment, I am hearing the first rain drops fall in months, and I think about what I might need to go running outside and take care of. Some part of me wants to cram every greedy moment full of aliveness, experience, presence, even as I contemplate the duality of “myself” and all of these activities and pleasures.

Oh, hell, I just remembered how this movie ends, Diana Rigg dies in his arms. Is that phenomena too? Is our mere existence, our incarnation, simply phenomena? I’m no longer present, wondering if I actually want to see the end of the film. Shall I watch it, and cry at the end? Thoughts pile on thoughts. The Diana Rigg I am watching no longer exists, as she is seventy-four years old. Do I feel sad about that?

I take a deep breath, and return to the present. It’s all just phenomena. All of it, even my grief. I relax back into the movie (or is that “my life”?) anticipating all my feelings as I watch. Phenomena are so delightful.

 Posted by at 9:18 pm

impermanence

 Buddhism, Parents, Reflection  Comments Off on impermanence
Oct 062012
 

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My new Buddhist practices begin with twenty days of contemplation, and two of the topics are the preciousness of human existence, and the impermanence of all phenomena.

“Ha!”, I think to myself, “I know all about this”.  Loss has certainly cracked me open in both areas, I am now more present for the poetic and beautiful moments in my life than I was a year ago.  So I begin to meditate on preciousness, and immediately realize that I’m screwed, and I have no choice but to sit in the loss, allowing it to flower to fullness.  I’ve been good about following my feelings and grief, but it’s quite a different thing to sit and meditate on it, for an hour or longer.  It seems somehow ironic that, after dutifully tending to this garden of tears for months, I’m now directed to spend hours and days sitting in the garden.

And it is a garden. At first, it’s hard for me to separate the two contemplations.  I consider how precious my existence is, and within a few minutes I land in my feelings about Nancy.  After swimming in loss for a while, my heart aching, I feel a surge of love and deep joy, that I get to be here, in this body.  I love being alive, much more so because I’m acutely aware that I will end one day, at least, the incarnated “I”.  Something will continue when I am gone. As I swing back and forth, empty and full, day after day, I become more and more aware of the preciousness of each moment, the vast gift of being alive. A tender, delicate place, like a baby oak coming up in the spring.

This is a different way of learning. The contemplation instructions are very specific, carefully worded and refined over 1500 years. They are simple, and land in my awareness like a seed. As I sit with the contemplations, they grow and deepen and flower into a very personal experience. Remarkable. I’m starting to see that the deep teachings are like this, just as meditation is a very personal gateway that cannot be taught, but must be cultivated within each of us.

Some moments are quite intense. Each morning, I drive to work past the Golden Gate National Cemetery, where my father-in-law Richard Jones was buried last February. From inside my practice, the view of more than a hundred thousand tombstones stuns me, perfect geometric array stretching into the distance. All these souls, their incarnations complete, leaving behind whatever joy and pain and love that they left, now reunited with the infinite. Most were WW II and Korean war veterans, had fired weapons in combat, known the fear and adrenaline and exhaustion of battle. My own father-in-law shot up dozens of Japanese trains and boats, downed several aircraft, as a P-40 pilot in China in 1943. All those lifetimes now gone, all that experience fading in our collective memories.

All that I am, all that I love, all that I’ve done will one day be gone. I remember how these thoughts would induce a kind of existential crisis in my younger self. Now it brings me here and now, reminding me that we are precious, I am precious, and each instant of my life is an opportunity for gratitude. Even visiting The Colonel’s grave today. Dick, we all love you, wherever you are.

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 Posted by at 10:11 am

coming to term

 Buddhism, Nancy, Reflection  Comments Off on coming to term
Sep 292012
 

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We all recently passed the nine-month mark since Nancy’s passing. It’s damn spooky (or maybe just divinely perfect) that she died on the longest night of the year, and every change of seasons for the rest of my life will remind me of her. But there is something special about nine months. It’s our special, human period of gestation. I wonder how I’ve been gestating.

I have to start by saying that grief is still ongoing, I feel sadness several times a day. It’s not massive, the hole in my heart is healing, but there is still pain, my attachment to her was deep. Fog pours over the Marin headlands, and the beauty reminds me of Nancy, how we would delight in it together. Tears arrive. I drive in the fast lane to work, and I remember how she hated to be near railings, would ask me to move over toward the middle of the highway. Tears again. The reminders are endless and frequent, although now I just feel sad for a few minutes. I don’t have to pull over to the side of the road, racked by sobs any more. I wipe tears away, and move forward.

I also keep myself in my grieving, tracking my feelings by writing this blog. This is helping me to heal, I can feel it. I’ve just gone back and re-read parts of my blog after she passed, the night of her 49-day ritual, and my eyes are wet now. It’s all still tender.

…so empty. The white roses from tonight’s altar are on the table next to me, lovely and simple like the ritual Val Szymanski led tonight. Zen teaches the beauty of emptiness, and I can feel that through the memorial service, and through the loneliness of my silent home. The cooling fan in my laptop is the only sound, except when I click the keys to write this. Or sniff back my tears.

Brings me to a funny painful story. When I started riding my motorcycle to work again a few months ago (1+ hour commute to San Bruno), I found out quickly that it’s really hard to deal with a wave of grief while riding. At 70mph on the freeway, a wave hit me, and I made the mistake of opening my visor to wipe tears. Big error. The tears streaming down my face immediately splattered all over the inside of the helmet, like driving through a rainstorm without windshield wipers. I managed to pull over and compose myself without accident, before making my way home. I haven’t made that mistake twice 🙂

So, what is happening at nine months? A week ago, on the equinox, exactly nine months, I was in a weekend workshop on deepening spirituality. I believe that says it all. Right now, I’m in the middle of a four-day workshop at Sukhasiddhi. I’m beginning a two-year program of deeper buddhist practice, called ngöndro, the basic practices that relieve negative karma from past lives, and put our ego in right relationship to bring ourselves and all humans to enlightenment. In particular, I’m starting the preliminaries. The picture above shows the dedication at the beginning of the text.

This is a difficult learning, as hard as anything I’ve ever done. Holding a visualization, memorizing & reciting a Tibetan prayer, and doing a physical movement (prostrations) at the same time is challenging. Aaaand, we had a wonderful dharma talk last night about how this rewires the brain. These practices light up both sides of the brain and put them in relationship, so that cross-connection occurs. There is ample scientific evidence, researchers are doing MRI scans of monks in specific meditations, and wondering if the MRI equipment is broken. People who undertake these practices can make deep shifts in the way their bodies and minds work.

I will say this about the workshop. When forty people chant a prayer together, in that spacious and rhythmic way, as we did at Nancy’s 49-day ceremony, something wonderful happens. If you open to the sound, you can feel how the prayer rips through the space-time continuum. It’s like hearing the Gyuto Monks chant together. I’m spending four days in the beautiful and privileged place of doing this, moving this, hearing this.

I’m going in. Again. That is what is being birthed. I’m converting an empty bedroom in my home into a practice room. And I am trying to figure out how I can spend one to two hours each morning doing these practices. Now I’m up against my ego. Again. Will my attention go towards making this easy or difficult? Perhaps this will be both easy and challenging at the same time, and I just get to sit in that.

 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Aug 022012
 

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One of the most delightful and challenging aspects of buddhism are the vows or intentions that I’ve taken on in my studies. The learning is deep and rich. In January, I took a set of five vows known as ‘the precepts’, and of course, one of them is a vow that I will not take a life.

This is a perplexing vow, and like all of the precepts, it’s really designed to make me sit in the question of “what is taking a life?” Can I swat mosquitos? Can I eat meat? What about plucking fresh vegetables from the ground? Obviously, we have to take plant life to nourish ourselves. Perhaps we can eat eggs, or drink milk, or eat fish. Perhaps even chicken, or beef. Everyone I know that has buddhist beliefs has worked with these choices, even if they didn’t take vows.

So begins the story of today. More than a year ago, Nancy and her caregiver found a baby rattlesnake on our driveway, and asked me to kill it. (My house is on the edge of open space, on a steep hillside with lots of rocks and places for critters to nest.) I thought about it for a while, and realized that our pets, our friends, and Nancy herself — who gardened a lot on this hillside — were at risk. So I reluctantly took a shovel, and killed the creature. It’s bothered me ever since, although I feel like I made the right choice.

This morning, I walked out to the car to drive to work, and found a 16-inch rattlesnake next to the car, on the curb side. It was still, and had a few rattles on it’s tail, perhaps two years old. Big enough to be deadly to a child or a pet. I sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to decide whether I should kill it or not. I contemplated many facts and points of view, risk to neighbors and to myself, then finally decided to leave the creature alone and drive to work.

I’ve been thinking about this decision all day, in the way I’m inclined to think. Was this right action? It troubled me. I probably burned a thousand calories considering positive and negative consequences, imagining the worst that could happen, afraid that a passing hiker or dog walker or dog could be hurt.

And then I got home tonight, right about sunset…and saw the snake was still there, in the same spot. It’s actually dead, perhaps run over by a car or bicycle, left at the edge of the street. So I cautiously pick it up with a long-handled tool, and throw it away, consigning the body to Marin Sanitary Service with a small blessing.

This is a good and subtle learning. On one level, I chose well — I got to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. I chose to let the snake live, and got to find out that it was not a threat after all, it was already dead. On another level, I worried and thought about something today to no avail, it was a complete waste of energy, as there was actually no danger. I can even go self-critical, and wonder how I missed the fact that the snake was already dead. Or perhaps it wasn’t, I arrived just after the event that injured it, or someone else saw it and killed it.

But I mostly notice this as another perfect moment. I made a choice that felt wobbly to me, sat with my fear all day of all the things that could go wrong, then the universe reaffirmed my decision. If I had taken a shovel to kill the snake, I might never have known. So I burned a thousand calories for nothing. I need more faith. Buddhism teaches “non-dualism”, how there really is no separation between our awareness and the events and objects of our experience. What if I could just have faith in my vow, decide not to take the life of this creature, and trust that my decision was right action? Devote the thousand calories of worry in a more fruitful direction? Hmm?

Hmm.

 Posted by at 10:29 pm
Jul 262012
 

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Meditation is the glue that’s held me together for years. I honestly don’t think I could have made it through the last year without it. But over the last few months, something new and wonderful is happening inside, because of what I’m learning and bringing into my practice. Talking with one of my co-workers at lunch today, I realized that I can articulate some of this change. I want to write this down and share it, just in case it helps nudge one of you, my friends, to develop or deepen your own meditation practice.

Last January, I attended a six-week class at Sukhasiddhi called “Extraordinary Samatha”, and this month, I’m in a follow-on class called “Extraordinary Vipassanā”. This one-two punch is helping me find gratitude in most of the moments of my life, helping me feel relaxed and cheerful and appreciative and kind most of the time. I cannot tell you how precious this is, but perhaps you can imagine it for yourself. I rarely feel anxiety or depression, and I’ve gotten much better, even skillful, at following my feelings, speaking plainly, being completely honest. I remember that, even a few years ago, my inner experience was an almost ceaseless stream of thought, with a liberal sprinkling of contempt, upset, criticism and anxiety.

That experience is dissolving. Seriously. It’s almost as though my inner process is slowing down, becoming more spacious. Now I usually notice when I’m having a thought or a feeling, before I act on it. When something comes at me that is unexpected or painful, I can often choose my response. It’s different than the way I used to “edit” myself, stop myself from saying something because I was afraid of what would happen. This is more like “hmm, I feel a little angry, I wonder why?”…and I ask myself the question, and even get some insight, before I say anything. At the same time, my thought processes can be just as quick as ever, so it’s not like my thinking is slowing down. And when I need to focus, my focus is just as good, just as sustainable as it always has been.

Wikipedia has a nice article on vipassanā, which also describes the relationship with samatha. These are two types of meditation: basically, samatha is a meditation for getting grounded, quieting the mind, and becoming present; vipassanā is an inquiry or insight meditation on our own internal process, our senses, how we perceive things, and how feelings and thoughts arise.

I’ve been doing samatha for about 15 years, as this is the kind of meditation taught at the Pathways Institute workshops and retreats I started attending and facilitating in 1996. Vipassanā is fairly new to me, as I’ve only had a little experience with it at Spirit Rock events.

I’m learning that there is a progression inside, from sensory data (sight, smell, touch, etc.), to perception (labeling what I sense), to a feeling and perhaps even an emotion…and all of this happens before I have a thought process. I’m sure there are some people reading this who will nod and smile, and others who wonder why this is even relevant. All I can tell you now is that it is relevant, that this awareness is what is helping me to be more spacious, more kind to everyone around me, more kind to myself. This unfolding is just beginning for me. Hopefully I can write again about it in the future, with more insight and deeper awareness. In the mean time, I’m more joyful and content. It’s just that simple.

Oddly, this learning has brought a whole new level of grief to light. I wonder what would have happened if Nancy had been able to share this with me, if she had taken on her own sitting meditation practice. For the truth is, she never did, even though I invited her many times. Perhaps the tragedy of her passing would have been averted. Perhaps she would have found more ability to love and be loved and show compassion, who knows? The “what if” game is endless, and pointless. The reality is, she is gone, and my new-found self-awareness demands that I let these thoughts go, and be present with what is. So I let them go. But I continue to grieve what might have been.

So, if you are grappling with your life, your inner critic, your anxiety or sadness or lack of wonder in the universe, if you argue with your partner or say unkind things to your children, please find a way to sit and meditate. Please.

 Posted by at 6:53 am