Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’

Necessary Silence

February 5, 2017

Silence is not a luxury. It is a necessity. When we are silent, the continual stream of thoughts fall into the background, momentarily freeing us from our self obsession. We awaken to the preciousness of life. In the silent fullness of the moment, we find profound peace.

We cannot find real silence by shutting out the world. We are connected with the world, not independent of it. The noise of the so-called world “out there” always finds a way into our life.

thornsOur situation is similar to that of the misguided ruler in a well known story who pierces his foot on a thorn. Enraged by the pain, he demands that all roads and paths be covered with leather. It is an idea which is both horrifying and understandable. The world is filled suffering (thorns) and we naturally want to avoid suffering. Not only do we experience the various physical and mental sufferings that arise from the world around us, we also experience suffering from the continual onslaught of stimulation, commentary, and fear that is part of our smartphone era.

In the story, the King has a wise advisor who suggests an alternative to covering the roads with leather. He tells the King that he and his citizens can take responsibility for protecting their own feet by covering them with leather.

We, like the King, can protect ourselves from the thorns of life by protecting our minds with meditation or prayer, practices that quiet and focus the mind. These are not the prayers filled with words and petitions, but the spacious prayer of deep listening. It is meditation that allows us to open fully to each breath, each heartbeat, and the interconnectedness of life.

This is the domain of the mystic, the “professional pray-er”. We, as people of faith, must become mystics. The world needs us to be knowers and practitioners of inner silence and peace. We can then offer peace, silence, and hope to those who are lost in the noise of turmoil and angst.

This is the gift we bring to the world, a balm to soothe the fretful mind. The world is filled with words and and busy-ness. Silence and stillness are rare. Few people encounter true silence, within themselves or another.

It is in this silence that the divine moves most obviously. Faith arises in this silence. Unconditional love likewise arises in the heart that is properly ordered and at peace.

If you have not yet found a way to enter into silence, seek out a teacher of prayer or meditation. They don’t need to be famous or exotic or “perfect.”  It should be someone whom you can trust. Learn from them. Practice their technique or method regularly. Be patient. Slowly, over time, you will begin to allow yourself to experience real silence. You may even be amused to discover that it was you yourself who was standing in the way of awakening and peace.

Start today. Silence your phone. Turn off the TV. Shut down your computer. Find a comfortable sitting position and spend few minutes paying full attention to your breath. Don’t get distracted by thoughts. They arise in the same way that sounds arise—naturally. Sounds are not you. Thoughts are not you. Take a vacation from thinking and worrying and planning and just be with your breath. Watch it and learn its subtleties and sensations. Repeat daily. Share your inner peace widely!

Mudita: The Joy of Joy

April 14, 2016

Sympathetic Joy is the most common translation of the Buddhist term mudita. Mudita is finding joy in the joy of others. It is spontaneous, unconditioned and unlimited. It is the joy of aliveness, of being itself. Mudita is spiritual joy.

We have all experienced mudita, most likely in presence of children. The joy of children is so pure and unbounded that it is contagious. Seeing a child engaged in joyous play, we ourselves are touched by joy. The joy we feel is not something we own. We did not produce it through our own efforts. It arises from outside ourselves. We simply enjoy the the joy experienced by another being.

laughing-buddha-figureIn Buddhism there are techniques to simulate mudita. They are valuable and can help us be more open to the arising of spontaneous joy. In their simplest form, one strives to wish others happiness and remember to celebrate others’ successes.

However, we must not mistake the map for the territory. The cultivation of joy is a close approximation but not the real thing. Since the practice is contrived, it is easy to get caught up in judging our success, or lack-thereof, in finding joy in others’ joy. We may become frustrated by the arising of negative thoughts, judgements, and jealousy – the antithesis of joy.  We may wonder how we can we feel joy in another’s success, when we are jealous of that success?

True mudita arises in spite of our imperfections and negative thoughts. Spiritual joy is a vast ocean upon which thoughts are only ripples. Negative thoughts may continue to arise but are insignificant in the presence of mudita.

Ultimately, mudita arises from beyond what we think of as self. Mudita is the nature of the measureless. It arises naturally when our hearts open to the unconditioned. When we are touched by the unconditional, we experience boundless joy in even the smallest moments of life. Unfortunately, we are usually too caught up in conditionality – planning for the future, reliving the past, judging and weighing each experience – to see the joy present in each moment.

Awakening to mudita begins by paying attention. This is why prayer and meditation are so important. They help us slow down. Through contemplation, we become comfortable with stillness and quite.

Our world is frantic, filled with information and activity. It is not a conducive environment for deep peace. Taking time – daily – to sit quietly can seem like a herculean task. Nevertheless, inner stillness – peace – is worth the effort. It allows us to see the world anew. Over time we become more capable of experiencing spontaneous joy. We begin to rejoice in the sights and sounds of nature, the joy of friends and family, or just in the joy of joy – our own or that of another.

Peace, Paul

Contentment: The Yogi’s Wealth

February 3, 2016

In reading a collection of songs from the Enlightened Yogi Saint of Tibet, Milarepa, I was struck by the verse, “I rely on the constant wealth of contentment.” It is part of passage in which Milarepa sings about his simple life of wandering, meditating, and subsisting on whatever the wilds provide.

Milarepa_statueIt is not a life that many of us could live. And yet, the idea of contentment as a source of “constant wealth,” is compelling. I recently wrote about unsatisfactoriness as a quality of Dukkha – the first noble truth of Buddhism. No matter how much we have, or how good life is, we always experience a bit of unsatisfactoriness or discontentment.

Unsatisfactoriness is both a symptom and source of our suffering. Contentment, to the contrary, is a quality of awakening. It is a fruit of deep and ongoing meditation practice. Not the mediation practice we here about so much today, which promises peace or health or well-being or some other concrete goal. No! Contentment arises in the process of emptying and opening to the fullness of each arising moment.

It is not surprising that traditional yogis practiced contentment as one of the yoga niyamas. It is a practice which is missing fromm much of popular Hatha Yoga today. However, one does not need to live in a cave or practice heroic feats of asceticism to find contentment.  For those of us with families, jobs, spouses, children, and otherwise full lives, the simplest way to cultivate contentment is through the practice of daily gratitude.

Most of us are very fortunate in the lives that we lead. We have clean safe water to drink, enough food to eat, shelter from the elements, and so much more. Nevertheless, each day we fail to recognize and appreciate our abundance, focusing instead on what we do not have, or what we think we need to be happy.Gratitude turns that thinking on its head, and helps us appreciate the many blessings that fill our lives.

Gratitude and appreciation are the beginnings of contentment. If nothing else, gratitude will remove a bit of the edge from our perpetual discontentment, resulting in more joy in our lives.

Interestingly, in today’s consumer culture, contentment is akin to heresy. Contentment, in the contemporary mindset, is associated with stagnation and death, not a source of joy and well-being. And yet, Milarepa is telling us that contentment is the source of his wealth. Surely, we can also find such wealth in our own lives. It begins simply by stopping, by being still, and recognizing the many little wonders that fill each day, starting, perhaps, with the simple fact of our aliveness.

“All the water and drink you’ve consumed

Through beginningless time until now

Has failed to slake thirst or bring you contentment.

Drink therefore this stream

of enlightenment mind, fortunate ones.”

-Milarepa

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Quotes from Drinking the Mountain Steam: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa; translated by Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Brian Cutillo

What is Important?

February 2, 2015

Soot and ash have been raining down on our house from brush fires ignited by the active lava flow few miles down the road. The air stinks of smoke. It catches in one’s throat and causes coughing fits. In the evenings we walk the dog to the end of the street and watch the smoke rising from the forest beyond the adjacent houses. It is not as close as it seems, but it is another reminder of the danger lurking in the neighborhood. It has been several months since the public became aware of the approaching lava – weeks and months of worry and speculation and stress with little end in sight.

Lava above Pahoa town, January 2015

We are very lucky to live near the outside edge of any possible lava flow routes. We feel the effects but do not live in fear of losing our home. Nevertheless, living under the threat of a slow moving disaster is stressful. Like being in the presence of the dying, it pushes us to look at our own lives and how we are using the very precious and limited time we have.  It is a reminder that what we carry in our hearts is all that we truly have. Displaced and robbed of all that is familiar, how will we respond? What will he hold onto? This will be the test of our faith and our spiritual practice.

Faith must be cultivated before we find ourselves in the midst of disaster and mayhem. We need to begin today, cultivating a deep and loving heart that is honed against the many little disappointments, losses, and challenges of daily life. Each day we need to set time aside to turn away from worldly concerns and open the heart with prayer, silence, and meditation. Scripture is the record of the encounter between the sacred and the mundane. Read with discernment, it can open our eyes to radical new ways to see the world. Some of the greatest religious figures of the 20th century arose in the midst of great tragedy and struggle: Gandhi, Arch Bishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Deitrich Bonhoffer, Dorothy Day, Aung San Suu Kyi, HH the Dalai Lama, to name just a few.

The struggles of life can seem overwhelming. Indeed, if we think that we can take them on ourselves we are doomed to failure. Death will defeat us before we make the world right and just.  With vision and faith, however, we can see beyond the limitations of this life and this world and into the reality of the endless working of compassion.

Every generous and loving act is an expression of the Buddha’s boundless compassion. The historical Buddha had nothing in the way of material goods.  All that he had to offer was his presence and his boundless compassion for the welfare of others. People and gods came to the Buddha to seek his advice and teachings because they trusted in him and the fundamental goodness he embodied.

In the midst of disaster or in the company of death, when we can no longer rely upon the material things of this life, what will we have to offer? Will we, like the Buddha, be able to offer love and compassion or will we be spiritually bankrupt, lost in our own inner turmoil, fear, and ignorance?

Peace, Paul

Photo: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, January 21, 2015

Love and Hope

September 30, 2014

christ of the bread lines

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” St. Paul

 

Here in Puna, on the Big Island of Hawaii, we seem to be transitioning from one disaster into another. In August, Hurricane Iselle pummeled the Puna district. No lives were lost, but many lives were disrupted.

Now, we are watching, waiting, and stressing as a snaking flow of lava works its way down from the volcano towards the populated areas of Puna.

There is very little to be done except make plans to evacuate and help those who will be displaced. Against volcanic lava, the living life blood of Madame Pele, we are powerless to protect peoples’ houses, businesses, and livelihoods. Loss and suffering are the nature of this world.

Adversity, such as this, can bring out the best and the worst in people. Hopefully, those of us who have rooted ourselves in a religious practice can respond with compassion and forgiveness. It is in these difficult times, when people despair and feel lost, that we, as religious practitioners, can provide support, strength and hope. Not with fancy words or religious dogma, but through compassionate action that reveals our deep concern and love for all.

There are certainly very real and concrete actions we can take to alleviate physical suffering. However, to relieve this existential angst, we must be willing to open our hearts to the fundamental, and shared, pain of human existence. The very real human experience of loss, insecurity and mortality.

It is a pain we all know. It is a pain we often try to avoid. However, if we are willing to set aside the judgements and fear and the stories we tell ourselves about others. If we quiet the mind and still the fear inside our own hearts, then we can see each human being as they truly are: A precious being worthy of love and compassion.

Often we we fail to love each person we meet. It is an almost impossible task. But we are people of faith. We have faith that if we keep striving to love all, to hold each person dear, that slowly, over time, perhaps over life times, love will begin to leak into our lives and relationships despite our flaws and imperfections. And at the right moment, when faced with someone who is lost and in need, that spark of love may be just enough to awaken the faintest glimmer of hope.

Peace, Paul

Photo: Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

Seeing Fear

September 1, 2014

If you make a habit of cultivating daily periods of silence in your in your life, through meditation or some other practice, you will inevitably discover that fear is the motivation for much that you do. Not the roaring terror of imminent death but rather the low simmering fear that is insecurity. It is a fear so familiar and “comfortable” that most people never notice it at all. They only see fear as fear in situations where the heat gets turned up by events in the world around us and the subtle fear becomes terror.

I found myself in just such a high heat situation while lying in bed at night, in a small, some might say primitive, cabin, riding out Hurricane Iselle. Having grown up in New Orleans, I was familiar with Hurricanes. I had been through a few near misses. I had seen the devastation. However, I had never been through the eye of a Hurricane, which, it turns out, is a completely different beast. In the center of the storm the wind consistently rages at or above hurricane force of 75 miles an hour. It is loud and relentless. The house vibrates as it sways and flexes in the wind. Debris constantly pelts the house on all sides. On top of the raging noise of the storm one also constantly hears the roaring of much stronger gusts of wind moving along the ground, accompanied by the pop and crack of shattering trees. It is a primordial sound. It is the sound of death in the form of some impossibly large winged creature devouring all in its path. The roof ripples and screams under the onslaught and adrenaline floods the blood stream. This cycle repeats for hours upon end and one is complete exhausted by stress and fear.

Fortunately, it has been my practice for some time now to recognize mind states, such as this one, as an opportunity for self examination. Recollecting my practice, I looked deeply at the fear. Why was I afraid? It was not a long contemplation. Once I peeked below the sensory overload, it became immediately apparent that what I was afraid of was death. More specifically, that I, Paul, would end. With this bit of insight came the recollection that I am going to end at some point anyway. None of us can escape death. Further, and perhaps more significantly, I am not that important. What is important is the degree to which I am transformed by love and compassion. The rest, the “things” of this life, are fleeting. They are the result of living in this particular body, in this particular time, in this particular country. As soon as the body dies, those things will cease to be valuable.

I found this insight, for some reason, comforting, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Later I awoke to the storm raging overhead, and decided to relocate to the relative safety of the bathroom. However, the worst of the fear was gone. I was able to sleep, on and off, throughout the remainder of the storm.

Of course, I still have fear. Foolish, I know. I certainly have not learned to truly love others, to offer compassion and understanding before judgement. Nevertheless, I have faith that if I keep walking along the path, trying to recollect the Buddha and the Dharma, that at some point Love and Compassion will replace fear.

Peace, Paul

Do Buddhists Pray?

February 3, 2014

Hand holding malaWestern Buddhist, being mostly converts, avoid using the term prayer. It is a word too tightly tied to the religion of one’s upbringing. Even in the Japanese Jodo temples in the US one does not hear the term prayer. Rather the priests use the term “meditation” when they call on the Buddhas for blessings or benediction.

Personally, I think that there is a place for the word prayer in the vocabulary of western Buddhism. Buddhist around the world pray. They pray to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other spiritual beings. Prayer is a very important part of the religious life of Buddhists who follow the Dharma but recognize that they are not, nor are likely to become, Buddhas in this lifetime. They are are still caught up in the Samsara of everyday life but have a connection to the Buddha. This relationship with the Buddha is expressed through prayer.

How do we, as western Buddhists who are are not yet Buddhas, express our relationship with the Buddha? How do we express our gratitude, our yearning, and our wishes for others?

As Buddhists, we aspire to alleviate suffering through living the noble life taught by the Buddhas. Ideally this is a life of perfect wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, we are not Buddhas. We are only followers of the way. Our lives are lived in the space between Awakening and Samsara. We hear the Buddhas call to live lives of indiscriminate compassion. Yet we continue to discriminate between friend and foe, like and dislike, pleasure and pain.

Aware of our short comings, we call out to the Buddha. This calling out is Prayer. Prayer places our relationship to the world of Samsara within the in the context of Buddha’s measureless compassion. Prayer expresses our continual recollection of the Buddha and our awareness of our own limited and deluded natures.

Prayer is not a technique. It is not mind training. Prayer is our Heart response to suffering and affliction. Prayer is opening to the limitless possibilities of Awakening. Prayer is also our aspiration to Awaken for benefit of all beings. Prayer is the Dharma expressed through our compassionate actions in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Rhythm of Daily Prayer

January 13, 2014

Lately I have been encouraging people of faith to develop a religious practice that involves daily study and prayer as well as weekly fellowship with like minded practitioners. Partly this is the result of my Buddhist training in which we constantly remember that life is precious and unreliable. None of us knows when we are going to die or face some profound suffering. Yet everyday we fill our lives with various activities, often unaware of the preciousness of human life.

This does not have to be the case. The religious life is built up in little bits everyday. Inner transformation (metanoia) is the work of our daily struggle to encounter others with compassion and love.

If you have not yet set aside time each day for study and contemplation, then here is a bit of inspiration. Over the course of a year, thirty minutes of prayer / mediation a day is equivalent to eleven, sixteen hour, days spent in contemplation! That is like going on a very intensive two week meditation retreat!

While thirty minutes a day may seem like a lot to busy people with families, it is only two fifteen minute periods of prayer / meditation a day. Very attainable. Just a few minutes first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.

The thing is, that if we are indeed people of faith, our daily business should take place around our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, often the exact opposite is the case. We try to squeeze our prayer life around the secular activities of life and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

Though Buddhist, I have been greatly inspired by the Northumbria Christian community which has created a daily communal practice of liturgy. Members, and guest, are invited to follow their Office of Daily Prayer, no matter where they live. There is no need to abandon job and family to join the monastery, commune, or ashram. One only need join with the community in the daily rhythm of prayer.

In our own little ways we can follow the example of the Norhtumbria community and begin to structure our daily lives around the daily rhythm of prayer and the living of compassionate lives.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Enrich Your Prayer Life in the New Year

December 28, 2013

Christmas has passed. Christ, as baby Jesus is among us. The New Year approaches. It is a special moment in time when we reflect upon the past and the future. We remember friends and family who have departed. We consider what we have done and what has been left undone? Looking forward, we contemplate our hopes and aspirations for the new year.

For people of faith, the new year marks an opportunity to renew vows or refocus on the interior life of prayer and contemplation. Life is both precious and uncertain. We do not know when we will depart this world. More importantly, we do not know the good that might arise if we cultivate an interior life and turn our minds to that which is beyond self.

The new year is a time to take stock of our lives and make a small commitment to deepening our spiritual practice. Nothing grand or heroic is required. The life of spiritual transformation is lived one day at a time. It is lived in the day to day interactions with the people in our lives. It is lived in how we handle the many small challenges and sufferings of daily life.

Here are three simple things you can do to enrich and and deepen your interior life.

1. Prayer / Meditation: Make a commitment to daily prayer, meditation, or contemplation. Again, nothing heroic, like committing to four hours or two hours or even one hour of prayer every day. While laudable, this level of commitment is totally unrealistic for most and bound to failure.

More realistic is a commitment of 10 to 15 minutes of prayer or meditation a day. The best time for prayer is first thing in the morning. Ten minutes does not seem long, but I assure you that on some days it will feel interminable. The first few days or weeks will go smoothly but before long temptations and hurdles will arise. You will be tired or bored or both. Other things will try to crowd into even those few minutes you have set aside. Resist and remain steadfast. If you persevere, you will be amazed that these precious ten minutes were not always a part of your life.

2. Scripture: Make a commitment to the daily reading of scripture from you religious tradition. Again, nothing grand and heroic is required. Don’t make it complicated. Just take a few minutes everyday and read a short passage. There are many wonderful books and Apps available that can provide you with daily readings throughout the year. There are also books on how to read and contemplate scripture, while valuable, do not let these become barriers to actually reading the texts. The texts themselves, if encountered on a daily basis, will be enough.

3. Community: Consider regular attendance and membership in a church from your religious tradition. I know that this is a big barrier for a lot of spiritual people. I am definitely sympathetic to people who have been turned off by their local Christian Church or Buddhist temple. Dealing with people, church structures, uninspired sermons, mumbled hymns, and bad or offensive theology can be a real challenge. I get that. However, none of us can live a religious life in isolation. We need both the support and challenges that are found in a religious community.

Whatever your path, make a commitment to enrich your interior life in the New Year. If you know what that will look like, try it out in the few days leading up to the New Year. Is it realistic? Is it doable? If yes, then start today. If not, make some adjustments and try again.

Finally, have some compassion and forgiveness for yourself. Even ten minutes of prayer or meditation a day is a big commitment. You are bound to fail occasionally. That is fine. It is not the end of the world. Just start again the next day.

Peace, Paul

Calm Abiding Meditation

February 14, 2009

What I am sharing with you is not the insight of some spiritual superstar, but rather the reflections of a dense and obtuse practitioner who has been practicing “in the world” for the last 24 or so years.  My practice has at times been very focused and at other times rather casual.  I have done a lot of different Buddhist practices, but I have always had Calm Abiding Meditation as part of my daily routine

Calm Abiding (Samatha) Meditation is one of the foundational contemplation practices of most schools of Buddhism.  It can be taught in many ways but usually involves awareness of the breath.

While the practice of Calm Abiding is often taught as a stand alone practice, I would suggest that it works better within a religious world view and in particular within the Buddhist Dharma.  The Buddhist Dharma places our lives within the context of a very large, spacious, and complex universe where change happens over vast periods of time and the goal is nothing less that the cessation of suffering for all beings.  (Buddhists are definitely not under achievers!) 

What is Calm Abiding Mediation?

First:   Calm Abiding Meditation is rejoicing in the fullness of the present moment.  It is both blissful and peaceful while also being very alert / aware.  Calm abiding is not the stupor state of escapism.

Second: Calm Abiding is possible even for people with full lives.

Third: I don’t know about anybody else, but personally, I was so busy trying to meditate that it took me forever to recognize that Calm Abiding is about Abiding in the present moment.  Sounds, sensations, sights, thoughts, etc are all occurring in the present moment.  There is a lot going on in the present moment and we really need to pull back and just appreciate and wonder beauty of each moment.

Fourth: Thinking is stressful. (That’s dukkha to you Buddhists.) Take a break from thinking and analyzing and judging everything. (Trust me, your thoughts will wait around for you.)  Give yourself some time each day to sense fully the present moment.  Listen to the ocean, or the wind, or the bird,s or the traffic, or whatever, with your full being.  Don’t think about it, just perceive.

Fifth: You are not your thoughts.  In fact, your thoughts are just a small part of your experience.  Unfortunately, we tend to obsessively focus on our thoughts.  We confuse our thoughts about who we are, with what we truly are.

Sixth: Calm Abiding is joyful.  Really!

Seventh:  Calm Abiding Meditation takes commitment.  You need to make time in your daily life to just be.  You really do need that 30 minutes, or more, each day with nothing to do but sit, breath, and be aware.  (It is only boring because we have become accustomed to having our minds stimulated non-stop.)

Eight:  As you grow your practice will grow and change.   Calm Abiding is only one part of the Buddhist Path.  Buddhism is a way of life which involves: faith, study, ethics, ritual, community, meditation, self reflection and transformation.

If you want to change your life, you need to be willing to change.  The Dharma can help you make that change.

Peace, Paul