Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

one

August 3rd, 2021    -    4 Comments

During the long, slow months of the pandemic lockdown, holed up at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I discovered something new. I discovered my breath.

Breathing might not seem like much of a discovery, occurring as it does twenty thousand times a day for each of us. But we hardly notice the breath. We remain unstirred by its subtle constancy and unmoved by its deep mystery. Yet right there under our nose lies a journey into the pulsing heart of a living, breathing universe.

All I needed to do to take that journey was sit down and count my breath.

Counting one’s breath is the foundational practice in Zen, taught by generations of ancestors. It’s an efficient way to quiet discriminative thought and bring the mind to single-pointed concentration. Yasutani Roshi, a twentieth-century Japanese Zen master, instructed his students in a sequence of four types of counting, which are described in Phillip Kapleau’s classic book The Three Pillars of Zen. To start, count each inhalation and exhalation up to ten, and then return to one. Do this over and over for the length of each sitting period. Next, count only the exhalation up to ten and over again for each sitting period. Then, only the inhalation. Finally, drop the counting entirely and concentrate your attention on each breath fully.

“Breathe naturally,” Yasutani said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even so, anyone who has ever tried a breathing practice knows that it is not at all simple in the doing. The very word “simple” conjures up difficulty in our dualistic thinking. Trying too hard to “just breathe” can strangle the breath. The number ten can seem as distant as ten thousand. Obsessing about breathing, we may no longer know how to do what we have been doing effortlessly since the moment we were born, and even before.

“Before we were born, while still in our mother’s womb, how did we breathe? You don’t remember how? Actually, that is the problem!” the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi said. Like his teacher Yasutani, he exhorted his students to remember “that most excellent breathing” from the lower abdomen where we were once connected by umbilical cord to our mothers.

Infants maintain full-body breathing—not to mention full-body crying and full-body laughing—until they grow older and, like the rest of us, become engrossed in the artifice of thought. It’s the busyness in our heads that tightens the chest and shortens the breath, creating physical and mental discomfort. Because of that, we are likely to conclude that a breathing practice isn’t working for us. It’s harder than we thought it would be. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere. And it’s not interesting. We want to move on to what’s next, to a more entertaining or important stage in our quest. Or we give up altogether.

But all the while, breathing remains the most profound dharma—every thought, every action, and every moment comes out of it. So how do we keep the practice of breathing going if we get discouraged? The answer really does lie in giving up.

Breathing exposes the expectations we bring into a practice: what we think it should feel like, what we aim to accomplish, and what it all means. But each breath defies our expectations and is entirely original: sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes smooth, sometimes not. Breath is movement and movement is change, the truth of our existence. We can hold on to our expectations, beliefs, and judgments, but we cannot hold on to a breath, which is the manifestation of the present moment. The exhalation itself guides us into the empty ease and relief of letting go.

If we’re honest about counting the breath, we have to make sure we can keep a count going through a full sitting period, then a series of sitting periods, or, if we’re on retreat, for a full day of sitting. By then, we are probably unconcerned with whatever comes next in our spiritual advancement, and when we empty ourselves of ambition, a kind of in-the-marrow remembering occurs. Our bodies know how to be. Our breath knows how to flow. Our brain knows how to self-regulate and our thoughts to self-liberate. This is the inherent wisdom of our Buddha nature. It’s how the seemingly simplistic instruction to “breathe naturally” can be realized quite naturally. We just get out of the way.

That’s what happened to me while I was stuck at home for a year with nowhere else to go. I sat down on my cushion, folded my legs, straightened my back, and brought my attention to my breath, just as I’ve done for more than twenty years. Longtime meditators can get trapped in stale habits, but this time was different; this time was entirely new.

Alone, with nothing to prove and no insights to uncover, my body relaxed. I felt my weight drop to the floor and even further, as if pulled underground. I breathed as though my nose wasn’t in the middle of my face, but located two inches beneath my navel, inflating and deflating my belly. My mind cleared, and automatically I began following the counting instructions Yasutani had spoken so long ago. It happened by itself. In sight of a clock, I could tell that my breathing slowed to four or five times per minute, sometimes slower. As I did this day after day, it felt as though the sitting weren’t my doing at all. It was the world that wanted to stop spinning, and me with it.

Studies tell us that focused breathing can help relieve depression and chronic pain, fight inflammation, and activate life-extending genes in our DNA. The power of breath can’t be understood but it can be felt—not just within but beyond our egoistic self. Deep in the lungs, the separation between ourselves and the outside world is smaller than a single cell. That’s no separation at all. That’s what we are.

From the Sept. 2021 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Photo by Amy Clark.

a quiet room

June 10th, 2021    -    No Comments

For zazen, a quiet room is suitable. — Dogen Zenji

Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia, NY
Oct. 7-10, 2021
Registration Open

Midway between Rochester and Buffalo, New York, Chapin Mill is a quiet refuge on 135 rural acres. Here, in a meditation center built expressly for Zen, we return to the traditional practice of sitting together in person. This three-day retreat is open to all levels of practitioners and includes sitting, chanting, walking meditation, Dharma talks and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Silence is practiced throughout. More information and registration here.

 

10 tips for a mindful home

April 7th, 2020    -    25 Comments

1.Wake with the sun
There is no purer light than what you see when your eyes open first thing in the morning.

2.Sit
Mindfulness without meditation is just a word.

3. Make your bed
The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity.

4.Empty the hampers
Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life.

5. Wash your bowl
Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky.

6. Set a timer
If you’re distracted by the weight of what’s undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand until the bell rings.

7. Rake the leaves
Rake, weed, or sweep. You’ll never finish for good, but you’ll learn the point of pointlessness.

8. Eat when hungry
Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite.

9. Let the darkness come
Set a curfew on technology and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest.

10. Sleep when tired
Nothing more to it.

don’t use a word of this

June 19th, 2019    -    1 Comment

“You are an experienced meditator, aren’t you?”

Perhaps only an experienced meditator would be stumped by this question, but I answered yes to be cooperative.

“Something happened after I meditated and I wanted to ask you about it.”

She told me that she’s been meditating more and she was getting good at it but the last time she did it she had made it through all the chakras and it was going pretty well and she meditated for longer than she ever had and afterwards some good things had happened to her but then later that day she felt sick and lightheaded and had to lie down and had I ever heard of that and what did I think it meant?

“That does sound like a kind of sickness,” I said.

Which part? she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t even know where my chakras are.”

***

Something happens when you meditate, but it will never be what you expect.

To be sure, no one starts a meditation practice without expecting to get something out of it—the answer, the secret, the pay-off. Just about any motivation is worthwhile if it gets you out of bed and upright for one more day, but what I experience in a room with other people on retreat is never something I’m seeking.

When I stop thinking about myself, I feel the subtle energies around me, like fear and sadness, restlessness and worry. People around me are grieving. They are in crazy pain and shame. There is trouble at home. A marriage is ending, loved ones are lost or leaving, lives are falling apart. The body is breaking, the cancer is spreading, the debt is coming due. And out of this great ache comes a flooding rush of gratitude up my spine and out of my heart because these humans have shared a moment of their lives without a get or a fix, for no good reason and absent any shred of understanding.

What happens is love.

***

Your body knows what to do, and it’s already doing it, so just breathe, I told her. Breathe from the belly, and count your breath to keep your mind still and focused. You don’t have to process anything. Everything is already processed. Try not to look for a result. Don’t judge if it’s good or bad or right or wrong or working or not. Keep it simple. Buddhism is really simple, and Zen meditation is the simplest kind of Buddhism.

“That’s really useful,” she said, even as I prayed she wouldn’t use a word of it.

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center, Cincinnati

Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo

Photo by Zoltan Tasi

clear waters

May 22nd, 2019    -    No Comments

Upstate NY
Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo
Registration Open

A traditional three-day retreat including seated and walking meditation, dharma talks, chanting services, oryoki meals, and the opportunity to meet privately with a teacher. Chapin Mill is a peaceful refuge on 135 rural acres that the people of the Iroquois Nation once called “The Place of Clear Running Waters” for its abundant springs, streams and ponds.

letting go

April 22nd, 2019    -    No Comments

Let go and make yourself independent and free, not being bound by things and not seeking to escape from things. — Yuanwu

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Cincinnati
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center
Registration Open

Make peace with impermanence and find freedom in things as they are. Experience the healing presence of just sitting or walking in meditation, chanting, Dharma talks and private encounters with a teacher. Special attention and support will be given to beginners. Three nights, all meals included.

under florida skies

March 11th, 2019    -    No Comments

A Day of Meditation
Sat., May 25, 2019, 8-4
Southern Palm Zen Group
meeting at
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton

I’ll be a guest teacher for a day of practice including meditation, a dharma talk, the opportunity to meet privately, and a delicious vegetarian lunch.  Suggested donation is $45.  Please RSVP by May 22 to southernpalmzengroup@gmail.com. Seating is limited; the sky is endless.

what keeps me going

February 19th, 2019    -    63 Comments

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About twice a year I spend six hours sitting still and quiet with a small group of total strangers in the converted attic of a century-old house in a tricky neighborhood near downtown LA. That’s what I call a beginner’s Zen meditation retreat. These days, an event like that is probably considered old school. But that’s how we used to learn and practice meditation, and some of us still do: in real life in a real place with real people in real time. When I got home, I had a message from an old friend who said she wasn’t calling for any particular reason. That’s what friends used to do too. Just be friends for no reason.

Today, these two events are so rare, so nearly impossible to believe, that it makes me want to write them down. I don’t write many things down anymore. Someone asked me about that recently. He said, “You don’t write on your blog much anymore.” And it’s true, I don’t. I tried to give him an answer why. There’s the matter of privacy, and the wrenching realization that I have exploited much of my life and family for the sake of . . . just for the sake of me! And then there’s the sad situation that not as many people read anymore. They say they do, but they don’t read blogs, don’t read books, and don’t even search the internet as much as they did last year, let alone last month. It’s even true of me. I read a whole helluva lot all the time but I don’t buy books very often anymore. I borrow them for free from my library’s digital database. And you might argue that kind of reading still counts but I know it doesn’t count for the author or the library.

Last year my hometown library canceled my library card because I hadn’t been to the library for two years. I called up, confused and upset. I told them I read about three e-books a week from them, and they said, but you haven’t been to the library. And you might say setting foot inside a library doesn’t count, but I know it does count when it comes to keeping the library open. Every year they have to fight the good fight at City Hall—where the not-so-hard choice is between keeping the library open or providing water and sanitation services—and so they keep cutting the library hours into fractions of fractions of fractions. They renewed my card because I asked. Librarians will do that for you.

Two weeks ago I heard from a writer at a magazine who was working on a story about “the evolution of iPhone Buddhism and someone said I should talk to you.” I told him I didn’t know what iPhone Buddhism was (although I could make a cynical guess) and he confirmed that my guess was right. Someone is seriously suggesting how important the phone is for the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and practice today, and I admitted that I don’t use a smartphone so I couldn’t comment, but I could suggest a revolutionary new mindfulness app: put the goddamn phone down!  The advanced version would be: turn the goddamn phone off. He said that was the most profound thing he’d heard anyone say on the topic.

Whenever I do a beginner’s retreat I am reminded why people would leave their homes, turn off their phones, take off their shoes, come up two flights of stairs and sit with strangers in silence all day.

The reason why is that something is missing from our screens. There’s no social in our social; no life in our life. There has to be something real, something that can’t be digitized, monetized, and sold. And there is. It’s what keeps me going, and perhaps it will keep you going too.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
March 31, 2019, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

This post was originally published on Mar. 21, 2016, and look! It’s still going.

bloom

January 9th, 2019    -    No Comments

Let all karma be wiped out and the mind-flower bloom in eternal spring!

This April I’ll be returning to the wide-open prairies of Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin to observe the flow of spring amid the stillness of Zen. All levels of practitioners are invited to join this weekend of seated meditation (zazen), walking meditation (kinhin), chanting, and Dharma talks.

Holy Wisdom Monastery is less than 10 miles outside of Madison. This ecumenical center welcomes visitors with inspiring views, comfortable rooms and lovingly prepared meals. It is the perfect place to come alive again.

Spring Wind: A Zen Retreat
April 11-14, 2019
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Registration open

what we do for love

December 13th, 2018    -    3 Comments

A practitioner at a meditation retreat asks a question.

Q: What am I practicing here that helps me be more present and connected in my daily life?

A: Here, what you’re practicing is presence and connection, so that you can be more present and connected. Although right now you’re in a different place doing something different than usual, this really is your daily life. Yours alone. Even among all of us gathered here in one place, no one else is having the experience that you are having. Furthermore, if I were to tell you that practice is transactional, that if you sit like this you’re going to have a certain wonderful experience in your other, “normal” life someday – that would be a lie. This isn’t a transaction. Practice isn’t a product, a course of study or a life hack. There are not two things: your life and your practice. They are the same thing. You never leave your life, and the point is to never leave your practice. It’s all one thing.

We are here practicing being human beings. This is the practice of being a human being. In the old days they called Zen the practice of everyday life. You think, “This isn’t my everyday life. This is the opposite of my everyday life.” But nonetheless, this is your everyday life. Since the very beginning, and I don’t know why, human beings are not so good at everyday life. Unless they really practice everyday life.

Can I practice handling just this moment, however it is? Because when I’m out and about in my everyday life, I’m perfectly fine until someone does something that I don’t like or something happens that I don’t want. That’s where it gets tough, and it can get tough every day. It can get tough today. This environment here is very artificial and contrived. We’ve arranged ourselves in this nearly empty room, everyone in funny clothes trying to sit still and be silent. We don’t intentionally add stress here, but you experience stress here. I promise you that in your life, you experience stress. Can you sit it out? Wait it out? Breathe it out? Refrain from involving yourself in sticky situations that you don’t need to be in?

I can only speak from my own experience. At a certain point in my everyday life, I just could not handle it! I didn’t want any more of it! I tried everything I could think of to fix the problems and nothing worked. So when I finally sat down like this, it was an act of complete surrender. A sign of total failure. I’m going to have to do this on my own, I said. I’m going to have to figure out how to be a human being, with a life that has other people and things in it.

That’s what we’re here to do. And why do we do it? I think it’s why we do everything. Not because we’re high-minded or religious. This is not a religion. It’s a practice. You do not worship Buddha, and you do not worship me. Let’s see for a moment if you can stop worshipping yourself.

We’re here for love, because we have a capacity for love and we want to love and we want to be loved. That’s the connection. It’s not romantic love. It’s unconditional love. Unconditional love is pure presence.

Here we are among strangers. It’s a good idea to find love among strangers. It gets complicated after you know each other’s names and stories. When you know all that, you might find that you can’t relate to someone else. You might not even be able to tolerate them. But here you can simply have respect and gratitude for one another. Here you can just be present with everyone and everything.

It’s a beautiful practice, this practice of presence. It comes in many shapes and forms. Some people find connection on a swim team, or a cooking class, or off-road racing. And then you wonder how does that apply to life? But it does.

What we’re doing here this weekend requires a very modest amount of time, compared to how long it takes to stream a Netflix series. And it is relatively painless. So ask yourself. Why am I here?

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
March 31, 2019

Spring Wind Weekend Retreat
Holy Wisdom Monastery
Madison, WI
April 11-14, 2019

Photo: The Dewdrop Sangha by Rick McCleary.

This is an excerpt from an informal Q&A at one of this year’s Dewdrop Sangha meditation retreats. You can listen to the full recording here.

why buddha sits

November 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Let me tell you a story about Buddha. This story is often mischaracterized as mythology or parable, because we like to approach things that way. Oh I get it, it’s a fable— rather than facing it as stark reality.

Buddha was born and his parents adored him in that misguided and dangerous way that all parents adore their children. Because daddy was king of the clan, they had the resources to raise their son with considerable advantages. At the same time they had been warned about certain dangers. They had consulted a seer, who said, “Look, your son is either going to be a great warrior king or become a spiritual freak.” So they tried to prevent him from becoming anything other than a king with power and wealth. They didn’t want any damaging influences to detour his ascent to greatness. What spiritual seekers did at that time was . . . weird. They were ascetics. They didn’t eat. They didn’t dress. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t have homes or shelter. The parents had to rule out that nonsense entirely.

Like all of us, they were very afraid that their child would suffer pain or misfortune. So they baby-proofed the house. They put a lock on the toilet lid, the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door. They set out to eliminate all hazards, because this is how much they loved their son and feared for his future. As he grew up, he was surrounded by servants to care for his every desire so he didn’t have to go anywhere. And they weren’t just servants. They were the best-looking servants: only young, fit, beautiful people bringing him the finest food, most beautiful music and freshest flowers. Nothing decayed; nothing unpleasant.

I understand a couple of things that are going on here. I understand love, and how as parents we feel the need to protect and control. But I also get what we feel as children. We grow up, and by degree, we keep peeling back the curtain. We’re hungry for the truth. We feel trapped, smothered, and fooled. We know our parents might have good intentions, but after a while all that confinement begins to feel like bad intentions.

Even though Buddha had everything he ever wanted, he wanted more. He said, “What’s the real world like?” He and his adolescent friends decided they were going do the unthinkable. They jumped over the wall and they went down to the city, that forbidden place. He was gonna have fun!

Only he didn’t have fun. That’s because the first thing he sees is an old person. And he’s like, “Whoa, what happened to him?” Because when you’re 15, you think you’re gonna be 15 forever. When you’re 20, you’re gonna be 20 forever. And then, when you slide over into 30, you think, “Well, at least I’m not 40!”

So Buddha says to his buddy, “What the hell happened there?” And his friend says, “That’s just an old person. We all get old.” That was a downer.

They go on, and pretty soon they see somebody sick on the street. You don’t have to look far to see something like that no matter where you live. Even now when you see it, do you really see it? Nowadays if you get sick, what’s the first thing you think about? Prevention. “If only I’d . . . worn a mask on the airplane . . . hadn’t eaten sushi . . . gotten a flu shot . . . taken a different elevator.” What we’re always trying to do is engineer a different outcome: perfect health, happiness, and the fountain of youth.

A whole lot of what we buy feeds into that delusion. You’re not going to get sick if you use this. You’re not going to get wrinkles. You’re not going to get gray hair. You’re not gonna get old. What’s implied in everything we buy is you’re not going to die. Because the same night Buddha sees the old guy and the sick guy, he sees a dead guy.

Old age, sickness, and death. That’s reality, not a myth.

So what does Buddha do when he comes away dazed and confused from the most shocking night of his young life? He looks around at the hordes of people – his friends, his family, the crowds milling around town, buying and selling crap — and says, “How can you live like this? If you know you’re going to get old, sick and die, why do you live as if it’s not going to happen?”

He’d been born into brocade and jewels. He’d come from a palace. And he saw what it wasn’t. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. He realized that he needed to relinquish his false identity of privilege and immunity. He needed to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, irrefutable and irreversible truth that we grow old, we get sick and we die.

Right then, he dedicated himself to resolving this dilemma: How can we live if it’s for nothing? What do we do and where do we go, if there’s no way out?

“This is where we start,” he said, and sat down to see it through.

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

***

Photo by Henley Design Studio from Pexels

learn to see

September 11th, 2018    -    2 Comments

If you don’t see the Way, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
Identity of Relative and Absolute

I used to go around thinking that one day my real life would begin. That some day something important would happen. My life would become interesting and enjoyable. I would do things that mattered. My hard work would pay off, and my ship would come in. All of that would make me happy, someday. But I wasn’t seeing clearly. I was missing the picture entirely. Like someone standing in the waves, looking for the ocean.

We spend a lot of time trying to see far ahead, figure it out, and plot the course to get somewhere else. But we can’t see far ahead. We can only think far ahead. Thinking far ahead is called blindness. Seeing what’s right in front of you is called seeing.

Learn to see. Because now you know that all the things that are so easy to miss are the things that really matter.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center, Los Angeles
Register by email

Photo by Frances Gunn

keep starting over

August 20th, 2018    -    1 Comment

It is important that you encourage yourself to keep starting over, to keep listening to the basic, simple instructions in how to sit, because this is a simple thing to do. But, of course, it isn’t easy.

You are here to face yourself. We are each uncomfortable in some certain way with ourselves and with our lives. Now you are here. You are sitting on your cushion and you are by yourself. You are experiencing yourself. You are breathing your own breath. The most important part to keep in mind is the body. I suppose you might think this is a thinking practice— because we always think that things require thinking—but this is a practice that ultimately requires no thinking. Your body, functioning by itself, requires no thinking. That’s why we can rely on it to guide us.

Let’s pledge to practice with the body we brought. Don’t be critical. Don’t think that you are shortchanged or shorthanded, that you don’t have the right kind of feet or knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. You are perfectly endowed as a buddha. What do you think? If this practice was good enough for Shakyamuni, is it not good enough for you?

Excerpted from the dharma talk “The Breath is You”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center near Batavia
Upstate NY
Register before Sept. 24

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