Posts Tagged ‘oneness’

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.

the world enters us

June 23rd, 2020    -    2 Comments

Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart
and at the same time the power and clarity of the Great Eastern Sun.
Then you can make a proper cup of tea. —
Chogyam Trungpa

As long as you think that all the trouble and turmoil in the world is outside of you, beyond you, separate from you, then you support the world of samsara, the world of greed, anger and ignorance. Now this is not to blame you, this is to encourage you. It is vital that, since you have been led to the Dharma, you truly commit yourself to your practice, because only through this practice can we see that this world — which appears to be beyond us and outside of us and against us — is not separate. It is the world of oneness.

Right now there is momentum to make a better the world a better place, a noble aim. But I’m here to tell you what my teacher once told me: you can’t do that. You, that separate you, that ego that you carry around, is not the agent of change. As long as you carry that separate self forward, driven by your own beliefs, ambitions, and expectations, you don’t change the world.

I remember years ago when I was first asked to give talks, I told my teacher (because this is the voice of someone who’s quite full of themselves) “I just want to help people.” I thought that was the thing we were supposed to say and supposed to do. And he said, “Maezen, you can’t help anyone.” This was a shock to me, because I had testimonials! I had perfect strangers writing to me and saying “You helped me so much.” But what he was telling me was this: “Maezen, you, with what you think you can do, with your idea of help, striving for purpose and to make a difference, which is all ego, you can’t help anyone.”

But this is not the end of the story. Is it impossible for the world to change? No. It is impossible that it won’t change. What matters is how we move forward and what we share.

An excerpt from the last in a series of talks given during this, the first wave of the pandemic.
The World Enters Us dharma talk
Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

a chain of daisies

March 31st, 2020    -    11 Comments

The other day I did something I don’t ever do. I sent an email to my best friend, asking her if there was a good time I could call. I really wanted to call her because I don’t ever call her. As much as I preach about staying in touch with others, I’m usually on the receiving end of someone else’s kind thoughts and selfless concerns.

At that instant, my phone rang. It was my friend. She said, “You won’t believe what just happened. I was typing an email to you when I got yours at the same time!”

I did believe it. This kind of thing actually happens a lot, although we might not notice. When we do notice we call it coincidence, serendipity or synchronicity; a fluke, an accident, a chance, all the ways we brush off events that defy the separation of time and space. We just think about someone and they appear. We just talk about something and it materializes. We need and then we miraculously get.

The fact is, there isn’t any separation in time or space. There isn’t any separation between any of us, or any time, or any place.

Obviously, this is not conventional wisdom, but it is wisdom. You can see it in the Buddhist or Hindu mandala, which diagrams the living reality of the universe; or in a wheel and its spokes; or in a daisy with its petals. Each of us is the center, the hub, the eye, of a circle containing everything and everyone else; a spontaneous infinitude of interconnections through all space and time.

Today, it’s a global pandemic, a contagion without boundaries or exemptions. More proof, as if we asked for it, that we’re all in this together. Now we can see for ourselves that little things make a big difference, and that Good Samaritans are strangers.

The other day I did something else I don’t ever do. I received an email from a friend inviting me to participate in a chain letter of sorts, a chain to exchange poems. I don’t do chain letters, and I have enough poems, thank you. But this came from a good friend at a time friends have never been so good. So just this once I participated without any expectation that anyone anywhere else would do likewise, or that I’d ever see any poems out of it.

Over the next few days, dozens of messages arrived. I’d open one to find a familiar verse, or more likely one I’d never seen before. They were poignant, masterful and sweet, delivered to me as gifts from people and places far beyond my knowing. Some came as photos taken from books or journals; one included a recipe for “comfort cookies.” Each was like a ray of warmth, a beam of light, a link in a chain of daisies springing up as if from nowhere.

This is our hope and blessing: each other.

Beannacht
by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

from Echoes of Memory (Transworld Publishing, 2010)
Photo by Kristine Cinate on Unsplash

letter from home

March 20th, 2020    -    11 Comments

I’m writing these words on a blank sheet of paper in longhand, which is a forgotten word, although it used to be the only way anything could be written. Longhand is the way I write all the letters I send. What makes this relevant, I’m not quite sure, except that I spent the morning writing letters, which is something I can still do, and after that I walked to the post office, which is another thing I can still do, even though the governor of California has decreed that all 40 million of us Californians must hereafter stay home with only a few essential exceptions, like taking a walk or standing six feet apart in line to get into a grocery store where they probably don’t have what you’re looking for anyway.

Writing letters is thus much favored as a daily event, as is walking to the mailbox, the post office, or even farther. Many stay-at-homers were walking the streets this morning with me, some with dogs, others with their babies. Walking outside on a morning like this was a thrilling way to see that the world is still outrageously beautiful and alive, the fruits ripe to bursting and spring flowers flush, the bleeding red hearts of the bougainvillea spilling everywhere. Strangers waved from across empty streets. Suddenly, we have so much in common.

Along the way I realized the benevolence, the genius and, yes, the pure common sense of the governor’s decree. I’ve been thinking of this virus as an invading force, an outside threat, and praying for the threat to pass. But there is no threat from outside. I am the threat, and I have to contain it. This is my responsibility, my duty as a human being among human beings. I alone can either spread it or stop it. The answer is in my hands.

I can do this, how about you?

Photo by Natalia Łyczko on Unsplash

 

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