First Thoughts

Illustration by Eric HansonThich Nhat Hanh says we can’t forgive our transgressors until we understand that they are victims too.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates, who’d been born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand and the Philippines. These sea pirates heard that when the boat people were fleeing their country, they often had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So the sea pirates knew that if they robbed the boat people of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born into poor families on the coastline. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we’d been born and raised in that way, we too could have become sea pirates.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot forgive if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that the person you’re angry with is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. You don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue suffering, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear, and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of meditation, namely the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things have become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help.

From The Mindfulness Bell, Winter/Spring 2012

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Start With The Body

Jackie Ashley, a psychotherapist and teacher at Naropa University, says the best way to support your meditation practice is to have an open and honest communication with your body.

Two of the stated hopes of Buddhist meditation, mental clarity and peace, can be attained sooner if one starts with the body. But unfortunately our relationship with our bodies in meditation practice has been one of control and discipline. We have not allowed for the body’s innate wisdom to guide us toward enlightenment or to enhance our physical well-being.

“I CANNOT sit still” is a common protestation. And there is truth here. The only time our bodies are completely still is in death. Even in sleep or in the postures of long-time practitioners, the blood pulses, the heart beats, the lungs expand and contract, we twitch, a spasm occurs, our eyes blink, we swallow. There is lots of movement going on. In movement there is health. The body is designed to restore itself to health and balance. This is its innate purpose. When I teach meditation, I start with posture. We begin by lying on the floor and then come into an upright, seated posture after twenty minutes of guided relaxation and awareness practices. As a result, when students sit up, their bodies are relaxed and their internal and external sense perceptions are activated. They discover a posture that works for their body; as individual bodies are different, so too will be their postures of meditation.

A relaxed mind, a mind that is spacious and open to whatever comes up, is supported by a relaxed body. If there is tension in the body—if we continuously struggle, holding ourselves a certain way, bracing ourselves against discomfort and pain, letting our limbs fall asleep—this can become the focus of our practice. How can we discern the subtle levels of consciousness we have learned from the great Buddhist practitioners if we are constantly resisting and attempting to control or deny what we are physically experiencing? And what about the first noble truth that our chronic state of suffering is based in wanting things to be different from how they are? What if we don’t have a body that can sit cross-legged in an upright, seated posture on the floor? Can we find another position where we can be still and accepting of ourselves, just as we are, with no self-aggression? This is the practice of maitri, or loving-kindness toward oneself.

It is becoming increasingly recognized in the emerging research of neuropsychology that emotions are held in the body, in the muscle memory of our histories of experience. When we acknowledge, explore, and address the difficult things that are happening in the body, they do transform. If we brace against them, if we intend to ignore or just put up with the discomfort/pain, muscling our way through our meditation practice, this becomes the gist of the practice. As a result we may end up injuring ourselves or always dreading sitting on the cushion, assuming that physical discomfort is to be expected. This impacts on our capacity for getting the most out of our efforts toward some semblance of an enlightened mind.

From The Middle Way, November 2011, the journal of The Buddhist Society

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Can We Rest in the Questions?

Ajahn Khemasiri ponders a meditation practice without methods and asks if we can rest in the open, spacious mind of not knowing or doing.

If we are too fixated on methods of meditation— including the observation of mental objects which arise during meditation—we can easily miss the fact that all states are by their very nature conditioned, limited, and unreliable. We overlook the fact that the fascination with states only leads us more and more into dependence and neediness. How would it be for a change if we were to loosen our grip of attention on the world of objects? How would it be if we could disengage from the habit of mind to lean on external objects and get completely absorbed by them in a contracted way, and if we could instead relate to ourselves with an attitude of inner spaciousness and openness? What would happen to the normal consequences of this narrowing down, i.e. the distorted perceptions, the habitual interpretations, and value judgments of our experience and the inevitable suffering they bring along?

Could we maybe, with all our attention and care, relax into a more circumspective form of awareness—similar to the observation of natural phenomena in a mountain valley—whereby the compulsive narrowing down of our attention around objects can come to an end? Is it at that point, when those conditions are fully present, that alertness, calm, and stillness can reveal themselves? Or is there still something missing? And if there is something missing, what would it be and what qualities would it have?

Can we allow such questions to be present within us and, most of all, can we really live them and continue to ponder them, rather than assuming that we know, because we know it all theoretically? Or maybe we just rely on the vague hope that directing our attention again and again onto a certain form of meditation will somehow someday bring the desired results.

Even more fundamentally, can we admit that we don’t yet really know what’s what, but still open ourselves toward each new arising moment, with all our vulnerability and insecurity in the face of the uncertainty of our own existence? Are we able to bear that?

And where does this lead us, if this is not based merely on an uptight endurance but more on a patient and equanimous resting within the stillness, clarity, and presence of our own awareness? Material things, feelings, memories, thought activity, and sense impressions appear in a completely natural manner—and disappear in the same fashion, if we allow it to happen.

From the Forest Sangha newsletter, Spring 2012

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It’s All Your Fault

When you catch yourself blaming others, says Ken McLeod, it’s a clear indication that you need to step back and look at your mind.

Blame is refreshing, because it is so unambiguously a reaction. You don’t have to think or wonder about it. As soon as you see you are running the blame game, you know you are in reaction. When that happens, stop right there and ask yourself, what’s happening?

Clearly, things didn’t turn out the way you expected or wanted. You are frustrated and disappointed, and you can’t tolerate those feelings. You don’t want to feel this way.

You have a story about what happened, but that story is immediately suspect because in it you are the hero. You use logic and reason, the opinions of others, support from friends or colleagues, to bolster your story. You are right!

But remember, when it comes to blame, reason is a weapon you use when you do not want to acknowledge your anger. Or, depending on your predilections, you turn it around—you still have a story and you still have a privileged role, but this time, you are wrong. It’s all your fault.

In Mind Training in Seven Points, the author Chekawa provides two instructions about blame: “Drive all blame into one,” and “Don’t put an ox’s load on a cow.”

The first instruction says to lay all your problems, everything that is wrong in your life, at the doorstep of one pattern: wanting things to be different from what they are. Blame is a wonderful reminder here of how deeply you want the world to conform to your expectations.

The second instruction says to meet whatever arises. Don’t avoid it, internally or externally. When things turn out differently, meet that situation, not the one you wanted or expected.

One last point: blame is a form of mind killing. It reduces the complexities of a situation down to one emotionally charged point. It blinds you to the role of other factors. It provokes reactions that lead people to act against their interests.

Thus, when the blame game is running, stop. Stop right there. Step out of your story. Step out of your judgments. Step out of your obsession with who’s right and who’s wrong. Step out of your racing mind.

Take a breath and meet the world you are in.

From the e-newsletter of Unfettered Mind (unfetteredmind.org), March 2012

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Stress is a Waste of Time

Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, knows what it’s like to be stressed out, and says nothing good comes of it.

My friends tell me how much stress they are going through because of the economy, business, family, and all sorts of things. Out of curiosity, I checked the dictionary for the modern scholars’ explanation of stress and found this definition, “Stress is the consequence of the failure to adapt to change.” I think, to a certain extent, they are right about this.

Stress is the result of inflexibility and nonacceptance. In other words, it is caused by strong attachments to certain things, to certain ways or outcomes, to expectations. When there is strong hope or expectation, there is also fear that this expectation will not come true, that things may not go according to your plan or your wishes. So stress comes.

When my friends stop their daily practice and I ask them why, they tell me it is because they don’t have time. Some of them even tell me that I can’t understand. I’m not in business so I wouldn’t know what stress is. I laugh to myself when I hear this; if they knew how many people I have responsibility for, how many children I am feeding, and how many monasteries I take care of, they would know just how much I do understand. I remember when I was thinking about setting up schools for nuns, one in Ladakh and one in Nepal, I worried a great deal. I sat there all day, worrying and calculating. At the end of the day I realized I had done nothing all day except worry. Nothing was achieved and a day was wasted.

Being stressed is a waste of time and it kills our creativity and potential. Instead of spending all that time worrying, I encourage my friends to get back into their daily practice. When you feel stressed, you often feel stuck and indecisive, so a little time spent meditating and relaxing is of great benefit. You remind yourself of the meaning of impermanence, the preciousness of life. Even if external situations are going wrong, you can still be fearless and have the courage to be okay, to live a fruitful life and be flexible. You can be genuinely happy because this happiness comes from your inner guru and doesn’t depend on external circumstances to be a certain, fixed way.

I always hope that my friends and students will pick up their path and practices again; it is the backbone of life and happiness. Without this understanding, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the ups and downs of life, but with this grounding, we can take a lighter step and get less caught up in these debilitating feelings.

From Everyday Enlightenment, published by Riverhead Books, March 2012