On Purpose

  • On Purpose

Stories & Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma, and Waking Up Each Day

  • If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank You,’ that would suffice.
    -Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)

    It’s Thanksgiving week, and a good time to think a little more about gratitude.

    I recently spent a day hiking in the desert near Joshua Tree with Sachi, a woman from Burma, formerly a Bhikkuni (Buddhist nun), who struck me as the most naturally happy, at ease, and fully present person I've met in a long time.

    We hiked up and down through vast stretches of huge monzogranite boulders, in and around dry creek beds, and through prickly dry shrubs trying to avoid the stinging needles of the cholla cactus as we climbed to the top of Black Mountain. There were the black twisted trunks of fallen ancient mesquite trees, the blooming Flaming Red Penny Desert Fuchsia coming out of an unlikely crevice, and the massive rock formations that had their own unofficial names like The Sphinx, Split Rock, Falling Rock, and The Penguin that served as land marks to guide our way back.

    At one point from the bottom of a draw, when we saw a young mule deer with a budding rack up above us, Sachi stretched her arms above her head, waved her hands and called out “thank you….thank you!” She said thank-you many times that day, particularly whenever she felt astonished or taken by the beauty around us. Her natural gratitude and keen awareness were inspiring and I think, have a lot to do with her happiness. It made me stop and think about my own awareness and expression of gratitude.

    Happiness, or a sense of well-being and gratitude are inextricably bound. I think it’s impossible to feel happiness without being grateful for something or someone. Likewise, having gratitude or feeling grateful brings about a sense of contentment and well-being that defines happiness. This is not to say that we cannot feel sadness and gratitude. But in the moment of tapping into gratitude, no matter what’s going on, any state of distress decreases. Try it out sometime.

    Here’s what Norman Fischer writes in his new book Training in Compassion, Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. Lojong are the Tibetan Buddhist mind training slogans.

    Be Grateful to Everyone is to cultivate every day this sense of gratitude, the happiest of all attitudes. Unhappiness and gratitude simply cannot exist in the same moment. If you feel grateful, you are a happy person. If you feel grateful for what is possible for you in this moment, no matter what your challenges are, grateful, first that you are alive at all, that you can think, that you can feel, that you can stand, sit, walk, talk-if you feel grateful, you are happy and you maximize your chances for well-being and for sharing happiness with others.

    As we come into the holidays, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the demands of our consumer culture and difficult to find a way to participate that feels genuine and balanced. Practicing gratitude by pausing, noticing and taking in moments of well-being, or just thinking of someone you care for can go a long way. And if you’re not feeling especially well, try thinking of something that brings you joy and contentment. The memory of well-being itself can have a profound effect on your state of mind.

    There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.   
     -Albert Einstein
    Early morning light on the monzogranite boulders

  • In keeping with the theme of connecting with the reverent heart, here is a poem by W.H. Auden that is one of my favorites.


    The chimney sweepers

    Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;

    The lighthouse keepers

    Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;

    The prosperous baker

    Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;

    The undertaker

    Pins a small note on the coffin saying “Wait till I return,

    I’ve got a date with Love.”

    And deep-sea divers

    Cut their boots off and come bubbling to the top;

    And engine-drivers

    Bring expresses in the tunnel to a stop;

    The village rector

    Dashes down the side-aisle half-way through a psalm;

    The sanitary inspector

    Runs off with the cover of the cesspool on his arm-

    To keep a date with Love.

    W.H. Auden

    I am currently on vacation with my husband hiking in both Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks for the next two weeks. There is beauty around every turn and the desert stillness is nearly indescribable. This photo was taken in Joshua Tree. 

  • We commonly think of the concentrated mind as the kind we think we need while driving in rush hour traffic in an unfamiliar city trying to find the way to an important meeting, when our partner starts talking about the details of last night’s dinner. In this moment one might easily snap and blurt out “Be quiet so I can concentrate! Now, I just missed the exit!” Focusing the attention on one thing to the exclusion of everything else is sometimes exactly what’s necessary, but when it comes with a lot of tension, rigidity and constriction, it may not be entirely effective or without unintended consequences.

    The capacity of the mind to collect and gather itself in order to direct and sustain its focus for an extended period of time in a relaxed manner is skillful wise concentration, the last factor on the Eightfold Path. This kind of concentration is expansive, at ease and leads to deepening states of calm and happiness. This is a mind that can take it all in without contention or getting carried off on tangents. It is also the capacity of mind to quiet down sufficiently to really notice and hang out with whatever is happening, which cultivates insight and wisdom, the purpose of mindfulness. Ajaan Geoff, an American Theravadan Buddhist monk says 
    "Mindfulness is what keeps remembering where to stay focused and what to keep doing. Concentration is what maintains the steadiness of your gaze."
    Here’s a story by Gil Fronsdal from his book A Monastery Within about the challenges of cultivating a concentrated mind.


                  A young monk complained of having too many distractions to be able to meditate. He explained to the Abbess that he had tried every possible approach to overcome the distractions. He had redoubled his efforts at concentration. He had been diligent in trying to let the distractions go. He had also tried many antidotes, including ignoring them. When none of these approaches worked he even tried turning toward the distractions to include them as part of the meditation. He had also investigated the reactions, feelings, and beliefs he had in relation to the distractions. None of this had helped. He remained plagued.

                   “In that case, said the Abbess, “there remains only one thing for you to do. Please gaze upon the distractions with kindness and be still.”

    One of the purposes of extended silent meditation retreats is to intentionally and deliberately cultivate a quiet and concentrated mind often by attending to the breath in both sitting and walking meditation. Having recently returned from a ten-day retreat, I learned, once again, just how difficult it is to sustain this practice. Sometimes it’s difficult to sustain the attention for three minutes, let alone day after day. The mind really is like a puppy needing constant training to sit and stay. And, when it does quiet down, the rewards are beautiful. An ease-filled concentrated mind accommodates pain and joy, feels and knows happiness as its natural state, and softens and opens the heart. 

    "The mind, hard to control,
    Flighty-alighting where it wishes-
    One does well to tame.
    The disciplined mind brings happiness."

       -The Buddha, The Dhammapada

    As I think about ways of spontaneously experiencing the concentrated, still, unencumbered and uplifted mind outside of meditation, I think about experiences that bring about reverence and awe. I love the question “What evokes my reverent heart?”  

    Last year my husband, Bill, and I went to a k.d. lang concert.  Towards the end she sang an acapella version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah.” It was so beautiful, so exquisite that the audience was stunned into silence, a state of utter concentration. There was nothing else going on in those moments except the rapture of this angelic voice singing this perfectly beautiful song.  At the end of the piece no one clapped, no one cheered, and as if we were all part of the same gathered and collected mind everyone just stood up in total and complete awe and reverence for what we’d just heard. Finally, after a long concentrated silence, the audience erupted in cheers and applause.

    I believe we stand in reverence when we have those experiences that take our breath away, those times that we’re stopped in our tracks from an experience of beauty, joy, love or peace. I have a sense that the connections we feel at those moments are among the deepest and most profound. By staying connected to reverence, we stay connected to our innately clear mind and good heart. This, too, is wise concentration.

  • Driving home from retreat in Marin County up Hwy 101, I was struck, again, by the stunning beauty of the redwoods and the huge maples in full autumn splendor of reds and golds. Breathtaking. 

    This week I am settling back into my life and will write more next week. For now, here's a poem I hope you'll enjoy.

    You Reading This, Be Ready

    Starting here, what do you want to remember?
    How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

    What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

    Sound from outside fills the air?

    Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

    Than the breathing respect that you carry

    Wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

    For time to show you some better thoughts?

    Then you turn around, starting here, lift this

    New glimpse that you found; carry into evening

    All that you want from this day. This interval you spent

    Reading or hearing this, keep it for life-

    What can anyone give you greater than now,

    Starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

    -William Stafford, from The Way it Is

  • Through the discussion of Wise Mindfulness, I've been thinking more about the common understanding of mindfulness; “paying attention” or “moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness.” And the question comes up, “pay attention to what?”

    The Buddha gives very clear direction and guidance on exactly this in his seminal teaching on the Satipatthana Sutta, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  

    1.      Mindfulness of the body; posture, movement, sensations

    2.      Mindfulness of feelings (not emotions); the quality of experience, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral

    3.      Mindfulness of the mind; thoughts and emotions, discerning the many qualities of mind as they appear. A distracted mind is like this, a relaxed mind is like this, an angry mind is like this, a happy mind is like this, etc.

    4.      Mindfulness of the Dhammas, or categories of experience; the Five Hindrances, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc.

    These guidelines work beautifully as both meditation instructions and guidance for our daily lives. They are complex in practice and far reaching in their implications, and deserve much more explanation than I’ve given here.  

    A less technical description comes from Nyaniponika Thera, the 20thc renowned Buddhist teacher. He describes mindfulness as “tidying up the mind.” I love that. Here’s what he says about the process.

    If anyone whose mind is not harmonized and controlled through methodical meditative training should take a close look at his own everyday thoughts and activities, he will meet with a rather disconcerting sight. Apart from the few main channels of his purposeful thoughts and activities, he will everywhere be faced with a tangled mass of perceptions, thoughts, feelings and casual bodily movements, showing a disorderliness and confusion which he would certainly not tolerate in his living room. Yet this is the state of affairs that we take for granted within a considerable portion of our waking life and our normal mental activity.
               from The Vision of Dhamma

    In a couple of days I’ll be leaving for a 10-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, so this will be the last post for a couple of weeks. As I prepare to leave and look forward to an extended period of practice and deep quiet, I've been thinking about how easy it is for the mind to become scattered, distracted, too full, and just plain messy. I’m ready to tidy up my mind!

    Here, again, is one of my favorite poems. Enjoy.

    I go among trees and sit still.

    All my stirring becomes quiet

    Around me like circles on water.

    My tasks lie in their places

    Where I left them, asleep like cattle.

    Then what is afraid of me comes

    And lives a while in my sight.

    What it fears in me leaves me,

    And the fear of me leaves it.

    It sings, and I hear its song.

    Then what I am afraid of comes.

    I live for a while in its sight.

    What I fear in it leaves it,                                                              

    And the fear of it leaves me.

    It sings, and I hear its song.

    After days of labor,

    Mute in my consternations,

    I hear my song at last,

    And I sing it. As we sing,

    The day turns, and the trees move.

    -Wendell Berry

  • As the seventh factor of the Eightfold Path, Wise Mindfulness is the practice of careful moment-by-moment, non-judgmental observation of the body, feelings, thoughts and experiences without grasping or rejecting; just being present with bare attention.

    Building the awareness and capacity to stay with what is actually happening in any given moment requires tremendous discipline and focus. But with practice, this kind of mindfulness softens and reduces reactivity, and we learn to see things as they are outside of the stories we tell ourselves. This direct experience allows us to pause before we react, making space for wise, considered, and skillful response. Paying attention in this way strengthens, stabilizes, and balances the mind.  

    As with wise effort, well-developed mindfulness cultivates the ability to recognize and let go of unskillful, painful or harmful habits, and to recognize and nurture skillful, supportive and effective habits. We learn to inhabit our lives with awareness and care.
    We need to be clear which emotions are harmful and which are helpful; then cultivate those that are conducive to peace of mind. Often, due to a lack of knowledge, we accept anger and hatred as natural parts of our minds. This is an example of ignorance being the source of our problems. To reduce our destructive emotions we strengthen the positive ones; such emotional hygiene can contribute to a healthier society.
                      HH Dalai Lama

    Mindfulness requires focus and patience, and when it is rooted in kindheartedness with a commitment to the ethics of non-harming, it is transformed from the application of a sterile technique for paying attention to an inspired, compassionate and powerful way of engaging our lives.

     And just for fun...

  • Working with wise effort in meditation begins with first remembering to practice and then having the discipline to actually get to the cushion. It’s so easy to put off practice until the “right” time. But really, it’s probably always the right time to pause, notice the breath, and get a sense of the body whether standing, sitting, walking or lying down. (I have found this especially useful while waiting in what I thought would be the fastest grocery check-out line.) This simple act, which takes less than five seconds, relaxes the mind and momentarily stops whatever storyline has captivated my thoughts. It brings me into the present moment. And, it takes mindful awareness to pay attention and even more effort to remember to stick with it, kind of like training a dog!

    Meditation practice is first about remembering to pay attention, to come back to this moment, this breath, a zillion times over. With gentle persistent effort, a certain kind of meditation muscle develops. We become more skilled at settling the mind and body even in the midst of stress and distraction. Like training in any discipline, the mind-body gets to know that when it assumes the meditation posture, it more easily arrives, settles, and relaxes into present-moment awareness.

    This is not to say that once we’re meditating our work is done. I think it’s just the opposite. Wise and skillful effort during practice helps notice the conditions that give rise to both positive and negative, wholesome and unwholesome mental states, like contentment and ease versus anger and fear. While all mental states are true in the moment, in this training, we develop the capacity to see these states for what they are, know the difference sooner than later, and learn to let go of the negative and nurture the positive.

    Even if we can’t “let go” of negative or unhelpful mind states, we learn to let them be. I find this very helpful. When I am caught in difficult thoughts or emotions, if I remind myself to just let them be for now, the inflammation calms and my mind relaxes. There will be a time when I’ll likely have the perspective and skills to work with those thoughts and emotions, but I’m not required to jump off a cliff without a parachute.

    Cultivating wise effort through meditation practice is mostly about showing up, doing the practice, and seeing what’s true.

    We are not required to be hopeful or hopeless. We are required to just show up for what is. To bear witness. This is how we cultivate the capacity to endure and witness suffering.


    Joanna Macy

  • Carrying forward the spirit and intention of the ethical practices, we move into the wisdom aspect of the Eightfold Path. This includes wise effort, wise concentration and wise mindfulness. In reality, though, each factor of the Path is dependent upon the others in order to make an integrated whole; wise effort is dependent upon wise understanding, which is dependent upon wise mindfulness, which is dependent upon wise action, etc.

    Cultivating skillful, wholesome mind-states, (a mind that is peaceful, flexible and not in contention with the conditions of one’s life), while learning to recognize and then abandon unwholesome, unskillful mind-states (greed, ill-will, and ignorance) is how the Buddha defined Wise Effort.

    Whether in meditation or daily life, this requires patient, steady, persistent mindfulness along with a generosity of spirit that allows for trial and error, ups and downs, messing it up and getting it right. The bottom line is that when my efforts are wise, ethical and clear, I’ll likely not cause harm to myself or anyone around me, and I’m much more likely to make good considered choices and decisions.

    In meditation practice, wise effort requires the willingness to stay present with whatever arises, breath-by-breath, moment-by nonjudgmental-moment. Gentle persistence is my favorite way of thinking about this kind of effort. Sometimes in meditation when I feel my energy waning, my attention drifting, or when I’m trying too hard to stay focused and feel my mind and body tighten, I think “gentle persistence…come back…feel the breath…relax…begin again.” Using any of those words or just getting the internal sense of the words re-directs my efforts, buoys up the energy and strengthens my resolve. Just as with daily life, meditation practice requires continual adjustment and fine tuning.

    With respect to wise effort in daily life, I like to use the following questions to help steer and clarify my thinking. I think of them as compass questions. You may recognize them from earlier discussions.

    What, when I do it, will be for my long-term welfare and happiness?

    This is a very grounding question the Buddha recommended to access one’s deepest wisdom. It helps avoid impulsivity and reactivity and their potentially harmful consequences. It is a guide towards an appropriate response.

    What has become clear since last we met?

    This is a great question that comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s very helpful in looking back at patterns, decisions, outcomes, clarifying what’s happening, what’s okay, what needs to be changed. You can adapt it for yourself, i.e., “what has become clear since last time….this issue arose?” etc.

    What makes me come alive?

    My experience is that this changes over time, but that I feel most alive, engaged and happy when I am living and working in line with my values, and doing what feels right in my heart and supports my well-being. As Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

    What evokes my reverent heart?

    We stand in reverence when we have those experiences that take our breath away, those times that we’re stopped in our tracks from an experience of beauty, joy, love or peace. I have a sense that the connection we feel at those moments are among the deepest and most profound. By staying connected to our reverent heart, we live with great respect and dignity for ourselves and others.

    For me, Wise Effort is true north. How we use our efforts has far reaching implications, and this discussion just scratches the surface.

  • As we finish up the exploration of the ethical practices of the Eightfold Path, it could be easy to look at wise speech, wise action and wise livelihood as a set of guidelines about what not to do. Here is a lovely way to approach the ethical precepts from a more positive stance. This comes from James Baraz in his beautiful book, Awakening Joy. Instead of:

    Don’t Kill: Honor All Life

    Don’t Steal: Share Your Time and Resources

    Don’t Misuse Sexuality: Take Care with Sexual Energy, Respecting Boundaries and Offering Safety

    Don’t use Harsh Speech: Speak Kindly and Carefully

    Don’t use Intoxicants that Cause Heedlessness: Develop a Clear Mind and Health Body

    These ethical precepts are life-long practices that require ardency, dedication, constancy, and the willingness to show up for our lives by truly paying attention. We may never get it exactly right, but that’s not really the point. The point is to live our lives with the intention towards goodwill and harmlessness for ourselves and others. And hopefully with practice, we’ll do that more often than not.

    So, taking a breath this week to relish the last week of summer and the coming of fall, here’s a poem printed in the current issue of The Sun magazine.


    Don’t you wish they would stop,

    all the thoughts swirling around in your head like

    bees in a hive, dancers tapping their way across the stage?

    I should rake the leaves in the carport, buy Christmas lights.

    Is there really life on Mars? What will I cook for dinner?

    There’s frost on the front lawn, dry branches

    on the stoop. I walk up the driveway to put out the garbage

    and think: I should stop using plastic bags,

    call my friend whose husband just left her for the nanny

    from Sweden, a place I might like to visit.

    I wish I hadn’t said Patrick’s painting looked “ominous.”

    Maybe that’s why he hasn’t answered my e-mails.

    Does the car need oil? There’s a hole in the ozone

    the size of Texas, and everything seems to be speeding up.

    Come, let’s stand by the window and look out

    at the light on the field. Let’s watch how

    the clouds cover the sun, and almost nothing

    stirs in the grass.

    ~Danusha Lameris

  • Following Wise Speech and Wise Action, the third of the ethical practices of the Eightfold Path is Wise Livelihood. In the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Wise Livelihood is defined as earning one’s living through wholesome avenues, those that do not bring harm to oneself or others. One’s work should be legal, peaceful, and honest; without coercion or violence, manipulation or deceit. Additionally, any profession or occupation that violates wise speech or wise action is a wrong form of livelihood as it inherently causes harm.[1] As an example, one can be skilled at wise speech but be involved in the illegal drug or weapons trade. This would be both wrong action and wrong livelihood, and therefore breech the Buddhist ethical practices.  

    Wise livelihood is not only defined by how our work affects others, but also how it affects us. As I think back over the last 30 years of my working life, my most difficult time was while I was a nurse working in the hospital setting. While from the outside nursing appears to be the epitome of wholesomeness (and in many ways I believe it is), for me it was fraught with so many bumps and bruises characteristic of unhealthy work-place interpersonal dynamics; competition, distrust, poor communication, difficult hours, jealousy, and lack of advocacy all within the confines of a demeaning hierarchical political structure while facing straight-on the frailty of life and certainty of death, every moment of every day. 

    It didn’t work for me, and it was painful to face the truth that the profession I had chosen was hurting me and by extension, my young family. I was really suffering. It was such a relief early one morning when I came home from a night shift barely able to keep my eyes open thoroughly exhausted and feeling demoralized when my husband said, “You know…you don’t have to do this work.”

    Right there was the truth of impermanence, the truth of suffering, and the truth of karma. Things could and would change, I was in pain, and my happiness and unhappiness was so clearly dependent upon my own actions and no one else’s wishes for me. Either I was going to do something about it or stay stuck in the muck. It was actually pretty good news! I did leave hospital nursing and I’ve never looked back. Because we spend so much of our lives working, if we can make the wise choices that translate to a wise livelihood and a happier life, we may as well give it a try.

    One of the core teachings of the Buddha is cultivating the capacity to know the difference between skillful and unskillful action; those that lead to our long-term welfare and happiness and those that lead to further distress and suffering. In times of self-reflection you can ask yourself “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”[2]It’s a great question. It accesses your deepest wisdom. Another way to ask this same question might be to say “What would my 85 year-old self tell me to do?” I hope that by the time I’m 85, I will have reached the fullness of my wisdom.

    When I was young and was asked the proverbial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would bristle and think ‘I just want to be myself.’ My mother used to say “Find out what you’re good at and do it for all you’re worth.” That was pretty good, but it still didn’t quite get me to the core.  I think one of the most useful questions for teasing out one’s path comes from Howard Thurman. He said,


    "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive." 

    If we can tap into and develop our passion, what really makes us come alive, I believe we each have a much better chance of spending our lives doing what brings out our most wise, effective and happy selves.

    [1]Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path; Way to the End of Suffering, 1994.

    [2]Thanissaro Bhikku, Selves & Not Self, 2011

  • The thought manifests as the word
    The word manifests as the deed
    The deed develops into habit
    And the habit hardens into character
    So watch the thought and its ways with care
    And let it spring from love
    Born out of concern for all beings

    This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom from the Buddha because I think it’s really true. I know that when my mind thinks caring and kind thoughts, my speech and actions will likely follow suit. I feel clear and at ease. Or if my mind is caught in contention with whatever is happening, I hope I’ll have enough restraint and wisdom to keep from acting in a harmful way.

    In the classical Buddhist teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, Wise or Right Action are those actions that are rooted in harmlessness. The Buddha gives specific guidelines in the form of precepts; a code of ethical conduct to be followed by lay Buddhist practitioners. Really, they aren’t so specific to Buddhism; they’re simply the skillful and harmless way of living. You’ll recognize them.

    1.      Abstain from taking life; don’t kill

    2.      Abstain from taking anything that has not been freely given; don’t steal

    3.      Abstain from the misuse of sexuality

    4.      Abstain from using harmful or false speech; don’t lie

    5.      Abstain from the use of intoxicants to the degree that the mind becomes clouded and causes heedlessness

    At first glance, these precepts seem quite obvious, but in actuality they may be more difficult to carry out. How far do we take not killing? What about the ants carrying aphids to the artichoke plants or string beans in the garden? What about that magazine on the table in the waiting room at the dentist’s office that has an article you’d like to read? And how do we express our sexuality and in what environments? How about the time we said something in public that was told to us in confidence and caused a friend humiliation? And, the consequences of drinking too much or using other intoxicants are well-known.

    Our actions really do have consequences, whether in the immediate or somewhere down the line. This is the law of karma. In fact, karma translates as action. I remember a difficult time in my life many years ago when I desperately wanted to be in relationship with a person who did not share my sentiments. I did everything I could think of to change the situation, but nothing worked. In fact, nearly every encounter I had brought me pain, seemingly endless pain. One day a trusted friend said it was like watching me repeatedly sit in a four-legged chair that was missing a leg. Each time I sat in that broken chair, I fell on the ground.

    The Buddha taught that our happiness and unhappiness are dependent upon our own actions, not on anyone else’s wishes for us. This is what it means to be the heir to our own karma. The truth that we really can and do directly influence our lives through our own actions is a profoundly liberating statement. When our motivations and intentions come from harmlessness and goodwill, we are likely to act wisely. I find that when I really pay attention, I am my own best guide making the best choices I can. Abraham Lincoln said it well,

       “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”

    Here is a wonderful piece from Portia Nelson, the 20thC musician, artist, and writer. It so perfectly illustrates how our actions become habit and how by really noticing and being deliberate we can actually make a different choice, perhaps the wiser choice.

    Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

     Chapter One

    I walk down the street.
    There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.

    I fall in.

    I am lost…. I am helpless.

    It isn't my fault.

    It takes forever to find a way out.

    Chapter Two
    I walk down the same street.
    There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I pretend I don't see it.
    I fall in again.
    I can't believe I am in this the same place!
    But, it isn't my fault.
    And it still takes a long time to get out.

    Chapter Three
    I walk down the same street.
    There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I see it is there.
    I still fall in... it's a habit…but,
    my eyes are open.
    I know where I am.
    It is my fault.
    I get out immediately.

    Chapter Four
    I walk down the same street.
    There's a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I walk around it.

    Chapter Five
    I walk down a different street. 

    from There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery 

  • Happiness

    So early it’s still almost dark,

    I’m near the window with coffee

    And the usual early morning stuff

    That passes for thought

    When I see the boy and his friend

    Walking up the road

    To deliver the newspaper.

    They wear caps and sweaters

    And one boy has a bag over his shoulder.

    They are so happy.

    They aren’t saying anything, these boys.

    I think if they could, they would take

    Each other’s arm.

    It’s early in the morning,

    And they are doing this thing together.

    They come on, slowly.

    The sky is taking on light,

    Though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

    Such beauty that for a minute

    Death and ambition, even love,

    Doesn’t enter into this.

    Happiness. It comes on

    Unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
    Any early morning talk about it.

               Raymond Carver

    Enjoy your week. May your happiness grow, and may it continue.
  • I’m a very literal person. Sometimes I see words as I speak, and I see words as I hear them. So you can imagine as a child when my mother would admonish me to “Watch your mouth!” after I’d said something unkind or sarcastic, I would try scrunching and twisting up my face trying to literally watch my mouth as I said “You mean like this?” I think it must have infuriated her.

    As a kid, I was never part of the “in” crowd. From about third grade through fifth grade, I was the butt of many jokes. My hair was long, dark, extremely thick and frizzy, my body was chunky, I had buck teeth, and I loved musicals. During lunch or recess my friend, Cindy, and I would stand under a enormous oak tree at the edge of the playground and take turns singing songs from Oliver!, The Sound of Music, or Hair auditioning  for each other and then grading the other’s performance. I was a nerd.

    PE was a dreaded time of day, as I suffered the regular humiliation of being picked last for every team, not able to do a single push-up or pull-up, climb a rope or run with any speed.  I frequently feigned sick so I could go to the Principal’s office to avoid that 45 minutes of torture. The playground was an even more dangerous and scary place. Without much supervision, I was an easy target for kids whose entertainment was bullying other kids. For me, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” was completely untrue. The names and the words were just as painful as the imagined sticks and stones.

    Preceded by Wise Thought and Intention, Wise Speech is the next and third step of practice of the Eightfold Path. The Buddha defined Wise Speech as speech that is truthful, useful, kind, gentle and appropriate. By using language that meets these requirements, we cannot help but access our innate goodwill.  By watching our thoughts and intentions, we will be more likely to catch ourselves before saying something we’ll later regret. It’s hard to overstate the importance of how we use language, either written or spoken. What we say matters and how we express ourselves profoundly influences the effectiveness of our message. And, it is a lifelong practice.

    “Like a beautiful flower,

                          Brightly colored with scent,

                   So are well-spoken words,

                          Fruitful when carried out.”

                                   The Buddha, the Dhammapada

    Try dedicating a week, a day, or even an hour to speech practice in any of the following ways. This is a challenging practice that requires steady patient mindfulness, so pick just one. Once you begin, if you forget about the practice, just note that you’ve forgotten and begin again.

    ·        Say only what is precisely true; no distortions either by omission, embellishments, or exaggerations, just the facts.

    ·        Only speak if what you have to say is helpful, not just because it feels good to say it.

    ·        Deliberately avoid gossip by resisting speaking about anyone not present.

    ·        Use kind words motivated by kind thoughts and intentions. Restrain yourself if this isn’t possible.

    ·        Speak gently, not harshly. Notice the quality of the thoughts before speaking.

    ·        Use good timing by making sure that what you’d like to say is appropriate to the situation.

    ·        Notice if you’re planning your response while the other person is speaking. When this occurs, you’ve probably stopped listening.

    ·        Pause before responding. This gives you time to gather your thoughts, check in with your intentions and choose your words well.

    The benefits of these practices are good for everyone. When I think about experiences that have given me the most joy, the most love, and the secure feeling of being valued, it’s undoubtedly kind words that have had the greatest impact.  Likewise, some of my most painful experiences, whether I was the giver or the receiver, have been caused by unkind, mean-spirited words, either written or spoken.

    I know that when my intentions are clear and motivated by goodwill, and when I am really paying attention to my language and the tone of my voice, the quality of my interactions is kinder, more genuine, and more respectful, even and especially with difficult conversations.

        “When talking, 
          I should speak from my heart on what is relevant,
          Making the meaning clear and the speech pleasing.

          I should not speak out of desire or hatred,

          But in gentle tones and in moderation.”

               Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

  • Last week was the first anniversary of our daughter’s wedding. All week long I kept finding myself remembering the sweetness, the love, the joy, the delicious food, music, and gorgeous gardens, but mostly remembering the palpable goodwill and generosity of everyone there. Weddings are like that; they help us let go of ourselves long enough to feel the joy of others and for others, and offer blessings of love and living a life of kindness. There is a lot to be said for thinking good thoughts.

    The second factor of the Eightfold Path is Wise Thought or Intention. I like to think of it as both thought and intention because they are not the same as each other. The mind thinks thoughts, but it’s what we do with those thoughts that matters. In the classical Buddhist teachings, Wise Thought/Intention is comprised of three components: renunciation, (letting go of the quality of desire that keeps us locked in the handcuffs of incessant craving), goodwill, and harmlessness. For instance, having an unkind thought and not acting on it is an example of all three components. In fact, noticing the unkind thought and deliberately letting it go and replacing it with a kind thought is not only skillful and well-intended, but good for the mind and heart, one’s spirit.

    The thought manifests as the word
    The word manifests as the deed
    The deed develops into habit
    And the habit hardens into character
    So watch the thought and its ways with care
    And let it spring from love
    Born out of concern for all beings

    The Buddha taught that “what one frequently thinks and ponders upon will become the inclination of the mind.” This is really true. As I found myself reminiscing about the wedding, I felt happy and uplifted. Conversely, anger works the same way. A person who has predominantly angry thoughts is likely to feel unhappy, distressed and angry. The brain works likes that.

     Another way of saying this comes from neuroscience. “In 1949, Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist, wrote what has become known as Hebb’s axiom: ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ Each experience we encounter, whether a feeling, a thought, a sensation—and especially those that we are not aware of—is embedded in thousands of neurons that form a network (“net”). Repeated experiences become increasingly embedded in this net, making it easier for the neurons to fire (respond to the experience), and more difficult to unwire or rewire them to respond differently.”[2]

    Further, the brain has a natural negativity bias, as if it’s Velcro for the difficult and Teflon for the pleasant. This is actually very good news because with mindfulness practice, we train ourselves to notice thoughts and then be deliberate about what to do about them. It’s been shown that by focusing on positive thoughts for 30 seconds five times per day, and noticing how they feel, moments of well-being, that over time we can actually change our wiring making our default setting closer to the happiness end of the spectrum.[3] I think that is amazing.

    What’s even more amazing to me is that the Buddha figured that out 2,500 years ago through his explorations of his own mind.

    All experience is preceded by mind,

    Led by mind,

    Made by mind.

    Speak or act with a corrupted mind,

    And suffering follows

    As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

    All experience is preceded by mind,

    Led by mind,

    Made by mind.

    Speak or act with a peaceful mind,

    And happiness follows

    Like a never-departing shadow.

                   The Buddha, The Dhammapada

    And for our more contemporary minds, this comes from a dear friend, 

             “Think kind thoughts, use kind words.”

     I love that. It really encompasses the intent of mindfulness practice. Perhaps it’s the whole of the Dharma.

    [1]Unknown source, though sometimes attributed to the Buddha and other contemporary teachers

    [2]Curt Thompson, MD, www.beingknown.com, July 14, 2010

    [3]James Baraz, Awakening Joy, 2010

  • Anything can happen any time.

    In the pre-dawn hours of July 4th, Olive, our 3 ½ year old German Shepherd began to whine, trying to wake us up. She wasn’t feeling well. I got up, she threw up, and we went outside. It’s not so unusual for a dog to get an upset stomach, so I didn’t think much of it and went back to bed. When I got up about 6:30, I discovered over the past couple of hours, Olive had become terribly sick thoroughly soiling the floors and rugs throughout the downstairs of the house. It was a stinking awful mess and she looked terrible. I let her outside and began to clean up. Five minutes later my husband, Bill, came downstairs and immediately went outside to check on her. He couldn’t find her anywhere. Our house sits on five acres at the end of a dirt road with a creek running along the southern border for a good distance. Much of the property is wooded, and there is a large amount of riparian growth between the creek, the large open yard and our house. Olive could have been anywhere, and though she has excellent recall and does not wander, she wasn’t responding to our calls.

    After about ten minutes of looking, we began to get extremely concerned and frightened.  Olive was sick and she had disappeared. I decided to call my dear friend Jan who has many years of experience in canine search and rescue. She is currently training her one year old yellow lab, Gray-Sea, in scent trailing. Jan didn’t know if Gray-Sea was ready for a real “job,” but we were going to find out. They arrived about 20 minutes later. Once Gray-Sea had her working harness on with the long line attached, Jan gathered a scent article of Olive’s (swiping a piece of cloth on Olive’s car blanket) and waved it under Gray-Sea’s nose and told her to go find Olive. Off Gray-Sea went with Jan and Bill following right into the thick riparian growth towards the creek.

    I stayed up at the house in case Olive came back, though in reality, I couldn’t focus on anything and didn’t know what to do with myself. I hadn’t brushed my teeth or had my morning tea. So, I sat on a log beside our fire pit crossing my fingers. I couldn’t sit still so I went back into the house to make a cup of tea. After I turned on the stove, I turned it off in disgust. How could I think of myself at that moment? I headed back outside and just as I got back to the yard I heard Jan loudly saying “Good girl, Gray-Sea, good girl!” It had only been five minutes, and that sweet puppy had done her job. It was thrilling. Olive was lying down in the brush along the creek barely responsive. She was in deep trouble. Before I knew it, Bill had carried her up from the creek, put her in the car, and I was off to the emergency animal clinic.

    It was July 4th and there was only one veterinarian available, about a 40 minute drive away, a doctor I had never met. Once we arrived and the vet tech carried Olive in, it was clear that she was losing a lot of blood quickly and was close to dying. It was terrifying and traumatic, bewildering and impossible to believe, yet I felt a certain level of calm, clarity, and composure. Weird. The doctor made it clear that Olive was in very big trouble, had lost probably half of her blood volume, we didn’t know why, and that she may not live. Soon Bill arrived along with two friends who love Olive very much. There we were, four adults surrounding one dog. Many hours went by, lots of tests, lots of fluids, lots of love, and little by little, she began to stabilize just a bit; just enough for the doctor to move from pessimistic to neutral. We went home for the night completely exhausted.

    On the way home I remembered an encounter I had had at the dog food store a couple of weeks prior. I overheard the clerk tell another customer that Innova dog treats had been recalled for suspected salmonella. I had just bought a bag of treats, but when I checked the brand it was Evo, not Innova. While I remember being relieved they weren’t the affected treats, I also remember thinking I should look into it further, just to be sure. I didn’t do it. When we got home from the animal hospital, I went online and looked it up and sure enough, the exact Evo dog treats were made by Natura, the same company that makes Innova products that had been recalled. The Evo treats, too, had been recalled. I called the vet, told him my suspicion that it was salmonella, and he concurred that the symptoms fit. Olive came home at the end of the next day weak, thin, alive and even managed to slowly wag her tail. It’s been a little more than three weeks and she’s not quite 100%, but getting close.

    It was an extraordinary experience; one that exemplifies the uncertainty of all of our lives, how quickly things change, how impermanent everything truly is, how much everything depends on everything else, and how little control we have.  Even though we think we know this, when it happens in a dramatic or traumatic way, we are often surprised or even shocked. Anything can happen anytime, and it does. All of it or any of it could have been otherwise, and it wasn’t. 

  • Last week we began looking at The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s teaching on the reality of suffering, dukkha in Pali. Dukkha is also defined as distress, anxiety, and a general level of inherent dissatisfaction brought on by our continual desire, striving, and craving for things to be other than they are.

    The first Truth is that suffering exists. The second is that suffering is caused by our non-stop craving. The third is that this craving can be abandoned; peace of mind and heart are possible. And the fourth is the clear prescription of how to achieve this kind of peace, specifically the Eightfold Path leading to the end of suffering. Even though there appears to be an inordinate emphasis on suffering and dissatisfaction, I appreciate that “the Buddha himself expressly stated that realization of the Four Noble Truths will be accompanied by happiness, and the noble eightfold path productive of joy.”[1]It’s a hopeful message.

    “Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, such as the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, in every moment.
                          ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

    As we begin the exploration of the Eightfold Path, it’s important to point out a couple of characteristics of how it is often taught. Firstly, the classical descriptions of the factors of path begin with “Right,” as in Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, etc. This can be problematic for our western minds as we compare and contrast right from wrong. Right, in this sense is not referring to right and wrong. The word “right” has been translated from the Pali word samma, and can be more accurately described as appropriate, mature or wise. This makes more sense to me. Going forward, I’ll use these words interchangeably in discussing each factor.

    Secondly, even though there are eight distinct path factors, none could exist without the other. They are mutually dependent components of a whole. In addition, the Eightfold Path is typically taught in order, but in practice, it is more like a spiral or even a figure eight. We are continually circling back through the factors that help us lead an awakened and happy life. The factors of the path are wise view or understanding, thought or intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Further, they are typically separated into three categories or aspects of the path:

    ·        Wisdom includes View/Understanding and Thought/Intention

    ·        Morality & Ethics include Speech, Action and Livelihood

    ·        Meditation includes Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration

    Wise View or Understanding is the starting point, the first step on the path because our views and understanding of ourselves and the world directly inform and guide our actions. The Buddha taught that mature view is established when one understands from one’s own direct experience the truth and implications of impermanence and the truth and implications of causality and conditionality, that all actions have consequences, karma.

    Appropriate Understanding “is to know and experience that things come from a cause; that things are caused by other things; that they do not exist independently of the things that have formed them. But also it is to know that as conditions arise they will pass away, which takes us back to impermanence.”[2] While this may seem obvious, we still struggle with and are challenged by the continually changing conditions of our lives. And, despite ourselves and often much to our dismay, our bodies do degrade and eventually we will be separated from everything and everyone we hold dear. Yet even in light of everything we cannot control, (which is everything except our own responses) the fact remains that what we do in our lives really does matter.

    When we truly understand for ourselves that our happiness and our unhappiness are dependent upon our own actions, it empowers and energizes us to make the wisest choices we can as often as possible. Clearly, difficulty arises even when we've put forth our best efforts. But when we act from our wisest self, the possibilities for happiness and living an awakened life increase. This is Wise Understanding.

    And from one of my heroes, Pete Seeger…

    Realize that little things lead to bigger things…Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you've done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”

    [1] Satipattana: The Direct Path to Realization, pg. 244, Analayo, 2003.

    [2] The Spirit of the Buddha, pg. 35, Martine Batchelor, 2010

  • Last week we concluded the exploration of the Factors of Awakening by defining “awakening” within the cultural context of our everyday lay lives; living a balanced, kind and skillful life.

    Formal meditation practice cultivates the aspects of mind that lead to awakening by bringing us face-to-face with the sticky, struggling, contentious mind right alongside the smooth, peaceful and relaxed mind.  Getting to know and navigating our own minds so our actions reflect wise and appropriate choices, are critical elements for living an awakened life. But it is not the end of the story.

    In the next section of the Satipattana Sutta, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha moves into the seminal teaching of the Four Noble Truths, his profound and far-reaching understanding of the reality, cause and remedy for the suffering that is inherent in all our lives. Suffering here refers to the challenge, difficulty and anxiety that are the result of our natural resistance to the continual and constant changing conditions of our lives.

    The Buddha has been compared to a physician of the mind in his ability to diagnose, identify the cause, give reassurance for the possibility of relief, and provide a specific prescription for the ailing mind.[1]The teaching on the Four Noble Truths was actually the first sermon the Buddha gave after his awakening. It is known as “Turning the Wheel of Dhamma,” the text of which can be found in many sources. I particularly like Stephen Batchelor’s translation in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. A very common way the Truths are quoted and translated are as follows:

    “There is Suffering. There is the Cause of Suffering. There is the End of Suffering. There is the Path to the End of Suffering. These Four Noble Truths teach suffering and the end of suffering.”

                   -The Buddha[2]

    I am also particularly fond of how Sylvia Boorstein explains the Truths.  She offers a logical, accessible and matter-of-fact way of relating them to our lives.  

    I.                 Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships – all of our life circumstances – are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating.

    II.               The cause of suffering – is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.

    III.              The end of suffering – a nonstruggling, peaceful mind – is a possibility.

    IV.              The program – the Eightfold Path – for ending suffering is:

    1.      Wise Understanding: realizing the cause of suffering

    2.      Wise Intention: motivation – inspired by understanding –to end suffering

    3.      Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity

    4.      Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity

    5.      Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way

    6.      Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits

    7.      Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused, ease-filled mind

    8.      Wise Mindfulness: cultivating alert, balanced attention[3]

    Another intriguing view comes from Stephen Batchelor, a Western scholar, teacher and former monk. He sees them as Tasks, not Truths because “truths” can be interpreted as dogma. The Buddha was clear that what he taught he learned by studying his own mind, not through blind faith in what someone else insisted as the accepted ‘truth.’ He consistently encouraged his followers not to believe what he said, but to explore it for themselves to discover on their own what is true. This is precisely why the Buddha’s teachings have become so widely known and practiced. It is specifically not dogma; it’s a practice with tangible, accessible and profound consequences for decreasing suffering and living a kinder more peaceful life. Here are the Four Tasks:

    1.      Embrace

    2.      Let Go

    3.      Stop

    4.      Act

    “This template can be applied to every situation in life. Rather than shying away from or ignoring what is happening, embrace it with mindful attention; rather than craving to seize it or get rid of it, relax one’s grip; rather than getting caught up in a cascade of reactivity, stop and stay calm; rather than repeat what you have said and done a thousand times before, act in an empathetic and imaginative way.”

                 -Stephen Batchelor, 
                   Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

    This is an overview of the Four Noble Truths. In the coming weeks we’ll look at each of the factors of the Eightfold Path in detail, the “tasks” for living an awakened life.

    [1] Satipattana; the Direct Path to Realization,Analayo, 2003.

    [2] The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield, 2008.

    [3] Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, Sylvia Boorstein, 2002.

  • Finally we come to the seventh and last of the Factors of Awakening, the fitting culmination and crown jewel, Equanimity, Upekkha in Pali. Equanimity is the balanced spacious stillness of mind that easily accommodates everything that naturally arises as it happens. As Mindfulness is the foundation and the first of the factors, Equanimity is the capstone which keeps all of the previous factors in balance.

    Nyanaponika Thera, the 20th century German scholar and Theravadin Buddhist monk describes equanimity as “a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in insight.” A perfectly balanced and unshakable mind may seem like a lofty goal, perhaps even unattainable in the busyness of our daily lives. But in our lay lives and cultural context, developing an accommodating, balanced and non-contentious mind is both possible and realistic. And it takes perseverance, patience and practice.

    I think of equanimity as the quality of spacious even-mindedness that allows me to experience whatever occurs with soft, wise resilience. If I can soften my edges, there’s nothing too sharp to bump up against. Painful experiences don’t sting as much or for as long, and it’s easier to come down from and let go of even the most wonderful, exciting and joyous events. Softening allows me to release the grip of grasping and craving, and not push so hard against adversity. Sylvia Boorstein has a simple, yet poignant way of addressing the struggling mind. She says, “It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I’ve got.” This is the expression of a balanced mind. When I respond wisely and appropriately rather than react impulsively, I’m more likely to get a better outcome and be at ease. This is how I think of Equanimity, the capacity to make room for it all, to say “this, too.”

    In Buddhist practice, the natural and endlessly changing conditions of our lives are known of as “The Eight Worldly Winds.” They include:

    ·        Pleasure & Pain

    ·        Loss & Gain

    ·        Praise & Blame

    ·        Fame & Shame

    Our natural inclination is to pursue and be drawn to pleasure, gain, praise and fame, just as strongly as we try to avoid and push away pain, loss, blame and shame. They are the natural and normally recurring components of our lives. When we pay attention, it is easy to see that we all experience all of these “winds” continually. The key is how we respond. Do we get blown around unable to gain a foothold? Or do we have the capacity to see these conditions for what they are as they occur and work with them in a balanced patient manner?

    With equanimity we develop the resilience, skill and wisdom to ride the winds and calm the vicissitudes of our lives with greater ease and acceptance. One of my favorite teachings comes from Ajahn Sumedho, a well-known contemporary Theravadin monk. He encourages us to see things as they are, rather than how we wish them to be. “Right now, it’s like this.” In recognizing how it is, we become familiar with the varying shades of joy, anger, fear, love, sorrow, delight, sadness, grief, happiness, etc. It is through this familiarity that we learn to accommodate it all; soft, wise and resilient.

    “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the midst of it all.”


    -The Buddha

    Here we are at the end of this exploration of the Seven Factors of Awakening, each a vital link in the chain that creates the whole. To conclude: stable and continuous mindfulnessleads to investigation and discerning wisdom. This stirs up the energy and effort that leads to rapture and joy, which in turn open the door to calm and tranquility. Meditation practice is then deliberately directed towards nurturing this calm through quieting the mind and body, the fertile soil necessary for concentration to grow and develop. Finally, out of a steady and concentrated mind equanimity arises, evolves, and becomes an ever present established state of mind. Developing these factors offers a path to awakening; living a balanced, kind, and skillful life.

  • This week we continue the exploration of the Factors of Awakening with the factor of Concentration, which develops out a mind that is calm and tranquil. In Pali, the word for concentration is Samadhi; a clear and focused settled back abiding, an undistractedness of mind that leads to deeper and deeper meditative states of absorption, and the ability to see things as they are with greater and greater clarity, insight, and wisdom.

    In Buddhist traditions, developing concentration through meditation is commonly approached in two ways: 1) through single object concentration or “one-pointedness,” and 2) through momentary or “moment-to-moment” concentration.  One-pointedness focuses the attention on a fixed object like the breath, a mantra, a prayer or visualization for the purpose of steadying, quieting, and stilling the mind, much like a high powered zoom lens. Moment-to-moment concentration broadens the view. It cultivates a keen awareness of changing phenomena as they occur without getting caught by any single thought, feeling or sensation. Momentary concentration develops the capacity to take it all in, moment by moment with calm, clarity, and steadiness, like that of a wide angle lens.

    Last week we discussed the Buddha’s basic teaching on mindfulness of breathing and its function for developing calm in the mind and body. What follows is an explicit teaching of how this one-pointed practice leads to a widening out into momentary concentration practice. It is from Upasika Kee Nanayon, an extraordinary 20th century Thai Buddhist laywoman who grew to be one of the most famous teachers in Thailand. From her book Pure and Simple:

    “The texts say to breathe in long and out long, heavy or light, and then to breathe in short and out short, again, heavy or light. Those are the first steps of the training. After that we don’t have to focus on the length of the in-breath or out-breath. Instead, we simply gather our awareness at any one point of the breath and keep this up until the mind settles down and is still. When the mind is still, you then focus on the stillness of the mind at the same time you’re aware of the breath. You focus continuously on the normalcy of the mind at the same time that you’re aware of the breath coming in and out, without actually focusing on the breath. You simply stay with the mind.”

    Normalcy is the mind as it is; the ordinary awareness of what’s already right here, right now. It’s home base.[1] As the mind stabilizes and concentration deepens, we begin to see our thoughts in a more transitory way. Thoughts come and go, but we do not get caught in their stories. We become much more skilled at seeing them for what they are, naturally occurring formations of the mind.  The contemporary Burmese Buddhist teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya offers this instruction:

    “When the mind is thinking or wandering, just be aware of it. Thinking is a natural activity of the mind. You are doing well if you are aware that the mind is thinking, but if you feel disturbed by thoughts, or if you have a reaction or judgment of them, there is a problem with your attitude. The wandering mind is not the problem. Your attitude that they should not be around is the problem. So understand that you have just become aware of some functions of the mind. These, too, are just objects for your attention. When you feel disturbed by the thinking mind, remind yourself that you are not practicing to prevent thinking, but rather to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises. If you are not aware, you cannot know that you are thinking. The fact that you recognize that you are thinking means that you are already aware. Remember, it does not matter how many times the mind thinks, wanders off or gets annoyed about something, as long as you become aware of it.”

    Whether practicing single object or momentary concentration, a practical steady mindful awareness develops as the mind strengthens and learns to settle back. This opens the door to samadhi, deep levels of meditative absorption, inquiry and insight.

    “This freedom from distraction further induces a softness and serenity… Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.”

         -Bhikku Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, 1994.

    The possibility of developing an unruffled mind is very motivating to me. Experiencing moments of that kind of steadiness, peace and clarity is the purpose of practice.

    [1]Joseph Goldstein, Dharma talk on the Satipattana Sutta, April, 2008


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