On Purpose

  • On Purpose

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

  • Out of the energy and exhilaration of Rapture & Joy, we come to rest in the settled stillness of the next Factor of Awakening, Calm & Tranquility, Passadhi in Pali. Here we are so far:  Stable and continuous mindfulness leads 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. Our meditation practice is then deliberately directed towards nurturing this calm through quieting the mind and body.

    Best of any song

    Is bird song

    In the quiet, but first

    You must have the quiet.

                                  - Wendell Berry

    I love this poem. Intentionally spending time in quiet places allows us to hear our own thoughts and notice the details. We need this time and space to still the noise of our lives, inside and out.  Meditation practice turns down the volume of a discursive mind, calms the body and allows our innate wisdom to surface.

    “Inner calmness is a way of being that can transform our lives. Taking one thing at a time as our focus, letting the imperfections of life be, fosters a sense of the present, a contentment with the moment….As our skill in meditation grows, we can learn the art of letting go and finding a calm center in the midst of our changing sense. As we sit, extraordinary levels of silence and peace can open up for us….We can learn how happiness comes from a heart at rest and not from changing our outer circumstances.”

    -Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, 1987.

    Another way to access and develop a quiet mind is to suspend our penchant for living our lives swinging on the pendulum between our likes and dislikes believing our opinions as gospel. By loosening the grip on our habitual fixed views, letting go of the continual evaluation of “I like this and I don’t like that,” and not clinging to this running commentary of judgments, we give ourselves room to breathe. This is not to say that we need to relinquish our points of view or opinions, (we need discerning wisdom), but by releasing our likes and dislikes even momentarily, our minds become calmer, more spacious, and we make room for wisdom and compassion to grow. It also makes life is easier and less contentious.

                “The Great Way is not difficult

                   For those who have no preferences.

                   When love and hate are both absent

    Everything becomes clear and undisguised.

    Make the smallest distinction however

    And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

    If you wish to see the truth

    Then hold no opinions for or against anything.

    To set up what you like against what you dislike

    Is the disease of the mind.

    When the deep meaning of things is not understood

    The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to avail.”

    -from Verses on the Faith Mind
    the Third Zen Patriarch, Seng-tsan

    In the Satipattana Sutta, the Buddha’s seminal teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the following specific meditation instructions are clearly laid out for developing this factor of calm and tranquility. From the sutta:

    “Breathing in long, he knows ‘I breathe in long,’ breathing out long, he knows ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows ‘I breathe in short,’ breathing out short, he knows ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: “I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body,’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in calming the [body],’ he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out calming the [body].’”

    The sutta directs us to both knowing and training, a wonderful description of what practice actually is. It is one thing to “know” and become aware of the breath, and quite another and a little more difficult to “train” oneself to experience the breath as a means of developing calm, peace and ease. 

    Thich Nhat Hanh adds to this instruction by recommending a slight upward curve at the corners of the mouth, a gentle smile. He says smiling causes the whole body to relax. Try it out and see if you feel more at ease, if it lightens your heart.

  • Piti is the next Factor of Awakening, and is translated from Pali as rapture, joy, happiness, pleasure, delight, rapt interest, or bliss. It describes a specific kind of energy and feeling in the body, mind, and heart that naturally and organically unfolds as a result of the previously developed awakening factors. Said another way, and going backwards from where we left off last week; out of sustained well-directed energy supported by investigation and wisdom grown out of continuous mindfulness, natural joy, delight and happiness arise.

    In understanding Piti, it is important to distinguish between the rapture and joy that come from deepening states of meditative concentration and absorption, the joy and happiness that come from understanding and knowledge, and the delight and pleasure one feels as a result of the fruits of one’s skillful efforts. These are all forms of Piti, also known as Dharma Joy.[1]

    Rapture is the facet of Pitithat develops through deepening levels of meditative concentration. It is an energy that pervades the entire body with an assortment of very pleasurable, delightful, intense or blissful feelings. These waves of energy can be momentary or last differing lengths of time. The feelings may vary in intensity; sometimes tingling or vibrations in the body, sometimes centered in one specific area, perhaps the crown of the head or the center of the chest. It may be felt as pain or pure delight. Sometimes rapture can give the sensation of feeling ten feet tall, or as if there is an enormous weight on the top of the head, or a sense of joyful relief throughout the entire body.

    While this may sound very intriguing and make you think, “Hey, I want some of that meditative thrill,” beware. These states are very seductive. If you’ve experienced meditative rapture, you know it can be completely captivating and steer you off course. With enough experience, you know it’s just another state brought on by conditions present at that time. If you have not experienced it, this doesn’t mean anything except you haven’t experienced it. That’s all. What is important to remember is that just like all other mind states, rapture is not the purpose of practice, but is an aspect and experience of practice. And it is temporary. Remember this when you’re feeling either exhilarated or frustrated with your meditation practice. It is just a passing state of mind. Good or bad, it will change.

    Another facet of Pitiis that sense of joy and happiness that occurs when we finally understand something, the “ah-ha!” moment. In those times, the mind opens, relaxes and it feels good. We’re happy, though it may be subtle. Even if what we’ve figured out is not great news, we still have the relief and even the pleasure of understanding. The contemporary Burmese Theravadan Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Tejaniya says, “You should be happy when you know or understand anything.” This is a very good reminder about accepting ourselves and our circumstances as we are in this moment. This is good enough now because it is the only now there could be.

    The third aspect of Pitiis the joy and pleasure that come from skillful actions; those that lead to increased well-being and decreased suffering, and wholesome mind states and happiness. Specifically, states of non-greed, non-ill-will, and having enough patience and awareness to not act out of ignorance or delusion. All of these states require a degree of letting go; loosening up our grip on what we perceive to be me or mine, and even on how we think things should be or want them to be.

    What does it mean to let go and loosen the grip? Sometimes it can take a lot of courage to do this. It might feel risky to let go of some thing or some idea and move into the unknown and uncomfortable. But doing so is an act of generosity, and generosity is a very wholesome state of mind. Think about a time when you let go of some hard fought position, or gave away a cherished possession, or even made a monetary donation that may have been a bit of a stretch.  Did it give you pleasure or relief or delight or happiness? The Buddha taught that generosity brings us joy three times; 1st, with the initial thought to be generous, 2nd, with the actual giving, and 3rd with the memory of our action. I think this is really true. Try it out for yourself.


    “Whatever path of action you find 
    that brings good and happiness to all, 
    follow this way 
    like the moon in the path of the stars.”

    -from Buddha's Little Instruction Book, Jack Kornfield, 1994.

    [1]Adapted from a talk given by Joseph Goldstein, May 2007. www.dharmaseed.org

  • Last week we began the exploration of Viriya, Energy. Effort, perseverance, persistence, determination, courage, and striving all describe the various expressions of this kind of energy related to both meditation practice and our daily lives. Working with our energy and efforts with practice over time, we find what is skillful and leads to wholesome states, and what is unskillful, leading to unwholesome states.

    The Buddha taught that Greed, Hatred and Delusion, (Craving, Aversion, and Ignorance) are the three unwholesome roots, (also known as The Three Poisons) out of which all afflictive mind states and harmful actions arise. This profound and powerful teaching is a mandate to consider how our energy and efforts condition our actions, how our actions create consequences, and what the outcome of these consequences may be. Do they cause harm and create suffering, or do they contribute to goodness, nurture well-being, and decrease suffering? In her book Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, Sylvia Boorstein writes:

                   “I feel an invigorating consolidation of my Energy – a striving to be here now – each time I realize that now is the only time anything happens and that every now, disappearing just as rapidly as it arrives, has been shaped and created by a habit and – in its fleeting existence – is shaping and creating habits. I know that my experience of a peaceful, happy mind depends on developing the habits that support it. Since habits are, by definition, deeply ingrained patterns, and all moments are immediately lost, I need to enlist every moment to teach me about suffering and the end of suffering. Knowing that I haven’t a moment to lose keeps my Energy level high.”

    This is not to say that we need to live in a frantic state of mind. More, that we need to know when to push, when to pull back, when to go for it, and when to let go, while keeping in mind that we only have so many nows. Gentle persistence is my favorite way of thinking about this kind of effort. Sometimes in my meditation practice when I feel my energy waning or my attention drifting, I think to myself, “gentle persistence, hang in there, feel the breath, gentle persistence.” It helps buoy up the energy and strengthen my resolve.

    A friend recently told me about his experience of watching an osprey struggle and fight to catch a very large very strong fish as he watched from his kayak. After quite a battle and a lot of splashing about, the fish had outdone the osprey. As the raptor ascended and flew off in defeat, it shook off like a wet dog with a great and dramatic spray of water.  My friend said it was an extraordinary display of the struggle between intense grasping and deliberate letting go.

    So how do we practice with engaged energy, effort and awareness? Working with the following four reflections can keep us keenly aware and present in our lives. While they may seem dire and urgent, they light a fire, and keep us on our toes, breathing life, momentum and motivation into our practice.

    1.      The rarity and preciousness of human life. We may not think that human life is rare given that there are seven billion humans on our planet, but compared to the number of all living things, germs, animals, plants, everything alive, human life really is relatively rare. How precious it is that we are here, practicing, living a life.

    2.      The inevitability of death. We all know we will die, we just don’t know when. And, we tend to not think about the raw stark reality that we will all be separated from everything and everyone we love.

    3.      The awesome and indelible power of our actions. This is karma; everything we do makes a difference, everything we do matters. Ripple effects are real; all actions have consequences.

    4.      The inescapability of suffering. Life is challenging, period. Sometimes easier and sometimes harder, but accepting that life includes suffering, and knowing that things will change, can help us move through the difficult times with greater ease and more wisdom.[1]

    In wrapping up the discussion of the awakening factor of Energy, we can take a look at how these first three factors unfold. Pay attention, be curious, develop and discover your innate wisdom, harness your energy and direct it well.

    The Buddha gets the last word:

                   “Doing no evil

                    Engaging in what is skillful,

                    And purifying the mind:

                    This is the teaching of the buddhas.”[2]

    [1] The Four Reflections adapted from Training in Compassion; Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong, Norman Fischer, 2012.

    [2] The Dhammapada, translation Gil Fronsdal, 2005.

  • Viriya is the Pali word for energy, and refers to a kind of unremitting energy that arises out of the development of stable and steadfast mindfulness along with the truth discerning wisdom of investigation. As Satiis that which facilitates and enables memory and thus mindfulness, Viriya is that which allows courage, effort, and perseverance to emerge. It is also described as the kind of energy that shores things up. This is such a practical image. Imagine building a structure of any kind; add a little here, a little there, pay particular attention to shoring up the weight bearing wall. We are continuously shoring up our practice and our daily lives, and they require energy, courage, persistence and effort to do so. This is Viriya.

    I used to have a rowing coach who would scream “Put something on it!” when our rowing was slow or sloppy. Adding some courage and effort to the energy gave us a better chance of maintaining an even keel in choppy, uncertain water. Our lives are like that; choppy and uncertain. When we apply energy and effort, we are more likely to right our boats.

    The Buddha taught that there are the Four Great Efforts that are supported by this kind of energy.

    1.      To enhance and foster wholesome or skillful states that are already part of our makeup. As an example, when generous thoughts arise, develop them further and act on them.

    2.      To not get entangled in unwholesome or unskillful states that have already surfaced in us. For instance, when an unkind judgment arises, we note it and gently move the mind away from it. Let it go.

    3.      To encourage wholesome and skillful states to develop. To tap into our enormous power for goodness through cultivating awareness and wisdom.

    4.      To avoid unskillful and unwholesome states not yet surfaced. If we know through experience that certain circumstances bring about unskillful action and unwholesome states, avoid those circumstances.[1]

    Here are the Buddha’s direct instructions:

    “Herein, the [practitioner] rouses his will to arouse [or] overcome wholesome [or] unwholesome states; and he makes effort, stirs up his energy, exerts his mind and strives.”[2]

    Once the energy is stirred up and available, we need to harness it and use it wisely. This is where courage, effort, persistence and perseverance come in. I think of this as a kind of vow, an act of trust, and the commitment to practice as the continual act of vowing; a vow that leads us to live a skillful, peaceful, wise and compassionate life. 

    In his book, Taking our Places; the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Norman Fischer offers some beautiful and accessible ideas on vows, vowing, and how they relate to practice and our lives.

    “Vows are energies. Vows are aspirations. They are larger than life. Endless sources of inspiration, vows differ from goals, which are limited in scope. Goals can be met. Vows can be practiced but never exactly completed, for they are essentially unfulfillable, and it is their very inexhaustibility that propels us forward, opens us up, shapes our desires and actions.”

    “The journey is long, but there’s no rush. Each day starts from where we are – where else could it start from? There is no use wishing it were otherwise. There’s an old saying in Zen: if you fall down on the ground, it is the ground you use to get yourself up. The vow uses the ground of our present imperfection and doubt as purchase to establish itself ever more firmly. Each time we acknowledge our limitation and affirm our vow anyway, we strengthen it….To live a life of vowing is to offer ourselves completely to our lives, with nothing held back.”


    “Vowing is like walking toward the horizon:  you know where you are headed, you can see the destination brightly up ahead, and you keep on going toward it with enthusiasm even though you never arrive there.”

    To commit to practice, to come back to the cushion over and over and over again, we need energy, courage, effort and persistence. The same holds true for our lives.

    [1]Adapted from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield, 1987.

    [2] Adapted from The Noble Eightfold Path; Way to the End of Suffering, Bhikku Bodhi, 1994.

  • Investigation is the second Factor of Awakening, and is one of three arousing factors as it has the quality of enlivening the mind. The other two are Effort & Energy and Rapture & Joy. We’ll discuss those two next week.

    It is important to remember that these factors unfold naturally in order; each is conditioned by the previous one. Well-established steady mindfulness is the ground out of which investigation grows.  With mindfulness, we become aware of what is present, and with investigation, we look into the nature of what we find, the truth of things, the dharma. Investigation requires bringing an open curiosity into our meditation practice seeded with kind, nonjudgmental awareness.

    “Investigation of the dharma means not settling for second-hand knowledge or adopting someone else’s opinion. It says ‘I must see for myself what is true.’ What makes a buddha is the courage and willingness to look directly and honestly into the body, the heart, and the mind without relying on or settling for what others say is true. Over the years of meditation, it is this quality that keeps practice alive.”

                                          - Seeking the Heart of Wisdom,
                                            Jack Kornfield& Joseph Goldstein

    The Buddha was very clear on this point of finding out for oneself what is true, that blind faith cannot lead to full awareness into the truth of how things are. But it is through investigation for oneself into one’s ownexperience that insight and wisdom grow. Yet, the question remains. What is it that we learn from investigating our experiences? What is the truth discerning wisdom that arises? One of the core foundational teachings of the Buddha is that of The Three Characteristics of Experience.

    1.      Everything is always changing. That which has the nature to arise has the nature to cease. Things come into being, stick around for a while, then change into something else or disappear entirely. This is the insight into impermanence, anicca in Pali.

    2.      Life is challenging. For everyone. By its very nature, life is full of joy and sorrow, gain and loss, good health and sickness, ease and difficulty. When the mind is caught in the continual wishing for things to be other, or the grasping onto what is, anguish, fear, stress, or dissatisfaction develop. This is the insight into suffering, dukkha in Pali.

    3.      Everything is dependent on everything else. Because of this, that. Nothing, by nature is made up of only itself. Any structure is made up of its component parts; the human body, a book, a tree, a flower, even water.  All are made up of parts that can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts, and ultimately it becomes impossible to locate an identifiable whole self or inherently solid object. This is the insight into interconnection,or more classically, not-self, anatta in Pali.

    One of my teachers, Heather Sundberg, offers a delightfully simple and clear way of understanding the experience of the three characteristics. She says something like this, “Everything changes. Everything. When we hold on too tightly and push things away too hard, it hurts. And please, don’t take life so personally. It’s not personal. It’s just the manifestation of a whole bunch of conditions intersecting at any given moment in time.”

    We learn for ourselves through direct experience that impermanence, suffering, and interconnection are universal, true for everyone everywhere. With practice and through investigation we cultivate the capacity to navigate our lives skillfully with wisdom, clarity, and discernment. And by knowing what’s what we can make wise choices.  With wise choices, we have more ease, with more ease we have less suffering, with less suffering, we are kinder, with more kindness, we experience more peace. This is a self-supporting cycle. Each is dependent upon and a reflection of the other.

    Here is a meditation practice for working with investigation from another great teacher, Martine Batchelor, from her book, Let Go; A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits.

    Questioning Meditation – “What is this?

    Settling in, assuming a comfortable posture, begin by tuning in to your breath. Breathing in, be aware of breathing in; breathing out, ask: “What is this?” When you ask “What is this?” you are opening yourself to the whole moment. You are not asking anything specific. This meditation is about questioning, not about answering. The questioning is open-ended. Feel the question in the body, the heart, and the mind.

    Try not to look for any answers. No analysis, no speculation, just the internal gesture of inquiry. As you develop a sense of questioning and curiosity, try to remain stable and alert. Focus on the question within a wide-open awareness and allow yourself to be available to the moment fully. Continue with the questioning for as long as you like. When you’re ready, let it go and rest in the open space of inquiry. 

  • Mindfulness is deliberate non-judgmental present moment bare attention; awareness, presence of mind, collecting one’s thoughts, tidying up the mind for the purpose of wise understanding and appropriate response. It is the first of the Factors of Awakening because it is the fertile ground out of which the factors of investigation, energy, joy, calm, concentration, and equanimity develop and grow.  There are three distinct functions of mindfulness; 1) to see things clearly, carefully and factually, 2) to balance the mind, and 3) to develop insight and wisdom through the clear comprehension and understanding of what is skillful and wholesome, and what is unskillful and unwholesome.

    First a little background. The word mindfulness is the generally accepted translation of the Pali word Sati. It is also commonly translated as memory, remembering or recollecting. In his extensive commentary Satipatthana; the Direct Path to Realization, Analayo, the highly respected contemporary German scholar elaborates.

    “…sati relates to the ability of calling to mind what has been done or said long ago. A closer examination of this definition, however, reveals that sati is not really defined as memory, but as that which facilitates and enables memory. What this definition of satipoints to is that, if sati is present, memory will be able to function well.”

    Have you ever wandered around the house with increasing perplexity looking for your glasses or keys only to find that you’re wearing your glasses and the keys are in your pocket?  I have done both. When my mind is scattered, it spills over into my life. Simply stated, paying attention now makes information available later.

    The Buddha’s instructions for contemplating the various Factors of Awakening are foundational and quite straightforward. You’ll likely recognize the pattern, as they are not different from his instructions for contemplating other aspects of mindfulness.

    “If the mindfulness awakening factor is present in him, he knows ‘there is the mindfulness awakening factor in me;’ if the mindfulness awakening factor is not present in him, he knows ‘there is no mindfulness awakening factor in me.’”

    Again the focus is to cultivate clear awareness in this moment, just the facts.  Knowing when the factor is present and knowing when the factor is not present. The brilliance of the Buddha’s instruction is that it does not require or ask for a judgment or opinion about whether or not any given factor is present, or what the quality of the factor may be. In fact, it is specifically not helpful to insert an opinion. Doing so leads to some level of reactivity, precisely what mindfulness is so adept at eliminating. This is a core aspect of mindfulness.

    Here are a few poems from the Japanese Haiku master, Basho. They beautifully illustrate the point of simple unadorned awareness.

    The old pond

    A frog


    A green willow, 

    Dripping down into the mud,
    At low tide.  

    Spring air --
    Woven moon
    And plum scent.

    As mindfulness practice strengthens, a keen awareness of the body, the feelings, the thoughts and emotions, as well as an overall awareness of our experiences develops. The Buddha gave another incisive instruction for the cultivation of insight and wisdom into what is wholesome and skillful, and conversely, what is not wholesome or skillful. This instruction is a basic question that can be asked many times over: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?”  I have found this to be a foundational, provocative and illuminating question. When I sit with this, it takes me out of the immediacy of the story I’m caught in or struggling with. It sets my compass straight and accesses my deepest wisdom. Try it next time you’re caught, confused, unsure or struggling. You may find it quite helpful.

    Another poem…

    Being Here

    Transcending down into

    the ground of things is akin

    to sweeping the leaves that cover

    a path. There will always be more

    leaves. And the heart of the journey,

    the heart of our own awakening, is

    to discover for ourselves that the

    leaves are not the ground, and that

    sweeping them aside will reveal a

    path, and finally, that to fully live,

    we must take the path and

    continually sweep it.

    -Mark Nepo
  • “Someone once asked Lama Govinda how one could fit together the various traditions that represent [the] Buddha’s teaching. He replied that one can think of [the] Buddha’s dharma as a wonderful seed planted in the earth, out of which has blossomed a tree with deep roots, great branches, leaves, flowers and fruit. He said that sometimes a person might point to the roots and say that it is just here that we can find the real dharma, while someone else may say, ‘Oh, no, it’s in the flowers,’ and still another will say that it is to be found in the fruit. But of course, these different parts cannot really be separated; the roots sustain the tree in their own way, the leaves nourish their way, and the fruit depends on the roots and leaves and branches as well. The Seven Factors of Awakening are like the sap that runs through the Buddha’s tree,… nourishing all parts of it.”

     -from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom,
       Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield

    The Buddha’s teaching on the Seven Factors of Awakening comes from the Satipatthana Sutta, and is part of the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Dhammas. These factors are qualities of mind and heart that arise naturally as an outgrowth of meditation practice, though they are not limited to meditation alone. Over the coming weeks we’ll look at these factors individually. They include:



    Energy & Effort

    Rapture & Joy

    Calm & Tranquility



    In the Sutta, the Buddha taught the Factors of Awakening after the Hindrances because they function as antidotes to the Hindrances. For example, doubt can be uprooted by applying investigation. Restlessness and worry are dissolved with concentration. This list of factors is divided into three categories which clearly describe their function; equalizing, arousing, and stabilizing. Mindfulness is the ground, the great equalizer, the soil out of which the other six grow. The arousing factors are investigation, energy & effort, and rapture & joy. The stabilizing factors are calm & tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. When developed and put into practice, these qualities loosen up the stuck mind which then inclines and guides it towards awakening. The awakened mind is one that sees clearly, is free of contention, and allows us to access our innate goodness for the purpose of living a skillful, peaceful, wise and compassionate life.  

    I see these factors as an arc with mindfulness and equanimity at the base of the two legs, the others rising up and over from them. They unfold and develop in sequence quite beautifully and naturally. One leads to the next and each is dependent on the one that precedes it. Think of it this way; as we become aware of what is present, we investigate its nature. Investigation requires energy and effort, and once there is clarity and understanding, rapture and joy arise, the “ah-ha” moment. This is the top of the arc. As rapture and joy subside, calm and tranquility emerge, allowing the mind to rest. Out of a calm mind comes a concentrated mind, and out of this settled concentrated mind, equanimity develops.

    “Neither mother nor father,
      Nor any other relative can do
      One as much good
      As one’s own well-directed mind.”            
                      -The Buddha, from The Dhammapada
                        Gil Fronsdal, translator

  • Enjoying the desert sunshine in Zion. Be well, I'll be back next week.

  • Love Does That

    All day long a little burro labors, sometimes

    With heavy loads on her back and sometimes 
    just with worries

    About things that bother only burros.

    And worries, as we know, 
    can be more exhausting

    Than physical labor.

    Once in a while a kind monk comes

    To her stable and brings a pear,

    But more than that,

    He looks into the burro’s eyes and 
    touches her ears

    And for a few seconds the burro is free

    And even seems to laugh,

    Because love does that.

    Love frees.

    -Meister Eckhart

    Mindfulness & Metta, Loving Awareness

    I’ve been thinking about connection and belonging and how they relate to mindfulness and metta. What happens when we connect with others? What happens when we feel we belong? Belong to ourselves, our families, our friends and our community; the threads that weave and bind us.  We show up week after week to sit together, to practice together. None of us could do this without the other. Our practice depends on it. We could actually say that our lives depend on it, because they do. What a thought!

    Each week in class we spend about 30 minutes focusing on mindfulness practice and about 10 minutes practicing metta. But I think we’re actually doing both at the same time. The more I practice, the more I find that I cannot distinguish one from the other. Of course there is a literal distinction between the practice of continual non-judgmental noting and naming of whatever is arising, “planning, planning,” or “thinking, thinking” or “breathing in…breathing out,” and the classical recitation of metta phrases, “May I be happy, May I be safe, May I be well.” But at their core, I believe their ultimate intention is the same; to settle the mind, open the heart, and cultivate a soft resilience that allows us to be present and engaged in our lives without rancor or contention. 

    Mindfulness really is inherently kind, and being kind is by nature mindful. They are intimately and inextricably linked. The outcome of a clear mind is a loving heart. Jack Kornfield aptly names this “loving awareness.” When we intentionally infuse our lives with loving awareness, our connections deepen and our sense of belonging grows.

    Larry Yang is one of the founding teachers of East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, as well as a guiding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He encourages approaching metta by “being kind to the practice of kindness itself.” I love that. By intentionally making kindness the starting point, we cannot help but be less reactive and less judgmental. It makes life so much easier. Larry is realistic, however, and acknowledges that it’s not always so easy to feel and act with a kind heart. It’s natural and normal to struggle, and we can’t always get it right, or be kind. 

    Try this practice:

    “If I cannot be loving, can I be kind?

    If I cannot be kind, can I be non-judgmental?

    If I cannot be non-judgmental, can I be non-harming?

    If I cannot be non-harming, can I cause the least harm possible?”

    I’ve added to this practice in reverse:

    “When I have caused harm, may I learn to be non-harming?

    When I experience non-harming, may I learn to be non-judgmental?

    When I am non-judgmental, may I learn to be kind?

    When I am kind, may I learn to be loving?”

    A Rabbit Noticed My Condition

    I was sad one day and went for a walk;

    I sat in a field.

    A rabbit noticed my condition and

    Came near.

    It often does not take 
    more than that to help at times-

    To just be close to creatures who

    Are so full of knowing,

    So full of love

    That they don’t -chat,

    They just gaze with their

    Marvelous understanding.

    -St. John of the Cross

  • A few days ago the phone rang while I was cooking dinner.  A man introduced himself as calling from some web site, and because he was speaking so quickly, I did not catch his name. All I heard was that he wanted to verify details about my credit card. I immediately thought it was a scam, someone trying to trick me into giving just the right information so my card could be stolen. He had enough personal data about me that I didn’t immediately hang up, but rather suspiciously and abruptly said “Who ARE you?” And once again, he said dropping his tone and pace so I could understand him, “Mme, my name is Ray and I am trying to help you.” At which point he recited my full credit card number with all of the correct verifying information, along with my full name, address, and clearly he had my home phone number. He also had my full attention.  Again I said “Where did you get this information and who ARE you?”  I was so suspicious and alarmed that I was having trouble listening. I doubted everything he said about his legitimacy. Again he explained the purpose of his call. It turned out that someone was, indeed, trying to use my credit card to make a $7500 purchase on his web site. Because this was a highly unusual order, he was suspicious and decided to track me down. I still didn’t believe he was the innocent merchant until he finally emailed me the lengthy exchange between him and the supposed customer. Attached to the email was a copy of a hand written purchase order with my forged signature. I didn’t doubt Ray any more. He really was a Good Samaritan looking out for both of us.

    In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Hindrances are part of the fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Dhammas, (dhammas in Pali, dharmas in Sanskrit) defined as the truth of how things are, the patterns and categories of experience, the natural law of conditons. Doubt is the fifth and last of the Hindrances. The Buddha described the mind filled with doubt like a bowl full of dark and muddy water. And overcoming doubt is like crossing a dangerous desert safely. As with the other hindrances, knowing when doubt is present and knowing when doubt is absent is where we begin.

    The expression to be “plagued by doubt” describes this hindrance very well. If one is plagued, one may feel confused, stuck, unable to see clearly, indecisive. Phrases like “I can’t do it,” “It won’t work,” “It’s not a good time,” are examples of the doubting mind, one that can be self-defeating and self-sabotaging. In the context of meditation practice, this kind of doubt is a hindrance to concentration, reflection and insight. Outside of meditation, the doubting mind can also be a hindrance to growth, exploration, creativity and appropriate action.

    A well-known teaching on another kind of doubt is from the 18thcentury Zen teacher, Hakuin Ekaku. This kind of doubt is not a hindrance, but functions as a significant and necessary doorway to understanding.

    “Great Doubt, Great Awakening

    Little Doubt, Little Awakening

    No Doubt, No Awakening”

    The Buddha taught that the antidote to doubt and the skillful way to address doubt is through investigation. Looking into the nature of the doubting mind with interest and curiosity lifts the fog of doubt. As the fog lifts, more light comes in. The lighter it gets, the clearer we see and the doubt is transformed into greater awareness and understanding. With greater awareness and understanding, wisdom grows. With more wisdom, the more skillful our actions become.

    Meditation Instructions:

    Start with one of the concentration practices that feels most natural to you; simply being with the breath, focusing on the in-breath and the out-breath, reciting phrases, or tuning into the natural ease and peace of the moment.

    Once the body and mind are settled, repeat the question “What is it… What is it?” Take your time and observe. I learned this from Martine Batchelor, a former Zen Buddhist nun. She taught that to bring whatever difficulty is present under the bright light of “what is it” focuses the attention so directly that understanding emerges. This is a very simple yet profound practice.

    “The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive – it has nothing to do with time. It happens on its own when a human being questions, wonders, inquires, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure and pain. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”      
          -Toni Packer, The Work of this Moment

  • The restless, agitated mind,

                   Hard to protect, hard to control,

    The sage makes straight,

                   As a fletcher the shaft of an arrow.        

    Like a fish out of water,
                   Thrown on dry ground,
    This mind thrashes about,

                   Trying to escape Mara’s command.       

    The mind, hard to control,

                   Flighty – alighting where it wishes-

    One does well to tame.

                   The disciplined mind brings happiness. 

    -The Buddha, from The Dhammapada, Gil Fronsdal, Translator

    Over the weekend I went out rowing with a friend, both of us in single sculls. We got on the water about an hour past high tide, the wind just barely a whisper, the sun in and out of the clouds, and the air was almost balmy. We watched egrets and great blue herons stand tall along the banks tucked in the even taller grass, large flocks of coots run across the water in a flurry as we came along, noisy Canada geese squawking overhead, and an osprey hunting for its breakfast. Pretty nice for a spring morning on Humboldt Bay.  And, of course, it didn't last. In a heartbeat, the wind came up and the water started to chop. The current seemed to be moving in figure eights. With the tide rushing out and the waves coming in we needed to get off the water. Rowing in a racing scull in waves is dangerous and takes focus, balance and stability. The conditions were not good, I was worried, and the safest way to row was to concentrate...the antidote to the fourth of the Hindrances, Restlessness-and-Worry.

    In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, he uses two sets of similes to describe the effect of the Hindrances on the mind when they are present and when they are absent.  When present, “restlessness-and-worry affect the mind like water stirred by the wind…causing one to be tossed about.” And when absent, “to be free from the agitation of restlessness-and-worry is like being liberated from slavery. Restlessness-and-worry can control the mind to such an extent that one is completely at its mercy.”

    Working with this hindrance is the same as working with the others. Apply mindfulness. Know when it is present, know when it is absent. Allow the restlessness-and-worry itself to become the object of meditation instead of the obstacle to meditation.  

    Investigate its nature. What does it feel like in both the body and mind when it’s present? Be curious. Investigation coupled with curiosity allows the stepping back from the demanding nature of restlessness-and-worry, the insidious way it holds the mind hostage. With mindful awareness, one can begin to see the causes and conditions that give rise to the state, along with the necessary conditions that allow it to dissolve. From this perspective, it is possible to directly experience just how fleeting and impersonal the hindrance actually is.

    If the hindrance is absent, note what this feels like. The absence, too, can be the object of meditation. Gaining an awareness of the mind at ease is just as important as being aware of the mind caught in a snag. This awareness becomes a point of reference, a new set point for the next time difficulty arises. The more familiar you are with the experience of the natural ease of the mind, the more accessible this relaxed mind can be.

    Practice Suggestions:

    For the mind caught by restless-and-worry, try this concentration practice. Be sure to allow a relaxed breath in between phrases and see if you can get a sense of how each phrase actually feels in the body.

    May I be grounded in my body

    May my heart be open and stable

    May my mind be clear and balanced

    May I breathe in this moment with ease

    When the mind is free of the hindrance, try this very lovely practice from Ajaan Amaro, a widely known teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition.

    Sitting comfortably,

    “Let the mind and body assume the natural ease and peace that is the natural ease and peace of the mind and body. Only attend to what disturbs the natural ease and peace.”

    Breathe, recite the instructions several times, try to get a sense of this in the body. Take your time. Come back to it as often as you like.

  • In Buddhist lore, Mara is the tempter, the one who personifies unskillfulness and unwholesome impulses, the evil one. Mara is the one who does everything he can to convince the Buddha to give up his quest for enlightenment. As the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, determined to meditate until he became enlightened, Mara sent his three daughters Tanha (desire), Raga (lust), and Arati (aversion), to seduce him and break his concentration. With each temptation and distraction, the Buddha said “Mara, I see you. I am not afraid.” Finally, it is said that as the Buddha became enlightened, Mara was swept away by a great flood. 

    The story of Mara is a wonderful tool for looking at the things in our lives that scare us, hinder us, deter us, confuse us, and keep us from believing in and trusting our basic goodness, our innate wisdom. It is important to note that this wasn’t the end of Mara. He appears over and over again in the Buddha’s life because the Buddha was human. He, too, faced the challenges of living a human life, just like us.

    When the voice of doubt, fear, craving, self-judgment, surfaces try saying to yourself, “Mara, I see you.” This is mindfulness. This immediately sees things for what they are and cuts the storyline. It may not stop the thought, but it brings a wise and skillful understanding to the situation. If you can also say “I am not afraid,” you bring an added willingness and degree of courage to truly be with what is. This is not easy. It’s a practice.

    Meditation Instructions from Sylvia Boorstein

    May I meet this moment fully – coming to meditation we bring all of ourselves; the parts we love, the parts we avoid, and even the parts we may not know. There is space for everything. After silently saying the phrase, check in with the body, the feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, or neither, the thoughts and emotions, how are things today? What is present? Breathe.

    May I meet it as a friend – approaching oneself in this moment, as a friend; what does it feel like to offer yourself the security, trust and kindness of a good friend? Does the mind relax? Does the heart become more available? Breathe.

    You might coordinate the phrases with the breath. One phrase on the in-breath, one phrase on the out-breath. Or one phrase with each full breath cycle. Take your time, focus on the intention of the phrases and notice how they make you feel. No need to rush. Try this for your entire sit, or for just five minutes. When I do this, I feel a sense of brightness and ease in the meditation. It’s lovely.

    Watching the moon,

    at dawn,

    Solitary, mid-sky,

    I knew myself completely:

    No part left out.

    Izumi Shikibu

    (from a Japanese woman a thousand years ago)

  • Sloth describes a slow, sluggishness of mind. Imagine trying to move through thick, waist deep mud, or molasses clinging to the side of the spoon, slowly dripping off the end. This is the quality of Sloth.

    Torpor is dullness of mind, lack of clarity, like having the lights turned down in the mind, a sinking, heavy mind, like butter that’s too hard to spread. This is the quality of Torpor.

    Together, sloth & torpor are characterized by an inherent and distinct lack of energy, a quality of withdrawing, a contracting mind, a sinking nature, a quality of sleepiness. It manifests differently on and off the cushion, and when we pay attention to it, we get to know what brings it on, and what allows it to dissolve.

    When this state arises in our daily lives off the cushion, if we're not aware of its causes and deceptive nature, we might feed sloth & torpor with taking a nap, cozying up with a book, watching a movie, trips to the refrigerator, surfing the internet, or another low energy activity that actually perpetuates the heavy dullness. And sometimes that’s just what the body needs. Sometimes going for a walk, getting some fresh air, or exercising, are really what's needed to bring up the energy. 

    For me, sloth and torpor can be particularly prevalent when the days are gray with thick fog, and the air is cold, especially during the summer months when the sun may not shine for weeks on end. My mind and spirit can become as gray as the fog with a sense of heaviness and some depression; like being trapped under a thick, wet, cold blanket unable to move. But as the fog lifts and the sun comes out, my mind, energy and spirit lift at just about the same rate, and the state of sloth and torpor vanish. It's very reassuring to experience the true temporary nature of this state of mind.

    During meditation, when sloth and torpor are present, it can feel like swimming through a swamp and we can easily fall into what is called the hypnogogic state; a period of dreamlike drowsiness that precedes sleep. This comes from a lack of attention and mental clarity, allowing the natural flow of thoughts and dullness to take its own course through the swamp without a rudder. When this occurs, we’ll likely fall asleep on the cushion. 

    What to do:

    From the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Dhammas, the Fourth Foundation...

    "While sloth and torpor are present in him, he knows, 'There are sloth and torpor present in me'; or while sloth and torpor are not present in him, he knows 'There is no sloth and torpor present in me.'"

    - Know when the hindrance is present.
    - Understand the conditions that cause the hindrance to arise.
    - Know when the hindrance is not present.
    - Understand the conditions that allow the letting go, the releasing of the hindrance.
    - Understand the conditions necessary to prevent the future arising of the hindrance.

    1. Apply Mindfulness – Notice this state and make the state itself the object of meditation. Allow the mind to relax around it. Take a wide view. This is not indulging the state, but staying aware of it.

    2. Investigation - What is the actual experience of this state? Notice the feelings and sensations in the body and mind. Be specific. What does it feel like? Watch this, observe it, be curious.

    3. Touch Points – Keep the mind engaged and interested to bring up the clarity and lift the veil of sluggishness. Notice sensations, sounds, smells, sights (whether eyes are open or closed), and the breath. Not to busy the mind, but to sharpen it. Adjust and straighten the posture, even stand up.

    4. “Good Friends & Profitable Talk” – Become aware of others around you practicing with you. Let this support and inspire you. As we practice together, it becomes more obvious that we do not practice for ourselves alone. We need each other’s practice. Read about the dharma, talk to friends. This supports, inspires, reassures, and uplifts our practice. It gives us confidence in the benefits of practice.

    When we apply wise mindfulness, we gain the insight through direct experience that these states of mind come, they hang around for a while, and they dissipate. The wisdom that grows from experiencing this inherent impermanence frees us from the grip of whichever hindrance may be present at any given time. We can see for ourselves that “All hindrances are self-liberating in the great space of awareness.” 

  • We're continuing the conversation about aversion, (anger, fear, ill-will, resentment, boredom, pain, loss, etc.) and all of things that make us want to turn away and say "no, not this." I am reminded over and over again that building the skill little by little to turn towards the pain, towards whatever the aversion, is ultimately the easier path. Putting up a wall of resistance seems to enhance the strength of the the source of the aversion. 

    Some practice suggestions:

    Take a breath, take another one. By focusing on the breath, even for a few breaths, the mind stops the story line of whatever it thinks is the problem. And even if it is for 30 seconds, or a minute, or five minutes, the experience of changing the focus, changing the channel can help to soften the resistance to the given aversion.

    Recognizing "it's not what I wanted, but it's what I've got," is a very effective instruction from Sylvia Boorstein. Again, this is a turning towards, not a turning away. By making space for what is, the mind can begin to accommodate what is present.

    Metta practice. Try saying metta phrases for yourself. Metta is an antidote to aversion of all kinds. It brings out our innate compassion and is a tool for self-soothing.

    Live in joy, in love, 

    Even among those who hate. 

    Live in joy, in health. 
    Even among the afflicted. 

    Live in joy, in peace, 
    Even among the troubled.

    Look within. Be still. 
    Free from fear and attachment,
    Know the sweet joy of the way. 

    —The Buddha, from the Dhammapada, Thomas Byrom, translator
  • Welcome to the first entry of the Monday Mindfulness blog. Each week I'll post a synopsis of the topic from the Monday class, along with any passages, poems, references or practice suggestions. This is a resource for you whether you come to class regularly, or drop in from time to time. 


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