"When understood, the Buddha’s universe..is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is a world where any human can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving." ❦ Eknath Easwara

March 17, 2012

The Joy of Effort - Approaching Meditation Practice as Skillful Play

"When explaining meditation, the Buddha often drew analogies with the skills of artists, carpenters, musicians, archers, and cooks. Finding the right level of effort, he said, is like a musician’s tuning of a lute. Reading the mind’s needs in the moment—to be gladdened, steadied, or inspired—is like a palace cook’s ability to read and please the tastes of a prince.

Collectively, these analogies make an important point: Meditation is a skill, and mastering it should be enjoyable in the same way that mastering any other rewarding skill can be. The Buddha said as much to his son, Rahula: 'When you see that you’ve acted, spoken, or thought in a skillful way—conducive to happiness while causing no harm to yourself or others—take joy in that fact, and keep on training.'

Of course, saying that meditation should be enjoyable doesn’t mean that it will always be easy or pleasant. Every meditator knows it requires serious discipline to sit with long unpleasant stretches and untangle all the mind’s difficult issues. But if you can approach difficulties with the enthusiasm that an artist approaches challenges in her work, the discipline becomes enjoyable: Problems are solved through your own ingenuity, and the mind is energized for even greater challenges.

This joyful attitude is a useful antidote to the more pessimistic attitudes that people often bring to meditation, which tend to fall into two extremes. On the one hand, there’s the belief that meditation is a series of dull and dreary exercises allowing no room for imagination and inquiry: Simply grit your teeth, and, at the end of the long haul, your mind will be processed into an awakened state. On the other hand there’s the belief that effort is counterproductive to happiness, so meditation should involve no exertion at all: Simply accept things as they are— it’s foolish to demand that they get any better—and relax into the moment.

While it’s true that both repetition and relaxation can bring results in meditation, when either is pursued to the exclusion of the other, it leads to a dead end. If, however, you can integrate them both into the larger skill of learning how to apply whatever level of effort the practice requires at any given moment, they can take you far. This larger skill requires strong powers of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment, but if you stick with it, it can lead you all the way to the Buddha’s ultimate aim in teaching meditation: nirvana, a happiness totally unconditioned, free from the constraints of space and time.

That’s an inspiring aim, but it requires work. And the key to maintaining your inspiration in the day‐to‐day work of meditation practice is to approach it as play: a happy opportunity to master practical skills, to raise questions, experiment, and explore. This is precisely how the Buddha himself taught meditation. Instead of formulating a cut‐and‐dried method, he first trained his students in the personal qualities—such as honesty and patience—needed to make trustworthy observations. Only then did he teach meditation techniques, and even then he didn’t spell everything out. He raised questions and suggested areas for exploration, in hopes that his questions would capture his students’ imagination, inspiring them to develop discernment and gain insights on their own..."

From "The Joy of Effort" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

You can read the entire essay, "The Joy of Effort" here:

Or, you can listen to it as a dharma talk here:


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Dealing With the Mind's Ambivalence to Awakening

"Aspiring to awakening can awaken the deepest fear of all: discovering we do not exist in the way we think we do. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on grasping is continual evidence that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. The fact that we talk incessantly to ourselves about ourselves in a never-ending internal monologue betrays our anxiety about the emptiness we might fall into if we stopped.

'Without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind....the thought that we might ever become ego-less terrifies us,' says Sogyal Rinpoche. This 'secret, unnerving knowledge' is unwelcome and unwanted. It makes us chronically restless and insecure. So we talk ourselves out of it; 'I can’t do it;' 'I don’t deserve it;' 'I’m tempting fate;' 'Others won’t understand;' 'I’ll end up alone.'

Any process with the potential for real change evokes this kind of ambivalence. 'Every patient,' says Robert Langs, 'enters therapy with a mind divided.' But the mind is ratcheted up enormously in spiritual practice because ego projects awakening as something outside ourselves, and therefore perceives it (rightly!) as the ultimate threat to itself. As a source of suffering, 'ignorance' (avijjà) in Buddhist teaching doesn’t simply mean not knowing the facts: not knowing the truth of anattà, [not self]for instance.  Ignorance means 'ignoring': a dynamically charged ignorance; a not-wanting-to-know, a resistance to knowing, an allowing ourselves to know only so much.

'The resourcefulness of ego is almost infinite,' says Sogyal Rinpoche, 'and at every stage it can sabotage and pervert our desire to be free of it. The truth is simple and the teachings are extremely clear, but... as soon as they begin to touch and move us, the ego tries to complicate them because it is fundamentally threatened.'

Anticipate the mind’s ambivalence and resistance to awakening, and then we will not be dismayed or deterred. Left to itself, the mind will always hedge its bets. 'Your mind has a mind of its own,' my first vipassanà [insight meditation] teacher, Sujata, once wrote—'Where do you fit in?' That part of us would prefer not-to-know and will settle for relief instead—any relief if we feel badly enough—anything that will ease the pain and discomfort without requiring deeper inquiry into its source. Rather off-hand one day, Sujata said, 'Let’s face it—we’re all pigeons for a little bit of sukha (pleasurable feeling).' I resented his crudeness at the time, but in part because he pointed to something I did not want to recognize.

Have you ever noticed how much more problematic happiness or joy are than unhappiness and misery? Happiness actually frightens us, doesn’t it? 'It won’t last,' we tell ourselves. 'I’ll crash, and then I’ll feel worse than before. At least when I’m miserable, I have nothing to lose. It sucks, but it’s familiar, and I don’t have to live with the anxiety of keeping this high wire act going. I don’t deserve to be happy anyway. I’ll pay for it one way or the other—God or fate or my karma will see to that. If they don’t, my superego will.'

A poet-professor of mine wrote many years ago in a meditation on the sacred in art, 'It’s not the skeleton in our closet that we fear. It’s the god.' It is not ghosts which evoke our deepest anxieties. It is glimpses of freedom. Like the prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the shackles are off but the light outside is too bright; better the comfort and familiarity of the shadows on the wall of the cave. Sometimes even though the cell door is flung open, the prisoner chooses not to escape.

Instead of practicing for awakening as a real possibility, we hold enlightenment up as a remarkable and rare attainment, the highest ideal of the spiritual life. But enlightenment doesn’t work as an ideal. As an ideal for a few, it distances us and discourages us. At the same time, of course, this puts it comfortably out of reach where we can venerate it without feeling we have to do anything about it. And then we have to defend ourselves against our disappointment that it will never be ours. So we take the opposite position that it doesn’t really matter anyway—all that matters is being awake in the moment.

This may be true, but here it is used as a rationalization. By minimizing its importance, we make our own self-doubts and insecurities easier to live with. Idealizing awakening and minimizing its importance are both defensive, and repeat what has already happened in the history of Buddhism. Awakening was a common occurrence in the beginning if we believe the suttas; over the centuries it came to be viewed as a rarer and rarer event as it took on more of a mystical aura, and most Buddhists eventually abandoned the aspiration for awakening in this lifetime. Is this coincidence?

Buddhaghosa [the 5th century commentator] called practice a visuddhi-magga or 'path of purification.' Wholehearted aspiration is often mixed up with pressures to unwittingly turn practice into another means of shoring up ego. From this initial alloy, the impurities are refined out in the fire of practice. But this requires intention, desire, the will-to-do—the mental factor Buddhist Abhidhamma calls 'chanda.' Without this will or desire or intention to awaken, awakening will not happen.

'I wanted to know the meaning of my life,' a student once said to Kapleau Roshi. 'How did you ask your question?' Roshi replied. 'Only when you are driven to cry from your guts, ‘I must, I will, find out!‘ will your question be answered.' Aspiration can be confused with longing; longing is only a wish for what we believe we will never have. Aspiration is setting our face to the wind with conviction, purpose and intention. What we don’t intend we will never accomplish."

"Practicing for Awakening" by Jack Engler

This excerpt is from "Practicing for Awakening," part of a day-long workshop given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November l, l997. Jack is on the study center board of directors, teaches at Harvard Medical School and practices psychotherapy in Cambridge.
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March 15, 2012

Working with Fear Skillfully

Working With Fear

This is a summary of some of the meditation practices and issues covered in an eight-week practice group led by Michael Liebenson Grady at the CIMC in the winter of 1997.

"We can have a very committed spiritual practice, doing all the "right" things—sitting every day, getting in our annual retreats, reading and listening to Dharma, and even having moments of deep concentration and clarity of mind. And yet, at the same time, we can be living our lives actively avoiding our fears and keeping them at a distance.

Rilke said,"What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us." Understandably, fear is a difficult energy to love. The source of our difficulty with fear is tied up in two deeply conditioned responses to fear —aversion and identification. On a physical level, fear doesn’t feel good. It’s unpleasant. The energy of fear expresses itself in so many ways through the body: from very subtle sensations that often go unnoticed to very distinct sensations of contraction and tightening — constriction in the chest, stomach, face, throat. Our breathing and our heartbeat are affected. Even our skin and body temperature are effected (cold, clammy hands); couple these unpleasant physical sensations with the unpleasant mental sensations (thoughts of vulnerability, powerlessness, and separation) and we can begin to understand why we respond with so much aversion to the experience of fear.

Our aversion to fear —the judging and condemning, the avoiding and denial, the embarrassment and shame — are intensified by our identification with fear. There is a strong tendency to personalize fear, to take separateness and self-judgment. The notion of self is not far from our experience of fear. It conditions the way we hold fear. It strengthens aversion and makes the experience of fear more threatening. Not only do we judge fear as a bad experience (aversion), but we judge ourselves for having the experience. Identification with fear gets in the way of looking at fear directly and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of fear.

It is this inability to see fear as an impersonal, conditioned response that creates so much suffering. One of the things that I appreciate about our discussions of fear in the practice group is that they facilitate a more open way of relating to fear. In many ways our discussions help take fear out of the closet of embarrassment. We can see that our fears are not necessarily as personal as we assume. Others share similar fears and relate to these fears in much the same way that we do. The recognition of this commonality helps dissolve the separation caused by our identification with fear and can give us the confidence to examine fear in a less reactive way. Through "noble friendship" and suitable conversation the mind can come into more balance, facilitating clarity and inner freedom.

The challenge, in working with fear, is to learn how to soften the habitual reaction of aversion while letting go of the tight grip of identification. The practices of shamatha-vipassana can settle the heart and balance the mind. Shamatha practices are particularly helpful in regaining balance and calm when we find ourselves reacting to or getting lost in the energy of fear. One shamatha practice that we explored in this practice group was the mindfulness of "touchpoints" (contact of the body with the cushion, contact of feet or legs with the floor, hands touching). Whether experiencing fear on the cushion (it could be anxiety, worry, fear) or in other daily activities (i.e. walking past a stranger at night or facing some conflict in relationship), remembering the touchpoints in the moment of fear can help bring us into the present in a more connected way.

Bringing attention to only one or all of the touchpoints can bring a steadiness of heart and mind that balances the reactivity and disconnection that often accompanies fear. We often leave our bodies behind when confronted by fear. Or, at least we want to, because of the aversion. Awareness of touchpoints brings us back into our bodies. But, because they tend to be neutral, attention to these sensations can have a calming effect, bringing us more into the present moment. This is unlike the common response of avoidance, which may bring immediate relief yet has a limiting effect of strengthening fear.

The Buddha taught metta (loving kindness) practice to the monks and nuns as a compassionate response to their fears of practicing in the forest. Cultivating thoughts of lovingkindness strengthens one’s ability to meet experience with greater openness and less aversion. Metta also encourages less identification with fear because it dissolves separation and nurtures connection. In using metta in relationship to fear, choose a phrase or phrases that resonate with you. I use "May I be at ease" or "May I be at peace with what is". Every time you become aware of fear, remember the phrase, saying it softly and silently to yourself. By remembering to use these shamatha practices in working with fear, we nurture the serenity aspect of practice and begin to respond in a very different way. We can discover a refuge within that has nothing to do with avoiding or escaping the unpleasantness of fear but instead find a refuge that rests on our capacity to be in the present moment with balance and spaciousness.

Without a certain degree of calm and steadiness, investigation of fear can lead to "spinning wheels" and a proliferation of thinking that arises out of aversion. When the mind becomes a bit more serene in the face of fear, we can look at fear more directly and with less reactivity. We can begin to investigate fear with the intention to learn rather than to get rid of. So much of our thinking about fear — the analyzing, the figuring out, the desire to be fearless comes out of reactivity and aversion. I remember quite clearly that one of my main motivations in beginning to practice was so that I could overcome fear.

Cultivating wisdom in working with fear requires gentle perseverance in being awake to what is. This is quite different from trying to conquer fear. The practice of vipassana reveals directly the arising and passing away of all experience, including fear. Through this practice of moment to moment attention we begin to understand fear on deeper levels than the personal. A helpful investigative tool is "mental noting". Making a soft mental note when experiencing fear can increase our ability to recognize and acknowledge the experience of fear. This is a big investigative step to take because so much of our experience of fear goes unacknowledged. It operates just below the conscious level, yet affects us in profound ways. Anxiety and worry are common forms of fear that often do not get recognized, yet they condition so much of our approach to

Mental noting is not meant to create distance from the experience of fear, but rather to bring us more into the present, while helping us to recognize fear as a conditioned process that is not me or mine. Seeing quite directly the impermanence of fear, as it arise and passes away, frees us gradually from the constrictive hold of identifying with it.

Last year, I spent a month at Maha Boowa’s forest monastery. It was a wonderful opportunity to have some contact with one of the last of the great forest meditation masters. Because of his age, Maha Boowa has limited much of his teaching, but I did work with his senior monk, Tan Panna, who had practiced with Maha Boowa for something like forty years. Though I wasn’t facing any fear of tigers (they have long disappeared), there were plenty of opportunities to investigate fear while practicing in my forest kuti (meditation hut) at night. Tan Panna was relentless in his instructions on working with fear. He encouraged me to bring sustained attention to the myriad of unpleasant body sensations that were arising because of the fear, while restraining my impulse to think about the fear. It took all of my perseverance to be willing to be attentive rather than to move away.

Formal meditation practice is extremely helpful in bringing balance to the mind when fear arises. But, it is essential to pay attention when fear arises in all our activities, and to use the tools that we have been strengthening in our formal practice. It is important to remember that, in meditation, we have been cultivating the capacity to love the difficult. The time to use that capacity is always now."
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March 5, 2012

What Is Your Mind Feeding On?

"If you're observing the precepts, practicing concentration, and developing discernment into what the mind needs to feed on, what it doesn’t need to feed on, what kind of feeding is good for it, what kind of feeding is bad for it, and then feed it in such a way that ultimately it gets so strong that it doesn’t have to feed any more, it can let go. And at that point an entirely new dimension opens up in the mind that you couldn’t have even conceived before.

That’s ultimately where the practice leads. It takes this mind—which is feeding on the body, feeding on feelings, perceptions, thought constructs, and consciousness—and tells it that there are better things to feed on. If you feed on these things, you’re going to be really sorry because your food source is going to run out on you very quickly. It’s going to keep changing—and with that sense of uncertainty and instability in life, how can the mind find any sense of well-being? At the same time it turns out that a lot of that food is junk food, which keeps you weak and unhealthy. So you teach the mind better ways to feed through the practice until the path finally issues in a point where the mind is at total equilibrium, doesn’t need to feed anymore, and you can let go.

So that’s where we’re headed. As the Buddha said, the only things he teaches are suffering or stress and then the end of suffering. That may seem like a narrow ideal. What about helping humankind and all the other great issues? He said to straighten out your own mind first and when that’s straightened out, when you’re really free, the type of help you can then give to people is the best kind of help.

There’s no hidden feeding agenda, no hidden need to feed on the sense of pride that comes from being a very helpful or very important person, which can actually spoil the help, spoil the compassion. You’re operating from a sense of compassion that comes from total freedom, total independence—which is ultimately the only compassion you can really trust."

Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Excerpt from "New Feeding Habits for the Mind" (click to download)
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Learning How to Fall in Meditation

"A frequent question is: How can you tell if you’re making progress in your meditation? And one of the answers is: When the mind slips off its object, you get faster and faster at bringing it back. Notice, the answer isn’t: The mind doesn’t slip off at all. It’s: You’re expected to slip off; it’s a normal part of the practice, a normal part of the training. The point lies in being more alert to what’s going on and quicker to remedy the situation when you’ve slipped off the breath.

So an important part of learning how to meditate is learning how to fall. They say that when you start learning Aikido, the first thing they teach is how to fall without hurting yourself. The purpose is that it makes you less and less afraid to fall, less and less damaged, of course, by the fall, and also less likely to fall, more willing to take chances.

So the trick when you meditate is learning how to bring the mind back with a minimum amount of recrimination, a minimum amount of self-criticism, with just the simple observation, “I haven’t come here to think about next week’s schedule or last night’s fiascoes or whatever. I’m here to focus on the breath.” Simply leave those other things and come back. Learn how to do it without tying your mind up in knots..."

Thanissaro Bhikkhu from "How to Fall"

Full talk here:
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March 4, 2012

Why Meditation is for Everyone and Something Anyone Can Do

"There is a great misconception about meditation. Thoughts of a long, gray-haired guru sitting in a pretzel-like, contorted position come to mind (even of sleeping on nails and walking on a bed of hot coals!). Wild psychedelic lights and 'turning on and dropping out,' and the whole whirl of the 1960's, the Beatles visiting India and sitar music, and the high pitched voice of the Maharishi flash before us. There are even fears of cult groups, brain washing and getting your head shaved.

But meditation has nothing to do with any of these things and everything to do with just bringing a moment of quiet and stillness to your life. You relax and let go of your many habits and impulses to act and react, to do and be, and the compulsiveness you have to keep busy at all times. The simple act of sitting quietly and allowing for a pause of peace is one of the single most healing and rewarding things we can do for ourselves. This is the work' of a spiritual practice.

As mentioned in the beginning by the Buddha, there is nothing special to be gained, achieved, be or become in meditation. Ironically, it's the quiet, the stillness and the peaceful pause in our lives that allow for patience, acceptance and understanding to develop and for inner tranquility to blossom. Meditation is about opening up and accepting, coming into contact and connecting with that tender and benevolent side which all of us have. It is not about deadlines and hostility or snapping into shape or performing like a trained seal with a ball balanced on its nose. Nor is meditation about sitting like a hen for countless hours trying to hatch eggs, expecting a reward. But through stillness and just being at rest, we get to know and be at ease with ourselves, rather than always having to lash out at the world. We take a well-deserved break from all our anger, doubts, impatience, fears and all the many unproductive habits that have managed to creep into our lives.

Our minds are filled with such a high volume of activity. We are so busy with thoughts of past occurrences, or tomorrow's agenda that we've lost contact with the moment. We live in a blur, out of touch with who we are and how things are in the present. Then, too, we are in such a constant state of being 'on'; of wanting, needing, desiring and liking. This basic battle of liking and disliking is subtly played out in every moment, situation, encounter and relationship of our lives.

We like certain situations and people so we become attached and cling to them. Then on the other hand, we dislike certain situations and people so we push them away and hate. The amount of energy we use through life's dramas and upsets is exhausting. Our lives are a battlefield of turmoil, seething, anxious and painful. Our lives have become the equivalent of war--so much wounding, firing, retaliation, attacking and defending. These are the affects generated in ourselves and those around us by our less than being in the present, mindful of our actions.

But through meditation, a time for stillness and quiet is made; a time for healing is found. We need to occasionally stop so that we can see clearly and not be in a dizzy rush. Meditation is peaceful pause from all our habits and impulses, our compulsive acting and reacting and doing battle with each encounter, circumstance, person and event that comes up is known. An understanding develops. Life doesn't have to be about all this liking and disliking and about going to extremes. There can be simple acceptance, and having patience with ourselves and others around us. This is the Middle Way, an understanding and compassionate alternative. . ."

Excerpt from Buddha Smile by Roberto Vicente
(You can download the entire book in Microsoft Word format from Metta Refuge by clicking on the book's title, above.)

I also recommend:

This Metta Refuge post shares Roberto Vicente's excellent beginner's introduction to meditation practice.
For more in-depth dharma articles and instruction, visit:  METTA REFUGE
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