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Choosing to be Healthy Print
Shambhala Sun | July 2001

Choosing to be Healthy

By:

As a practicing physician I deal on a daily basis with the issue of to how change health behaviors. The people I've seen who successfully alter their health habits for the better have usually done so because they have come to realize there is a discrepancy between how they currently behave and what they hope to achieve in their lives. Often the heightening of this inner tension through crisis or introspection contributes to their decision to change.

For example, my wife's friend Laurie used to be a total party girl. A gradual spiritual awakening eventually led Laurie to examine her life's direction, and she decided that her days of smoking, drinking and eating junk food were over. These habits, she realized, interfered with her ability to be of service to other people in her newly discovered calling in the healing arts. Laurie talks now about how light and clear-minded she feels, and how that profoundly affects her ability to be compassionate and pursue her spiritual development.

The lifestyle changes Laurie made may not be for everyone, but the idea that poor health will affect your level of energy and ability to function merits attention. Your state of well being, or lack of it, can affect the things you value most in life, such as relationships with family and friends, work, social service and spiritual practice.

It's worth considering the impact your day-to-day habits may have on your quality of life. Current statistics indicate that about two out of five of us will suffer from heart disease or stroke, one in four will get cancer, and one in four women will develop osteoporosis. Often these common medical conditions result from poor lifestyle habits.

Maintaining good health, however, is not just about avoiding strokes and cancer in the far-off retirement years. The World Health Organization tells us that "health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

For example, fatigue is a common reason for people to seek medical attention. Fatigue in an otherwise well person is usually caused by lifestyle factors and only occasionally by undiagnosed medical conditions. Reasons for fatigue can include lack of exercise, poor quality sleep, prolonged stress and inadequate nutrition.

Given the prevalence of lifestyle-based symptoms and disease, the statistics on health habits seem absurdly lame: most people say that their health is very important to them, yet only one-third are physically active enough to reap health benefits and four out of five don't eat the recommended daily minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables. Half of people say that they are stressed out.

The fact is that simple lifestyle changes can substantially improve your health. Increasing physical activity moderately, eating a few more fruits and vegetables every day, and decreasing stress can have powerful health effects, including improved stamina, mood and quality of sleep. Good health habits also mean a lower chance of heart attack, stroke and cancer in the long run. People with healthy habits generally live six to ten years longer and have less sickness and disability.

Appreciating the ways in which healthier living can facilitate the achievement of our life goals may assist us in changing our lifestyle. Generally, I try to relate health to what is really important in a patient's life. For many spiritually oriented folks, this can include providing compassionate service or maintaining spiritual disciplines such as meditation.

My experience is that many people often haven't made the connection between their health habits and the impact of these habits on spiritual practices. The role of wellness is commonly under-examined in North American spirituality. Wellness is only occasionally mentioned in classical or contemporary works of spiritual guidance as a foundation for meditation or a contributor to religious practice.

Realistically, most of us are probably more effective at being compassionate and performing physical or mental tasks when we are feeling well. While some individuals may be able to generate compassion or stick to their practices despite their suffering, many of us will have a harder time being generous and energetic if we feel sick. It's hard to get on with what's important to us if we are bedridden, tired or uncomfortable, because more energy is directed toward dealing with the infirmity rather than toward cultivating our compassion or generosity.

Improved lifestyle choices, then, can be seen as directly contributing to our capacity to engage in spiritual practice and social service. This reframing can be a powerful motivator in changing how we look after ourselves. Lifestyle changes need not be complicated or demanding. Increasing your walking by 30 minutes a day, eating as little as two or more extra fruits and vegetables a day, or scheduling more sleep time can positively affect your well-being in both the short and long terms.

Having said all this, there is no denying that experiencing illness is still "grist for the mill," and being obsessed with maintaining perfect health is pointless because it will never happen. When we do get sick, as we inevitably will, we can try to enhance our compassion for others who are ill, and work on our aversion to suffering or our attachment to health. People can make marvelous progress when faced with this challenge. We have all heard of courageous and inspiring individuals who directly attribute their spiritual growth to their illness, injury or impending death.

We live in a time and place that offers great potential for well being if we make wise choices. Advances in public health, medicine and our understanding of disease prevention mean we can live long and well. Most of the major chronic diseases of modern living, such as strokes, heart attacks and many cancers, are often products of poor health habits. In our craving we eat too much, spend too much, and generally overindulge. Ignorance of basic health measures results in so much unnecessary disease and suffering.

Lifestyle habits can hopefully be viewed in a more positive context than the nagging "shoulds" that we wrestle with daily. Good habits can provide us with more passion, energy and perseverance, both now and in the long term. The best reason to strive to protect our health and prolong life I can think of is that human birth is so precious. Life here on earth has just the right titration of joy and suffering to provide optimal opportunity for enlightenment. The longer we are around, the farther we may walk on our spiritual path.

Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.

    Choosing to be Healthy, Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D., Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Patterson/july_01.htm

Religion Without God Print
Shambhala Sun | July 2001

Religion Without God

By:

What does it mean to be a religion without a God? More broadly, what does it mean to live without an exterior savior of any kind?

In the 1930's, the scholar Helmuth von Glassenapp published a book entitled Buddhism: A Non-theistic Religion. In this title the author was making the point that unlike most of the other world religions, Buddhism denies the ultimate existence of any "God" or deity. As von Glassenapp indicates, non-theism is fundamental to Buddhism and stands right at the heart of its spirituality.

Unfortunately, people in the West have sometimes jumped to the conclusion that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of gods or other unseen beings at all. Wishing Buddhism to be true to modern scientific materialism and philosophical rationalism, they believe that Buddhism is eminently "empirical" and denies the existence of anything that cannot be seen with the senses or proved in some kind of objectively verifiable manner.

But this is not the sense in which Buddhists are non-theistic. Buddhists everywhere believe in an "unseen world" inhabited by a full range of gods, demi-gods, spirits, ghosts and demons. In addition, all Buddhists-except, perhaps, modern Western ones-pray continually to buddhas, bodhisattvas and great teachers not only for inspiration, but for practical guidance and help.

In these various ways, Buddhists certainly seem to be behaving like worshippers in the world's theistic religions. This raises the question: what exactly is Buddhist non-theism?

Briefly put, non-theism in Buddhism means that what is ultimately true and real cannot be found in any external god or being. Any such being has location, qualities and some kind of existence, and is therefore subject to causes and conditions. There is, according to Buddhism, something far more fundamental than this.

Theism implies an inherent limitation to human nature. It declares that to attain the ultimate, we must look outside of ourselves and our immediate experience. It establishes a reference point for reality that resides somewhere else and directs us to seek confirmation of the self in relation to that.

The doctrines of original sin or inherent human depravity would be examples of theism in its more extreme forms. They are typical in asserting that we can connect ourselves to the ultimate only by making a relation with that which is exterior to us, and that we can do so only through the agency of a savior, a holy book, a religious institution, and so on.

In Buddhism, the meaning of theism is best understood when set in a wider context. In a larger sense, theism refers to anything outside of us that purports to solve the human predicament. It may be spiritual; it may be secular. Some people seek salvation in an external deity. But others seek it in a philosophical viewpoint or political movement, in a relationship, in social status, or in material acquisition.

In each case, the individual seeks ultimate confirmation and fulfillment by looking outside. What is already present within his or her experience, what arises throughout the course of a day or a life, is discounted as being without ultimate value. In a sense, whether the external "answer" is materialistic, psychological or religious does not really matter.

The Buddhist approach states that what is ultimately required for human fulfillment is a perfection of being that is found in who we already are. This is the meaning of the Buddha's advice given shortly before his death and recounted in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in which he councils his followers to be lights unto themselves, to seek refuge in themselves, and to seek no other refuge, using the dharma as a means to that end.

Here the Buddha directs us to rely only on ourselves, using various methods to explore our own human nature as it exists right now. This exploration is not a one-sided introversion. Rather, it is looking at our present experiences of both the "internal" and "external" worlds to see what lies at their base, beneath the constant chatter of discursive thinking. Then from within our own experience is gradually uncovered what is ultimately real. This is our buddhanature-that which is open, clear, all-wise and limitlessly compassionate.

In fact, it is this very nature that is habitually projected onto "supernatural beings." It is in this sense that the Buddha, the prototype of the enlightened person, is called the devatideva in the early texts-the god above gods. The Buddha fully understands the deities-that while they may appear to exist on a relative level, they have no final reality. Instead, they are projections of the deepest qualities of our own human nature. This understanding is attained through the practice of meditation, in which the temporary defilements that obscure the buddhanature are gradually stripped away.

It is true not all Buddhists are non-theistic in this sense. One may be a Buddhist but also a theist, if one believes that enlightenment is something external and looks to texts, human teachers or institutions to provide the final answers.

Nor are all Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus theistic. One can be a good Christian, for example, and be non-theistic in the Buddhist understanding, if one admits the presence of a "Christ within," as the Hesychasts do, and takes St. Paul's perspective that when one does good, "It is not I, but Christ within me." In similar fashion, Hindu advaita Vedanta, certain strands of Kabbala, and aspects of Sufism conform to the definition of non-theism.

Finally, it is interesting to note that theism is not universally condemned in Buddhism. In fact, it is said to be a necessary component of the path, not only at the beginning but right up until enlightenment itself. Perhaps in order to enter the path at all, one must believe that there is a tradition of teachers, texts and practice "out there" that will provide some answers to one's basic life questions. It is only through locating the ultimate outside of oneself in the form of projections that one can rouse the motivation to traverse the path. Even for the bodhisattvas of the high levels (bhumis), there is some sense, however subtle, of a final enlightenment to be attained.

There is no need to worry, then, that the dharma is necessarily being perverted when one finds Buddhists acting like spiritual practitioners in "theistic" religions. Of concern, rather, are those modern Buddhists who utterly abjure theism even in its relative and pragmatic senses. In turning away from devotion, veneration and supplication of the enlightened ones, they are rejecting the most powerful methodology that Buddhism possesses.

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. His new book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

    Religion Without God, Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Ray/july_01.htm

Working with Human Goodness Print

Working with Human Goodness

By

What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This, says Margaret Wheatley, is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.
 


We need to remember the fact of human goodness.

Of course, human goodness seems like an outrageous "fact," since every day we are confronted by evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another. We are numbed by the genocide, ethnic hatred and individual violence committed daily in the world. Of the 240 or so nations in the world, nearly a quarter are currently at war.

In our daily life, we encounter people who are angry and deceitful, intent only on satisfying their own needs. There is so much anger, distrust, greed and pettiness that we are losing our capacity to work well together, and many of us are more withdrawn and distrustful than ever. Yet this incessant display of what is worst in us makes it essential that we believe in human goodness. Without that belief, there really is no hope.

There is nothing equal to human creativity, caring and will. We can be incredibly generous, imaginative and open-hearted. We can do the impossible, learn and change quickly, and extend instant compassion to those in distress. And these are not behaviors we keep hidden. We exhibit them daily.

How often during a day do you figure out an answer to a problem, invent a slightly better way of doing something, or extend yourself to someone in need? Then look around at your colleagues and neighbors, and you'll see others acting just like you—people trying to make a contribution and help others.

In these times of turmoil, we have forgotten who we can be and we have let our worst natures prevail. Some of these bad behaviors we create because we treat people in non-human ways. We've organized work around destructive motivations-greed, self-interest and competition-and taken the very things that make us human—our emotions, imagination and need for meaning-and dismissed them as unimportant. We've found it more convenient to treat humans as replaceable parts in the machinery of production.

After years of being bossed around, of being told they're inferior, of power plays that destroy lives, most people are cynical and focused only on self-protection. Who wouldn't be? This negativity and demoralizatoin is created by the organizing and governance methods in use. People cannot be discounted or used only for someone else's benefit. If obedience and compliance are the primary values, these destroy creativity, commitment and generosity. Whole cultures and generations have been deadened by such coercion.

But people's reaction to coercion tells us a great deal about the goodness of the human spirit. The horrors of the twentieth century show us the worst of human nature and the very best. How do you feel when you hear stories of those who wouldn't give in, who remained generous and offered compassion to others in the midst of personal horror? The human spirit is nearly impossible to extinguish. Few of us can listen to these stories and remain cynical. We are hungry for these tales-they remind us of what it means to be fully human. We always want to hear more.

To examine our beliefs about human goodness is not merely a philosophical inquiry. These beliefs are critical to what we do in the world; they lead us either to action or retreat. Courageous acts aren't done by people who believe in human badness. Why risk anything if we don't believe in each other? Why stand up for anyone if we don't believe they're worth saving? Who you think I am will determine what you are willing to do on my behalf. You won't even notice me if you believe that I am less than you are.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the relationship between our beliefs about each other and our willingness to act courageously. He defined our present historic time as a dark age, because we are poisoned by self-doubt and thus have become cowards. In his teachings and work, as Pema Chödrön describes them, he aspired to bring about an era of courage in which people could experience their goodness and extend themselves to others.

Oppression never occurs between equals. Tyranny always arises from the belief that some people are more human than others. There is no other way to justify inhumane treatment, except to assume that the pain experienced by the oppressed is not the same as ours.

I saw this clearly in post-apartheid South Africa. In hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, white South Africans listened to black mothers grieving over the loss of their children to violence, to wives weeping for their tortured husbands, to black maids crying for the children they left behind when they went to work for white families. As the grief of these women and men became public, many white South Africans for the first time saw black South Africans as equally human. In the years of apartheid, they had justified their mistreatment of blacks by assuming that the suffering of blacks was not equal to theirs; they had assumed that blacks were not fully human.

What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.

In my own organization, we've been experimenting with two values that keep us focused on what is best about us humans. The first value is, "We rely on human goodness." In conversations, even with strangers, we assume that they want from their life what we want from ours: a chance to help others, to learn, to be recognized, to find meaning. We have not been disappointed.

Our second value is, "We assume good intent." We try to stop from developing any storyline about another's motivation. We assume there must be a good reason why they did something that may be hurtful or foolish. It takes mindfulness to stop the stream of judgments that pour from our lips, but when we can stop them, we have been well rewarded. People's motives usually are good, even when they look hurtful or stupid. And if we pause long enough to ask them what they intended, there is another benefit-we develop a better relationship with them. Working together becomes easier.

I encourage you to try simple practices like these. For the dark times to end, we need to rely as never before on our fundamental and precious human goodness.

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., writes, teaches and speaks about radically new practices and ideas for organizing in chaotic times. She is president of The Berkana Institute and author of Leadership and the New Science, and A Simpler Way, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers.

Working with Human Goodness, Margaret Wheatley, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Wheatley/july_01.htm

Meditation and Post-Meditation Print

Meditation and Post-Meditation

By 

Normally, when we talk about meditation, we're talking about formal meditation, meaning that our meditation session has a definite beginning and end. We have thought about the time, the place, and how long the session is going to be. We sit down and we follow the meditation instructions we've been given. There is an element of crispness to this plan. We need this formality to train our minds, to let the mind deepen, to allow ourselves to experience insights into our life and into who we are.

 

During formal practice, we know that time has been set aside to meditate. We practice letting go of thoughts. Encountering stubborn thoughts and feelings, we look at them and realize that they are simply fabricated and not substantial. In this way, we are training our mind to be more pliant and supple. But it's difficult for us to continue this all day long, in the same way that we can't exercise all day. We may do push-ups and sit-ups and weight training, but we don't do it all day long. We can do it for a specific time and then we need to rest and recuperate.

In the same way, the meditation session is different from the rest of our life. We regard it as formal practice and the rest of our day as post-meditation. Ideally speaking, the two are equal partners, helping each other. We could say they are like the sun and the moon.

Because we sometimes struggle with finding our breath and acknowledging thoughts, we may feel as though our formal meditation session is spent juggling. We experience moments of peace, but mostly we feel awkward. Nonetheless, after finishing a session we may notice a slight difference in our perception. There might be more clarity. It's not simply that we are relieved that the practice is over, but there is more space in our mind. We may even feel a little younger and fresher. When we talk to a friend, we may see her face more clearly than we usually do, and hear her words in a slightly different way.

This shift marks the beginning of an opening-up process that is quite powerful. We can actually take some pride in this state of mind. It's softer and more accurate than our habitual mindset. There's less discursiveness and more space. Our mind is less busy producing useless thoughts and chatter. We have meditated and worked with our mind, and this is the fruition. We didn't take a pill or drink something; we did it on our own.
The post-meditation period is the time that we deepen our understanding of the meditation practice. We read, we study, we seek to understand ourselves and how our mind works. We take the time to think about the practice of meditation and to deepen our experience of its effect on our mind.

During post-meditation, because we have gained some perspective from meditating, we begin to see the play of our mind. We begin to see its fickle quality. We are able to observe how our mind jumps about from one topic to another: one minute we're thinking about the snowstorm, the next minute we're deciding what to eat for lunch, and the next minute we're worrying that we left our lights on at home. We also see the heaviness of thought and concept. For example, we may go around for days feeling angry at somebody, or we might feel stuck in an argumentative frame of mind. Even though these kinds of thoughts have been going on for our whole life, we didn't have the perspective before we started our formal practice to see how haphazardly our mind behaves.

In post-meditation, we begin to see how our familiar emotional patterns are just the mind fixating on different things. One minute the mind is fixated on self-doubt; the next minute our mind is stuck on irritation with the person we live with. So the value in the post-meditation experience is that it helps us to see gaps in our thinking process. We could see, for example, that our irritation has actually begun because we are irritated with ourselves, and we could see the irony of blaming others for how we feel.

The play between meditation and post-meditation is very important. Formal meditation is like the sun. The sun relaxes us if we are tense and cold. It brings us out of shadows into the open air. The warmth of the sun is nurturing and healing. Meditation has these qualities as well. Our formal session is when we set aside our other obligations. We can observe, acknowledge, and let go of our thoughts. We can rest the mind.

However, the intensity of formal training needs to be balanced with the cool moon of everyday life. We are happy to see the sun because of the moon, and we appreciate the moon because of the sun. If we had the sun all day and all night it would be overwhelming, even debilitating.

Finding the right proportion of meditation to post-meditation is a lifelong journey. There are times when we will need more formal meditation, and other times when we need to accommodate the unpredictability of daily life in our sessions. There will be times when we feel that things are not going so well, when our life feels claustrophobic. Then we may need a little adventure in our lives, something to pique our interest and bring some richness into our routine. We may just need to go for a walk instead of meditating that day.

If we approach the formal meditation session feeling that training our mind is drudgery, then we're entering meditation in a depressed state of mind, and that's not very helpful. Or if we sit down to meditate because we have nothing else to do, that's not helpful either. Then we'll probably just wallow in our depression during the session.

Meditation does not mean formal periods of soberness or heavy doses of reality. What we are doing is simply training the mind. One of the chief benefits of meditation is that it creates lightness and openness in our mind. It helps us to feel less burdened. This is crucial to how meditation helps us, because everything we do is colored by our state of mind. For instance, if we feel good, then things seem interesting and we want to learn; we're intrigued. But if we feel attacked and our mind feels weak or doubtful, then we want to reject the world. At that point, our mind feels heavy and unworkable. By contrast, genuine meditation will bring about a kind of lightness. Once we achieve a certain emotional and mental buoyancy, or upliftedness, then life simply becomes more enjoyable.



Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Meditation and Post-Meditation, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, May 2001.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Sakyong/may_01.htm

Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into Experience Print

Sitting Meditation Step by Step: Being in the Body, Labeling, and Opening into the Heart of Experiencing


The Buddhist practice of sitting meditation has three aspects. Being in the body is the ground of practice. Labeling our thoughts breaks our identification with them. Opening into the heart of experience awakens us to love and compassion.

I used to approach sitting, and especially retreats, with the idea that meditation was supposed to make me feel a special way. Often, I just wanted to be free from anxiety. As a consequence, I rarely had a clear idea of what sitting was really about. Even now, when I'm no longer trying to feel some special way from sitting, I still find it helpful occasionally to reorient myself to exactly what I'm doing in my sitting practice.

How often have you realized, right in the middle of a sitting, that you don't even know what the basic practice is? How often have you asked yourself, "What exactly am I supposed to be doing here?"

This confusion is a normal part of the practice path, which is a good reason to review basic sitting instructions regularly. Practice can never be learned just through reading or thinking about it. To awaken clarity based on genuine understanding, we have to learn from our own experience. Nonetheless, it's good to have a clear overview of what sitting practice is, even if it is, in part, conceptual.

Meditation practice, can be divided into three parts. These three are not really separate and distinct; they are a continuum. For the purposes of description, however, we will look at these three aspects of sitting as if they were separate.

The first aspect of sitting is being-in-the-body. This is the basic ground of practice. When we first sit down to meditate, we take a specific posture. The important point is not which posture we take, but whether we're actually present to the physical experience. Being-in-the-body means we're awake, aware, present to what is actually going on. So even though it's true certain postures are conducive to this level of awareness, it's also true that we can meditate on a subway, standing up or lying in bed.

It's useful to have a routine to bring awareness to the physical reality of the moment, especially when we first sit down to meditate. For example, when I sit down I ask myself, "What is going on right now?" Then I touch in with my physical state, my mental/emotional state, and the environmental input (temperature, sound, light, and so on). This check might only take a few seconds, but it immediately takes me out my mental realm and grounds me in the more concrete physical world. The point is not to think about the body, the emotions, or the environment, but to actually feel them.

After this quick check, I return awareness to the posture by telling myself: "Allow the head to float to the top, so that the lower back can lengthen, broaden and soften." This reminder brings me further into my bodily experience. Throughout the sitting period, whenever I find myself spinning off into thoughts, I use this reminder to bring my awareness back to the present moment. The essence of being-in-the-body is simply to be here.

Normally, after settling into the sitting posture, I bring awareness to the breath in a very concentrated way for just a few minutes. I am not thinking about the breath, but bringing awareness to the actual sensations of it entering and leaving my body. For this brief period, when thoughts arise I don't label them; I narrow my awareness to focus solely on the experience of breathing. The value of this practice is that it allows me to settle into sitting.

But the value of this (or any other) concentrative practice—that it can shut life out—is also its limitation. Practice is about opening to life, not about shutting it out. And even though continuous concentration on the breath can make us feel calm and relaxed as well as focused and centered, this is not the point of sitting practice. As much as we would like to have pleasing or special experiences, the path of meditation is about being awake. It's about being awake to whatever we feel. It's ultimately about learning to be with our life as it is. So although concentration practices can certainly be helpful at times, we aspire to spend most of our sitting time in a more wide-open awareness.

Wide-open awareness is the essence of being-in-the-body. This is where we become aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, changing states of mind, and input from the environment. The practice is just to be aware, to simply observe and experience whatever is happening. There is really nothing special about this approach—it is very low key. We're attempting to see and experience life as it arises by letting it just be there-minus our opinions and judgments. This approach highlights the never-ending struggle between just being here and our addiction to the comfort and security of our mental world.

So this first aspect of sitting—being-in-the-body—simple as it sounds, is actually very difficult. Why? Because we don't want to be here. A strong part of us prefers the self-centered dream of plans and fantasies. That's what makes this practice so difficult: the constant, unromantic, non-exotic struggle just to be here. As we sit in wide-open awareness, however, as the body/mind gradually settles down, we can begin to enter the silence, where passing thoughts no longer hook us. We enter the silence not by trying to enter, but through the constant soft effort to be present, allowing life to just be.

The second mode of sitting is labeling and experiencing. As we sit, emotions arise. Sometimes they pass when we become aware of them. But sometimes they demand more of our attention. When that happens, we become more focused in our practice. With precision we begin to label our thoughts. As well, we focus on experiencing the bodily state that is an inextricable part of an emotional reaction.

As emotions arise, we can ask, "What is this?" The answer to this question is never analytical. It cannot be reached with thought, because it is not what the emotion is about. It's what it is. So we look to our experience itself, noticing where we feel the emotion in the body. We notice its quality or texture. We notice its changing faces. And we come to know, as if for the first time, what the emotion actually feels like.

Invariably we will slip back into thinking. As long as we are caught in thinking, we can't continue to experience the bodily component of our emotions. In fact, the more intense the emotion, the more we will want to believe our thoughts. So the practice is to label the thoughts over and over-to see them clearly and to break our identification with them. That will almost always involve moving back and forth between labeling and experiencing.

Learning to stay with—to reside in—our emotions in this way allows us to see how most of our emotional distress is based on our conditioning, and particularly on the decisions and beliefs that arose out of that conditioning. We come to see that these emotional reactions—which we often fear and prefer to avoid—amount to little more that believed thoughts and strong or unpleasant physical sensations. We can see that when we are willing to experience them with precision and curiosity, we no longer have to fear them, or push them away. Thus our belief systems become clarified.

The third aspect of our sitting practice is opening into the heart of experiencing. On those occasions when we experience dense, intense or even overwhelming emotions, when we seem so confused that we don't even know how to practice—what can we do?

When the precision of labeling thoughts is not an option, the practice is to breathe the painful reaction into the center of the chest. Although eventually we will still need to clarify the believed thoughts that are an inextricable part of our emotional reaction, for now we simply open to our deepest fears and humiliations. We're pulling our swirling physical sensations, via the in-breath, into the center of the chest, allowing the center of the chest to be a container of awareness for our strong emotions. We're not trying to change anything. We're just learning to fully experience our emotions. Why? Because experiencing our emotions fully will allow them to break through the layers of self-protective armor and awaken our heart. Fully felt, our emotions will clear the path to the deep well of love and compassion that is the essence of our being.

It is in these darker moments, when we feel overwhelmed, that we are apt to judge ourselves most harshly. We're likely to solidify the most negative core beliefs about ourselves, seeing ourselves as weak, as losers, as hopeless. It's at this point that we most need a sense of heart, of kindness, of lightness, in the practice. We do this by learning to breathe into the heartspace, thereby undercutting the relentless self-judgment of our deeply held beliefs. As we breathe into this space, piercing our armoring and awakening the heart, we can open into a more benign awareness toward ourselves and the human predicament. We can begin to relate to ourselves as we might relate to a defenseless child in distress-nonjudgmentally, with friendliness, tolerance and kindness. Our willingness to breathe into the heart, to stay in that space for just one more breath, shows us our strength, our courage to go on.

By opening into the heart of experiencing, we can come to understand that everything is workable. This is one of the key points of practice. Our efforts to be-in-the-body, and to label and experience, will inevitably "fail" at times. We will have periods of aspiration and effort, followed by dry spots and apathy. Ups and downs in practice are predictable and inevitable. That we seize these ups and downs as opportunities to judge ourselves—as failures or as superstars—is the problem. The countermeasure is always to simply persevere-to attend to one more breath, to label one more thought, to experience one more sensation, to enter just one more time into the heartspace. We can then experience for ourselves that it is ultimately possible to work with everything. It may not be possible today, but it is possible. In fact, it may take years of work in all three aspects of sitting practice for this understanding to become real to us.

Until now I've spoken of these three modes of sitting as if they were distinct from each other. In truth, although each mode does entail a different aspect of practice, they do have one essential thing in common: they all require that we experience this present moment. That's what our practice always comes down to: just being here. By continually allowing the light of awareness to shine on the confusion and anxiety of the present moment, we break the circuitry of our conditioning. This is the slow transformative path to freedom.


(c) 2001 by Ezra Bayda. Ezra Bayda received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck, and teaches and writes at the Zen Center of San Diego.


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