Buddhist Meditation is Relaxing with the Truth
Buddhist Meditation is Relaxing with the Truth
By It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as we are that meditation becomes a transformative process. The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.
As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort. To be encouraged to stay with our vulnerability is news that we definitely can use. Sitting meditation is our support for learning how to do this. Sitting meditation, also known as mindfulness-awareness practice, is the foundation of bodhichitta training. It is the home ground of the warrior bodhisattva.
Sitting meditation cultivates loving-kindness and compassion, the relative qualities of bodhichitta, which could be defined as completely awakened heart and mind. It gives us a way to move closer to our thoughts and emotions and to get in touch with our bodies. It is a method of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward ourselves and for parting the curtain of indifference that distances us from the suffering of others. It is our vehicle for learning to be a truly loving person.
Gradually, through meditation, we begin to notice that there are gaps in our internal dialogue. In the midst of continually talking to ourselves, we experience a pause, as if awakening from a dream. We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds. We experience moments of being right here that feel simple, direct, and uncluttered.
This coming back to the immediacy of our experience is training in unconditional bodhichitta. By simply staying here, we relax more and more into the open dimension of our being. It feels like stepping out of a fantasy and relaxing with the truth.
Yet there is no guarantee that sitting meditation will be of benefit. We can practice for years without it penetrating our hearts and minds. We can use meditation to reinforce our false beliefs: it will protect us from discomfort; it will fix us; it will fulfill our hopes and remove our fears. This happens because we don't properly understand why we are practicing.
Why do we meditate? This is a question we'd be wise to ask. Why would we even bother to spend time alone with ourselves?
First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that this is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We'll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple, direct relationship with our being.
Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and self-denigration. Denigrating ourselves is probably the major way that we cover over bodhichitta.
Does not trying to change mean we have to remain angry and addicted until the day we die? This is a reasonable question. Trying to change ourselves doesn't work in the long run because we're resisting our own energy. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honor ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion. We are, as the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva pointed out, very much like a blind person who finds a jewel buried in a heap of garbage. It is right here in our smelliest of stuff that we discover the awakened heart of basic clarity and goodness, the completely open mind of bodhichitta.
It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as we are that meditation becomes a transformative process. When we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, we finally let go of harmful patterns. Without maitri, renunciation of old habits becomes abusive. This is an important point.
There are four main qualities that are cultivated when we meditate: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing one's emotional distress, and attention to the present moment. These four factors apply not only to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the bodhichitta practices and for relating with difficult situations in our daily lives.
When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves. No matter what comes up—aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions—we develop a loyalty to our experience. Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don't run screaming out of the room. Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong. This no small task. Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.
We're encouraged to meditate everyday, even for a short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves. We sit under all kinds of circumstances—whether we are feeling healthy or sick, whether we're in a good mood or depressed, whether we feel our meditation is going well or is completely falling apart. As we continue to sit we see that meditation isn't about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It's about being able to stay present with ourselves. It becomes increasingly clear that we won't be free of self-destructive patterns unless we develop a compassionate understanding of what they are.
One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your mind, it's easy to forget that you even have a body.
When you sit down it's important to relax into your body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you come to places that are hurting or tense you can breath in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you can stop or, if you feel like it, you can repeat this body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back into the overall sense of being in your body. For a moment you can bring your awareness directly back to being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds, smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you—maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then return to the technique.
In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it's impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don't want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.
The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we'll end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say, "Stay!" "Come!" "Roll over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn't become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to "stay" and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.
After we've been meditating for a while, it's common to feel that we are regressing rather then waking up. "Until I started meditating, I was quite settled; now it feels like I'm always restless." "I never used to feel anger; now it comes up all the time." We might complain that meditation is ruining our life, but in fact such experiences are a sign that we're starting to see more clearly. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves. Clear seeing is another way of saying that we have less self-deception.
The Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he retreated into the wilderness, "If I don't get a vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain't William Blake." But later he wrote that he found it hard to face the naked truth. "I'd thought, in June when I get to the top-and everybody leaves-I will come face to face with God or Tathagata (Buddha) and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering-but instead I'd come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful . . . Me."
Meditation requires patience and maitri. If this process of clear seeing isn't based on self-compassion it will become a process of self-aggression. We need self-compassion to stabilize our minds. We need it to work with our emotions. We need it in order to stay.
When we learn to meditate, we are instructed to sit in a certain position on a cushion or chair. We're instructed to just be in the present moment, aware of our breath as it goes out. We're instructed that when our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as 'thinking" and return to the outbreath. We train in coming back to this moment of being here. In the process of doing this, our fogginess, our bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into clear seeing. "Thinking" becomes a code word for seeing "just what is"—both our clarity and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom.
Through the process of practicing the mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience. Although we still associate the walls we've erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a restriction. This claustrophobic situation is important for a warrior. It marks the beginning of longing for an alternative to our small, familiar world. We begin to look for ventilation. We want to dissolve the barriers between ourselves and others.
Experiencing our Emotional Distress
Many people, including long-time practitioners, use meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. It is possible to misuse the label "thinking" as a way of pushing negativity away. No matter how many times we've been instructed to stay open to whatever arises, we still can use meditation as repression. Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.
Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination of self-existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can't proliferate without our internal conversations. If we're angry when we sit to meditate, we are instructed to label the thoughts "thinking" and let them go. Yet below the thoughts something remains—a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is, without proliferating.
There are certain advanced techniques in which you intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid. The practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, "Who am I without these thoughts?" What we do with mindfulness-awareness practice is simpler than that, but I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide with the energy of that moment. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up. People often say, "I fall asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I do?" There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness but my favorite is, "Get angry!"
Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. For instance most of us when we're angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in it. We become so stuck in repetitive behavior that we become experts at getting all worked up. In this way we continue to strengthen our conflicting emotions.
One night years ago I came upon my boyfriend passionately embracing another woman. We were in the house of a millionaire who had a priceless collection of pottery. I was furious and looking for something to throw. Everything I picked up I had to put back down because it was worth at least $10,000. I was completely enraged and I couldn't find an outlet! There were no exits from experiencing my own energy. The absurdity of the situation totally cut through my rage. I went outside and looked at the sky and laughed until I cried.
In vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than mirrorlike wisdom. Pride and envy without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it's free of grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.
In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
Attention to the Present Moment
Another factor we cultivate in the transformative process of meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.
Coming back to the present moment takes some effort but the effort is very light. The instruction is to "touch and go." We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. It's a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather. It's a nonaggressive approach to being here.
Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don't want to let them go. Watching our personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There's no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in using a "soft" effort, in interrupting our habitual patterns; we train in cultivating self-compassion.
We practice meditation to connect with maitri and unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can discover that our fundamental energy is tender, wholesome and fresh. We can start to train as a warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
Pema Chödrön is a full-ordained Buddhist nun and the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. This article is adapted from her Shambhala Publications book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.
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Do I Exist or Not?
Do I Exist or Not?
"No one told us to see ourselves as solid entities. We came up with that on our own."
"Some kind of voidness, the complete negation of everything-is that Buddhism? Well, Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don't exist, but they don't not exist either."
On the Buddhist path, we look at our own experience. For example, people are always talking about their age. We feel we are supposed to accomplish certain things by a certain age. We want to feel we are living fully, and even though we may be very sane and stable, we have doubts about whether or not we are living up to our own expectations. This causes anxiety, edginess. Why?
When we examine our expectations, we see how many concepts we have about our life. We have gathered a set of beliefs and opinions about ourselves and we've made them solid. We've created a self-image that we feel is real.
We are all trying to find meaning in life, some kind of personal satisfaction. We yearn to discover the basic fabric of our experience. "Is this genuine love? "Is this going the way I've heard it should?" We wonder what it is that we're supposed to experience. When a good situation changes and we are no longer happy, we get a glimpse at how hard we try to hold the concepts together. We look back and realize, "That was not a genuine experience: I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing." We may feel we were fooled by the appearance of things.
From the Buddhist point of view, we are always trying to find something that is inherently real, real by nature, in our environment and in our mind. One of the basic questions in Buddhism is what is the difference between the true nature of things and the way they appear to us?
The Buddha discovered that the genuine, true thing we keep looking for isn't there at all. The whole world only appears to be real, and what appears to be the most real is ourselves. This goes beyond the level of ego-we are talking about existence itself. We feel that we exist. We feel that our thoughts, our dreams and hopes, are real.
So if the Buddha tells us that's not so, do we decide nonexistence must be real? Some kind of voidness, the complete negation of everything-is that Buddhism? Well, Buddhism is more complicated than that: things don't exist, but they don't not exist either.
The Buddha discovered the truth because he overcame his obscurations, his ignorance. It is basic ignorance that keeps us from seeing the existence/nonexistence of things. What if we were to sit down and try to find exactly where the "me" abides? Is it in the brain, is it in the heart? We would have a hard time pinning it down exactly. On one level, of course we are here. But on another level, are we as solid as we've always believed ourselves to be?
So "Who am I and what is my world?" might be the next question. Understanding this is a journey that takes a while. We need to try to understand existence before we can understand nonexistence. Things are not real the way we think they should be. Life will not turn out the way we think it should. We have built our house over an underground stream. Essentially, we have been operating with a misunderstanding about reality. And first we have to let that go.
If we learn to let go of our expectations about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. This notion can be very subtle. One way everyone experiences this is through disappointment. We really want to have a good time, but somehow it doesn't work out that way. Not trying to conceptualize that something is going to happen in a satisfactory way, or that something is real-this is what I'm talking about.
It may sound ridiculous for me to say that things are not real. But if you think about it, you know that the world is constantly changing-even though it appears to be solid. We age and die. Nevertheless, we all want to leave our legacy.
If we learn to let go of our expectations and concepts about how things should be, then we can appreciate what is actually happening. On the Buddhist path, the purpose of meditation is to develop a stable mind in order to observe what is going on. When we meditate, we observe how our thoughts and emotions come and go.
Sometimes emotions feel overpowering. Desire, hatred, pride, jealousy-what are they really? They are torments of the mind. If someone injures us, we feel mad. We believe that we are an entity that exists and that that entity has been insulted. Therefore we feel justified in being angry because we feel our sense of self is being challenged. The anger torments us; it stirs up our mind. When we're caught up in this process we are not at ease. The path of meditation means working toward stabilizing the mind so that we are not so susceptible to these states of affliction. These states of mind are not natural; in its natural state, the mind is at ease, not tormented.
When painful emotions come up, we ask ourselves, "Why me?" We want to blame someone or something for our situation. Well, if we wait for someone else to get rid of our negative feelings, we will be waiting a long time. Buddhism is about taking responsibility. No one told us to see ourselves as solid entities. We came up with that on our own. The point here is not to blame ourselves, but we could look to our own mind as the source of the confusion.
The Buddhist path teaches that the Buddha was not the only human being who could realize the truth about reality. We can do it ourselves, but we have to accept the responsibility. The Buddhist teachings are not some heavy, oppressive, liturgical thing, but more like sane advice from a friend.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is president of Shambhala International and holder of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Earth's Original Face
Earth's Original Face
Distant countries may be found within a few miles, or at most a few hundred miles, of every woman, man and child in the United States. These countries are remnants of the earth that have escaped the ages of iron and steel. Here the heart still beats of mountain, creek, prairie, plains, desert, river and seashore. Such places are found in national, state and county parks and forests. They are found in out-of-the-way private lands that have so far escaped destruction by logging, ranching, farming or development.
These places are distant because some hardship is required to reach them. To get there, like pioneers of old, we must walk carrying only a few things on our backs. The further we wander from our airports, malls, motels, cafes and houses, from our roads and even our trails, the more intimate we become with the earth as it once was.
Thoreau called it "wildness" and "the preservation of the world." It's unobstructed nature, the earth prior to human intervention, the wilderness. It is earth's original face. Here we taste an infinite variety and beauty that makes all nihilisms trivial and absurd. Simultaneously we touch the depth and magnificence of the mind itself. For it is, after all, retina, optic nerve, visual cortex, and our own miraculous consciousness that form themselves into cloud, tree, rock, eagle, buffalo.
Every year I go on a pilgrimage to wildness. One recent summer I hiked with two old companions, Tom Decker and Fred Hoffman, to Cirque Lake in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. It's a tiny high lake cupped in the formation called the Cirque of the Towers. (A cirque is a natural high-mountain amphitheater at the head of a stream or glacier.)
It takes Tom, Fred and me two days to reach the Cirque of the Towers. At 62, 58 and 57 years of age, we don't compete with the gung-ho twenty-something climbers hustling past us, making the journey from their cars to the cirque in a single arduous day. We hike five hours the first day, and on the second, we spend seven hours on a trail that labors up and down, snaking through boulder fields and frequently losing itself on stretches of bare rock above chasms and cliff faces.
But finally we stand at 10,800 feet on Jackass Pass. We're now on the southern edge of the great amphitheater. Looking a mile and a half to the north through thin, clear air, we see the twin peaks called Camel's Hump on the opposite rim of the bowl, rising to 12,500 feet. Behind us are the Warrior Peaks, ending in the feathery spires of War Bonnet Peak. To the left, a half-mile away and five hundred feet below, a waterfall slides smoothly off broad, glacier-sculpted slabs of granite bedrock. The creek gathers itself and runs on down into Lonesome Lake. Its western shore lies to our left, rimmed by high, sharp peaks.
"That's got to be Pingora," says Tom, pointing toward a high, sheer tower that stands up from the west end of the lake. "And there's the creek that cascades down from Cirque Lake." He points just to the left of the base of the tower, where a thin, white finger of water begins to thread down through steep slopes of rock and turf. It's a full mile away and straight across the valley.
"Incredible," says Fred. "Cirque Lake sits higher than we are here on Jackass. And look at that ring of spires flying off to the left of Pingora!"
"You can see why it's called Cirque Lake," I say. "It rests in a high bowl at the end of the Cirque of the Towers. It's in a little cirque within this huge cirque.” Thinking it’s a good time to look at the map, I pull out the quadrangle of paper, unfold it, and line it up with the terrain before us. "Listen to this," I say, singing out the names of the peaks that soar around Cirque Lake: "Pingora, Wolf - s Head, Overhanging Tower, Shark's Nose, Block Tower, Watch Tower."
"Well, let's get down and find a camp," says Tom. "We don't have much light left, and I don't see many big trees. It'll take some doing to hang the food higher than a bear's teeth and claws."
We shoulder our packs and start down the trail. After a quarter mile, we turn off into a steep hillside broken by blocky outcrops of granite interspersed with snowfields and patches of green. We stop in a cozy meadow alive with springs and tiny streams. We pull food out of our packs, setting aside packages of beef stroganoff and chicken soup for dinner. Tom throws the rest of the food into a bag, grabs a rope, and walks off to hang it. Fred starts setting up the tent on a floor of soft turf.
I scavenge for firewood, then start a fire in an old pit on a rim of shelving granite looking out over the huge bowl. On my right is an ancient whitebark pine. Honed by weather, it has no single trunk. Its many twisted branches, thick as my thighs, writhe like octopus arms around each other. It stands hardly higher than my head, hunkering below a granite block that breaks the killing winter winds.
Finally, chores done, exhausted, we eat a simple meal as darkness falls, leaning back against chunks of rock. Firelight flickers among the winding branches of our pine. Chilled by an icy wind that suddenly flows down the slopes from the Warrior Peaks, I scrunch in toward the dying embers, my knee stinging from glowing coals a few inches away. Fragrant wood smoke drifts past my face and nose.
"No use adding more wood tonight. I think we'll all soon be in our bags," I say to grunts of assent.
"Remember the old Indian saying," says Fred. "White man builds big fire. Stands far away. Indian builds small fire. Sits close."
"That's the sad story of modern civilization," adds Tom.
The next day we linger in camp till lunch time, then wander the streams and waterfalls below us down to Lonesome Lake. Back at camp in the afternoon, I look for a meditation seat a hundred yards from the tent where a spring rises at the head of our meadow. I find a slab of circular granite about ten feet long embedded in the grasses. Ice and gravity fractured it, then dropped it here, its shape reminiscent of a turtle shell.
I make a cushion of my jacket and set it in the grass on the turtle's back. I rest my palm on the rock itself. It's warm and welcoming after a day in the summer sun. I stand and bow to the southeast toward Jackass Pass behind me. The steep slopes are purple with lupine. I turn and bow northwest toward the cirque within the Cirque. Up there, I know, the goal of our pilgrimage lies hidden. I sit down, loosely crossing my legs and drop my gaze down to the expanse of meadow. Rivulets braid themselves through a profusion of grasses, mosses and flowers—asters, daisies, purple gentian. After days of walking through rough terrain, my body is toned and supple. Muscle, tendon, ligament and bone fall quickly, gratefully, into the ease of sitting in meditation.
I shut my eyes, allowing silence to flow in from the immense bowl of air surrounding me. I mark the steady hiss of old age in my ears, year by year more prominent. I listen to the quiet babbling of a little finger of water that springs out of the grass at my left hand. I hear a tiny music filled with an endless, liquid "el-el-el." And now, too, there is a stream of sibilants, a constant "shhh." And inside this are tinkling "t's" and the drip drop drip of "d's." Sound rushes through me; my body fills with sweetness. "A mantra," I think, "going on and on forever. Thousands of years before me. Thousands after."
I look down smiling on my bubbling spring. For long minutes I watch the water float through my gaze, then swing my eyes back to the grass, a patchwork of many greens. Some clumps have blades as soft and fine as baby's hair. Near the turtle's nose, where spray leaps up, the grass is coarse, the broad blades drenched with trembling droplets. Everywhere, woven through the turf, tiny ferns raise their triangular fronds, and below them the buds of mosses cling to crumbs of moist soil. Higher up, on the tops of little hummocks where the summer sun has already dried out the soil, drought-resistant grasses, tough and wiry, turn to brown and gray.
I breathe deep into my belly. My head is sky. My feet are earth. My buttocks granite. My mind and body fill with the great cirque, taste its eternity. Every passing season is a heartbeat, each revolving year the ebb and flow of breath.
Then I think I hear Tom or Fred hailing me. I raise my eyes, look about, and find only a tiny gnat flying around my head. It's no bigger than a pinhead, but its buzz, here in this amphitheater of rarefied air, sounds almost like a distant human shout. Slowly, I look up across a mile of air to the thin white thread of water plunging down from the base of Pingora, then beyond to the wild circle of peaks beneath which Cirque Lake lies.
"It's the Grail," I think. "Surely at that last Passover supper, the gods transformed the vessel from which he drank. Those dull disciples saw him raising to his lips an ordinary cup. But Jesus, amazed to find he drank sweet wine from a bowl of mountains, knew suddenly he could bear the cross. Or maybe, after all, it's the jagged dome of some ancient buddha's skull. Left over from an age when the buddhas were all giants. And this precious relic was carelessly dropped, lost by some thoughtless disciple."
The next morning dawns clear and fine. As we cook breakfast over a small fire, we plan our pilgrimage. "We can pack a lunch and head up later today," I suggest. "You never know what weather might roll in tomorrow. We're only in the Cirque for three more days."
“Let's get with it, then, right after breakfast," says Tom. "No shilly-shallying and fussing with gear."
An hour later we're dropping down four hundred feet to cross over a wide, mushy meadow that lies on the flank of the broad waterfall. We balance from stone to stone through the shallow waters at its top, then start up the drainage on the other side. As it steepens, the creek turns into many terraced basins. Caught on the precipitous hillside, the waters pulse and flow, pooling between lips of rock and turf. Each step upward touches heaven. I lose myself in the twisting watercourse, balancing step by step as close to each quivering pool as I can.
"Come on, Storlie," Tom yells after half an hour of slow progress. "Shake a leg. At this rate, we'll never get there."
"Okay, okay," I say. "But remember, when we get there I expect you guys to join me in a nice swim."
"I seriously doubt it," says Tom.
"Maybe," says Fred. "I reserve judgment.”
Fred and Tom move on ahead of me up through steeper and steeper rock. Then suddenly we're all three at the top. Cirque Lake is a thousand feet long and half that wide. It's held by sheer granite cliffs and steep boulder fields. At the far end a great snowfield sweeps down from cliffs and into the water. Dozens of icebergs, each a few feet high, float lazily, their whiteness turning to a glacial blue in the depths. Mirrored at our feet on the tranquil surface, the peaks soar in a circle around our heads.
Hot, sweaty, I quickly start pulling off my boots, then my clothes.
"You're nuts," Tom says. "What do you think that floating white stuff is out there?"
Fred laughs. He sits down and begins unlacing his boots. "Come on, Tom. After five days, you need this bath."
Naked, we enter the water quickly, walking out on big slabs of shelving granite. We know if we hesitate, we’ll never do it. We scream as we hit the water, the echoes flying back and forth in the circle of peaks. Within a minute, we're stretched out on flat rocks in the sun—chilled, numb, and panting.
"God, we've done it," I exclaim. "We've found the Grail. What a day. What a beautiful day."
Tom agrees. "It's hard to top."
And now, Fred points out, it’s time for lunch. And so it is.
Erik Storlie studied with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping to found the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, where he currently serves on the board of directors. He is author of Nothing on my Mind: Berkeley, LSD, Two Zen Masters, and a Life on the Dharma Trail
Visiting Mr. Paul
Visiting Mr. PaulBy:
Not having seen me for a quarter century, he invited me in with the easy grace he extended to everyone: "Mr. Barry, so good to see you."
"Don't try to invent characters. The almighty has given us enough."
I found this quote scratched on a piece of paper lodged in an anthology of short stories I'd saved from college. The paper served as a bookmark for Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool. The title page was autographed by the author and the notes came from a session I attended where he discussed his thoughts about story writing.
I have always cherished those few moments of interaction with Singer. Literature, to Singer, so say my notes, was not for messages. It could only "stir the mind, not direct it." I recall asking whether the value of the stories one tells comes from the value of one's life, its intensity, its attractiveness to the world at large. He responded emphatically that story and character were equally as rich in one person's experience as in another's.
Singer's Gimpel brought to mind a character in my own life, Paul Steinbach. Mr. Paul, as he is known, must have been approaching 70 when I worked in his dress shop in junior high, and when I dropped by to see him last summer, he was approaching 100. He was slightly misshapen and his mouth hung open to facilitate his breathing, but he was vital. Not having seen me for a quarter century, he invited me in with the easy grace he always extended to everyone, instantly acknowledging me in his broad Hungarian Jewish accent: "Mr. Barry, so good to see you."
Mr. Paul is far from the village idiot type embodied by Gimpel, the butt of incessant practical jokes, a genuine schlemiel. Mr. Paul is not a simpleton, but he is a simple person, and in his relation to the society around him as ill-fitting as Gimpel. In the southern Pennsylvania Presbyterian stronghold where I grew up, you could go your whole life without ever meeting a Jew, unless like me and my brothers, you went to work as a store boy at Mr. Paul's little dress shop.
It's hard to imagine a job today with so simplistic a title. In those days, one could progress through a series of upwardly mobile "boy" jobs-from paper boy to store boy to bag boy. For about an hour each day after school, Mr. Paul's store boy swept the floor and the sidewalk out front, collected the hangers, made up boxes, and Windexed the glass cases and the mirrors. He even trimmed the few tufts of grass out back, with a sickle no less, one of the many little ways in which Mr. Paul linked you to a simpler time.
A flighty sort, I was never very good at these jobs. There were many corners missed and surfaces smudged, but unlike so many "boy" employers, Mr. Paul never raised his voice. He registered his disapproval with a slight comment and a winsome smile. Mr. Paul was an Old World gentleman, whose regard for people superseded any other consideration. His manners were courtly but warm. His use of "Mister" in front of first names was a kind of honorific: people deserved more respect than simple blurting out their name. Without fail, Mr. Paul asked after family before engaging in any other kind of talk, always remembering not only details of their lives but something of their personalities as well.
Mr. Paul was observant-of people, of ritual, of religion-yet his life was circumscribed by very small parameters. He conducted his affairs from a dark closet-sized office. Each day at the appointed times, he donned his hat and walked over to meet his brother, who operated a dress shop a half-block away, for morning and afternoon coffee and for lunch. He went to temple on the sabbath and the high holy days. An eminence grise amid an ever-declining group of observers, he is still concerned about how they will afford to fix the roof.
After asking about all my family, Mr. Paul allowed himself a reverie about the time back in 1965 when a couple insisted he accompany them on a tour. With evident joy, he recounted the month he spent traveling to Israel, Athens, Rome, Paris and London. "It was the greatest time of my life." He had not ventured overseas since; one month out of almost 100 years would suffice for wanderlust.
The man who drives him called and they went over his arrangements for the following day-grocery shopping, lunch and a meeting at the bank, the same old rituals. He should be long past caring about anything or anyone, but not so. When it was time to leave, Mr. Paul looked at me endearingly and said as if to absolve me of the small sin of being a lousy store boy all those years ago in comparison to my brothers who did the job so well, "You were the thoughtful one of your clan, I believe. I missed you, Mr. Barry. I wondered, 'Has he left or does he just not come to see me?' I feel better now than I did before you came."
If being a simple man is foolish, then Mr. Paul is indeed a fool. When Gimpel consulted his rabbi about this condition, he told him, "It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil."
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
Yoga for Two
Yoga for TwoBy:
When we let our senses dominate, we relate to other people in a different way-sensitive, sensuous, physically awake, and alive like an animal! Who doesn't want a little more of that in their relationship?
Often I begin my yoga classes by asking the students to sit quietly, with their legs crossed and palms down on their thighs in the mudra of calm abiding. I invite them to let go of their thinking mind and drop into their feeling body. Even though that is a vague instruction, everybody knows what it means and there is a palpable sense of relaxation, a physical sigh throughout the room. What a relief to unclench our brain fists!
It can also be beneficial to relax the tension and inattention that can develop between us and those with whom we are close. One of the best ways to do that is to work with our immediate sensory relationship, not just the conceptual framework we share.
Sensory perceptions lie at the root of our relationship with our world and the other people in it. Our perceptions are inherently sacred and by nature they are always occurring now. They are the tools that allow us to dive into the river of life. But in order to experience the sacredness of every moment right when it is happening, we must learn both to give and to receive. We smell something delicious, savor it, and exhale it out. We keep it moving. That's the idea, anyway. But we all know that's not what always happens. Instead we tend to cling to what smells good and shut out what smells bad.
In the classical eight limbs of yoga, there is a practice called pratyahara, which is often translated as "withdrawal of the senses." This can be a quite helpful practice, since most of us are walking around with not just our eyes bugging out, but our ears and noses as well. When we push our senses so much we stop feeling anything; we become numb and then mistakenly look to our conceptual mind for experience.
So relaxing our outward effort may good at first, but unless we want to become cave-dwelling ascetics, we active citizens of the world need to keep rolling around in the lava lamp of our senses. Rather than ignoring what we feel, we can practice letting go of the grasping mind that quickly arises on the heels of sensory experience, and return to what our eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue are telling us.
When we let our senses dominate, we immediately feel the heat between ourselves and others, our shared exchange of breath, and the universal pulsation of our hearts. We begin to relate to ourselves, our world and other people in a different way- sensitive, sensuous, physically awake, and alive like an animal! And who doesn't want a little more of that in their friendships and partnerships?
By contrast, we often find our relationships are dry, conceptual and theoretical. We're afraid to look into each other eyes and we talk so much we don't even know what it feels like to feel. The habits of a relationship become so stuck that we don't see or hear each other any more. One partner may have changed and the other one didn't even notice. One partner may have left and the other one didn't even notice. We try to talk with each other but we have the same broken record conversations year in and year out. Communication is no longer two-way, but no-way.
Since our sensory perceptions are our primary and most accurate means of communicating with each other, one of the best ways to get some of that animal nature back into our life is by engaging in mindful physical activity with each other.
My parents, Allan and Mildred, have been married for over 50 years. (Can you imagine how often they have said the same thing to each other?) They are not yoga practitioners, but when I asked them if they would be willing to try, to my surprise and delight, they agreed without hesitation. Allan and Mildred are both in their mid-70's and when I told them they would have to sit on the floor, they laughed and said, "We can do that. We might not be able to get back up, but we can get down!"
That playfulness and willingness is all it takes. You might feel awkward or silly or self-conscious, but you will at least feel something. And that something will be shared together and it will be different and immediate every time you do these exercises.
1. Begin with a little bow of respect to each other.
2. Touch your palms together and close your eyes. See if you can feel your breathing moving together in one rhythm.
3. With your palms slightly separated, feel the heat between them.
4. Gently place your hands on each other's knees. Inhale and lift your chests and faces up, opening your hearts to each other.
5. Exhale, and curve your back. You can repeat steps 4 and 5 several times.
6. Place your left hand on your partner's left knee and your own right hand behind you. Inhale, and then as you exhale, twist to the right. Stay here for three breaths. Then reverse the twist.
7. Tree pose. My parents used the wall to help them balance. You can do that or you can try it freestanding. They also told me that when they strongly pressed their front hands together it was easier for them to stay up. This is a great way to explore supporting each other and still carrying your own weight-just what we want to do in relationships anyway.
8. Acknowledge your partner's generosity, patience and open heart with a bow.
Partner yoga can be done between any two people: brothers, pals, lovers, parent and child, anybody. It's a way for us to begin to have a conversation through our skin, our breath, our heartbeats. It's a way of using your body and your senses to get to know each other, support each other and get in shape all at the same time. Try this program both when you are feeling close to each other and when you are not feeling close. Let it be a way to open up to your partner, to receive whatever they have to give, and to find out what your energetic circle is together. My dad enjoyed making the close connection with my mom, and my mom exclaimed, "I liked it because I could do it!"
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of OM Yoga in a Box, available at www.omyoga.com.
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