In the Zone
In the Zone
Four sports enthusiasts put their practice into play. Here's LAURA MUNSON on riding. You'll find the other three stories — MELVIN MCCLEOD on skiing, LIZ MARTIN on golfing, and JAIMAL YOGIS on surfing — inside our July magazine.
Skiing is a beautiful blend of body, physics, and nature. Through graceful bodily movements and subtle shifts in weight you can redirect
the force of gravity with your skis, describing any arc you want, at any speed
you dare. When it all comes together—when technique, equipment, gravity, and
the snow underfoot are one—it is winter’s dance.
It is also an unnatural thing to do. Skiing is falling down
a mountain. A controlled fall, yes, but a fall nonetheless. That’s where
meditative practice comes in. The problem isn’t distraction; things are moving
too fast to get lost in thought. The challenges in skiing are fear and trust.
Both are well known to meditators.
Imagine you’re standing on a steep hill. If you’re afraid of
falling, you’ll lean back toward the hillside behind you. It’s the instinctive thing to do, but completely wrong for skiing. You have to lean
forward and commit your body to falling down that hill. You can do it because
you have trust in your skis.
Skis don’t just turn. They hold you up. That’s where the
trust comes in. If you can overcome your hesitation and commit your body to
falling forward, your skis will not just save you from falling on your face.
They will work beautifully, and you will be a skier.
You know that trust exercise where you stand with your eyes
closed and fall backward, trusting your friends will catch you? Skiing is like
that, but in reverse. Stand at the top of the hill and let your body fall
forward. Trust that your skis will catch you. They’ll take you on the ride of
—Melvin McLeod is editor-in-chief of the Shambhala
Focusing my gaze downward at the bright,
white golf ball, I’m aware of the alignment of my back, the softness in my
legs. Slowly I twist my upper body and hips into a coil and raise my arms back
with my driver. after a slight hesitation, i uncoil as my arms and body move
forward. The head of my driver connects solidly with the golf ball, and I
follow through with the swing. A crisp, clean stroke. The ball flies
elegantly through the air onto the fairway.
It’s a lovely spring day to play golf at my country club. Walking up the emerald-green fairway lined with dark oak trees, I notice a
mother deer and her fawn curiously watching me from the shadows. overhead our
resident red-tailed hawk soars, then swoops downward to land gracefully on a
tall pine. This is my haven.
I'm the owner of two businesses—an insurance agency and a
grass-fed beef farm. The reason I learned to play golf was to entertain and
build relationships with current and prospective clients. but, as a pleasant
surprise, golf has also become a release for me. When walking the eighteen
holes on the course, I concentrate on my breath, which helps me keep my mind
focused on the upcoming shot and remain calm and grounded in the moment.
Having played golf for over ten years, I understand how it
parallels my yoga practice. Whether on the mat or on the course, I have a
feeling of being present, a keen awareness of my surroundings and my
intention. I realize how important it is to respect and appreciate the value
of each day.
—Liz Martin is a small business owner in Lancaster,
Surfers are often asked to describe our passion. What’s it
like to ride a wave? Why is it fun?
This is problematic.
I’m not a bird, but I imagine a bird would have a similar
problem describing to humans what it’s like to fly.
Surfers are bums who produce nothing for society. And, for
producing nothing, people wonder if they’ve figured out the key to happiness.
So maybe it’s best to use a koan here and say: you learn everything from riding
a single wave and you learn nothing at all.
A wave, after all, has no substance. Somewhere far out to
sea, the wind blows on the surface of the ocean, kicking up ripples. those
ripples capture more of the wind’s energy, becoming swells. These swells—long lines
of spiraling energy— appear to travel thousands of miles across the ocean. but
no water is actually moving. Water molecules are simply knocking into each
other in a spiraling domino dance. They’re the memory of wind. and when that
memory collides with sand or reef or rock, it makes the energy invert and pitch into a
breaking wave. Occasionally, miraculously, that wave can be ridden by a human—a
being who likewise has trouble finding a fundamental substance. we’re also
mostly water—water that’s constantly being replaced with new water. Are we just the memory of the first drop of water absorbing the
first rays of sun?
How, then, to describe surfing? Water riding water? The
memory of sunlight and rain riding the memory of wind? Flow? Power? Presence? Oneness?
They all fall short of the mark. And fortunately, while
riding a wave, you think of none of these things. That’s why surfing is fun.
—Jaimal Yogis is the author of The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing... and Love.
I do things like gallop alone on my horse in grizzly bear and mountain lion territory. You’d think I
was a live-in-the-moment, head-to-the-Big-Sky Montana girl, free and clear.
And sometimes I am, though the truth is, it all scares me.
But there was one day when I saw my way through that fear.
It was after my father died. I’d lived in the ICU with him for a month helping
him die. There was no rushing that. When I returned to Montana, I went straight to my horse. I wanted to ride
him to the river. To let the water wash away the spiritual scum I felt coating
me from the hospital, funeral, and closet cleaning. Yet there was a problem
with this agenda. My horse was terrified of water.
For years, I’d tried to change that. I’d done everything
from driving him into the river with his herd to floating carrots in the water.
Nothing worked until that day when agenda became intention, and I knew deeply that I had to go slowly. That day, all goals
surrendered. I was simply in the moment of my grief and wanting the healing to
I made reins out of the halter rope. Jumped on him bareback. Headed to the river. What is there to fear when you’ve watched your father take
his last breath? I didn’t think fear or fight or speed. I simply went step by
step, intention by intention, surrender by surrender. We walked to the river. I
cast my fear into the pool of the present moment, and he did too. Without
pausing, he stepped into the water with me on his back. And we spent the
afternoon swimming that river. Free.
—Laura Munson is the author of This Is Not the Story You
Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.
Photo: Heidi Long
Flesh Sex Desire
Flesh Sex Desire
KAREN CONNELLY feels the heat.
Flesh. Sex. Desire. It’s not the only holy trinity, but it’s
my favorite one, Buddhist noble truths notwithstanding.
All Buddhist schools agree on the second noble truth—that we
suffer because we desire. I know it. There is no way to wiggle out of it. Trust
me, I’ve tried. Changing the vocabulary to “attachment” does not work at all.
Desire is all about getting attached, clinging like an octopus with suckers
(but without the octopus’s elegance) to what we want, be it a beautiful fellow
human or a serene state of being.
De sideris, the Latin root of the word “desire,” is
wonderfully instructive. In a roundabout way, it provides a Buddhist comment on
the impossibility of getting what we want, of ever being completely satisfied,
sexually or otherwise. The very meaning of the word also explains why desire is
so compelling and magical, why it will always reach us, somehow, from another
world, another life. De sideris means “of the stars.”
We think of the stars as far away, and of the light that
comes to us from them as dead. Yet the sun is our closest star; we cannot live
without it. Desire is a large, hot fact of life. Everyone, Buddhistically
inclined or not, has to find a way to handle it, to enjoy the light without
going blind or burning to a crisp.
Karen Connelly’s latest poetry collection, Come Cold River—in
part an exploration of sexual wounds and healing—will be out in fall, 2013.
Currently, she’s writing a new book with the working title A Short Novel Full
of Good Sex. It’s in rebellion against all the crappy erotica of the world.
I was raised with the Bible, but also, secretly, as a little
pagan. So when I think of human flesh, my flesh, my lover’s body, the Earth
follows close behind. Adam came from adamah, the Hebrew word for “the dust of
the earth.” When I think of some of the best sexual experiences I have ever
had, I remember how thin the walls were, or nonexistent, or how the windows
were open and the land or water were there, close by, present, part of the act.
After the ragged breath and that sweet, sometimes violent
crashing together of two hungry bodies, after the orgasmic focus begins to ebb,
something I love (beyond the lover’s body and my own body, and the cracked-up
grinning happiness of orgasm) is how the air returns, how I become aware of the
air on my skin. The wind might move the edge of the curtains, might actually
enter the room and be there with us. It’s the easiest, most natural way to have
And if there is no wind, then just the air—that breath outside
the body speaking to the breath inside. I become aware of how it moves into the
room, over my naked skin, and its arrival seems almost conscious to me. And
voices, somewhere outside. our own murmurs. Then birdsong, if there are birds;
I hear them again, anew, though the sounds never stopped during the sex, or
love-making, or whatever.
Whatever. That catch-all teenage word works well, because
sex is many things, and changeable, unpredictable, our own human weather. The
calm sea of grass, waving, bending over, bending back. The reluctant or drenching shower of rain. Even the most routine sex wakes
me up to the body’s climate. Oh! Oh! Here I am! This is my body!
Does a session of blissful fucking in a tent make the nearby
trees and squirrels happy? Does the earth beneath his sweaty back rejoice, and
the rivers rush harder when I come?
Sometimes I desire the living, wild flesh of the Earth as
much as I desire my lover’s body. In the city where I live, I feel this desire
as a low-grade, grinding ache, a lustfulness for that other flesh, the living
presence of uncontained nature. It seems to me that such a sensual longing, a
yearning for my senses to be awakened, exercised, and expanded, must also be
sexual. Yet we never call it that. I do not call it that.
But it is spring now. The natural world shows me how sexual
it is, without shame, without coyness. Glorying in the strong light of the sun,
the starlight that reaches us all, the sex of trees and birds is literally in
the air these days, and in me, too. Buds are swelling up; trees are getting
ready to have flagrant congress in public. Soon, flowers will start to pop
open, spread themselves for all to see. Flowers are the genitalia of plants. Is
that why we love them so much, why we adorn our houses with their colors? Even
the mud around my car tires looks great, rich and juicy and wonderfully eatable.
If I were a goddess, I too would want to mold it into a beautiful human,
breathe life into it, and let nature take its course.
When I let this body outside for a walk, it awakens; when
the air and the wind touch my skin, or when I sit down on slightly wet grass,
or in dry, powdery dirt, I feel both calmer and more electrically alive.
Walking in a mountain valley, or even a well-treed inner-city park, or on a
deserted beach, or swimming in the water, salty or sweet, I usually get a
little turned on. Horny. Don’t you?
Maybe not. Maybe you just get hay fever. Each one of us is
so different when it comes to the holy trinity. In the mountains, some would be
nervous about bears. In the Aegean, where I have swum for hours on end and
reached a mystical, physical union with the sea—I could show you my gills,
though I won’t show you what I can do with them—some would only think of
drowning, and jellyfish. So. What does it for you, then? Make your own list.
I know why I bring the Earth into sex. Because then I can
never be without it. The hardest times in my life have been sexless. When I
have healed, or mourned, or untangled myself from unhealthy relationships, or
when I have been deeply focused on work, celibacy has sometimes been a
necessity, a form of spiritual and physical rejuvenation. But even when I have
recognized its importance and usefulness, my body has always disliked
sexlessness and felt grumpy about it. By accepting the Earth as a lover, I know
that as long as I am alive, that sensual, fleshly pleasure can be mine, even if
I am alone.
It is impossible to speak honestly of sex and not mention
fear. Fear is partly why sex makes us feel so alive, and half-crazed sometimes,
and weird, and irritated. Sex disturbs us for many other reasons too, but fear
is always in the mix. Touch it—whatever it is for you—and the fear rises like
the fine, narrow skull of a snake. Flick, flick. Is it poisonous? Will it kill
me? or is it just a garter snake?
It might be a small, niggling fear, an embarrassment,
something that makes you roll your eyes at yourself, or at your lover. It might
turn the sexiest moment into ridiculous comedy, which is a kind of blessing.
Yes: what we fear can also be, and very often is, funny. The body is an honest
comic, no matter how cool and wise the mind may be. on all fours, her lovely
ass seductively lifted in the air, the most beautiful woman in the world farts,
loudly. Once, on the night that the seduction was going to take place, after a
meal of long, delicious foreplay (lots of oysters), by the time we got down to
our knickers and lots of tongue, there was no longer any way to deny it: we
both had food poisoning (lots of oysters). Or, during that longed-for romantic
weekend away from the children, you will have enough time and space and a
gorgeous hotel bed to lie down in, naked and alone together at last! You find
that the hotel bed is wide and big enough to accommodate a huge argument over
finances. The sex should be unsalvageable, but you attack it anyway, desperate,
needful, furious at that need. As you enter or are entered, you wonder why you
ever married anyway. Was it out of lust? Or for money? And now you’re stuck in
it, with the products, the joyful, miraculous results of your sex, gorgeous
children, left at home. And you’ll be terrified that you could wonder such a
thing, in anger, just before you have the best, outraged,
breaking-through-outrage sex you’ve had in your life.
Fear is as much a part of being human as sex is. I have just
turned forty-four, and am haunted by and fearful of what my mother told me
about menopause: It finished sex for her. Done. Gonzo. never again. “You’re not
even interested in masturbation?” I asked her in a disbelieving, whiny voice.
She howled at the absurdity of the idea. When I suggested she just needed a
good vibrator, she laughed so hard she almost fell off her chair. “Nope,” she
said. “not for me. After the change, I just lost interest. The hot flashes
burned the lust right out of me.” She acknowledged that she had even less
interest in men messing up her house and leaving their damn socks on the floor,
but still, her words frightened me. Her postmenopausal stories made me think of
the poet Donald Hall’s beautiful elegies for his wife, who cried out, in the
midst of her fatal illness: “No more fucking, no more fucking!”
I fear death for the same reason. If I were to be hit by a
bus tomorrow, it’s not the unwritten books or the unlearned languages that my
spirit would mourn. After despair for my son growing up motherless and my
husband growing old without me, my self-focused grief would be not exactly for
my body, but for all the sweet, joyful sex, and the slightly distracted,
hurried sex, and the sad sex, and the confused sex that I would no longer be
able to have. I know that spirits, if they exist, do not care about such
things. But I am not a spirit yet.
When it comes to the body, fear is also larger; it cuts much
deeper and harder than daily disappointments and human foibles. The fear that
sex brings up is often about horrific losses, the ones we suffered as children,
as adolescents, as adults, in abusive relationships, in dysfunctional families,
in religions that hated the body, hated sex, hated us, basically, hated the
holy trinity, flesh, desire, sex. For some of us, that fear has the power to
stop up our throats. Literally. The words are not metaphoric.
For years, I couldn’t speak about what I wanted before,
during, or after sex. I couldn’t talk about what I needed, either, about what
didn’t feel right. My throat closed up.
The power of speech was gone, and, along with speech, all
chance of being heard by the person who happened to be undressing me.
Fear resides, often, in the throat, along with its sibling,
shame. Not a trinity, these two, but the difficult, unloved twins of the human
psyche, born of damage and capable of creating more. Shame and fear huddle like
angry children in the places where they are inflicted, trapped in the
subterranean passages of the mind and the body. Most of us have sexual wounds,
smaller, larger, healed, still raw, scarred over. If we are persistent and
fortunate, we find ways to heal those wounds through compassionate
relationship, in spiritual practice, with good therapy. But all of us live in a
culture that uses sex flagrantly; cheapens, sells, perverts, even tortures, and
hates sexuality; debases the bodies of women and men in various media while
using those same images to titillate, to instigate sexual response.
Meanwhile, up on the surface, in our schools and homes, in
our politics, in the way we teach and talk to our children, we are often
puritanical about our bodies, frightened of the flesh, of desire, of sex. Our
culture seeks to control, legislate, manage, obsess about, ignore, silence, and
straitjacket the body, even as our teen- age girls feel pressured to hook up
with boys they’re not really interested in and send out sexy photos of
themselves to prove what everyone should know about everyone else, naturally,
from childhood on: that we are all sexual beings, even we who are asexual. Sex
is part and parcel of our humanity. We seem to be able to do almost anything
with sex except simply relax with this most obvious and potentially charming
fact of life.
Somewhere, deep down, under these sensitive acres of skin
and warm fat, in the animal layers, our bodies know that sex could be easier
and, if we so desired, wilder. We could know both the deep comfort and edgy
thrill of sex, with more grace and storminess, as the trees know it, the birds,
the flowers, the animals in their springtime cavorting. Like that old song by
Cole Porter, “Let’s Do it, Let’s Fall in Love,” sex with or without love could
be more fun. It could simply be more. Instead of being difficult, or anxious,
or kind of dull, muted by routine and our own unwillingness to let go of our
fears and to change our lives. And, from time to time, our positions.
Here I bow again to the springtime Earth as my inspiration
and my teacher. I have always loved the bhumi-sparsha mudra in which the
Buddha’s right hand is draped over his knee to touch the Earth. He is calling
upon the Earth, the soil, to witness his enlightenment. This gesture is full
of meaning for me, for us, for the planet. In the oldest extant stories, the
Earth that the Buddha touched was embodied in one of the ancient goddesses that
predate Buddhism. She was Prithivi, also known as Bhumi, the Source of All,
She Who Cannot Be Deceived, the Womb of the World.
Ah-ha! Mother Earth, in the form of a fertility goddess, is
present at the very birth of Buddhism. In some of the stories, Prithivi
actually rises up and insists upon the Buddha’s purity.
That is what I see in the singing, budding, swelling,
lusting, mating, springtime world around me. Prithivi rises again and again,
every year, all year, whenever we are ready for her, whenever we want her. No
matter how badly we humans treat this planet, she is always ready to speak on
our behalf. Spring is her song, not only of life-giving lust and fecundity, but
of perfect faith. The purity that she swears by is nondualistic, enormous,
with enough space and breath and starlight for every one of us, with our
kinkiest kinks, our fear, our shame, our deepest lust, what we dream, what we
whisper, what we dare not utter. She cries out, I am your witness, and you
are—or you could be—free.
Through the Gateway of the Senses (July 2013)
Shambhala Sun | July 2013
Through the Gateway of the Senses
When we cleanse our perceptions of grasping and attachment,
we experience a universe that is infinite, awakened, and full of delight. FRANCESCA FREMANTLE on sight, sound, touch, and other miracles.
William Blake famously wrote: “If the doors of perception
were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite, for man has
closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his
That purified perception, looking out into the “immense
world of delight” that Blake communicated to us through his paintings and
poetry, sounds very much like the sacred vision practiced in Vajrayana
Buddhism, the experience of everything around us as a pure land. It is a realm
beyond our ordinary senses, yet one which our intuition instinctively
recognizes, and which comes upon us from time to time like a gift.
How is it that we have become separated from this realm, so
much so that spirituality is often thought to be unrelated to sensory
experience, or even opposed to it? A Dzogchen poem tells us: “Appearances are
not mistaken; error comes through grasping.” In other words, the senses and
sense-objects are no problem.
Texts such as these describe how mind can either rest in the
awakened state of openness, clarity, and sensitivity, or suddenly feel afraid
of such vastness, seeing itself as separate. This is said to occur “in the
beginning,” but it is taking place at the most subtle and hidden level of our
mind at every instant.
This is the root of all confusion, the moment in which
grasping arises. Grasping is both internal and external. Internally, it creates
the sense of an unchanging “I.” externally, it projects the concept of “other,”
seeing everything as a challenge to its existence, either a threat to be
overcome, an object of desire to be seized, or some- thing to be ignored in the
hope that it will go away.
Having deceived ourselves into believing in the existence of
ego as subject, we project a world of objects. In the late Chögyam Trungpa
Rinpoche’s graphic expression,we have “solidified space.” Instead, he suggests, we
could dance with space as our partner. In this dance we ourselves are part of
the ever-changing magical display of appearances, ungraspable, transparent, and
luminous as rainbows, which arise spontaneously and unceasingly as the creative
activity of space.
The buddhas, who remain always in this state, do not need
the senses; they experience directly with jnana, the five wisdoms. These
include the ability to see everything throughout all of space and time
simultaneously, as in a mirror, and at the same time to focus on each
individual part of the display.
For us, though, the senses are part of our manifestation as
sentient beings, and, in the way we normally experience them, they are
obstructions to genuine knowledge. Trungpa Rinpoche called them “unnecessary
complications of existence.” Yet he wrote of another way of experiencing, in
All the miracles of sight, sound, and mind
Are the five
wisdoms and the five buddhas.
For the doors of perception can be cleansed. Blake said,
“The whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it
now appears finite and corrupt. This will come to pass by an improvement of
sensual enjoyment.” He gives us a clue as to how this can be accomplished in
his much-loved verse:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s
Infinity. Eternity. These are the words Blake uses to point
toward an indescribable state where space and time collapse. Space (or place):
the sense of location, direction, and distance. Time: the sense of flowing from
the past to the future. These are powerful basic assumptions that we make about
the world, but that in fact only limit our knowledge.
For we do not really know what the world is at all. We each
create our own world through our sense perceptions and mind, with all its
conditioning, memories, expectations, reactions, and so forth. When we look at
a tree, we do not actually see a tree. We know only our own experience of it,
arising from the complex physical processes of sight and the equally complex
operations of our mind. A “tree” is a concept of our human consciousness. Blake
would have seen its spiritual form, perhaps as an angel; this is an
intermediate level, corresponding to the Buddhist sambhogakaya imagery. Behind
that is the ultimate level, the totally mysterious and ungraspable aspect of
openness, the inherent nonexistence of all that seems to exist.
Yet it is only through the senses that we can penetrate
beyond the surface appearance of things. The Buddha himself gave a meditation
on the senses to the wanderer Bahiya:
In the seen, there is only the seen,
In the heard, there is only the heard,
In the sensed, there is only the sensed,
In the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Meditating in this way, the Buddha said, Bahiya should
realize that “There is no thing here ... no thing there... nor in any place
between the two. This alone is the end of suffering.” There is no longer the
illusion of a grasping ego, nor any object that can be grasped. There is simply
pure perception itself—“the miracles of sight, sound, and mind” that are the
living expression of the primordial awakened state.
We can begin to move ourselves in this direction by focusing
on the simplicity and immediacy of our perceptions—just the bare experience of
sound, color, shape, smell, taste, and bodily sensation. Then we can notice the
ways in which we obscure this directness: how we immediately label every
sensation (how unsettling we find it to catch a glimpse of something and have
no idea what it is!); how we continually react with attachment, aversion, or
indifference to whatever occurs; how our expectations and preconceptions affect
what we perceive; and how habituation dulls our responses.
But since awakening is our natural and original state, ego
is not nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. our day-to-day experiences are
never entirely confused. Although we may perceive the world in a distorted
manner, even that distortion points to the reality that lies behind it. Trungpa
Rinpoche often spoke of “natural symbolism,” meaning that everything points to
this deeper truth of its own being. He said that the universe is always trying
to tell us something, but we do not listen. or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote
in a Christian context, but in words so beautiful that they surely transcend
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flare
out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
We all experience moments of heightened perception, when it
seems the universe has a message for us, one that is filled with profound but
inexpressible meaning. suddenness, the sense of being taken by surprise, before
ego has a chance to put up its barriers, is often important here. Any of the
five bodily senses can open this door for us. The sense of smell, in
particular, is well-known for arousing deep-buried memories, which, if we let
go and do not grasp at them, can open up the dimension of timelessness. such
experiences are often intensely emotional, and we should not forget that in
Buddhism the mind too is a sense-organ, whose objects are thoughts, feelings,
memories, and so forth. These too can act as symbols.
Through the gateway of our senses, we can enter a realm
infinitely wider and deeper, where the limitations of time and space dissolve
and the whole universe is present in one moment, in one single point.
Forms are released from the constraints of solidity;
floating in dimensionless space, they become transparent and interpenetrating.
Colors glow with a power that transforms our ordinary way of
seeing, or draw us into limitless depths where the sense of self and other
Music frees itself from the laws of time, suspended in a
beginningless and endless stillness, where every tone can sound simultaneously
Physical sensation escapes the limits of the personal, so
that one cannot tell where one’s own body ends and the body of another, or of
the world, begins. We feel that we have touched some essence of pure sensation
in itself. Because of our human form, they manifest to us as sound, color,
touch and so on, but they really lie beyond the characteristics of the
individual senses. The senses are its channels or its messengers, but they
cannot contain it.
Marcel Proust is the author who has perhaps written most
perceptively about this hidden dimension. In his great novel In Search of Lost
Time, all the senses appear in this way. The most famous example is the taste
of tea and the little madeleine cake, which eventually leads the narrator into
the lost world of his past. He is overwhelmed by the power and mystery of the
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched
my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the
extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded
my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And
at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters
innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which
love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather
This essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to
feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this
all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and
the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed,
be of the same nature.
In the final minutes of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner
hints at this state in his music and poetry (words that otherwise seem
incomprehensible) when Isolde perceives the essence of the dead Tristan as he
dissolves into the five elements. First she sees him become a body of light,
then she is submerged in waves of sound and billows of sweetly scented air. The
senses merge together as she surrenders herself to the waves of pure sensation.
she does not know whether to breathe them in, to listen to them, drink them, or
dive under them into “the billowing space of the world-breath.”
Isolde’s final words, “highest bliss” (in German, höchste
Lust), could even be seen as a translation of the sanskrit mahasukha, a
Vajrayana term referring to the “great bliss” of the awakened state. This has
nothing to do with our ordinary idea of happiness. It transcends joy and
sorrow, pleasure and pain. It is the ultimate form of responsiveness or
sensitivity, entirely free from bias toward attachment or aversion. every
sensation, every movement of thought and feeling, even those that we normally
consider painful, can produce mahasukha. To experience perceptions in this way
would be like making love to the world, which is indeed exactly what Wagner’s
Experiences such as these are glimpses of awakening, which
may reveal themselves to us unexpectedly at any time but which we are unable to
stabilize and sustain. Indeed, in our present state, we could not bear such
intensity for long. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: “If we had a keen
vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the
grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which
lies on the other side of silence.”
That which gives us the greatest joy can become the most
powerful means of letting go of grasping. This is why the intensity of sexual
pleasure, along with the surrender to the being of another that it requires, is
used in Vajrayana as a means to awakening. But at the same time, such
experiences can bind us more tightly to delusion, as we grasp at them ever more
desperately and try to repeat them, not caring who gets hurt in our search for
Nevertheless, our body, mind, and senses are the only means
we have to practice dharma, and to develop sacred vision. Insofar as mahasukha can
be experienced by beings in the six realms, it comes through the body and
senses. The Hevajra Tantra asks: “Without the body, how could there be bliss?
one could not speak of bliss.” Only the element of grasping needs to be
abandoned. Then (and only then!), as the Guhyasamaja Tantra says, “By devoting
oneself to the enjoyment of all the senses, one can quickly reach buddhahood.”
Though she’d planned
to become a nuclear
Fremantle fell in love
with India and began
studying Sanskrit. At
some point, Chögyam
appeared in her life, so she accidentally
became a Buddhist and has wondered ever
since what that really
means. While she notes
that some people think
of her as a translator of and writer on Buddhism, nowadays she
spends most of her
time trying to penetrate the mystery of
music and is continually amazed to find herself in the illusory role
of a dharma teacher.
What Is Your Body?
What Is Your Body?
It’s less than we think.
It’s far more than we know. It’s who we are but it’s not.
Contemplate the deeper reality of the body with Buddhist
teacher NORMAN FISCHER.
We think about our bodies all the time. How do they look?
What is their state of health? Are they aging? Are they sufficiently strong,
attractive, impressive? These questions churn out an almost endless stream of
thinking, feeling, and spending. Consider all the clothing, beauty products,
food products, accessories, books, equipment, therapists, health products, body
workers, and so on that make up such a huge portion of our economy.
Everything depends on the body. Without it, we are literally
nothing. Transcendent concepts such as consciousness, soul, higher self,
buddhanature—are these meaningful realities or merely hopeful words? And
whatever they are, how could they exist independent of a body?
The body matters. Yet what is it?
We take the body completely for granted, just as we do the
sky and the Earth. Yet the body, like them, is much more than we know. What we
think of as our body—what we feel, imagine, and dream about it, what we
unthinkingly assume it to be—isn’t really what the body is.
The body is more than
the body, and our feelings about it run deeper than we can know. The body as it
actually is is mysterious to us.
We assume we know what the body is. But even a few moments
of examination produces more fragmentation and uncertainty than clarity.
What self is there that is not the body? Yet where is the
self that possesses a body to call her own? Who, outside the body, utters the words
“my body”? Without a tongue, without a brain, I can’t even utter the words.
Ask yourself: from what perspective do you look at your
body? From inside, peering out from the body’s eyes? or from the outside, as if
you were looking at it in a mirror? But how is it possible for the body to be
external to itself? No, that can’t be. The body must be contained in the
experience of looking, so what you see and call “my body” must be something
Is the body the flow of its sensory experiences—seeing,
hearing, tasting, smelling, tactile sensation? A closer look reveals problems
here too. Where does a smell or a taste occur? In the nose, on the tongue? In
the things smelled or tasted? In the brain? In all at once?
And what about awareness, the insubstantial, apparently
nonphysical process through which anything we experience comes to us? Is
awareness inside the body or outside it? If it is inside, how can we say “my”
body? There is no one outside to say “mine.” But if awareness is outside the
body... no, that can’t be right!
Yet awareness is foundational to our experiencing ourself as
a person at all. Without awareness there would be no smelling or tasting—and no
body. There can be flesh without awareness, but a living human body, as we
understand it, is aware of being a body.
The Buddhist teachings on the workings of mind, called Abhidharma,
teach us that there isn’t a body per se, just a variety of momentary mental
events. some of them we think of as “physical,” even though they’re not. When I
feel an ache in my right leg, the Abhidharma analysis goes, this sensation is a
mental event produced in consciousness when an object I call a leg activates
inner sensors that awaken awareness in a particular way. Likewise, seeing,
hearing, and all sense perceptions are mental events stimulated by apparently
Contemporary cognitive science agrees. All experiences arise
when consciousness is activated by a sense organ meeting an internal or
external object. (Here, the mind itself functions like a sixth sense organ in
relation to emotion and thought.) We assume we are “experiencing” the object
that gave rise to the event in our consciousness. But the truth is that the
only thing we can verify is the experience itself, however we may be
misconstruing it. The idea of the body is like this. It is an idea based on
unwarranted assumptions about the coherence of our conscious experience.
In Buddhist analysis, then, there is no body. What there is
is form (rupa)—some kind of illusory arising that appears to be solid and that
forms a basis for experience we call physical. But in actual fact it’s just a
continuous flow of momentary conscious events.
Still, our idea that we have a body is powerful. Beyond our
misinterpretation of our personal experiences, the idea of the body is
reinforced by the social discourse we have all grown up with, which takes as an
obvious fact that we “have” bodies. our whole system of language is based on
the metaphor of the body (which is more than anything else a metaphor). Most of
our feelings and commonplace ideas about our lives are based on the metaphor of
the body, a thought so foundational to us we can’t even begin to know how to
On the night of his enlightenment, the story goes, the
Buddha was visited by the forces of Mara, the Evil One, who was determined to
stop the Buddha from achieving awakening. Most of Mara’s devastating and
spectacular display of hopes and fears had to do with the body, either sensual
allurements or threats of bodily harm. Declaring that the many threatening
minions arrayed behind him were his army, Mara defiantly called out, “Where is
your army, oh Buddha?” In response the Buddha touched the ground and said, “The
Earth is my witness and support.”
In touching the Earth, the Buddha was not only calling on
the Earth goddess to be his protector. He was saying, the Earth is my body. My
body expresses Earth, is produced and supported by Earth, is made exclusively
of Earth elements. Nothing on Earth, no matter how frightening, can threaten
this indestructible Earth body. Even if it is broken up into a million pieces
it remains, going home to its Mother who gave birth to it, who embraces it now
and always will embrace it.
With this gesture of truth, belonging, and ultimate
invulnerability, born of surrender to and identity with the Earth, Buddha
expressed his absolute fearlessness, and in doing so defeated Mara. After this,
his enlightenment unfolded.
And this is exactly true of all of us. Our bodies too are
the Earth. They rise up from her, and are nurtured, fed, and illuminated by
her. our bodies are in constant touch with Earth, and return to Earth, from
which they have never parted.
Our human bodies are expressions of the Earth’s creative
force. Everything that makes human life—breathing, eating, elimination,
perception, feeling, language—occurs only in concert with Earth. no thought
would ever take place without the prior existence of Earth. No thought would be
thinkable without air, water, fire, space, dirt. Even our most abstract ideas,
like freedom, justice, and happiness, are nothing more or less than Earth’s
urge, the thought of wind, sky, water, and light. Nothing we think or do could
ever be more profound or true than these natural elements, which are literally
nothing more or less than our own bodies.
Mahayana Buddhism was a philosophical and emotional reaction
to Buddhism’s earlier, more sober teachings, which often characterized the body
as repulsive and a source of attachment. In Mahayana thought, the body as such
is asserted and celebrated. It is transfigured, through art and faith, into the
bodhisattva body, the buddha body, the perfect eternal beautiful body hidden in
the earthly body of impermanence and decay.
The Buddha of the Mahayana sutras has three bodies: the dharmakaya,
or truth body, measureless, all-encompassing and perfect, beyond perception and
concept; the sambhogakaya, or enjoyment body, the purified perceived body of
perfect meditation and teaching; and finally the nirmanakaya, the transient
historical body that appears in our world for the purpose of teaching worldly
beings. In Zen teaching, it is axiomatic that the ordinary human body that can
be accessed in meditation practice is itself beyond the human body as normally
conceived. The “True Body,” as Dogen says, “is far beyond the world’s dusts.”
or, as Hakuin puts it in his Song of Zazen, “This very body is the Body of
The actual biological human body really is (as we discover
more and more every day) a marvelous and endlessly complex occurrence. Three
hundred years of medical science has still only scratched the surface of its
immense functioning. The brain, for instance: how does it regulate everything
so perfectly, adjusting to any and all sorts of contingencies, producing
thoughts, literary works, skyscrapers, cities, social systems, and so on? The
heart, the lungs. Cells, DNA. The enormous knowledge and complex communication
and movement that seems to occur effortlessly within every human body: walking,
running, jumping, shouting, singing, playing the piano. There are 25,000 miles
of blood vessels in the human body. Stretched out end to end they’d reach the
moon. Blood flows through them ceaselessly, nurturing every organ in the body. The actual functioning human body
is a marvel. No one manufactured it. No patents exist for it. No one knows
where it comes from or exactly how it is produced. And the consciousness
associated with it, the consciousness capable of knowing itself? About this we
haven’t a clue.
In the body scan meditation made popular in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction meditation course, practitioners lie on the
floor while an instructor walks them through forty-five minutes of detailed
mindfulness exercises designed to bring awareness to various parts of the body,
from head to toe. Simply applying awareness to the body in detail has a healing
effect. No one knows why.
Zen meditation, especially as practiced in the Soto school,
is a body practice, a process of paying attention to the body’s detail. When
you are taught Zen meditation, the lesson typically begins with instruction
about how to walk into the hall to take your seat: you are to walk carefully,
paying attention to each footfall, with your hands in a particular position,
your body erect. You are then instructed to bow carefully to the meditation
cushion (the form for bowing is also detailed for you), sit down, and arrange
your posture carefully. Your spine should be erect, your chin tucked in, your
hands folded delicately into a mudra—thumb tips just touching, palms curved.
Breath should be smooth, natural, and deep in the belly.
All this physical detail is the focus for the sitting—not a
teaching or a spiritual theme. Simply the experience of body itself is the
focus of meditation. When the awareness wanders, as it will, this is fine as
long as the practitioner is fully committed to coming back to the feeling of
the body sitting and the breath moving. As with the body scan, there is an
uncanny magic in this simple practice. Returning awareness to the body and the
breath over and over again—over the course of one sitting, or many sittings,
for years, decades, a lifetime—interrupts the usual flow of thinking profoundly
based on the assumption of a discrete self inhabiting a unitary body. Once that
flow is interrupted, and awareness is returned to the flow of lived experience
in the present moment of being alive (a moment in which everything arises and
disappears at once and seems to be both there and not there), life feels
different. The body no longer appears to be the body per se. Somehow, within
awareness of the process of living, the body becomes more than it is.It becomes
identical with the awareness, and there isn’t a beginning or an end to it.
After sitting practice, normal daily life in the body
returns. But there’s a lightness and ease that comes with the feeling of having
been relieved, at least temporarily, of the confinement of your small life
lived in a vulnerable body. You might feel “calmer,” but the feeling is more
than calm. It’s the feeling of reality—of having left, for at least a little
while, the stressful unreality of daily living and entering a larger space.
This is calming. And if you practice for a lifetime, this temporary relief
becomes more than temporary. The sense that the body is more than the body, and
that your life is more than your life, becomes a conviction and a calm
confidence in the body itself, and therefore also in the mind.
One of the deepest themes in Western philosophy, beginning
with Plato, is that the world of appearance isn’t real. So the job of the
intellect, its spiritual assignment, was to carry us beyond this corrupt physical
world to a perfected world of nonmaterial form, purely mental or spiritual.
This was seen as the task of philosophy and religion until the twentieth
century, when phenomenology, perhaps in part under the influence of Buddhism,
which never did have a mind/body split, began to break it down. In our Earth-
threatened time, when we must think and care about the future well-being of the
planet, it is fitting that we begin to learn and enact the truth that has
always been engraved on our very skins: that body, mind, spirit, and Earth are
one expression, one concern, and one delight.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Zen teacher in the lineage of
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation.
His new book is Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the
Practice of Lojong.
Photo: Henry Busby
For Love of Nature: Q&A with Jane Goodall
For Love of Nature
Wanting to know where eggs came from, the five-year-old
Jane Goodall ensconced herself for hours in a henhouse, oblivious to the fact
that her family was worriedly looking for her. But the little girl didn’t get
scolded when she got home. Her mother saw how excited she was, so she simply
listened to the details of the discovery.
The years passed, and Goodall’s passion and patience for
observing wildlife only grew. In 1960, she began her study of chimpanzees and
soon rocked the scientific community with what she learned: chimpanzees make
and use tools. Prior to this, it was believed only humans had this skill. On
hearing of Goodall’s observation, the anthropologist and paleontologist Louis
S.B. Leakey famously said: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept
chimpanzees as humans.” Goodall went on to make further groundbreaking
discoveries that helped solidify the evolutionary link between chimpanzees and
Today Goodall is seventy-nine and travels 300 days a year in
order to spread the word on environmental issues. I spoke to her via phone when
she was spending a rare day at her home in the United Kingdom. She talked about
the compassion of animals, the power of trees, and what we can all do to effect
positive change in the world.
For decades, you’ve championed wildlife and the environment.
How do you maintain hope?
My reason for hope is—first of all—my youth program, Roots
and Shoots. This is the way I explain why it’s called that: children are like
plants. They start out as a tiny seed. Then wee roots and shoots appear.
They’re weak at first, but the power within the seed is so magical that the
little roots reach water and the little shoots reach the sun. Eventually, they
can push rocks aside and work through cracks in a brick wall. They can even
knock a wall down. The rocks and the walls are the problems we’ve inflicted on
the planet—environmental and social—but roots and shoots surround the world.
Plants can change the world; they can undo a spot of the damage we’ve created.
And young people are definitely going to change the world. As I travel around,
I meet the youth. They’re filled with hope and enthusiasm and innovative ideas,
and that’s very inspiring. Roots and Shoots is now in 132 countries.
Secondly, my reason for hope is the resilience of nature.
The places that we’ve destroyed can become beautiful again. And then there’s
the human brain, which is utterly amazing. I think of the scientists who
drilled down into the permafrost and brought up the remains of an Ice Age
squirrel’s nest. In the plant material, they found three living cells and from
those living cells they managed to recreate the plant, which was a meadow’s
wheat. It’s 32,000 years old, but it’s now growing and seeding and reproducing.
That’s the resilience of nature, the incredible human brain, and the
indomitable human spirit. Sometimes people say that something won’t work, but
there are other people—like the scientists who recreated this Ice Age plant—who
don’t give up. They overcome tremendous obstacles, and that’s very inspiring.
It gives me hope.
in your book, Seeds of Hope, you talk about the
reverence people tend to feel when they’re with trees. Why do you think trees
engender these feelings?
They engender these feelings for me because—rooted in the
ground—they can be so strong. They can withstand wind. They even withstand fire
sometimes. It’s difficult for me to stand by a tree with my hand on its bark
and not feel that it has a spiritual value as well as a materialistic one.
There is the whole symbolism of the roots going into the ground and finding water
deep, deep down, and the leaves reaching up. There’s the fact that they’re
purifying our air and removing the Co2.
You use the word spiritual. How would you define
It’s the opposite of being materialistic. Some people
believe that everything is just there for its material value, or just as a
thing. And then other people believe there’s something more than that, which I
happen to believe. I don’t know if I can define spirituality—I’m not sure anybody
really has—but it’s something that you either feel or you don’t. It’s an
awareness of life that’s more than just the physical presence.
In your work as a primatologist and an ethologist, what
anecdotal evidence have you discovered that demonstrates animals can feel
compassion or love?
I’ll give you one story. There was an infant chimpanzee
named Mel. He was three and should still have been riding on his mother’s back,
sleeping with her at night, and suckling. but his mother died. If he’d had an
older brother or sister, he would have been adopted by that individual, but he
didn’t, so he was on his own and we thought he’d die. Then he was adopted by
Spindle, an unrelated male who was twelve, which is about like being a fifteen-
or sixteen-year-old human. Spindle let little Mel ride on his back. If it was
cold or Mel was frightened, he let him cling to his belly as a mother would. If
Mel crept up to his nest at night and made whimpering sounds, Spindle reached
out and drew him in. They slept curled up together. When Mel begged, whimpering
with his hand out, Spindle would share his food. And most dramatic of all,
Spindle protected Mel. Adolescent males tend to be scapegoats. If one male is
being dominated by another, he takes it out on somebody lower ranking, so the
adolescents keep out of the way in times of social excitement. And the mother’s
job is to keep her infant away, but of course, Little Mel didn’t have a mother,
so Spindle took that job on, even though it meant that he himself often got
bashed by the adult male. There is no question that Spindle saved Mel’s life.
What do you see as the most important thing individuals can
do to effect positive change for the environment?
The most important thing we can do is remember that every
single day every single one of us makes a difference. And we all can choose the
kind of difference we’re going to make. It does require becoming a little aware
about what we buy. Where does it come from? how was it grown? Did it involve
the use of child slave labor or chemical pesticides? And then there’s all the
little ways in which you interact with the environment. Do you bother to help a
sick dog? Do you respond to appeals for help when somebody is in trouble?
The big problem today is that so many people feel
insignificant. They feel that the problems facing the world are so huge that
there’s nothing they can do, so they do nothing. And as an individual maybe
there really isn’t that much, but when you get thousands, and then millions, of
individuals all doing the best they can every day for the environment and for
other beings, then you get huge change.
Can you give Shambhala Sun readers some concrete examples of
taking small steps to effect change?
There’s one man who moved to Japan, where he likes to walk
in the woods. but sometimes there are violent storms and these little tiny tree
orchids get blown down. Wanting to save them, he began taking the blown-down
orchids home and looking after them. Now when the season is right, he gets as
far up a tree as he can and staples them there with a stapler and they grow
back. It’s a simple thing, but it’s rather charming.
Another example, I went into a radio station in Canada and
in the studio waiting room I saw there were about six potted plants dotted
around. They were all dying because they hadn’t been watered. So I made a huge
thing about it. Then when I went back a year later, all the plants were very
healthy. So little things like that make a difference. Just never blame
somebody. I mean, I didn’t say to the people at the radio station, “Who’s
responsible for this monstrous behavior toward the plants?” I just said, “Oh, these
poor little plants. Please can you find me some water? I want to look after
them.” It’s all a question of how you go about trying to create change.
Photo: Michael Neugebauer
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