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In the Zone Print

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 your life.

—Melvin McLeod is editor-in-chief of the Shambhala Sun.  

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, Pennsylvania.

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 begin.

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.

From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo: Heidi Long

Flesh Sex Desire Print

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 a threesome.

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.

From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Through the Gateway of the Senses (July 2013) Print

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 cavern.”

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 which:

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 sunrise.

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 religious differences:

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 becomes lost.

Music frees itself from the laws of time, suspended in a beginningless and endless stillness, where every tone can sound simultaneously yet individually.

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 experience:

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 music suggests.

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 satisfaction.

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 physicist, Francesca Fremantle fell in love with India and began studying Sanskrit. At some point, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche 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.

From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

What Is Your Body? Print

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 else.

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 physical objects.

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 question it.

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 Buddha.”

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.

From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo: Henry Busby

For Love of Nature: Q&A with Jane Goodall Print

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 humans.

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 spirituality?

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.   

From the July 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo: Michael Neugebauer

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