Posts Tagged ‘jack kornfield’

Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years?

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism regards dignity as an innate and defining quality of human beings. It is the birthright of every living person. In his essay “Giving Dignity to Life,” the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it this way:

For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings . . . stems . . . from the exalted place of human beings in the broad expanse of sentient existence. . . . What makes human life so special is that human beings have a capacity for moral choice that is not shared by other types of beings.

As Bhikkhu Bodhi goes on to say, human dignity is both an inborn potential in human beings and a quality to be cultivated through disciplined effort. Through daily meditative practice and the exercise of our unique capacity for moral choice, we can “actualize our potential for dignity.”*

In Buddhist meditation, as in other Eastern traditions, mind and body are seen as inextricable. And in practice, the cultivation of dignity can begin with moment-by-moment awareness of the body, including its positions, movements, and anatomical parts. Significantly, the four basic positions of the body–sitting, standing, walking, and lying down–are known in Buddhist teachings as the Four Dignities. And in systematic practice, each of the Four Dignities becomes an object of mindful awareness. When Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, advises practitioners to “sit in a way that embodies dignity,” he is echoing the Buddhist origins of his secular program. Similar admonitions accompany the practice of walking meditation, as when Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to “walk like a free person,” and Jack Kornfield advises us to walk slowly and with regal dignity, as if we were royalty out for stroll.

Beyond this attention to posture and movement, the quality of dignity can be cultivated through silent contemplation. We can become what we contemplate. Of the many objects of contemplation available to the practitioner, two are of particular importance.

The first of these is the contemplation of impermanence, not as an abstract concept but as an immediate reality. It is one thing to affirm the proposition that “everything changes.” It’s quite another to accept the reality of unrelenting change, especially when a loved one is involved, and the change is catastrophic. Yet, if we can truly accept the darker side of impermanence, our acceptance can lend dignity to our lives.  Sakyong Mipham, a teacher in the Tibetan tradition, explains:

No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. It means we have more freedom and appreciation, because we can relax into the ebb and flow of life. Understanding the meaning of impermanence makes us less desperate people. It gives us dignity.**

As Mipham’s observation suggests, there is a direct connection between awareness of impermanence and the realization of personal dignity. The one engenders the other.

And just as a deep acceptance of impermanence can foster dignity of heart and mind, so can the cultivation of the mental state known as upeksha, or equanimity. The most exalted of the “Four Immeasurable Minds,” equanimity might be defined, in simplest terms, as a quality of balanced awareness when encountering life’s vicissitudes. Not to be confused with indifference, the mind of equanimity is engaged, warmly and compassionately, with whatever occurs, but it is not overwhelmed. For Westerners who might wish to contemplate an image of equanimity, I would suggest Robert Frost’s sonnet “The Silken Tent,” in which Frost likens his wife to a silken tent “loosely bound / By countless ties of love and thought” and supported by a “central cedar pole.” “Strictly held” by none of her obligations, she “gently sways at ease.” Frost originally titled the poem “In Praise of Her Poise.”

With stories of warring states and terrorist atrocities dominating the news cycle, it often seems that dignity is in short supply. Indeed, the concept of human dignity is most often invoked in the context of human rights–and gross violations thereof. But in our everyday lives, as in our interactions with others, dignity is not only a possibility but a living presence, however neglected or obscured. Like a secluded garden in a noisy, violent city, it has only to be tended.

* Bhikkhu Bodhi, “Giving Dignity to Life,” Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010.

** Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally (Riverhead, 2003), 150.

Photo: Fragrance Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, by Daderot.

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William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

William Hogarth, The Enraged Musician

According to a recent report on the NBC Nightly News, American police have been running stop signs and causing serious accidents, so distracted have they become by the computers in their cars. To address the problem, the Fort Wayne, Indiana police department has installed devices that freeze the computer’s keys whenever the patrol car’s speed exceeds fifteen miles per hour.

This situation may be uniquely ironic, but the underlying problem is hardly peculiar to the police. On the contrary, in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, distraction has become endemic. With so many objects summoning our attention, where shall we direct it? On what objects should we place our minds? (more…)

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77. Near and far

Twenty-five years ago, Markus Koch was a defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. During his third season, he broke his lumbar vertebrae, but he continued to play for three more years. Now in his late forties, he suffers from depression, and when he stands for extended periods of time, his legs go numb.

Recently, Markus Koch reflected on the gap between football fans watching the game at home and the physical experience of the players on the field. To close that gap, he facetiously suggested, players might be fitted with a mouth guard that “registers the impact they’re getting on the field, and at certain g-forces the helmet shell would crack and explode and leak gray matter and blood.” Or, conversely, the fan might be fitted with an adjustable pneumatic suit, which would be “telemetrically linked to a player on the field.” In that way the fan could “experience what the player is going through.” (more…)

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If you have looked hard at a single object, you may have found that an image of the object lingers even after you’ve looked away.

Such is my experience every morning, when I drink green tea from a small porcelain cup. Looking down, I see the cup’s white rim, which forms a perfect circle. Looking up, I see that same circle, now in black, projected against the bamboo rug.  In its main features the image resembles the enso, or Zen circle–a symbol of enlightenment and absolute reality.

Not all images are so benign, nor is their duration so brief. The poet Ezra Pound famously defined the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” And if that image is laden with emotional content, it may be virtually ineradicable. In her poem “Quai d’ Orleans,” Elizabeth Bishop observes barges on the river Seine, comparing their wakes to giant oak leaves, which extinguish themselves on the sides of the quay. Deepening her analogy, Bishop contrasts the disappearance of the wakes with the endurance of human memories, especially memories of loss. “If what we see could forget us half as easily,” she reflects, “as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils.”*

Zen meditation is essentially a process of stopping and looking. Amidst the multiple distractions of everyday life, the images in our psyches may well escape notice, but when we sit still, follow our breathing, and have a look at our interior lives, those images often return with a vengeance, bearing their cargo of memories and associations. How, if at all, should we respond to them? What, if anything, should we do?

Perhaps the most reflexive response is to pursue the image: to dwell in the past. Encountering the image of a barge, for example, I might recall the scenes of my childhood, when I sat for hours on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching the barges pass. Pushed by powerful “towboats,” those massive platforms transported steel, coal, and other freight north toward Lock and Dam 13. Viewed from a distance, the barges appeared to be moving slowly, as they rounded the bend and gradually disappeared. But in fact they were moving at a rapid, dangerous clip, and boaters were well advised to stay out of their way. Remembering their bulk and speed, I recall that one of my schoolmates, a third grader named Michael Stone, drowned one night beneath a barge. A few days earlier, I had wrestled with him on the playground.

Such memories haunt us, and it is tempting to pursue them. But to do so is not the way of Zen meditation, whose aim is situate our minds and hearts, vividly and continuously, in the reality of the present moment. The Bhaddekaratta Sutta (Sutra on the Better Way of Living Alone), a guiding text for Zen practitioners, states this aim directly:

Do not pursue the past.

Do not lose yourself in the future.

The past no longer is.

The future has not yet come.

Looking deeply at life as it is

in the very here and now,

the practitioner dwells

in stability and freedom.

The sutra goes on to explain what is meant by “pursuing the past”:

When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.

By contrast, when a person thinks about those same things but his mind is neither “enslaved by nor attached” to them, then that person is not “pursuing the past.”**

To think about the past without being enslaved by it is a formidable challenge, but there are ways of meeting that challenge. Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and renowned Vipassana teacher, advises us to heal the wounds in our psyches by bringing meditative awareness—“that which knows”—to our painful memories. Similarly, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to review the past and “observe it deeply” while “standing firmly in the present.” In that way our destructive memories can be transformed into something constructive. In either case, the method is first to ground ourselves in the present, and second, to cultivate a generous, clear awareness, in which images from the past, however troubling or enticing, arrive and last for a while but do not become objects of obsessive thought. Like barges observed from a river bank, they interest but do not overwhelm us.


* Elizabeth Bishop, “Quai d’ Orleans,” The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1984), 28.

**Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment (Parallax, 1990), 6.

Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi.

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