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Posts Tagged ‘zen meditation’

Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct.

In Zen practice, ethical behavior is inextricable from present awareness. Each supports the other. Correspondingly, the rakusu is not only a reminder of the precepts but also a symbol of a quality of mind, namely that of continuous, wholehearted mindfulness. In its secular applications, mindfulness is sometimes equated with heightened sensory awareness–being fully present for the present moment. But in its deeper, monastic context, the practice of mindfulness also embodies a moral  dimension. Truly to be mindful is to remember the precepts and one’s best intentions in every thought, word, and deed. By so doing, we live in harmony with things as they are, and we avoid doing harm to others and ourselves.

In his book Training in Compassion, the Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer explains concretely how training in mindfulness can forestall harmful behavior. Focusing on our “default habits,” those “unsuccessful yet compelling attitudes, thoughts, and actions that seem to keep coming back, over and over again, despite our best intentions,” Fischer identifies three “difficulties” associated with changing destructive habits of mind.

The first difficulty is to recognize the habitual impulse whenever it arises. The second is to let go of the mental habit, however compelling or gratifying it might be. And the third is to let go of the habit yet again, the next time it arises. This can be especially difficult because of the “habit energy” that has driven the thought or attitude or action, perhaps for a lifetime.

But how, exactly, is one to “let go” of ingrained patterns of thought and action? Broadly speaking, Fischer recommends two methods, the first to be employed during sitting meditation and the second to practice in everyday life. The first consists of recognizing unwholesome states of mind arising, and upon doing so, returning to “the feeling of the breath and body.” By practicing in this way, we become aware of such states as anger, fear, and jealousy at their moment of inception. By returning to the breath and body, we decline to nourish those unwholesome states.

The second method consists of this “three-step program”:

Step 1: notice when habitual negative thinking arises. Step 2: stop. Literally stop for a moment: if you are walking, stop walking; if you are thinking, stop thinking. Step 3: take a breath. Return to awareness with that breath. This simple three-step practice is surprisingly powerful.

In presenting this practice as a three-part formula, Fischer does not minimize its complexities. On the contrary, he acknowledges that “mostly the training will proceed from failure to failure.” But by stopping, taking a breath, and “then with a breath returning to positive intentions,”* the practitioner can gradually replace harmful habits of mind with beneficial ones, while also gaining strength in the practice.

“Let’s not go there,” my wife sometimes cautions, when our conversations drift toward some painful episode from the past, or I express a negative, all-too-familiar view. Like Johann’s broadfall trousers, her admonition reminds me to be aware of persistent, corrosive habits of thought and feeling, even as they are arising. Whether I or anyone can internalize that external voice, however, and heed it when appropriate, is quite another matter. An aspiration worthy of concerted effort, it is also a formidable challenge of meditative practice.

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* James Silas Rogers, Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2014), 57.

* Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (Shambhala, 2013),       .

Photo by Gadjoboy

 

 

 

 

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             Hotei    Kano Takanobu, 1616

Hotei
Kano Takanobu, 1616

Last month my infant granddaughter Allegra uttered her first belly laugh. At the time she was sitting upright in her father’s lap, firmly supported by his two strong hands. Meanwhile my wife, Robin, was exuberantly entertaining Allegra, smiling broadly, blowing raspberries on her belly, and singing “I’m going to get you” as she tickled her toes. Without warning, up when Allegra’s arms, as though she were conducting an orchestra, and from her whole little being came gleeful, protracted laughter.

Luckily I had my camera handy, and I was able to capture the moment. When I later sent the photo to a few friends, one described Allegra as a laughing Buddha. Another expressed the wish that Allegra might keep laughing all her life. (more…)

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Thomas Brackett Reed       January 2, 1894

Thomas Brackett Reed
January 2, 1894

“I would rather be right than president,” declared William McKendree Springer, Democrat from Illinois, on the floor of the House.

“The gentleman needn’t worry,” replied Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902), Republican from Maine and Speaker of the House. “He will never be either.”

That famous exchange took place in the late nineteenth century, but the sentiment expressed by Congressman Springer may well be timeless in human affairs. Whether the venue be public or domestic, the context political or personal, many of us attach inordinate value to being right. We would rather be right than president–or fair, or peaceful, or humane. (more…)

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Toward the end of the February 22 Republican primary debate, John King asked the candidates to define themselves in a single word. “Consistent,” replied Representative Ron Paul. In the ensuing commentaries, Dr. Paul’s response met with wide approval, even by those not partial to his views. “I’ll give him that,” Jon Stewart wryly remarked.

Ron Paul’s response stood out from the others, not only because it came across as honest and accurate but also because it pointed toward his history rather than his temperament. Where the others laid claim to laudable traits of character—courage, resolution, cheerfulness—Ron Paul alluded to his public record. By so doing, he appealed to conventional wisdom, which holds that a candidate may best be judged by what he or she has said and done. “Ask me,” wrote the American poet William Stafford, “if what I have done is my life.” Under most circumstances, the answer would probably be yes. And should the next question be, “Who am I?” the standard of judgment might well be the same. The self exists in time, and a person may best be judged by examining his or her background, actions, and abiding traits of character. By such means we hire an employee or choose a doctor or pick a president. (more…)

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In his memoir “Something to Write Home About” the poet Seamus Heaney recalls an experience from his rural childhood in Northern Ireland. Near his parents’ farm in Co. Derry, there was a ford in the River Moyola. A trail of stepping stones led from one bank to the other. Venturing into the river, “from one stepping stone to the next,” he felt a sense of security, mixed with a sense of daring:

Suddenly you were on your own. You were giddy and rooted to the spot at one and the same time. Your body stood stock still, like a milestone or a boundary mark, but your head would be light and swimming from the rush of the river at your feet and the big stately movement of the clouds in the sky above your head.*

Looking back at this experience, Heaney sees it as a metaphor for the capacity of human beings “to be attracted at one and the same time to the security of what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us”. For the poet Heaney, the experience is also a metaphor for a good poem, which “allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously.”

Seamus Heaney is not a Zen practitioner, though his poems often have a contemplative character. But his experience of standing “stock still” in the middle of a river, with the current flowing past him and the clouds moving above his head, has something in common with the practice of Zen meditation.

In practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we assume a posture that resembles a pyramid. Using the meditation cushion as a wedge, we keep our knees on the mat below, forming a triangle with our sitting bones. Leaning forward, then straightening up, we allow the spine to assume its natural curvature, erect but resilient. Exhaling fully in this position, we let our weight and our awareness drop into the lower abdomen. As we settle into stillness, we feel aligned and firmly grounded. To heighten our awareness of our stable posture, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid”.

Yet if the posture of meditation engenders feelings of solidity, it also fosters openness to experience. Because we are sitting still, we become more sensitive to movement within and around us, be it the flow of breath or the buzz of a fly at the window. Because our posture promotes relaxed alertness, we can observe the thoughts that cross our minds, as though they were clouds in the sky. And because we are resting in awareness, we can recognize those mental habits—those recurrent memories, fantasies, and expectations—that leave little room for anything more productive. Merely by bringing awareness to that mental traffic, we may cause it to diminish, clearing a space for creative thought.

In December, 1995, Seamus Heaney traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In “Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Lecture, he reflected on his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination”. For the meditative practitioner, whose aim is the deepening of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, the journey may be very different, but the underlying pattern is much the same. Successive acts of attention, made possible by the practitioner’s stable base, open the ego-centered self to a more expansive reality, be it the wideness of language or the ocean of human suffering. On the long path toward compassionate understanding, each moment fully realized becomes a stepping stone, each step a fresh arrival.

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*Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers (Faber, 2002), 48. For the full text of “Crediting Poetry” see http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html

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