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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

76. Ordinary mind

It’s winter in Western New York, and this morning our driveway is filled with new-fallen snow. As I look out at that white expanse, I am reminded of a poem by Billy Collins, poet of American domestic life.

Entitled “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” Collins’ poem depicts two men at work in a snow-filled driveway. One is the narrator, who might be Everyman—or at least every man who owns a home and lives in a northern climate. The other is the Buddha, who, as the narrator observes, is out of his customary habitat:

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok

you would never see him doing such a thing,

tossing the dry snow over the mountain

of his bare, round shoulder,

his hair tied in a knot,

a model of concentration.

– – –

Even the season is wrong for him.

In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?

Is this not implied by his serene expression,

that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

Unlikely workmates, one might say. And though the two are toiling harmoniously together, they appear to have little in common. With every heave of snow, the narrator notes, they become “lost to each other / in these sudden clouds of [their] own making, / these fountain-bursts of snow.”  And even when they are visible to each other, their ways of working set them apart. (more…)

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Toward the end of Richard Russo’s novel Bridge of Sighs, a middle-aged widow named Tessa Lynch recalls a wild ride on the back of a motorcycle. A teenager at the time, Tessa defied her parents by secretly consorting with Declan, a reckless, dangerous man, recently discharged from the army, who rode an Indian motorcycle. When  Declan invited Tessa to ride with him, she eagerly accepted. And when he opened the throttle she showed no fear. In Declan’s eyes she was “a natural the way she rode . . . leaning into the curves instead of away, as you would if you were afraid.”*

In Russo’s novel, the act of leaning into the curves becomes a metaphor for a bold and open attitude toward life. In similar fashion, the meditation teacher Pema Chodron employs the metaphor of leaning-in to illustrate a way of dealing with fear, anger, and other destructive states of mind. Enlisting the Tibetan concept of shenpa, which she translates as “hooked,” Chodron advocates a three-step method, the first step being acknowledgment that one has been “hooked” by negative feeling. The second step is to “lean into” that feeling:

Step Two. Pause, take three conscious breaths, and lean in. Lean in to the energy. Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. Touch it. Smell it. Get curious about it. How does it feel in your body? What thoughts does it give birth to? Become very intimate with the itch and urge of shenpa and keep breathing. Part of this step is learning not to be seduced by the momentum of shenpa. Like Ulysses, we can find our way to hear the call of the sirens without being seduced. It’s a process of staying awake and compassionate, interrupting the momentum, and refraining from causing harm. Just do not speak, do not act, and feel the energy. Be one with your own energy, one with the ebb and flow of life. Rather than rejecting the energy, embrace it. This leaning in is very open, very curious and intelligent.**

Having learned to “lean in,” to “embrace the restless energy,” we can proceed to the third step, which is to “relax and move on.”

As Chodron readily acknowledges, leaning into uncomfortable emotions is far from easy. It takes awareness, and it also takes practice. If, for example, someone unjustly accuses us, our habitual response may be to counterattack—or flee the scene entirely. Rather than remain “awake and compassionate,” we are more likely to blame the accuser and retreat into a “storyline,” in which others appear as vicious tormentors and we ourselves as virtuous victims. And what we resist or attempt to elude is not only the object of our fear or anger; it is also those emotional states themselves. Rather than encounter and attempt to transform their negative energies, we escape into self-exonerating fantasies. Hooked on shenpa, we inflict suffering on ourselves and others, while also putting distance between our abstract thoughts and our ever-changing feelings. We lean away from the reality of our lives.

Yet it is possible to do otherwise. Merely by stopping, checking in with ourselves, and bringing awareness to our mental states, we can begin to “unhook” ourselves from destructive, habitual responses. And over time the practice of mindfulness can also incline our minds toward direct contact with our inner and external lives. Reflecting on recent studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Dr. Daniel Siegel, a physician and meditative practitioner, offers this perspective:

One of the elements of research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction that I find most impressive is the work that Richie Davidson and Jon [Kabat-Zinn] have done showing that even after one eight-week MBSR course, a “left-shift” has been noted, in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state,” in which we move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Such an approach can be seen as the neural basis for resilience. With a mindful way of being, you’ve developed your skill to stay present for what you might otherwise try to escape. From that point of view, diagnosis would be enhanced, because denial would be overcome. If you think about it, this is the mind doing what is most helpful for mind and body. Ignoring is maladaptive.***

Paradoxically, it takes courage to face one’s fear. For many of us, the “approach state” does not come naturally, and leaning into the curves is an acquired skill. But the New Year has arrived, and a resolution to lean into our experience, however pleasant or unpleasant, delectable or undesirable, is well worth considering. As New Year’s resolutions go, it is difficult to think of one more capable of transforming fear into fearlessness, anger into compassion, and habitual denial into wisdom.

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*Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007), 475.

**Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (Shambhala, 2009), 40.

***”The Healing Power of Mindfulness,” Shambhala Sun (January, 2011), 49.

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“Calm the heart’s dark waters,” advised the third-century Chinese poet Lu Chi. “Collect from deep thoughts the proper names for things.”

I was reminded of Lu Chi’s admonition the other day, when I came upon a poem by the Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson (b. 1927). Entitled “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” the poem concerns the children of unwed mothers.  Embedding Irish-Gaelic phrases within his English text, Hutchinson presents two, very different ways of describing such children. In so doing, he also presents two contrasting perspectives on human frailty.

“She fell asleep in the sun,” explains the narrator of the poem, is an Irish way of saying that a young woman got pregnant unintentionally. “That’s what they used to say,” the narrator recalls, “in South Fermanagh / of a girl who gave birth / unwed.” Shifting the scene to County Kerry, the narrator invokes a phrase used in that part of the country: “leanbh on ngrein: / a child from the sun.” As a third example, he describes another “child from the sun”: a “little lad running round a farmyard” in North Tipperary. Watching the child, his “granda” remarks that the boy is “garsuinin beag mishtake.” That phrase may be translated as “the little lad’s a mistake” or “the lad’s a little mistake.”

Taken together, the Irish phrases in Hutchinson’s poem express an attitude of realism, acceptance, and forgiveness. In subsequent stanzas, the narrator praises that attitude—and wonders whether it can survive in modern times:

A lyrical ancient kindness

that could with Christ accord.

Can it outlive technolatry?

or churches?


Not to mention that long, leadranach,

latinate, legal, ugly

twelve-letter name not

worthy to be called a name,

that murderous obscenity—to call


any child ever born

that excuse for a name

could quench the sun for ever.*

Pairing a narrow morality, as preached in certain churches, with the worship of technology, these lines inquire whether the Christ-like kindness of the older culture can endure in twentieth-century Ireland. Embodied in the phrases of an endangered language, that kindness seems itself endangered, a mode of feeling that may soon be leaving the world.

Among the forces eroding that mode of feeling, Hutchinson cites a  “legal, ugly, / twelve-letter name.”  As the reader may readily infer, that unspoken, Latinate name is illegitimate. In contrast to the vivid, concrete Irish phrases, the abstract English word conveys a tedious (leadranach), judgmental attitude toward the mother’s “mistake” and the child who must bear the consequences of her actions. Rather than welcome the child into the human family, the English word defines him as an outcast, murdering his spirit and quenching the life-giving sun.

Of the two perspectives in his poem, Hutchinson clearly favors the first. Adopting that perspective, we might empathize with the plight of mother and child. We might look into the conditions that brought her son into being and try to imagine the life ahead of him. And we might also admit that at times we have done foolish, irresponsible things ourselves. Adopting the second perspective, however, we might observe that the child is indeed illegitimate, as judged by accepted norms, and that to call him a child from the sun is to soften a social reality, poeticize a legal fact, and implicitly condone unwed motherhood. In passing we might note that calling a child a “mistake” may be only a little less damaging than calling him illegitimate.

One of the virtues of meditative practice, Zen included, is that it allows us the space and freedom to examine our responses to human frailty, whether judgmental or compassionate or somewhere in between, before taking action or saying a word. In contemporary American culture, the judgmental response has become reflexive, even in putatively “spiritual” circles. But a compassionate response is also possible, and the mind of compassion is often more penetrating than that of moral judgment, which tends to distance us from the conditions of human suffering. And should we deign to look deeply into the heart’s dark waters, we may discover that in our own ways we too are children from the sun.

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*Pearse Hutchinson, “She Fell Asleep in the Sun,” An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, ed. Wes Davis (Harvard University Press, 2010), 183-4.

Garden sculpture by Robin Caster Howard.

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DoorwaysThere are many ways to close a door. It can be done angrily or in haste. It can be done with infinite care. When Thich Nhat Hanh, then a young Vietnamese monk, visited the Trappist monk Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1966, Merton observed how his guest opened and closed the door. From that action alone, Merton later remarked, he could tell that Thich Nhat Hanh was “an authentic monk”.

Presumably, Thich Nhat Hanh closed the door quietly and with full attention, as his monastic training had taught him to do. In his book Zen Keys, he explains the purpose of that training:

The master can see if the student is or is not “awake.” If, for example, a student shuts the door noisily or carelessly, he is demonstrating a lack of mindfulness. Closing the door gently is not in itself a virtuous act, but awareness of the fact that you are closing the door is an expression of real practice. In this case, the master simply reminds the student to close the door gently, to be mindful. The master does this not only to respect the quiet of the monastery, but to point out to the student that he was not practicing mindfulness, that his actions were not majestic or subtle.*

Although he is articulating a general principle, Thich Nhat Hanh is also recalling a personal experience. As a sixteen-year-old novice, he closed a door with less than full attention, and his teacher called him back for a second try. That experience was, in his words, his “first lesson in the practice of mindfulness”.

In Zen practice the closing of a door is only one of some ninety thousand “subtle gestures,” each an expression of mindfulness. Symbolically, however, the opening or closing of a door has special importance, insofar as it signifies a moment of transition.  In his poem “Men at Forty” the American poet Donald Justice employs that traditional symbol, as he observes that “Men at forty / Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms / They will not be coming back to”. As they stand “At rest on a stair landing,” these newly middle-aged men “feel it moving / Beneath them now like the deck of a ship, / Though the swell is gentle.”**

In her book Making Friends with Death, Judith Lief employs the same symbol to describe the transitions in our lives:

Transitions are like doorways. When we open a door, we think we know what we will find on the other side, but we can never be sure. We do not know with certainty whether we will find a friend or an enemy, an obstacle or an opportunity. Without actually opening the door and walking through, we have no way of knowing. When we face such a door, we feel uncertain, vulnerable, exposed. Our usual strategies do not hold. We are in no-man’s-land. Transitions make us uncomfortable, and they are often accompanied by some degree of pain, but at the same time, they open us to new possibilities.***

Acknowledging that each moment of experience is a transition, “bounded by its own birth and death,” Lief reminds us that transitions often engender fear. Like Justice’s forty-year-olds on their moving decks, we feel uncertain and insecure. As a counter-measure, Lief urges us to pay close attention to all the transitions in our lives, however small, and to abide, if we can, in uncertainty, rather than retreat to what we know.  By so doing, we “begin to loosen our habitual fear of the unknown and undefined”.

For many of us, that noble goal is not so easily attained. It is one thing to learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh did, how to close a door with full attention. It is another to learn how to witness and accept transitions, whether they be from youth to middle age, working life to retirement, robust health to chronic illness, a stable marriage to sudden widowhood. But, in truth, the two kinds of learning are of a piece, and the one is training for the other. By learning to be mindful of the “ninety thousand subtle gestures,” we cultivate an ability to cope with the not-so-subtle changes that befall us. By learning to close an actual door with full awareness, we strengthen our capacity to pass, with grace and affirmation, through the wider doorways that lie ahead.

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*Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (Thorsons 1995), 29

**Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems (Knopf 1995), 76

***Judith L. Lief, Making Friends with Death (Shambhala 2001), 15

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In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the first interview between student and teacher is an auspicious formal occasion. The required attire includes not only a robe but also the white booties known as tabi, which cover the feet and ankles. Tabi are fastened with hooks and eyes located on the inside of the ankle.  For Westerners they are difficult to manage, even on the best of days.

On the morning of my own first interview with Jiro Osho Fernando Afable at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a formal Rinzai monastery, I forgot all about my tabi. They were nestled like sleeping rabbits in the sleeves of my robe. As I prepared to leave for my interview, a senior monk noticed my oversight. He gestured sternly toward my feet, and I took his point.

Unfortunately, there are no chairs in a Japanese zendo. Rather than hunker on a cushion, I stood on one foot, then the other, as I struggled to put on my tabi. At one point, I hopped; at another, I nearly fell over. It must have taken me three minutes to marshal my partially hooked tabi into a semblance of order.  Meanwhile, the senior monk was summoning every bit of his Zen discipline to keep a straight face. I suspect that he told the story to his fellow monks later on.

Embarrassing though it was, my awkwardness was not unusual. Ceremonial forms abound in Japanese Zen, and to the uninitiated Westerner they often feel as alien as they are compelling. From the relatively simple protocol known as jukai, in which a lay practitioner “receives the precepts,” to the high theater of shitsugo, in which a seasoned priest receives the title of roshi, public ceremonies acknowledge the practitioner’s deepening insight. And even on ordinary days, when nothing special is being recognized, celebrated, or commemorated, a sense of ceremony permeates the zendo. It can be seen in the bows and heard in the bells. It can be smelled in the incense. For the Western lay practitioner, this pervasive atmosphere of ceremony presents a challenge to the skeptical mind as well as the reluctant body. How much Asian ceremony should be included in a Western lay practice? How much is essential?

In addressing those questions, it is important to remember that Asian ceremonial forms, as used in Zen, exist primarily to support the practice of mindfulness. Pressing the palms together and bowing to one’s teacher, for example, is a way of expressing gratitude and respect. But it is also a way of knowing that one is expressing gratitude and respect and a way of cultivating those states of mind. For those prepared to embrace them, the bows, chants, prostrations, and other elements of traditional Zen can become as integral to the practice as awareness of breath and posture.

For those who are not, however, there is another way of integrating a sense of ceremony into one’s daily life. It is well described by Brother Joseph Keenan (1932-1999), who taught religion at La Salle University and was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony:

The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind-set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self-fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world . . . the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension-filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.*

Although Brother Keenan is speaking of the tea ceremony, his description applies equally to a committed lay practice. In such a practice, each mundane task becomes an occasion for ceremonial regard. Each is an end in itself, not a means to a practical end. Each is an act of giving.

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* Brother Joseph Keenan, “Tea for All Nations: The Japanese Tea Ceremony”

http://web.archive.org/web/20080528100807/www.teahyakka.com/keenanlayout.html

See also http://www.phillytea.org/about.html

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If you own a home in Western New York, you may be familiar with ice dams. These pesky obstructions occur when heat escapes from a warm attic, melts the snow on the roof, and sends water trickling down to the cold eaves. There it freezes into mounds of ice, blocking the further flow of melting snow. Unless your roof is protected by an asphalt polymer membrane, the trapped water may find its way under the shingles and into the ceiling below.

Ice dams can cause no end of trouble. And so can their counterparts in the inner life, if we allow them to form and grow. In his article “The Mind’s True Nature,” the Tibetan poet and meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:

Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical; but neither can we say that they are different, because ice is only solidified water, and water is only melted ice.

The same applies to our perception of the world around us. To be attached to the reality of phenomena, to be tormented by attraction and repulsion, by pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, creates a solidity in the mind. What we have to do, therefore, is to melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within.*

In this vivid analogy Dilgo Khyentse is describing dualistic thought: the process by which we habitually divide undifferentiated reality into concepts of this or that—into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, self and other, and so on. While necessary for survival, such concepts can all too easily freeze into rigid categories, to which we become attached, occluding our vision and blocking the stream of life.

But how do we “melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within”? Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis” and other modern parables, once described a book as an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” And Zen koans, which sometimes resemble Kafka’s parables, can also serve that function. Contemplating a koan such as “Who hears the sound?” or “All things enter the One. But what does the One enter?” we are compelled to abandon conceptual thought, making room for direct, intuitive perception.

But there is also a gentler and more gradual method. It consists of sitting still and watching our sensations, thoughts, and mental states arise, take form, and eventually dissolve. Bringing relaxed attention to that inner stream, we may detect the counterpart of ice dams in our psyches: fixed ideas, inflexible beliefs, impermeable states of mind. That’s just the way I am, we may be tempted to say. But should we continue to shine the lamp of mindfulness on those aggregates of thought and feeling, recognizing their impermanent and insubstantial nature, we may sense the beginning of a thaw. We may touch the ground of being—the common source of ice and water. And over time, we may taste the living water within.

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* Shambhala Sun (January, 2009), 78-79

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22. The tow rope

Three weeks ago, winter arrived in Western New York, catching some of us off guard.  I was reminded of a poem by the twelfth-century Japanese poet Saigyo:

Neglectful, we’ve yet

to fix the towrope

to the sled—

and here they’ve piled up already,

the white snows of Koshi!

*

Tayumitsutsu

sori no hayao mo

tsukenaku ni

tsumorinikeru na

koshi no shirayuki *

Perhaps as you read this poem, you were thinking of something you’ve left undone. For my own part, I’m thinking of a heavy wooden storm window, which I should have put up weeks ago. Across the centuries, it would seem, some things don’t change.

Saigyo, however, was no ordinary homeowner. His real name was Sato Norikiyo, and he was born in 1118 in Kyoto to an aristocratic military family. Skilled in the martial arts, he became a private guard to a retired emperor. But at the age of twenty-two, Norikiyo renounced warfare to become a Buddhist monk. Living a solitary life, he traveled widely, writing lyric verse under the pen name Saigyo. Today he is one of the best-loved poets in Japan, second only to the haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who took Saigyo’s life’s work as a model for his own

The form of Saigyo’s poem is the waka, the conventional form of Japanese court poetry. A five-line syllabic form with a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, the waka resembles the haiku in the first three lines, but the addition of two extra lines allows for greater expansiveness and complexity. Often, as in Saigyo’s poem, an abrupt shift of perspective occurs at the end of the third line. In Saigyo’s mature poems, subjective and objective elements are held in balance, the former expressing the poet’s feelings and the latter describing a natural phenomenon.

In this particular poem the first three lines report an oversight: Saigyo has neglected to fasten the towrope to the sled. Buddhist monks are supposed to be paying attention at all times and to be attuned to seasonal change. Perhaps Saigyo was too busy to bother with the towrope. Perhaps he forgot about it. In either case he realizes, here and now, that he has ignored the advent of winter and overlooked a necessary chore.

In the next two lines, the perspective shifts abruptly, as Saigyo turns our attention to the newfallen snow. Koshi is a coastal province, known for its heavy snows. Although Saigyo does not develop the scene, we can well imagine its natural beauty, which contrasts sharply with the human situation he has just described. If the human error is cause for consternation, the natural scene is cause for joy.

“Like many great Japanese poets,” writes Burton Watson, a distinguished translator of Saigyo’s poems, “he was not afraid of saying something very simple.” Nor was he afraid to look at his human failing in the light of the impersonal natural world. In Saigyo’s vision, human error and unforgiving nature are parts of the one body of reality. Open to both, he gives them equal standing. Engaged with both, he sees them as they are.

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* Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1991), 94.

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