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Monday, May 5, 2014

Identity & Suffering

Buddhism sees suffering as the main source of all human problems and says that our suffering becomes our identity.  We suffer therefore we are, is the Buddhist catchphrase. There is a problem with this proposal because suffering really doesn't cause or produce one's identity.  It's the other way around.  Our identity becomes our suffering.

Even before a baby is born it is already beginning to develop its identity.  The fetus feels itself floating in amniotic fluid and bonds with its mother's voice.  When the baby emerges from the womb it already knows who its mother is and begins identifying with various sights, sounds, smells and feelings.  

At this point it has no ego an there is no duality. Soon the child will understand that it has a name and that its mother is another person. Duality is born and the baby begins to develop an ego with the understanding that there is also a father. As the child grows it learns that it lives in a house that looks different than the neighbor's house and so on.  With further learning and growth the child develops more identity and more of an ego. Along with the ego comes values. Duality becomes well established at this point and the ego (values) continues to grow. 

There is nothing wrong with having an ego but a problem may arise when the person believes that its values are better or worse than someone else's values and attempts to assert those values with force. That is how arguments, fights and wars are started.  Identity creates duality, duality becomes the ego, and the ego can cause suffering. 

Suffering can be abated through the practice of mindful meditation - observing thoughts.  Being able to see and understand egoic thoughts when they occur allows us to remain at peace with self and others.  Although the practice takes patience and persistence the rewards are well worth it.  This is elucidated in the ancient text Yoga Sutra by Patanjali. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Omega Experience - Part 2

We were asked to write about something we had never told anyone.  The writing had to relate to our wartime experience in one way or another.  On the second day we arranged ourselves in small groups and read what we wrote. It was not mandatory that we read - only if we chose to do so. The following is what I wrote and read:

Our ship was entering DaNang harbor.  It was midnight.  I walked up onto the open bridge and looked into the night sky.  It was quiet and very dark.  The lights in DaNang were off and everything was black.  Land was hardly visible, yet we were only about a mile away.  A flash of light exploded over the harbor and then another followed by loud "BOOMS."  More flashes followed by more booming here and there.  "What in the hell is going" I thought.  This was my introduction to the Vietnam war.  And what did I do?  I went below and got in my bunk.  I was afraid.  I thought to myself, "A shell fragment could fly over here and pierce my body or even kill me.  I must be a coward."

Confessing my secret in front of strangers gave me a  feeling of relief.  Although my experience was mild compared to others in the group, it lifted a weight off my mind.  And I question whether I could have ever held up like the brave warriors with whom I encountered in the workshop.  The suffering and pain they endured and then holding it in all those years laid  heavy on their bodies and minds.  

No one wanted to hear their stories until now.  They told their stories to each other and they listened.  They mindfully listened. They told their stories and there were tears of joy from the tellers as well as from the listeners.  The ten brave warriors who got up and read their stories in front of the entire group changed me and it changed everybody that night. 

On the first day of the workshop most of the veterans kept to themselves and were isolated individuals.  There were very few smiles and very little laughing.  On the last day everyone was hugging and there was laughter.  It was as though a heavy burden had been lifted from everyone's mind.  It was, indeed, a glorious experience.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Omega Experience

This past week I attended Claude AnShin Thomas' workshop at the Omega Institute near Rhinebeck, N.Y.  It was an educational and very moving experience.  Some one hundred veterans attended the workshop. A few, like me, came with their spouses while others came with fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers.

Veterans coming home from having experienced the trauma of war rarely have the opportunity to talk to someone about their experiences.  Often people don't want to hear about their experiences either because they don't want to know about the veteran's traumatic experience or they are afraid that talking about it will open wounds and are afraid to get involved. Many don't know what to say to the vet. In any case, the veteran comes home a changed person and has a very difficult time adapting back to his former life. What was a normal world before the war experience is a totally different world now.

The workshop revolved around three basic components: meditation, mindfulness and reflection.  We began each day at 7:00 am in sitting meditation followed by walking meditation. AnShin told us to do walking meditation slowly and deliberately.  It was to be done in rhythm with the breath. He said that he was asked one time "Does the breath really work?"  And his reply was, "I don't know, but I know it is always with you and you do it - so you might as well use it."

During breakfast, around 8:30 am, we practiced mindful eating in silence. We were told to chew each bite fifty times and contemplate its aroma, texture and taste.  After breakfast we would either do more sitting and walking or AnShin would talk about his adventures and philosophy. He never preached about Buddhism.  He emphasized the importance of keeping our own beliefs intact and focusing on the task at hand - being mindful.

We were told to use our spare time during the week to reflect and write about something we had never told anyone.  It had to be about something that related to our war experience.  How did the war affect us either directly as a veteran or indirectly as a relative?  

During lunch we would do more mindful eating and then have a small break.  At around 2:00 pm we would meet again for thirty minutes of sitting meditation and then we would gather in our small group for reflection. Each group would walk mindfully to their designated site.  We sat in a circle and would take turns reading our writings by gesturing with a bow and then picking up an object placed in the middle of the circle.  In our group the designated object was an eyeglass case.

The main object of the group session was to listen and read mindfully. What was read was to never leave the group.  However, I will reveal my writing in the next post. The person holding the object was the only one who could read while the others had to listen carefully and mindfully. Once the person was through reading, he/she placed the object back on the floor and would gesture with a bow.  Everyone else would acknowledge by also bowing.  It was not mandatory to read but everyone in my small group of eight did read. 

During dinner we would eat in silence and then walk mindfully back to the main hall and either do more sitting meditation or yoga. The last evening of the week was open to outside people - people who lived in the area. Those who wrote essays could read them in front of the entire group of 140 people if they  desired. I didn't read my essay but ten veterans did. It was a heartfelt moment.  There was laughing and crying. When the last person read they were given a five minute standing ovation. Where once there were sad faces there were now happy faces.

The next morning before parting for home we all walked mindfully down to the lake where AnShin and his assistants lit a fire and burned notes we all had placed in a basket. The notes were things we wanted to get rid of such as shame, anxiety, depression, loneliness, etc. We watched as the notes along with the troubling situations went up in smoke.



Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pure Awareness

Practicing yoga, meditation, and mindfulness is good stuff but nothing like being in pure awareness.  Being in pure awareness is not in the mind nor in the body; pure awareness is experiencing everything as one.  Usually when people speak of being aware they are referring to a lower realm of experience than what I am talking about here.  

Awareness and mindfulness to most people means paying attention to what's going on around them and within them.  Pure awareness is beyond this.  Pure awareness is wider and deeper than any other experience you can possible have.  Pure awareness is a sense of everything without mental content.  It is when object and subject merge into universal awareness excluding nothing, so that there is no separation between anything.  To put is succinctly pure awareness is a state of non-duality. 

In truth, there is no duality anywhere because everything is the truth just the way it is right now at this very moment.  The saying that "You can't see the forest for the trees" applies in this case.  The truth lies before you but you don't recognize it because objects keep getting in the way.  The objects are the truth just as the trees are the forest.  When you are able to realize, without thinking, that all things exist as one and not as separate things, you will experience total and unadulterated awareness.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Do it NOW!

Meditation by yourself or in a group is absolutely necessary if you are ever going to make any progress, whatsoever, in liberation from any kind of suffering. But meditation is not enough. You must also practice mindfulness with every waking hour, minute, and second of your life.

Sitting in meditation is insufficient in becoming enlightened.  Meditation must also be coupled with the act of staying in the moment no matter what happens - driving, walking, working, talking, listening, or whatever you are doing.  You must be awake and actively vigilant to the present moment.  It is some of the hardest work in the world to just be present in the moment and open minded. 

When the mind is in the future and the past you cannot be living a full life.  Something is missing when that happens. Life is the unknown, unrecognized and under appreciated teacher because it is the present-moment. It is really all there is.  So, begin your practice right now, this very moment.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sitting to Meditate

When you sit to meditate you are settling into a quiet place and time to "observe."  From the outside meditation looks simple and easy.  "There she sits with her eyes closed, not moving, and hardly breathing.  How hard can that be?"  But from the inside the mind is thinking all kinds of things, the body is trying to get comfortable, and the breath is trying to smooth out. "I don't know how long I can sit here.  My mind is too agitated and my knees hurt."

Meditation is very personal and there is no one particular way to do it. Meditation evolves with the person and the person evolves with the meditation. When I first started meditating the most I could do was 10 or 15 minutes.  That was about fifteen years ago. Today I sat for 2 hours with no problem.  I look forward  every day to sitting and meditating. It is the pause that refreshes.  It gives me new life and it restores my ability to stay in the moment during the day.  It calms my mind and I sleep better at night.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cosmic Consciousness

Try using your imagination to view the vast universe in which you live as being not only outside your body but inside as well. The smallest, most infinitesimal unit of energy, matter, mass, or whatever it is exists in you and expands out into infinity. And you are just a teeny, weeny part of that whole continuum.  Can you imagine that?  Okay, so far so good.

If you can imagine infinite smallness and infinite largeness simultaneously, you are experiencing what is known as cosmic consciousness. It is the knowing, the feeling, the realization that everything within you and outside of you is infinite. There is no limit either way. If you can do this, your mental imaging can link you with the cosmic mind beyond space and time and allow you to experience what the five senses can never do.  

Stay with that image of infinite smallness and infinite largeness with nothing in between for as long as you can. What do you experience? Can you describe it?