Today was sort of introspective for me, and I brought some of that to the class. It’s been a hard week for a lot of us, maybe for the same or different reasons. I wanted to talk about how we are encouraged by the Buddha to “take our seat” and accept the present moment. This doesn’t mean we go along with what we may see as moral bankruptcy in our government, or don’t recognize our world’s ecological problems. It means allowing ourselves to be fearless in the face of our suffering, and to remember that we share this suffering with all other beings. Can we sit and accept the suffering without being drowned by it?
‘Love says “I am everything.” Wisdom says, “I am nothing.” Between these two my life flows.’–Nisargadatta
We had a discussion on how different flavors of Buddhism and the more popular forms of mindfulness deal with spiritual matters like ethics and non-self. It was all very interesting and heartfelt, and sort of difficult to sum up in a few words.
Instead, I’ll direct you to a link that I used:
“The Illusion of Self”–a set of readings from Palousemindfulness.com
This is about how we tend to think of our suffering as “wrong” and that somehow if we suffer we are losers or weak. Moffitt points out that other cultures tended to understand that suffering can make us stronger and acknowledging our suffering allows us to fully engage with the richness of all of life’s experiences.
Someone in the group pointed out that it’s easy to understand these things when we talk about them in the group, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to deal with our suffering when it really arises. One of us pointed out that listening to another’s suffering can be hard, but it also can be an act of caring that can enrich our lives. Someone else pointed out that the way toward happiness may be available by opening up to our own and other people’s suffering. Everyone was bringing their understanding and experience to the teaching. In other words, I didn’t need to do much other than sit back and listen!
Also: for those of you who like Phillip Moffitt, or just to check it out, Heather gave me a link to his page, specifically a talk on regrets:
We are all really hard on ourselves, and today I was telling the group that I was feeling a little blue this morning and being hard on myself. A little part of myself was expecting that I should always be in a good mood. Needless to say, this is a ridiculous expectation and everyone in the group could understand and laugh at this. We wondered if we can still accept ourselves as imperfect, normal human beings?
I presented a New York Times article called “How to Be Happy.” I like a lot of the author’s ideas, but I didn’t like the fact that they recommended, “conquering” negative thinking. I think we have to be a lot easier on ourselves than thinking about conquest and fighting. Much better to accept the way things are in the present moment and then see what might help us to relax our negative feelings about ourselves.
We had a lively discussion on different modes of awareness, as I asked the group to contemplate the differences between the meditative state and the more everyday alert and thinking mind. What’s the difference between being aware of our thoughts and being aware that we are aware? Here is the article that we worked with; it’s a very practical guide with some excellent ideas on how to work with intense emotions.
After our first meditation, I returned to the idea (from last week) that we lose attention (or our conscious mind goes offline) 4x a second. This might not have been a problem in our ancestors’ prehistoric world, where we needed to be distracted in order to re-focus on potential dangers, but it is a problem in our modern world. Social media, advertising, and entertainment are all designed to attract our attention, and it’s no wonder hours can go by with us unable to remember how we just spent our time surfing the web.
It’s no wonder that we find it so difficult to practice mindfulness. We had a lively discussion about how many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the demands of emails, messaging, and cell phones.
Here’s a good article with tips on how to control our online habits:
I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the Open Death Conversation on Wednesday evening. I commend you all for your thoughtful and open-hearted comments and the careful listening you gave each other. I really hope you all found the experience beneficial. Some of you obviously found it useful enough that you wanted to continue the conversation and suggested a monthly online conversation. I think that’s great. I am not planning on continuing because I want to devote my time to developing and teaching the online course on Lovingkindness and Compassion (primarily for the reason given below) as well as the online sitting group.
There are two things I want to say related to the aftermath of the Open Death Conversation. Consider how you engage in future conversations: I am not a grief counselor and the past ODC and future ones shouldn’t be considered to take the place of grief counseling. However, people can be enormously supportive for each other when they are going through various stages of grief. I wish I had such a support group when my parents died. I recommend you follow the “step forward, step backward” advice: If you are comfortable speaking in groups, make space for others to share and if you are a bit shy or reserved, push yourself to share. Always make sure everyone feels safe.
The second thing is: there is a thin line between sharing your ideas with friends and getting overly absorbed in your story. I saw this happen at the Community Dharma Leaders teacher training at Spirit Rock that I did for two years: people got caught over and over in their personal suffering, forgetting that it is precisely our suffering, grief, and fear makes us human and bind us all together. It really isn’t personal. Our “ah-ha” moment comes when we drop (just temporarily) the “me and mine” storyline and embrace our fellows with openheartedness. Please remember to LISTEN to each other. Listen to your body, too.
And that’s why I ask you to commit yourself to your meditation practice as a follow-up to this Death Conversation. Meditation builds compassion as it allows us to open up to our own and other people’s suffering without being overwhelmed. A highly effective technique is the practice of lovingkindness and compassion. Insight and Metta practices have been shown to be of enormous help to caregivers in end-of-life facilities. I am trying to offer more meditation practice to caregivers up here in Michigan but it’s been very difficult to get a foot-hold. Still, I remain convinced it’s important to offer this transformative teaching.
The class that I am teaching in October is going to emphasize practice: I’m recommending you spend at least 15 minutes a day doing a metta/compassion practice for the full 6 weeks. There you have it: I’m ending this with a shameless plug urging you to take my course!
Then I read from the article in Tricycle Magazine called, “Attention Means Attention.” This put some of the ideas from the previous article into a Buddhist perspective, since Buddhist practitioners tend not to be that surprised that humans have such short attention spans.
We then talked about how we perceive the world around us, and how an awareness of impermanence gives us a different view of reality. Our discussion then devolved (I take total responsibility) into the philosophy of reality through the lenses of Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Peanuts (esp. Snoopy’s doghouse)!
We had a rather free-form discussion today, and I thank you all for helping me along with talking about some ideas that aren’t quite coherent yet in my own mind. I talked engaged Buddhism and why I believe that forcing political agendas and passing judgement on others may be at odds with what the Buddha taught. I referred to two articles from Tricycle:
And just this last thought from Rumi (and Mary D.) There is a field:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.–Rumi
After our first sitting meditation, I read a quote from Pema Chodron about meditation practice:
Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.
John very clearly saw this as an invitation to look at the practice of compassion. We ended up having a great conversation on how we all defined compassion, and how we work with it. How can we have compassion for people who we believe have reprehensible behaviors or beliefs? Who is deserving of compassion? Do we know how to show ourselves compassion?
Before we sat for a second silent meditation, I read the following:
You do not have to leave the room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait. Be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet. -Franz Kafka-
I also offered a story about grief and the movement of the heart as compassion arises: this is what’s happening in the news right now: