RIGHT EFFORT

The writings of Zen are full of apparent paradoxes: “the pathless path,” “the gateless gate,” and so forth. How can there be a pathless path? If it is pathless then it is not a path. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

This isn’t just nonsense. Such statements point to an experience that is not quite captured by either of the opposites.

“Meditation involves effort” “Meditation is effortless” Both of these statements are true. “Right effort” refers to the correct balance — the middle way.

An ancient meditation master said that “When the strings of a harp are too tight, they break. When they are too loose, there is no sound. When they are just right, neither too tight nor too loose, every note sounds in its proper tone.”

It could also be compared to spinning yarn from wool by hand — something that most of you are probably not familiar with — try it sometime! To keep the yarn from becoming too thick or too thin, one maintains a subtle tension, not too loose and not too tight.

In meditation we gradually discover a form of effort that does not involve strain or striving.

YOU ARE THE SILENCE

Tea is water, coffee is water, cola is water. It is possible to use filtration and other methods to separate the pure water from the flavoring ingredients.
However, even in the unseparated state, the water is still clearly present, providing the essential quality of wetness.

Once we have tasted the silence in meditation we can develop beliefs that “I must sit for 20 minutes before I begin to experience the silence” or “I must sit for 40 minutes before I begin to experience the silence.” While these beliefs reflect past experience, they can become limiting when deeply held.

The wetness of the water is inherently a part of cola. We may not like the fizz, the sugary flavor, and the effects of the caffeine. And we may want to filter those out, which will take some time. However, the essential quality of water is immediately present. Even with the fizz, and the sugar, and caffeine, and artificial coloring, we still are experiencing water. We don’t have to wait for a filtration process before we can experience the essential presence of the water.

Similarly, silence is an inherent part of our experiences. Even the most frenetic experiences, filled with fizz, buzz, and sugar, still take place in inherent silence. We don’t have to do anything to touch the silence. The silence is already there. It is a matter of not doing that which obscures the silence. Sometimes trying to get to the silence kicks up waves that obscure the silence that is already there. (This relates to last week’s discussion of “right effort” — the balance between doing and not-doing.)

We can use “silence”with two meanings: the silence that stands in opposition to noise, and the silence that is present within noise.

Think of music. Look at a piece of sheet music. Each note is separate. Each note arises out of silence and returns to silence. The notes are separated by silence. If the silence were not woven into the music, it would not be music.

Think of speech. When we are communicating with someone verbally there is silence between words. There is silence at the end of sentence. When we want to emphasize something we pause in meaningful silence. Speech is not possible without the silence woven into it.

What happens when we focus on the silence between the words? What happens when we focus on the silence between the thoughts? What happens when we focus on the silence within the sensations?

When we shift our concept, shift our view, does our experience of meditation change?

It can be good to sit for long periods of meditation. It can be good to sit for short periods of meditation. It can be good to notice the silence for an instant in the heat of the moment.

With your vision, focus on something close to you in the room. Now look past that and focus on something further away. Both have been there the whole time. It’s a matter of what we were focusing on.

As we get older our ability to effortlessly shift focus becomes impaired. We need bifocal lenses.

When we first start meditating, we use meditation as a kind of bifocal lens. But later our mind could become supple enough and flexible enough to effortlessly move between focusing on the foreground and focusing on the background.

The background is the meaningful silence, the unconditional yes, the limitless love.

YESTERDAY I was sitting in a restaurant in Cambridge waiting for my food. As I was waiting I was people watching. A woman two tables down from mine turned toward me, noticed me looking at her, screwed up her face into (what appeared to be) an expression of disgust, and turned away.

(In reality, I don’t know that she was reacting to me. Perhaps she had an attack of indigestion at the moment that she looked in my direction. Or maybe she has a facial tic that causes her to look disgusted. . .But, for purposes of this example, the important thing is that I perceived her to be shooting me a disapproving look.)

My first reaction was to laugh. My next reaction was, “What’s wrong with her ?” I noticed that some part of me felt insulted and rebuffed and was reacting. Even as I was aware of this, she and her boyfriend had finished eating and were leaving. And as she walked out that reactive aspect of my self was silently sending her the thought: “Don’t think so highly of yourself ! You’re not all that !” I noticed that some part of my mind had not wanted to immediately let go of its feeling of justified anger, but had spun out that last thought, as she left.

I could, at that point, have tried to substitute a positive thought or wish toward her. But that didn’t seem like the way I needed to go at that point. I did not actually harbor any continuing ill will toward her. It was more like a momentary disturbance on the surface of the water rather than a big rock that had sunk to the bottom of the pond. It was clear that the issue was not so much about her, as about recognizing that the habit of feeling vulnerable to a perceived slight is very persistent, and a very common human tendency. It seemed more important to clearly look at the tendency, rather than to cover it over by focusing on generating a “good” loving thought toward this woman, to replace the “bad” critical thought. It really was not about her. It was about the reflex to feel vulnerable to judgment and then to immediately turn that around and deflect it back onto the other person.

My feeling is that, each time that I look directly at that pattern (perceived vulnerability, followed by attack) and see it clearly, it gets a bit weaker. This woman was my friend, in a way, for pointing out to me this continuing pattern, which I share with most people. Thoughts about her fell away, except for thinking that I should remember to write this up for the blog — it would make a good example. This is how we can work with the mind in daily life. This is one way we integrate meditation with our everday life. Our mind is apparently calm. We notice a disturbance. We begin to chase the disturbance outward toward the apparent outward “cause,” then we remember to look inward and see what disturbing emotion has arisen.

Chagdud Tulku used to say, “When we look at the world we think we are looking through a window, but actually we are looking in a mirror.” The world is full of little alarm clocks to wake us up from our sleep.

This does not mean that we do not take appropriate action to defend ourselves or other people, when necessary. But there is a difference between appropriate action and the extra layer of emotional reaction that comes from a mistaken understanding of things. For example, I would call the police to arrest someone if they were trying to break into my house. But I don’t have indulge in indignation over, “How dare THEY break into **MY** house!!” The main focus does not have to be on “MY.” The main focus can be that burglary is harmful and unsafe for the community at large (other people’s houses, as well as my own) and for the person that is breaking in. . . I might also wonder what it is that leads a person to being willing to break into people’s homes. And what happens to such people after they are caught. . .I might also buy better locks or start a neighborhood watch. . .Or I might not. . .I might also decide to meditate more and to be kinder to those I meet. . . I might realize that I take so much for granted (that my house is safe, that my things will be there when I get home). . .I might be thankful, and more fully appreciate the moments of my life, not taking them for granted. . .I might realize that any of my things can be stolen or destroyed or lost at any moment, and start thinking about what it is that truly nourishes me, beyond my things.

Here’s the important point in my example above: in reality, there was no problem. The negative thought that arose toward that woman was the playing out of an automatic reaction arising from deeply held beliefs about my self image. In reality there was never any threat, any offense, or anything to defend. The whole thing was unnecessary and unreal — like an illusion or a mirage, in a way — and yet, it played itself out. Shortly after the moment of becoming aware of it, and in no longer identifying with it, it dissipated almost as quickly as it had arisen.

~ * ~

There are infinite gates to the study and practice of meditative awareness. The common pathway is shamatha (collecting the mind) and vipassana (resting in awareness). But there are infinite methods and modifications, at least one or more of which will suited to each type of person.

www.leominster-meditation.com


Linger in the Aftertaste

When you ring a bell or pluck a guitar string, the sound gradually fades out, continuing to vibrate at less and less perceptible levels.

If you were at the meditation session where I brought the large singing bowl and struck it, you may remember that the reverberation lasted for quite a while before entirely dying out.

Similarly after you have finish eating a meal the aftertase lingers on your palate for awhile, unless you brush your teeth or chew some gum immediately after.

Or if someone bakes a pie, the aroma lingers in the kitchen air for some time afterward.

The smell of the shampoo clings to your hair. The fragrance of the soap remains on your skin.

So too with intentions.

Intentions set up a reverberation, a vibration, a subtle taste or fragrance, in our mind-body awareness.

Generally speaking, the more quiet your mind is, the deeper the intention reverberates.

When we sit quietly after silent meditation we intentionally radiate loving kindness to those around. As we send good wishes to all those within the field of our imagination, it sets up a vibration within us. You may remember that I invite you to slow down for a moment and rest in that flavor, color, vibration of loving-kindness within the field of awareness.

That mood or flavor slowly dissipates, like the sound of the ringing bell. But even after it is no longer as vivid and clear, it continues to subtly perfume our mind, speech, and actions, imperceptibly imparting its scent of loving-kindness to those we encounter.

Even when we become upset, the seasoning of loving kindness may cause our upset to be less harsh, or to pass more quickly.

It follows from this that if we can briefly touch in on the flavor of awareness and loving kindness a few times a day, it is like someone freshening their perfume, or taking in nourishment to keep their energy level up.

It takes only a moment to lightly touch in on awareness and loving kindness. This can be a moment of kindness toward ourselves, toward specific others, or toward the world in general.

Take a deep breath. Relax a little as you let the air out. Soften your gaze, or gaze inward, and let your attention sink into your heart, or your “hara” (the area two fingers below the navel) for another breath. Just touch and go. Think, “May everyone in this bulding be happy!” Or “May everyone on this street find peace.” (And remember that you are included in this!) Just that. Just for a moment.

Training like this, over and over, it becomes a mental imprint and suffuses the mind with positivity.

After awhile, try broadening your wish — “May all beings find peace!” Such a vast number of beings (human and animal) may seem a little abstract, so you might want to add a concrete group to make it more real, and less abstract: “May all beings, including everyone in this restaurant, be happy.”

We want to make this more than a rote formula. We want to infuse a moment of mindful presence into the intention.

Our first mission is always awareness.

Awareness of what is really so at this moment. . . and the next moment, , , and the next.  If you are angry in the moment, be aware that you are angry.  We don’t have to justify it, we don’t have to act it out, and we don’t have to suppress it.  We hold it in awareness.  We don’t have to fight with it.  We just hold it, like a parent holds a crying baby. We hold it with a gentle mindfulness.

Letting go of our anger is a good thing. But we have to differentiate between letting go and pushing away, masking, or repressing.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the ambition to become a saint. I don’t want to sleep on a bed of nails or force myself to stay awake all night. If that works for someone else, great. But it is not my way.

Recently someone wrote to me and said she was trying to visualize sending loving-kindness toward someone who had just been very, very mean to her. That sounds very heroic. And it could be a good thing to try.

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone who feels like being heroic. Try it, if you feel inspired. Maybe you will have a breakthrough. But, if you don’t, please do not feel discouraged.

Sometimes baby steps are the best steps.

In discussing types of meditators, traditionally one type achieves sudden, dramatic progress. But a few of those who make rapid progress, also find themselves falling back just as suddenly. Then there are the slow, steady types. They do not progress rapidly, but their progress is stable.

So sudden breakthroughs are good, but so are baby steps.

Firstly, I recommend simply practicing the awareness exercise of noticing how your heart is at random times during the day. Focus on the subtle, low-level feelings of irritation, impatience, and dislike,

The subtle feelings are the easiest to overlook. When we are yelling hurtful words at someone, we are aware of it, even though we may find ourselves almost unable to stop the flow of angry words. But, how about being aware of the feeling of irritation gradually building?

It is easier to blow out a tiny flame than it is to stop a raging forest fire.

Being attuned to our subtle dislikes and irritations makes it easier to manage them before they flare into an out of control temper tantrum, which will end in hurt feelings and regret.

So, the first step is to be aware. Aware of the feelings in our body and the thoughts that go through our heads. Particularly when we are reacting to strangers. Because with strangers we are reacting mostly to our own preconceptions, projections, and prejudices.

The second step is curiosity. A gentle questioning: why am I irritated by this person? Frequently we will find that we have very flimsy reasons to be irritated: “I don’t like the way her mouth is hanging partly open like a stupid person.”

Notice, we are not trying to justify why we are irritated. “Of course, anyone would be irritated by a girl with purple hair and sixteen earrings. Only an idiot would dress like that.”

We are also not trying to judge ourselves. “I am a terrible person to be prejudiced against people who beg on the street. I should be like Mother Teresa. The fact that I am not proves what a worthless person I really am.”

If anything we could have a sense of humor about it. “Haha. So much irritation arising because the person ahead of me in the rapid checkout line has 10 items instead of 7. It’s really hilarious the way anger automatically arises.”

This is the awareness practice.

Taking that one baby step further we produce a new thought.

That’s another person, just like me. The fact that she has 10 items in her cart is just one facet of a complicated being. Perhaps she is in a hurry to get home to feed her child or to take care of her elderly mother. I really have no way of truly judging her. I’m just reacting out of automatic irritation, or a sense of “should.”

This thought does NOT have to COMPLETELY dissipate our feeling of irritation.

If all it does is soften it a little, that’s already a step forward.

A baby step is, in fact, a giant step.

Train this way until the noticing, the questioning, and the softening begin to become a habit. Then irritation becomes our friend. It wakes us up out of our sleep and causes us to look at what is going on in our mind and heart.

Practicing like this will gradually transform us into more open, loving, open, and flexible people with a sense of humor and few traces of self-righteousness.

At some point you may want to take this a step further and start actively projecting love toward people, mentally.

I recommend starting with those you care about. Don’t we often neglect them and take them for granted. Take time to mentally send love toward them. Let that intention be a physical feeling as you imagine that you actually can send love to them from a distance.

Then, when you are with them, don’t forget to demonstrate love in your actual words and actions.

Next we project love toward those we don’t have any special feelings toward — the waitress, the checkout clerk, the librarian. It can be a feeling in your body, an image of sending light or hearts toward them, or a thought “I wish you happiness.”

Finally we begin working with those we feel irritated toward, working our way up to the big ones.

If it gets too difficult, we can take a step back, then try again later.

When we feel we can’t or don’t want to project love toward someone, we state our willingness to learn.  “I’m willing to learn to want to project love toward Jane Smith.”

Or, if we don’t even have the willingness, “I wish to find the willingness to want to learn to project love toward Jane Smith.”

Start where you are! There is ALWAYS a starting place. You don’t ever have to give up.

Don’t forget to project love toward yourself, toward the wounded parts of you.

Remember that love is part of your Being. “I can project love to Jane Smith because I am (deep inside) the source of unconditional love.”

The base of all this is awareness practice. Awareness will take you to love.

Be gentle with yourself. We are too hard on ourselves. Love yourself as a good parent would love you.

Let’s talk about this topic: integrating your awareness practice into daily life.

Sitting in formal meditation is very good. It’s a basis. However, we can do more by extending our practice into our everyday moments.

The biggest challenge is REMEMBERING to do it. Post-it reminders, setting a calendar reminder on your cell phone, asking a friend to remind you, and NOT GIVING UP!!! Eventually it will begin to become a habit, like remembering to check if you have your money and your car keys with you, or whether your cell phone battery is getting low.

There are many, many ways to integrate awareness practice into daily life. We can pick certain situations as reminders to be mindful. Perhaps just before we start eating lunch we can take a moment just to look at the food before us and appreciate it, be present with it, just for a heartbeat, for example.

What I want to discuss today, though, is integrating your heart-meditation practice with awareness and daily life.

In our heart-meditation we open the heart center and from deep within we send sincere wishes of happiness, fulfillment and peace to others. In daily life, however, all of us frequently feel irritated, impatient, annoyed, and periodically experience a subtle, or not-so-subtle distance, alienation, annoyance, or dislike of people we don’t even know. People who have not done anything to us except that they happen to be ahead of us in line, or we don’t like the way they look, or the sound of their voice. We wish, on some level, they were not part of our experience of the moment.

The awareness practice is to NOTICE these feelings — not just the obvious feelings of irritation and dislike, but even the times when it is just a subtle feeling.

Remember when we practiced the smile exercise — the subtle difference in your entire body when you smile and when you don’t smile?

So, becoming more and more aware of even subtle feelings of irritation and dislike in interaction with others is the practice.

This becoming aware is NOT the awareness of a policeman trying to find evidence of wrongdoing. It is not the awareness of a drill-sergeant, a judge, a critic, or an inner accuser: “see that! I caught you!!! you were being annoyed! shame on you!”

That’s NOT what we mean by awareness.

Awareness is more like curiosity, surprise, interest, bemusement.

“Ah, there’s some annoyance. Ha! Interesting!”

We have an affectionate and compassionate awareness of our annoyance, the way we are aware of a small child’s distress after it falls and starts crying. Hopefully we don’t get angry at the child for crying. We just notice, “Oh, he fell, and he’s crying, but he seems okay.”

So we NOTICE “There’s a feeling of irritation, annoyance, dislike rising in my body. And, how odd. . .I don’t even know this person I’m feeling so annoyed with. This may be a wonderful, loving person. All I know is I’m irritated because they are ahead of me in line and I’m in a hurry.”

Then we can apply the principles of our heart-meditation. We can think, “This is a person, just like me.” “This is another human being, just like me.” “This person is seeking happiness, but not always finding it, just like me.”

Just having this thought will probably produce a softening in your heart.

And, oddly enough, OCCASIONALLY, just as you have become aware that you are radiating annoyance, and you begin to think “this is just another person, just like me” and your heart softens — just at that moment of heart-softening,  sometimes that person mysteriously will turn around and look at you and smile, without knowing why. And you may find yourself smiling back.

There is a deeper dimension to life, that we swim in all the time, and are no more aware of it than fish are of the water that is all around them.

Good luck practicing awareness and love.