Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Two kinds of peace: Cured and Inner

Thank you, Ani Pema, for teaching about peace.

I had a thought last week while lying on a massage table: I don’t care whether the therapist comes back in to do the massage or not; it feels so lovely just to lie here. The type of peace I was experiencing is what my teacher calls “cured peace.” It comes about due to something occurring, usually something extremely simple—seeing a sunset, listening to ocean waves, putting on warm socks and snuggling under thick blankets on a cold night. This type of peace feels like a temporary cure to our usually complex, sometimes painful existence.
Sunset: Tamarack State Beach, Carlsbad, CA
Cured peace is great. May all beings experience much, much cured peace. But we also experience another type of peace: inner peace. Inner peace exists regardless of what is occurring. It was probably as a child at church that I first heard a description of inner peace that sounded honest—a peace that Saint Paul says passeth understanding

Different traditions describe inner peace in different ways, and give different reasons for it, but I agree with Paul for sure on one point: this peace doesn’t make any sense at all. We're taught to move away from our pain to experience peace, not that great inner peace exists within pain. I read somewhere that most every adult lives through at least 1 tremendously painful event that changes them forever. Maybe this comes in the form of a broken heart or a tragic accident or a long ago act of abuse that lives on in our nightmares. And maybe the sense of peace we experience in the midst of such deep hurt comes only in glimpses—a momentary gap of sanity in the middle of the unthinkable.

I know that I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But we get confused. We get desperate. In moments when we’re hurting or shut down, we may look outside of ourselves, searching for something—anything—to move us away from the pain. We look for cured peace, when what may make more sense is to simply be still and give inner peace an opportunity to shine through.

The spacious mind has room for everything. It is like the space in a room, 
which is never harmed by what goes in and out of it. -Ajahn Sumedho

Of course it’s wise to work on opening to pain in your own timing and in your own way. A mindfulness practice called tonglen helps me to open. The word tonglen means “giving and taking,” which is what happens during this practice. We sit still and intentionally take in our own pain or the pain of someone else with each inbreath. We feel the heaviness of the pain, the sadness, and so on, and let it live in our body and heart for a while. And of course we breathe out again, and the exhalation offers space. 
Breathe in pain, breathe out space. Childbirth: Patti and Baby Kara (mosaic composed of baby photos)
In this way, we are reminded of how pain and peace can occupy the same space, even the same breath. We may even give up on labeling it as "my" pain, "your" pain, or "their" pain, and just breathe in and out the spaciousness that lives inside of all pain. May we all experience stillness and peace in the midst of what hurts us most.

I Go Among Trees and Sit Still, by Wendell Berry

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing, 
the day turns, the trees move.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving up: A practice in surrender

I’m sitting in the Philly Airport. It’s loud here, and it smells funny—a mix of food, fuel, and industrial-strength air freshener. My eyes are burning. A few birds have made their way inside and are flying back and forth between the rafters and the floor to peck at discarded food. Soon I will be on another plane, going somewhere else.
Airport birds
I just spent 7 weeks watching my mind. There is a giving up required in this practice. We give up the desire to see anything in particular, to feel anything in particular, and, instead, we just see and feel. This giving up is in no way an act of weakness. It is an intelligent surrender that can wake us up to the natural flow of things; it can help us stop striving to have things our way. 

Have you ever been trying to open a jar, all the while twisting the lid in the wrong direction? Tightness is what happens when we grip things in our life in an effort to get them to go our way. Once we give up on that, and just sit still and take a look at this tightness, there is often a natural release. At the point of release, we can change course and move in a direction that opens.

This isn’t easy. Sometimes when we stop gripping and twisting, what we see is terribly painful, and in these moments, it may be necessary and intelligent to fly to a high rafter of safety and stay put. But little by little, in our own timing and in our own way, we may decide to come back down and examine the very scraps of our lives. We may find that even within our pain we can find nourishment.
Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the Light enters you.

Cheerful Shambhala Day always involves eating!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Take it from the top, with love: The practice of starting over

Each time that we take our seat in mindfulness practice, it is to start over. Our intent is to be present with each new breath. Sometimes we try to make more of the practice, hoping for keen insight or longing for spiritual growth. But hoping and longing actually move us away from being present. You see, during practice, all the energy that we normally put toward desiring that things be different from how they actually are can be diverted to awareness of our breath. We sit; we breathe; we get lost in thought, get angry, feel calm, think another thought, stop feeling calm, and so on. Then we start over.

This starting over is good news. Each time that we practice in this way, we open ourselves to freshness. Every breath holds an opportunity to be with what is actually going on within our minds, our bodies, and our lives, without being confrontational with those things. When we learn to be with ourselves in this way, we can truly be there for others, as well.
No breath is more precious than the one you breathe in the current moment.
A monk from the US spoke about being among monastics from another country. The Westerners suggested to the non-Westerners that they could use some work on prajna (wisdom, intellectual acuity). The non-Westerners replied, "And you could stand to work on loving one another." Let's face it, in this country when we are told to sit still, it is usually as punishment, not to foster a gentle attending to our breath, body, and the moment just as it is.
A rock I came upon (heart added with the touch of a finger).
There is a line from a chant that we recite each day here at Gampo Abbey: May I be cheerful in the morning, kind in the afternoon, and inspired in the evening. That's a tall order! But something happens when we commit to starting over with our very next breath: we get glimpses of how precious each breath is, and how fleeting each moment is.

We all know these things in a heady way, but until we cultivate a meaningful experience of impermanence—in practice this involves being with the birth of each breath, its lifespan, and its passing awayimpermanence doesn't point us to preciousness; it points us to fear, grasping, and so on. 

Do you remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray's character does the same thing over and over, and along the way something happens without effort on his part: he becomes cheerful, kind, and inspired. That's the magic of starting over moment to moment, breath to breath. We can stop trying to manufacture peace and, instead, allow it to arise from the spaciousness of simply being still and breathing.

We sit not to become enlightened. We sit to remind ourselves that we already are.

Forget about enlightenment. 
Sit down wherever you are and listen to the wind that is singing 
in your veins. 
Feel the love, the longing and the fear in your bones. 
Open your heart to who you are, right now, not who you would like to be. 
Not the saint you’re striving to become, but the being right here before you, 
inside you, around you - All of you is holy. 
You’re already more and less than whatever you can know. 
Breathe out, look in, let go.
-John Welwood