Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing without pictures

I am enroute. Which means I am posting via the blogger app so adding cutesy pictures in is something I haven't quite figured out how to do. Neither, it would seem, have I figured out how to read a Massport schedule and showed up early for my 645 connection to Logan Airport only to discover that there is no such thing on the weekdays. The young woman behind the ticket counter called a cab for me so I could still make my 8am connection. However, the cab was late and I got on the 715 express and have written the whole thing off to adventuring.
When plans go wrong
I am surprisingly unfazed by the potential that all this will make me late to the Oasis program. It is a good example of what I have been learning in GO. While I still need to work on slowing myself down to think things through with all the details; I have become much more adept at the letting go of plans and expectations when they just don't work out. It is a triumph considering that just 6 years ago I would have been a stressed basket case full of blame and anxiety that I would have merrily carried throughout most of the week. One of the things I have learned is that you cannot avoid suffering in life, but you have far greater choice about what it is necessary to suffer with.
Transforming ideas into life
Now that lesson counts as Buddhism 101. The fact that suffering is inevitable. It is easy to learn the words, and even easier to adopt the delusion that having mastered those words and the practice of "letting go" when there is nothing Earth rattling to let go it that you are all set. It can be shocking when something happens that disproves one's perception of one's own development. Misreading a schedule isn't all that Earth rattling; but it easily can be.
Discovering safe harbor
You begin to develop the ability to bear suffering when you begin to discover the ability you have to sit with discomfort and within raw reality without trying to make it anything other than what it really is. Many people feel that meditative practices fail them, or that the Dharma is lacking or the Buddhist faith is not up to real life when they are confronted with suffering they cannot resolve. If one only meditates using breathing exercises, one has only learned how to breathe. Meditation is about discipline, not relaxation of calming. The latter can be a glorious byproduct and you never have to pursue more; but to reach the door where you can begin to peek at what living the dhamma means in life - you must develop the discipline to allow yourself to be challenged in ways that can be most uncomfortable.
But don't do this
By nature, we cannot create our own discomfort. Not even the most masochistic person can create true discomfort and challenge for themselves because the brain always demands context and reward. External teachings are always required to constantly shift and change to avoid the human brain from undermining the process of spiritual and mental development. The longer you practice one specific style of meditation, the less effective and more ego-controlled it becomes.
Which is why my shoulder hurts
In my new 28 day practice, I was all set to launch off into the same process as the one prior only to be corrected by my approach. Instead of being permitted to sit in mindful repose each day, I am challenge to a moving meditation that is requiring me to relearn all the basics about meditative breathing and centering. It is a challenge that is immediately revealing how easily I have fallen into habits that appear on the surface to be one thing - yet are very much not that.
It is a very slow and controlled moving meditation using a sword. My breathing must remain fully engaged and circular, I must mindfully shepherd my Qi within the balance of the movement and even at its slowest stage, I am never permitted to stop moving. All the while this is occurring I must control my thoughts and focus entirely on a section of the Diamond Sutra -

"All that has form is illusive and unreal,
If you see that all form is illusive and unreal
Then you will reveal your true buddha nature."

It has also revealed that I have become complacent and avoidant of certain physical therapy issues and my right shoulder threatens to become a frozen joint.
Ahhhh...the lessons we learn when we become willing.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Not with two hands and a flashlight

This weekend marked the close of the 28 day cycle I was on concerning the question of whether compassion and love were compatible. The best way I can describe what happened is there has been a monumental shift within me and somewhere in the cosmos, a bodhisattva is laughing. So I decided to do another cycle, only this time with a different question - how does virtue live?

If you want to do this along with me you are welcome too. Simply write the question down and put it in an envelope that you clearly label with the date - April 21, 2014 -  on the front and place it where you will see it everyday and often. Then, find 8 physical things and a meditation you want to do everyday. Here is something I have learned - don't set yourself up for failure by declaring that you are going to sit for such and such a time or do this and this number of repetitions of an exercise - make a list of what must be done and then let the reality of the day decide how much you can do. Next, do that every day and turn yourself outward to pay attention to the world as seen through that question, "how does virtue live?" You will be surprised at the education you will receive.

Don't read about virtue or meditate on it, you are the worst person to teach yourself and whatever you come up with in the privacy of your own head - or take in with the heavy filter of confirmation bias - is not going to do you much use. Instead, practice opening up and breathing, mindfully observing life around you and virtue will surprise you in how it speaks of how it has survived and what it needs to live on. It may even, given that for once your yammering about what it is has fallen silent, be able to tell you its story, who it is, what it looks like and more.

Whenever I use the word "you" in a post I mean it in a very global and personal sense. By "you" I mean "me" and I mean all of us. It is funny how much I have been reminded this past week of the adage - never assume you are the teacher. It is a powerful lesson that one needs to learn over and over especially if you are in a position of teaching or leading. We forget that we don't take in anything without delusion, my "right" is seen through my life. No matter how far you get in giving up self and becoming compassionate towards the world there is never a moment where you know what someone needs or what will help or what they should learn; all you know is that you have what you carry and your willingness to carry more and to give freely.  In many ways, some of my most powerful lessons in working within a world of need have come from the game of GO. In GO, if you ever think you are a master and better than others you are on your way to bitter disappointment. Not only will you most likely cause great harm to new players by destroying their joy in the game with your endless lessons and expertise, but in the moment that someone is better than you - part of your identity will be destroyed.

Identity is a curious thing. It plays a great role in how we corrupt and emasculate virtue. We call virtue out by words and think that because we can say them in a logical order that virtue is a living thing. Virtue, this I know, is a state. A very messy and unpleasant state.

Just as an aside, at some point this week or next I will try to tackle the delicate conversation about surgical violence and Buddhism. It has come up, albeit with a tremendous patronizing and irresponsible swipe - grandstanding I think is the term I am looking for. But before I get there I will leave you with one thing to let sink in

- karma isn't about you

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shouting in a Silent Room - Rethinking Meditation and Serious Mental Illness

Shouting in a Silent Room:
Rethinking Meditation and Serious Mental Illness
Cassandra Tribe, Master
Dragon Mountain Ch'an Temple and Zen Community Centre

Patriarch's Vision Vol 1 No 3
International Ch'an Buddhism Institute

Dusty is indolence.
Dust comes in its wake.
With knowledge and vigilance,
Draw the arrow of suffering from yourself.
Buddha Vacana

The use of movement and meditation within group recovery practices for persons with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) is a contentious practice in the United States. Part of the struggle comes from the problems inherent to this community and the other stems from the lack of practical and traditional training in meditation by the facilitators and program designers. A recent year-long initiative introduced a traditional program of Chan meditation and movement to a community centre for those with Serious Mental Illness to examine the viability of movement and meditation in a population identified by Any Mental Illness.  The hope was to gain a better understanding of the problems with meditation and Serious Mental Illness and to suggest what potential resolution could be.

What was discovered was that the majority of the problems associated with using meditation as a complementary or support practice with those with Serious Mental Illness stemmed from the inadequate training of the facilitators and program designers. It was not the result of anyone with a Serious Mental Illness being unable to manage their reaction to meditation. In examining why the training and programs were inadequate, the core problem stemmed from the Westernization of traditional Chan practice to increase its accessibility to Western culture has resulted in a dilution of its ability to be effective by making the current practices and mind-sets of facilitators too rigid to be able to respond to what is happening in the moment.

By further following the hypothesis that the principle of the mass line theory could be applied within this setting to correct the approach of the facilitator and the design of the program, an effective and supportive meditative practice could be developed and used by persons with Serious Mental Illness, as well as Any Mental Illness as it would be rooted in the traditional teachings and practices informed by the community involvement. It was also believed that by using the mass line results as a guiding tool a new program for training facilitators could be implanted to restore flexibility, presence, mindfulness, discipline and compassion to their education.
Where perception of danger lies, rigidity and exclusion thrive.

Two forces are at work in the social welfare system that has prohibited meditation from being effectively introduced as a supporting or complementary therapy for those with Serious Mental Illness and Any Mental Illness. The first is the standard declaration by the U.S. Department of Health that has discouraged the use of meditative practices with mentally ill consumers because of a perceived risk of dissociation, disturbance and inducement of psychosis or delusions. The second comes from the adaptation of the traditional Chan practices to popular alternative culture within the American society that has reduced the focus of the practice to one of self-focus and individualized experience. The lack of contextual study of the sutras, diligence in practice and the promotion of patient practice over a form of rapid achievement have allowed a diluted form of Buddhist practice to be embraced by the alternative culture. The unfortunate effect of going too far in adapting the traditional practice to a culture is that the meaning and effectiveness of the practice, with or without fidelity to the beliefs - has lost its ability to provide for a check for the mental stability, intent and methodology of the practitioners promoting it as a treatment for the reduction of stress and anxiety in those with mental disorders of any degree.

Rather than promote a more independent and freer interpretation of Buddhist practice and belief that leads to greater accessibility and application; the removal of discipline and structure has led to a preponderance of schools and practitioners that are more engaged with individualistic interpretations that cling to a kind of materialism and reject change, adaptability, flexibility and responsiveness as a value in community practice. The duality of sudden enlightenment and revelatory enlightenment of the Chan tradition has made it particularly susceptible to adoption by those who under less kind circumstances would be considered narcissistic seekers of a cult of personality.

Core to the identity of these practitioners is the presentation of meditation as having a specific goal, as well as all experiences and beliefs systems being but only differently voiced versions of the same universal experience. This individualistic and self-centred interpretation of traditional practice has gained a strong foothold in the Western world as it retains the individual as the centre of the essence of all cycles, removes the need for training and supervision, and establishes a role in which authority is not to be questioned or constructively criticized. When this is combined with the recent scientific studies of certain types of meditation that have quantitatively defined a physical effect for the practice - the result is the creation of a false behavioural operand that can only lead to failure, as well as harm when introduced to a marginalized and vulnerable community along with a complete invalidation of the social capital of marginalized communities by refusing them the value of their unique identifiers.

This phenomenon is not unique to the religion of Buddhism.  Unlike its companion trends in Christianity and Islam; the practices of the latter faiths are not being used by.... (read more  download the full journal article and issue here, or visit the ICBI for the latest issue)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Do you exist if no one can see you?

I am on my third and last 18 hour day of three consecutive 18 hour days bracketed by two 14 hours days.
I am doing fine. Last night, right before the Kung Fu class was supposed to begin, I ran around madly to clean up and vacuum. I vacuumed vigorously for 5 minutes before I noticed the cat was sitting there staring at me.

That struck me as odd. The Mad Kitten hates the vacuum cleaner and takes off like a bat out of hell when ever I vacuum. And here she was, in the same room while I had been vacuuming away for 5 minutes. Perhaps we had turned a corner.

Perhaps I had forgotten to turn on the vacuum cleaner. Turns out, the face of judgment was again her wonder at how I manage to survive in the world and have all the treats. I had been madly vacuuming with a vacuum I forgot to turn on. Three 18 hour days, two 14 hour days - I am doing fine.

I am running such a horrific schedule this week because things are going so well. Except for the fact that all the make up classes and workshops from cancelled nights due to snow have tumbled into this week, plus a new one started. Plus the deadlines for the papers and articles about the work at Oasis have arrived (one down and one to go, will pass on links to the journals in March). Plus the fact that we got a 2013 best of Providence for Martial Arts award and people are starting to want to come - this week -right now. Plus the fact that as the world turns, one of the things I do at Oasis has taken on a life of its own and become a business selling to the public with the profit supporting one of the programs there ( All of this has happened and suddenly rushed into one week - and I am doing fine. I can vacuum with my mind, its a new super power.

The question I posed to the new session of my workshop, Writing Your Self Into Life, was do you exist if no one can see you? But before you answer that, and before they could - we started to talk about the nature of vision. It is said that all animals have eyes that have evolved to help them survive. The King Fisher cannot see reflections on water, the better to spot the fish beneath it needs to survive. Nocturnal animals have better night vision because...well...they are nocturnal. Humans, the great us, the we - are unusual in that we are functionally blind. In fact, our wonder brains are so into eliminating unnecessary stimulus that we not only can't see our own noses, but we don't really know what we look like. Every time we look into the mirror, we are seeing a riot of memory, experience and hope - and rarely our face. The same is true when we look at someone else.

Now think about what this means when we look at another person. Think also what it means to how we see or perceive anything. There has been a lot in the press lately about how lazy our brains our, they jump to conclusions because they don't think paying attention to detail is important. In short, to be present and to see yourself - let alone anyone around you, takes diligence and work. Lots of work. It is not a skill can you acquire and have for life. It must be practiced every second you wish to be present.

But how important is it really to be present? I have talked a little about the necessity of delusion for preserving mental and spiritual health. If we saw the reality of life all the time, we would not survive. We are not so much driven to survive, as driven to imagine. And our vision has conveniently evolved to allow us to see in this way.

But what type of animal lives by imagination?
It is just a puzzle. Just a question.
Do you exist if no one can see you? Can you exist if you cannot even describe yourself?

The first session of the workshop focuses on how we have to have evidence outside of ourselves to prove that we are here, and who we are. Our self lies in our external details. This is also how we communicate with others. How we dress, the cars we drive, the way we walk, the way our houses look - are all mirrors to show us we are they. The people we fall in love with - mirrors to reflect our existence and who we believe we are.

What is beneath? What is there when take the external away?

That is a question that can't be answered, why? Because without our reflections - we would cease to exist.

A wise man once said, "You have so much to do, why waste your time on this?"

Oh yes, the first assignment for the workshop is to write a description of the room that is the waiting room to your soul - using only the details of what is and is not there to describe your soul.