Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Monday, July 7, 2008
Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness –- shut down one by one. An astonishing story.
If the embedded video above doesn't work for you, you can click on this link.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Update: If you would like to learn more about the three excellences, then you can read more and follow along with a fully guided meditation on the Dedication of Merit here.
The three ‘excellences’ (sometimes ‘supremes’, excellencies or ‘frames’) give us a framework in which to place our meditation practice. As a basic framework it is very simple, it just says that we should develop a ‘perfect’, ‘virtuous’ or ‘supreme’ beginning, middle and end to our practice.
The perfect beginning is to start with the Supreme Preparation by developing Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta translates as awakened heart-mind. We develop an awakened heart by practicing the four ‘immeasurables’ of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Notice that this practice opens our hearts to others, the best way to prepare for meditation.
During our practice we are to develop Supreme Attitude towards it. The supreme attitude is that of non-attachment to results. For many people this appears counter-intuitive – we might have come to meditate to relax, calm our minds, lower our blood-pressure or become enlightened – surely we should keep our minds on the goal? The reality is that if we become attached to the outcome, our grasping keeps us from entering the space where any of these fruits might occur. Our attitude should therefore be of non-attachment to results, simply doing the practice because that is what we have committed to ourselves, not holding out for a particular outcome. Doing this is incredibly liberating, and allows us to deepen our practice without the stress or distraction of grasping for specific results.
The final stage of our practice is the Supreme Conclusion – of giving away any merit or benefit we may have gained through this or any other practice. This underlines our non-attachment to results – if we have generated any result (‘merit’ as it is called in the writings), we selflessly offer it for the benefit of all living beings. There are many ways to do this, most traditions have a verse or chant for the dedication of merit. Here is a simple one that you can use in your practice:
May all beings — without limit, without end —
have a share in the merit just
and in whatever other merit I have made.
May they attain
and their radiant hopes be fulfilled.
Incorporating the three excellences can greatly deepen your practice, focusing you on working for the well-being of all others, and liberating you from the stress of trying to ‘achieve something’ in your practice. Look outwards, let go and be generous – that is the most excellent way to practice.
Monday, February 18, 2008
So what is “Metta Bhavana”? Metta is the Pali word for loving-kindness, goodwill, love or friendliness. Bhavana is the Pali word to cultivate, or to “make happen”. Metta Bhavana is thus the practice of cultivating loving-kindness.
The underlying idea here is that our emotions are choices. We aren’t just passive beings whose emotions spring up purely because of what happens to us. Instead, we can make choices about how we react and feel to what goes on around us. This is incredibly empowering. We don’t have to feel slaves to our emotions – we can learn to choose the emotions that are best for us.
Metta practice thus helps us get into the habit of choosing loving-kindness. This loving-kindness is special, in that it is unconditional. It is not dependent on how others behave, or what we hope to get in return. It just is.
Traditional Metta Bhavana practice goes through a specific series of steps. Here is an overview of the whole practice:
Calm your body and mind.
Take time to sit and relax in your posture, with a straight back and a firm connection with the chair or cushion. Allow your mind to calm, as thoughts arise acknowledge them and let them be.
Develop Metta for yourself.
We start by developing a feeling of loving-kindness or goodwill for ourselves. When you first start it may be helpful to start by recalling a time that you felt good about what you had achieved and your place in the world. Develop that positive feeling by repeating the mantra “May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering”. Then acknowledge that you deserve to feel that for yourself even when things aren’t going so well, even if you feel lost or that you’ve messed up. Practice giving yourself Metta, unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a friend.
In the next step we bring to mind a friend, someone who is easy to feel positively about. When you start it is best to choose someone who you don’t have any ‘complex’ feelings for, so initially avoid anyone you are attracted to, or who is dead, or who you have complex family relationships with. Again, offer them Metta, reciting the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. As you do so, you will probably be reminded of some of their quirks or faults, but still offer them Metta, understanding that you give Metta not because of what they do, or what you personally get out of the relationship, but you give it unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a neutral person.
We now bring to mind a ‘neutral’ person, someone who we can recall, but who we know nothing or little about. Maybe it’s a person who works at the supermarket check-out, maybe it’s someone you pass on your way to work. Whoever it is, offer them Metta, again reciting the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. Remind yourself that this Metta is unconditional – you know nothing about this person, they could be a saint or a criminal, but you still offer them Metta unconditionally.
Develop Metta for a difficult person.
We now bring to mind a ‘difficult person’ – traditionally and ‘enemy’. This is someone who we find it hard to feel good about, for whatever reason. Yet we offer them Metta in the same way, unconditionally, regardless of what they have done or what the effects of their actions have been on us personally. Again we repeat the mantra “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering”. Again, it is unconditional.
Bring them all together.
We now bring all four players together, imagining that we are standing together with them in a room. Our self, the friend, the neutral person and the difficult person. We offer each person Metta in turn, noticing our feelings as we do so. We try to equalize the feeling between each person (including our self), so as to make it truly unconditional.
Spread Metta to all sentient beings.
The final stage of Meta practice is to gradually expand the circle of those who we are offering Metta to. We give Metta to those in the town we are in, then spread outward to the state, the country, all countries, the whole world, out to the whole universe, wishing that all sentient beings everywhere be well, happy and free from suffering – unconditionally.
Metta Bhavana practice is a very powerful practice, and as you work with it you will change the way you look at the world and interact with the people in it. It can be a difficult practice, so don’t feel discouraged if you struggle with any of the steps. Keep at it – you will slowly build a habit to “choose Metta”.
The full Lovingkindness Practice (Metta Bahavana) is a highly structured one which leads us through the process of generating unconditional lovingkindness to all ‘sentient beings’. The understanding is that all beings suffer, and that as we are all deeply connected then it is right that we wish them all to be well, happy and free from the causes of suffering.
The full practice leads us through this in a number of stages:
1. The generation of feelings of lovingkindness (Metta) for ourselves
2. Developing lovingkindness for a friend
3. Developing lovingkindness for a ‘neutral’ person
4. Developing lovingkindness for an ‘enemy’
5. Bringing all four people together and equalizing the feelings of metta
6. Sending that unconditional lovingkindness to all beings in all directions
This is a powerful meditation practice that can take half an hour – or a whole lifetime.
The basic fact is that humanity survives through kindness, love and compassion. That human beings can develop these qualities is their real blessing. – His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Metta for a Friend:
For the moment we will just concentrate on taking the feelings of metta and applying them to a ‘friend’. Traditionally this person is called the ‘ally’ or ‘benefactor’. It is important to understand in this practice that we bring to mind in the early stages real people who we know. Before embarking on the practice we should choose a specific person who we generally feel good about. Some guidelines on the choice will help. Firstly, choose someone who is currently alive who you know well. Be careful for the moment not to choose someone who you have complicated feelings about – it is best not to choose parents or children, or anyone who you are emotionally or physically attracted to (in the literature these relationships are called ‘sticky’). The reason for choosing a ‘non-sticky’ person as we start the practice is so that we can focus on metta, and not get caught up in the complexities of the relationship. Metta can be a lifetime practice, so you will have the opportunity to work the ‘sticky’ people into your practice as you progress.
The practice then is to first generate feelings of metta for yourself, then to bring to mind your friend. You wish that person to be well, as you did for yourself, and you focus on how that wish is unconditional. It is not based on what that person has done, or what that person can do for you. It is based purely on the fact that that person deserves to be well, happy and free from suffering. Again, as you practice metta for a friend notice the tone of your feelings, and work on replicating or equalizing the feeling you had for yourself and the wishes you are offering your friend.
Practice: Metta for My Friend.
This meditation is designed to develop the ability to build the same feelings of metta for another person by starting with a friend.
Start by settling into your meditation position and gaining focus through mindfulness of the breath. Now, begin to develop feelings of lovingkindness for yourself. Tell yourself that you deserve that feeling of happiness in all of your life, regardless of the mistakes you make or situations you find yourself in. Repeat the mantram ‘May I be well, May I be happy’ and try to let go of any negative feelings, realizing that you deserve to feel well and happy – unconditionally. Now bring to mind your friend, and apply the same mantram to your friend – ‘may you be well, may you be happy’. Observe your own feelings as you do so, and meditate on the fact that your friend deserves to be well, happy, free of fear and free of suffering unconditionally – not because they are a good person, or because you want them as a friend, but just because they are human.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Metta is a Pali word that is usually translated as ‘Lovingkindness’. Strictly speaking it can also be translated more simply as ‘love’, but in the West we are so hung up about the passionate or sentimental aspects of love that it is not so useful. Thus we use the rather cumbersome ‘lovingkindness’ when introducing the concept of Metta. In reality, part of the value of Metta meditation practice is that you will explore and learn your own meaning for ‘Metta’. We develop feelings of Metta by unconditionally wishing that people are well, happy and free from danger – no matter who they are.
A pearl goes up for auction. No one has enough, so the pearl buys itself – Rumi
Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned. Like the pearl, love can only buy itself, because love is not a matter of currency or exchange. No one has enough to buy it, but everyone has enough to cultivate it. Metta re-unites us with what it means to be alive and unbound – From ‘Lovingkindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness’ Sharon Salzberg
The Sublime Abodes:
Metta is part of what is known as the four ‘Brahma-Viharas’, which translates as the ‘Sublime Abodes’. The reason they are called this is based on the belief that our emotions are states of mind that we choose – not things that happen to us. So, instead of saying ‘Fred made me angry’, we should say ‘Fred did this, and I chose to be angry’. This is not how we normally behave, but if we can make this shift in our approach, then we ourselves can be much happier by choosing that our mind dwell in positive mind-states, or the ‘heavenly abodes’. The four abodes are:
• Metta – Lovingkindness
• Karuna – Compassion
• Mudita – Joy in others’ success
• Upekka – Equanimity
Traditionally, the practice we will be learning is called the ‘Metta Bahavana’ – ‘Making Lovingkindness Happen’. Again, this is based on the understanding that our emotions are our own choices.
Metta for Ourselves:
In the full Metta practice we progress through developing feelings for ourselves, our friends, people we don’t know well, our enemies and finally all sentient beings. Metta meditation is truly a life-long practice! We start, though, with the foundation, which is to generate feelings of Metta for ourselves. Many people find this the hardest part. The most important thing to remember is that Metta is unconditional. Regardless of how you feel about yourself, we need to root ourselves in the belief that we deserve to be well, happy, free of danger and free of fear. So, thoughts about our issues and inadequacies have no place in this meditation – you deserve to be well and happy, unconditionally.
Practice: Metta for Myself:
This meditation is designed to allow us to start to feel what Metta really means, by directing feelings of lovingkindness to ourselves.
Start by settling into your meditation position and gaining focus through mindfulness of the breath. Now bring to mind a time, place or situation where you were truly happy, comfortable with your place in the world and what you were doing. Work with that image and notice the feeling you get. Now, maintaining that feeling as best you can, tell yourself that you deserve that feeling of happiness in all of your life, regardless of the mistakes you make or situations you find yourself in. Repeat the mantram ‘May I be well, May I be happy’ and try to let go of any negative feelings, realizing that you deserve to feel well and happy – unconditionally.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
The Mindfulness of Breathing meditation we have practiced is a form of Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is often translated as ‘Insight’, ‘Mindfulness’ or ‘Awareness’, but the most telling translation is ‘Seeing things as they really are’. When we sit in Vipassana we are working towards developing an understanding of our minds, our bodies and the world around us that is free from the delusions and constructs that we normally cling to.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion. – from Vipassana Society Website.
As such, Vipassana cannot be taught, but can only be gained from the practice of meditation and the experiences we have. In the stories of the Buddha (which means, literally, ‘The Awake One’), there is a tale of a time when He silently held up a flower in front of a group of followers. Immediately one of the followers understood, and was enlightened.
The inventor Buckminster Fuller was fond of holding up his hand and asking people, “What is this?” Invariably, they would respond, “It’s a hand.” He would then point out that the cells that made up that hand were continually dying and regenerating themselves. What seems tangible is continually changing: in fact, a hand is completely re-created within a year or so. So when we see a hand—or an entire body or any living system—as a static “thing,” we are mistaken. “What you see is not a hand,” said Fuller. “It is a ‘patterned integrity,’ the universe’s capability to create hands.” – Recounted by Peter Senge in ‘Presence’.
We can start our Vipassana practice on the cushion, but the hope is to be able to see everything as it really is.
One of the tricks our mind uses to keep us from being aware of the reality around us is to keep the mind busy, chattering and wandering. Our Mindfulness of Breathing practice is a way to keep the mind centered and focused. Paying attention to the minutiae of the breathing process builds an awareness of our body and the way it works, and the relationship we have with it. Once you have a feel for this kind of focus you can apply it to everyday tasks – from eating your cereal in the morning to walking. Slowing down our pace, removing distractions and taking the time to really be present is a great step forward in ‘seeing things as they really are’.
Practice: How Did I Get Here?
This meditation helps us to start to see the complex web of interconnections that we are part of. One of the great insights of meditation is how none of us are independent, but that we are all intricately connected to each other.
Start by practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing. When you get to the point of dwelling in the moment, totally present and aware of your breath, allow your mind to ask the question ‘How did I get here?’ Start with the mundane, ‘By Car’, then gently peel back the circumstances, relationships, meetings, happenings that led to you being here. All the while keep you mind centered on your breath, being very aware of the present.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
The core of Buddhist thought is captured in the four noble truths, the first of which is: "Life is dukkha". Dukkha is a Sanskrit word which is usually translated as 'suffering', although it is generally agreed that this is too narrow an interpretation. Often the rather clumsy translation of 'unsatisfactory' is used. Probably the best translation I have heard is the colloquialism: "Life Sucks".
The origin of the word 'dukkha' alludes to a squeaky potter's wheel. I find this a far more enlightening image - life is out of balance, and that causes it to be unsatisfactory, full of suffering, and generally 'sucky'. Those of us who are Reggio/Glass fans will recognize the concept in the Hopi Indian word Koyaanisqatsi.
I find that some people are turned off by the fact that Buddhism has this concept of dukkha at its core. I have been told that people feel that this focus on suffering is negative and unhelpful.
A few years ago Benjamin Hoff's book, The Tao of Pooh popularized the old picture of the 'Vinegar Tasters'. The picture shows Confucius, The Buddha and Lao Tse (representing Taoism) tasting some vinegar. Confucius tastes the vinegar as sour, The Buddha as bitter, and Lao Tse tastes it as sweet. The usual interpretation of this image is that Confucianism sees the world as sour, and in need of structure, rules and regulations to make it better. Buddhism sees the world as bitter - full of pain and suffering, and Taoism sees the world as sweet, fundamentally good if appreciated properly. This is, of course, a biased and simplistic view, but it is true that Buddhism sees our experience of dukkha as core.
So do I feel that the focus on dukkha is problematic? Not at all. Buddhism never promises to be an easy, happy-clappy self-help path. People often forget the rest of the four noble truths. To paraphrase, they are:
- Life is suffering (dukkha)
- Suffering is caused by our attachment and aversion
- We can be free from suffering
- The way to be free from suffering is by following the path known as the Eightfold path
To me, the third noble truth is the key. We can be free from suffering, from this 'unsatisfactoriness' we experience in this life. As Kusala Bhikshu says, "Suffering is Optional".
The radical thing here is that the cause of dukkha is identified as our attachment and aversion. This is not how we normally approach life. We usually think we will suffer less if we have more of what we like, and less of what we don't like. And yet that approach is exactly what causes suffering. We need to move beyond our attachment to 'the good' and aversion to 'the bad'.
I find the message of Buddhism one of great joy. The suffering and unsatisfactoriness of this life is optional. We know the cause of suffering, and we know why our usual attempts to ease our suffering don't work. And we've been given a path to decrease our suffering.
Whether or not you are a Buddhist, you can turn your life around by recognizing that our attachment to things causes our suffering. And the eightfold path? Well, I'll go into that in another post, but it's good to know that meditation is a part of that path.