Saturday, October 17, 2020

Like an Instrument
Meditation for Sunday October 18th

Like an Instrument


There's a well-known sutta that documents the doubts and eventual enlightenment of the monk Soṇa, commonly called the 'Soṇa Sutta.' It's a fun sutta as it packs in everything, including teleportation, hints on how to become enlightened and some solid guidance on how to meditate when practice is hard.

It's this latter guidance that is usually brought out. In a nutshell, Soṇa is practicing hard but not really feeling like he is getting anywhere. Sounds familiar? This is how we initially find our hapless hero:

As Ven. Soṇa was meditating in seclusion [after doing walking meditation until the skin of his soles was split & bleeding], this train of thought arose in his awareness: “Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents through lack of clinging/sustenance. Now, my family has enough wealth that it would be possible to enjoy wealth & make merit. What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?”
You can probably relate. There are times when we all feel like we are making the effort but not making any 'progress,' whatever that might mean. And realizing that this is where Soṇa is the Buddha comes to him and says this:

“Just now, as you were meditating in seclusion, didn’t this train of thought appear to your awareness: ‘Of the Blessed One’s disciples who have aroused their persistence, I am one, but my mind is not released from the effluents.… What if I were to disavow the training, return to the lower life, enjoy wealth, & make merit?’”

“Yes, lord.”

“Now what do you think, Soṇa? Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vīṇā?”

“Yes, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too taut, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were too loose, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“No, lord.”

“And what do you think? When the strings of your vīṇā were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vīṇā in tune & playable?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In the same way, Soṇa, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there pick up your theme.”
This simple instruction is incredibly profound and can have a powerful effect on our practice. Just like Soṇa and his vīṇā (or lute) we can approach our practice as, well, practice (as an aside here - in England we differentiate between practice the noun and practise the verb, so I could have said we can approach our practice as practise).

I like this shift in focus. Rather than seeing our practice as a chore to be completed, we can see it as an opportunity to explore, to experiment and to grow. I believe that reclaiming this sense of exploration is essential if we are to stay motivated on the path.

And so, having received this encouragement our hero Soṇa returned to his practice in this way:

So after that, Ven. Soṇa determined the right pitch for his persistence, attuned the pitch of the five faculties to that, and there picked up his theme.
I find this expression 'there picked up his theme' fascinating. Having received the instruction he was able to find the right balance in his practice and 'pick up his theme.' It's a wonderful metaphor for how we wish our practice to be.

So for all of us I hope we can find that true balance in our practice and each of us 'find our theme.' Especially when it seems hard to stay with it.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided audio meditation on approaching our practice 'like an instrument.' You can of course listen at any time you wish, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 18th October. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Soṇa Sutta translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/AN/AN6_55.html
Photo by Vince Russell on Unsplash

Saturday, October 10, 2020

For Thầy
(Meditation for Sunday 11th October)

 

For Thầy

 
If you ask those following a meditative path who their most influential teachers have been then you will start to see a pattern where a few names come up over and over again. And one of those names will undoubtedly be Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, or 'Thầy' ('teacher') as he is often known has for many of us been one of our most treasured teachers. His insight, compassion and clarity of teaching has been a blessing to us all, and I can personally say that I feel privileged to have been alive at the same time as him. I have never met him, and yet his books and teachings have been deeply important to me - and I am sure many of you reading this can say the same.

This Sunday, the 11th, marks his 94th birthday (or 'continuance day' as some in his tradition say). This week there have been conflicting reports on his health. Six years ago he suffered a brain hemorrhage and has been fragile since. A couple of years ago he returned to his homeland of Vietnam a final time and has been living at Từ Hiếu Temple for "his remaining days."

But for now I want to focus on the great joy and insight that he has given us in his life. Reading all that he has accomplished is special enough alone - but for me the real testament to Thầy is the sheer number of people who have stories about how his teachings have touched them.

For me one of the most influential things he has taught me is a small, simple poem. He introduces it in his book 'Being Peace' in this way:

From time to time, to remind ourselves to relax, to be peaceful, we may wish to set aside some time for a retreat, a day of mindfulness, when we can walk slowly, smile, drink tea with a friend, enjoy being together as if we are the happiest people on Earth. This is not a retreat, it is a treat. During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

 'Breathing in, I calm my body.' This line is like drinking a glass of ice water-you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.
 'Breathing out, I smile.' You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.
 'Dwelling in the present moment.' While I sit here, I don't think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend be alive in the future, not now. We say, 'Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive.' When we have it, and it's not easy to get, we say to ourselves, 'I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.' And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don't know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.
 'I know this is a wonderful moment.' This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most wonderful task. 'Calming, Smiling, Present moment, Wonderful moment.' I hope you will try it.
I, too, hope you will try it. I have linked below a short audio meditation using this poem which you are welcome to use if you wish. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 11th October - Thầy's birthday. It seems like a fitting thing to do.
 
I hope that this finds you all well and happy,
Metta, Chris.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Photo by Duc (pixiduc) from Paris, France.





Saturday, October 3, 2020

Why Metta is Important
(Meditation for Sunday 4th October)

Why Metta is Important


One of the hardest things I am finding writing these messages at the moment is keeping a focus on why all of this is important. It is easy to feel that with everything that is happening right now meditation and the cultivation of lovingkindness is a 'luxury' - nice to have but there are much more important things going on that should be our focus.

Of course we all know that this way of thinking couldn't be more wrong. When things are difficult a focus on generating love for all beings is the most important thing we can do. As I often say after we practice metta meditation, we all can agree that if everyone else was more loving the world would be a better place. The reality is though that we can only make our self more loving. That is what we should strive for.

While it is easy to get carried along with the current narrative of anger, hatred, suspicion and division we have the opportunity to do something truly radical - to stand out and instead speak lovingly from the heart.

We are told this in the Dhammapada:
'He    insulted me,
    hit me,
    beat me,
    robbed me'
 — for those who brood on this,
    hostility isn't stilled.

'He insulted me,
hit me,
beat me,
robbed me' —
for those who don't brood on this,
    hostility is stilled.

Hostilities aren't stilled
    through hostility,
    regardless.
Hostilities are stilled
through non-hostility:
    this, an unending truth.

Unlike those who don't realize
that we're here on the verge
    of perishing,
those who do:
    their quarrels are stilled.
In the current climate this can be challenging - which is why we do the practice. Our days are spent seeing others telling us that we should be angry, that we should hate and blame. Our most important action can be to choose otherwise, and to cultivate metta, lovingkindness instead. Hostilities aren't stilled through hostility but through non-hostility. This is an unending truth.
 
This is something we all have to cultivate. It isn't something that just happens, or that we just declare, it is something we have to work on. As Gospel Singer Graham Kendrick wrote:
Teach me to love the unlovely O Lord
I don’t know how to do it
Teach me to love the impossible people
I really don’t like
I don’t naturally take to some folks
I can’t make out the way that they are
I just don’t understand other people who aren’t like me at all
This is the work we need to do, and it is hard. The practice of Metta Bhavana - cultivating unconditional love for all beings - is a difficult but powerful one. And I can't really think of anything more important right now.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided audio meditation on why cultivating metta is important. If you are new to metta meditation or are rusty then this might be a good one for you to try. A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday October 4th. You can of course listen at any time, but you are also welcome to join us then if you wish.

Please feel free to share this letter and the meditation with anyone you wish.



"Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Banksy Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Lute
(Meditation for Sunday 27th September)


The Lute

(Or: How Did I Get Here?)

As we navigate through this strange year a common sentiment has been 'how did we get here?' Whether we are talking about the pandemic, police brutality, civil unrest, wildfires, air quality or a divisive election it is natural for us all to want answers. Why is this happening? Who is to blame?

There are may pundits out there who will happily take your money or your clicks and offer you a simple solution, from Chinese markets to bad apples to protestors to conspiracy to... There is no shortage of theories, hunches and guesses as to what 'the one thing' to blame is.

In reality, of course, none of what is troubling us has a simple cause. Everything that happens comes about because of a wide number of precedents. So while any of the events, people or theories may be contributory causes to our situation it is never as simple as 'this happened because of X.' We all know this, but it still feels comforting to be able to explain and solely blame X - especially if X is something or someone we never liked anyway.

This desire to find a single, simple cause and ignore the complexities of a system is not new. The practices of scapegoating and witch-hunts have been around for centuries.

All of this stems from our common delusion that things exist in isolation, and that simple, singular causes can be found for everything. One of my favorite stories that The Buddha told is that of The King and the Lute:
"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'
I love this story both for the humor and the clear message. It is easy to see how we make the same mistakes, how we look for something to have independent existence and simple causes. And this doesn't only apply to current events or challenges in our lives but also to ourselves - recognizing that we don't exist independently from those around us, our culture and our society.
 
So how do we develop this insight? The Vina Sutta continues:
"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."
We are encouraged to work with our own thoughts and experience in the same way that the king did with the lute. Not because by doing so we will find the solid answer, but because by doing so we will find that like the music nothing exists independent of everything else.

If you would like to practice this yourself I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the Lute and 'how did I get here?' You are welcome to listen any time you wish, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 27th September. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

Wishing you all a good week,
Metta, Chris.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
"Vina Sutta: The Lute" (SN 35.205), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

 

 

 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Filled with Joy
Meditation for Sunday 20th September


 Filled with Joy

 
This week I read a beautiful quote from Lama Zopa Rinpoche that I would like to share with you:
There’s Only Space for Joy... 
If something is difficult—think of the benefits. You should take difficulties as an ornament, not a burden. So in life there’s not one second to be depressed, no place, no space – only joy, happiness more than the sky.
With everything that is going on at the moment I keep on coming back to the importance and centrality of joy. I have already written a couple of articles about this, and I guess I will do so again. The more that we are challenged by what is going on around us the more that we need to return to, and choose, the four immeasurable qualities of Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity.

We see around us many people being overcome with fear, division and anger - even turning into outright hatred. It is easy to see why, and I am sure that we have all felt some of this ourselves as we have been challenged by all that has happened this year. It can be hard to be joyful.

Rinpoche gives us a clue to how we should approach this, by only allowing space for joy. We can choose to allow ourselves to be driven into negative states, or we can be so full of joy that we have no space for them.

Of course this is easier said than done, and I know that I am much less than a ray of sunshine some of the time! Yet we can all set an intention to cultivate more joy, even in these times.

The wonderful teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful piece titled 'This Silence is Called great Joy", which you can read here. In it he contemplates this old Buddhist gatha:
All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.
In this piece he speaks directly to how we might work in the current troubled situation. He encourages us to look at things in this way:
So it is crucial to look deeply at your thoughts and your views. What are you holding on to? Whether you are an artist or a businessperson, a parent or a teacher, you have your views about how to live your life, how to help other people, how to make your country prosperous, and so on. When you are attached to these views, to the idea of right and wrong, then you may be get caught. When your thinking is caught in these views, then you create misunderstanding, anger, and violence. That is what you are becoming in this very moment.

When you are mindful of this and can look deeply, you can produce thoughts that are full of love and understanding. You can make yourself and the world around you suffer less.
The story here is the same -- that we can allow negative emotions to arise by clinging to an idea of how things 'should' be, or we can choose love, joy, compassion and equanimity.

As I am writing this (on Friday evening) I have just learned that RBG has passed away. Of course my initial thoughts are sadness at the loss of such an important and inspiring individual. And then comes the fear of what the outcome may be, the ways that this can lead to more division and strife in our country. But I can choose to be filled with joy that she was here on this earth, and for all we have gained from her life and example.

I'm going to choose to be filled with joy. Hopefully there won't be room for anything else.

 Mudita, Chris.
 
I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on cultivating joy. A few of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday, September 20th. You are welcome to join us if you wish.
 

If the above player doesn't work for you, please click here.

 Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash

 

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

All is Aflame
(Meditation for Sunday September 13th)

 

All is Aflame

It is very strange here in the Northwest right now. There are many massive wildfires in the area and the sky is an eerie orange-yellow throughout the region. Many communities have been engulfed or threatened by the fires, with losses of life and property and a threat to the health of all who have to be outside for any reason. And this pattern is repeating in other parts of the country as well. Our hearts truly go out to all of those who have been or will be affected by this latest, additional, challenge.

For obvious reasons my mind turned earlier this week to the well-known 'Fire Sermon' that the Buddha gave. This is a lovely piece that can be read at many different levels, and which contains a wealth of wisdom that is highly relevant to us today.

In a nutshell, the Buddha is talking to a group of seekers who had previously worshiped fire and who practiced a fire ritual. Because of this he uses the metaphors of flames and burning to deliver his message. It covers how our senses and our minds interact with the world and how we then allow our passion, aversion and delusion to ignite. One passage that I think is highly relevant to today says:

The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

This is not saying that Intellect and Ideas are bad, or even that they are in themselves harmful. What causes suffering is when we allow ourselves to become aflame with passion, aversion and delusion. We are living in a time when this is front and center in our lives, where we see media of all sorts burning with division, ignorance and hatred. The devil nowadays not only has 'all the good tunes,' but also the best video production values as well. As Stephen Colbert says, we no longer care about the truth, but instead demand that what we see or read is 'truthy' - something that feels like it should be the truth. What becomes popular (and believed) is not that which speaks truth, but that which most effectively evokes our passions.

Of course, having laid out the problem that all is aflame, the Buddha goes on to explain how we can move beyond that and extinguish these flames If you aren't familiar with the piece you may be surprised with how we are taught to extinguish the fire. We are told that a person manages to extinguish the flames by doing the following:

 He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain: He grows disenchanted with that too. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, 'Fully released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'

Now when I first read this I found it strange, that we would be exhorted to become 'disenchanted.' It seemed strange that we should be cultivating what comes as second-nature to every teenager! But looking deeper, what it is saying that we need to let go of our enchantment with our ideas, our intellect our feelings. The truth is that we become enchanted by our beliefs, by our passions - and that we need to become disenchanted in order to stop them having a hold on us. This is the path to freedom.

I hope that you all manage to stay safe and healthy over the coming week. And maybe a little disenchanted, too.

Metta, Chris.

For our meditation this week I have done something a little different. Rather than linking a previously recorded session I have recorded a new meditation. In the recording I read the full Fire Sermon, and then we do our usual 30 minute meditation. I read the passage again during the meditation. Hopefully this will allow you to meditate on the piece. Let me know what you think of this slightly different approach.

A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 13th September. You are welcome to join with us then if you wish.



"Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon" (SN 35.28), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013
Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Nothing to Achieve
Meditation for Sunday 6th September

 

Nothing to Achieve

 
Earlier this week I was listening to a radio comedy (the wonderful Cabin Pressure) and one of the characters started singing the old song "We're Busy Doing Nothing." You probably know it, but the lyrics go:
We're busy doin' nothin'
Workin' the whole day through
Tryin' to find lots of things not to do
We're busy goin' nowhere
Isn't it just a crime
We'd like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time.
As a kid I loved this song, but something about it always felt a little, well, subversive. As a fully paid up member of the Type-A club I was taught (and believed) that happiness came from industry and application. Singing about doing nothing felt quite 'naughty.'

The problem with the way we focus on achievement is that we are always striving. This in itself is a form of clinging - to some unknown future state where we will be 'improved.' This is most famously expressed in the story of the Fisherman and the Businessman, where the businessman exhorts the fisherman to work hard to grow his business into an enterprise so that he can - eventually - retire and enjoy exactly the life he has right now.

We can make the same mistake with our meditation, by striving for some kind of achievement and clinging to an ideal of a state we want to get to. We might see others who we assume are further along on their path and be envious of their achievements. We might beat ourselves up that somehow we haven't achieved the level of calm that we think we should have. In short, like the businessman, we cling to some imagined future and ignore where we are right now.

So our best approach to meditation is to let go of the focus on achievement and to just 'be' with how we are and where our mind is. To sit and enjoy the now.

With this long weekend I'd like to encourage you all to achieve nothing. You never know, by doing so you might not have the time to be unhappy.

Metta, Chris.

Below is a fully guided audio meditation on having Nothing to Achieve. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 6th September - you are welcome to join us if you wish.


Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dantikā Sees an Elephant
(Meditation for Sunday August 30th)


 Dantikā Sees an Elephant

 Recently I was introduced to a beautiful book of poetry by Matty Weingast called The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. It's a poetic retelling of the verses in the Therīgāthā or Poems of the Elder Nuns. This is a collection of short poems, dating from around 600 BCE to 300 BCE and first written down around 80 BCE. What is so fascinating is that we get a beautiful and intimate view onto the lives of the nuns at that time - and it won't surprise you to know that many of their joys, struggles and achievements feel fresh and relevant to us today.

One of the poems that struck me in the book was "Dantikā and the Elephant." Here is Ajahn Ṭhānissaro's translation of the same poem:

Coming out from my day’s abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of the river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.
A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.
Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind—
why I’d gone to the woods
in the first place.
There is so much to learn from this small but deep poem, and I would encourage you to meditate on it for a while. What struck me first was that having spent much time meditating on the mountain it was a mundane observation that caused her insight. Now for you and I if we walked in the woods and saw an elephant that would be a huge deal! But I am assuming for Dantikā it wasn't so unusual. What struck her was the relationship between the man and the elephant. And having spent the day meditating the insight of the relationship she had with her mind was particularly enlightening. As she says, this is why she'd gone to the woods in the first place.

We often think of the meditation cushion as a special, separate place where we can work with our minds. And of course, in many ways it is - but just as important as the cushion is what happens when we get up off of it. In the woods Dantikā learned about her relationship with her mind from observing a man and an elephant. Our learning, our insight continues when we go to the woods, go to the store or walk down the street.

Wishing you all insight in the coming week,

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on working with our thoughts. You can of course listen at any time, but a few of us have committed to press play together at 7pm PT Sunday 30th August. You are welcome to join with us if you wish.



If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
 

Photo by Felix M. Dorn on Unsplash


Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Story of Ferdinand
Meditation for Sunday 23rd August

 

The Story of Ferdinand

 
Earlier this week I was reminded of 'The Story of Ferdinand' - a beautiful children's book first published in 1936, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.

As a child I loved this book, and read it over and over. There was something about the story that really spoke to me. I wanted to be Ferdinand.

If you aren't familiar with the book it tells the story of a young bull who loves sitting in the shade of his favorite tree, smelling the flowers. One day, due to an unfortunate circumstance, he is chosen to be the main bull in Madrid's bullfight. I'm not going to say more in case you want to read it for yourself (which I recommend). However there is something so pure and inspiring about a strong and healthy bull preferring to smell flowers and sit in the shade rather than fight. It truly is a deep and touching story.

And it turns out that I'm not the only one who thinks so. After being reminded of the book earlier this week I did a little bit of digging and found out that the book had been both influential and controversial since its publication 84 years ago, and continues to be today. The book has been repeatedly banned, was burned by the Nazis and reportedly was declared by Gandhi to be his favorite children's book.

All because a bull preferred to be calm and smell the flowers rather than fight.

I think for me it was the desire for calm that most spoke to me as a child. I am not a naturally calm person, and to see a character in a story that dwelt in such calm - even when being attacked - gave me something to aspire to. In many ways Ferdinand was my Gandhi.
 
Calmness is something we can all cultivate, and I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on practicing samatha (calmness). A group of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday August 23rd. You are welcome to join us then, or listen at any time you wish.
 
Wishing you calm amid the craziness in the coming week,
Chris.

If you would like to follow me down this flower-lined rabbit hole, then there is an excellent New Yorker article that summarizes much of the controversy over the years. There was a Walt Disney short made in 1938 that follows the book fairly closely. Apparently an Oscar-nominated feature film was made a few years ago but I haven't seen it yet. And this Antiques Roadshow feature was the stimulus for me revisiting the book this week. Enjoy getting to know Ferdinand!
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Illustration by Robert Lawson.


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Staying Cool
Meditation for Sunday 16th August

 Staying Cool


It's hot here right now in the Northwest. We are under a 'heat advisory' and it is forecast to get up to 103°F (39°C). It's really quiet outside, nobody really wants to be out in this.

Now if you are reading this in Phoenix you are probably laughing right now as you look at your forecast of 115°F (46°C), but trust me, this is hot for us.

The reality is that living where we live we experience a wide range of weather. That's what life in the Northwest is like. It gets hot in the summer (and is getting hotter overall) and cold in the winter. But the weather is what it is. If we complain or grouse about it we do nothing but make ourselves more miserable. The weather doesn't listen to us.

We all have preferences when it comes to weather. Personally I prefer cool sunny spring days (and this area is beautiful when it is like that). But expecting the weather to be like that all the time is not only foolish but short sighted. If we didn't have the extensive rain then this place wouldn't be as beautiful as it is.

Of course we all know this, but it is still an important lesson for us. In every aspect of our lives we need to move beyond preference, and accept that sometimes there are things that we can't change, that are just how the world is. As the Serenity Prayer says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

As we move beyond preference we begin to cultivate equanimity. Andrew Olendzki says in his wonderful article "The Mindfulness Wedge":

The mind is habitually caught up in some very deep reflexes of craving and aversion. Wanting what pleases us and wanting to do away with what causes us distress is part of a primordial operating system that has served all creatures on this earth quite well for aeons. Buddhism is pointing to an evolutionary step requiring us to abandon this reflex and replace it with a more mature mental state: equanimity. Classical mindfulness, unlike popular mindfulness, is all about the cultivation of equanimity. One is able to experience both pleasure and pain without clinging to anything in the world. One can be aware of what is gratifying and distressing, and still abide independent, not needing things to be other than they are.
This is the secret to 'staying cool' - 'not needing things to be other than they are.' This is equanimity.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on equanimity and 'staying cool.' A few of us have committed to pressing 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday August 16th. You are welcome to join us if you wish, or of course you can listen on your own at any time.

May you all be well and 'cool' in these times,

Metta, Chris.

If the above link doesn't work for you please click here.
 

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash


Saturday, August 8, 2020

Ten Directions
Meditation for Sunday August 9th

Ten Directions

We all aspire to be more loving, to have more compassion and goodwill for all humanity. It is actually a really easy thing to declare that we have love for all people, that we wish everyone well.

Of course the difficulty comes when we move from the general to the specific. We can claim to love all the children of the world, yet harbor angry thoughts for the child kicking our airplane seat from behind us. We can declare our wish for the well-being of all people and yet wish ruin on that politician we cannot abide. Going from the generic to the specific is always the hard part. As Linus famously observes in Schulz's Peanuts, "I love mankind - it's people I can't stand."

This is the reason that in the practice of Metta Bhavana (cultivation of lovingkindness) we explicitly start with the specific. We start by practicing the generation of love and goodwill to four specific people. Our self, a (specific) friend, a (specific) neutral person and a (specific) enemy. It is only by working with the specific that we can understand the limits and edges of our ability to love. If you start with the general, with 'all people,' it is easy to convince yourself that you do truly love all beings. But 'all beings' includes all those specific people, the ones that give you trouble. That's why the traditional form of Metta Bhavana is the way it is, and why it is such a powerful practice. Making the statement that you love all beings can be a platitude - working with all of the specifics can be a lifelong practice.

At the end of the traditional form of Metta meditation we do move from the specific and out to all beings. This part is traditionally known as the 'sending to the ten directions.' The ten directions here are the classical eight compass points, plus upward and downward. The point is to take what we have practiced for the specific people and apply the same to all beings - while still acknowledging that 'all being' includes billions of specific people and many trillions of specific creatures. All of whom are individuals. All of whom we wish to be well, happy and free from suffering.

Having practiced in this way we then continue to live our lives. And guess what? The people you will meet this week are part of 'the ten directions.' The saint, the politician, the criminal, the victim - all those you see or read about are part of those you covered in the ten directions. And so the specific becomes general, which becomes specific again in our lives.

Recognizing this cycle of specific - general - specific in our lives is one of the most powerful points of awakening any of us can have, and it is core to the practice of Metta Bhavana. I have linked below a fully-guided Metta Bhavana meditation, with some emphasis on sending to the ten directions. You can of course listen to it at any time, but a few of us have committed to listen together starting at 7pm Sunday August 9th. You are welcome to join with us then if you wish.

Wishing each one of you to be well and happy,

Chris.


If the above player doesn't work for you please click here. 
Photo by Tim Graf on Unsplash

Saturday, August 1, 2020

That Moment
Meditation for Sunday August 2nd




That Moment


I love watching extraordinary humans. Whether they are athletes, artists, musicians, dancers... what fascinates me is how they manage to perform at their peak, consistently, on-demand.

When we think of these people we often focus on their amazing physical abilities - their strength, coordination, stamina or dexterity. And yet the more we watch them the more we see that it is not just about their bodies, but about their mental strength, focus and resilience.

Think for a moment of a gymnast, standing by the side of the mat, about to start a routine. They pause, close their eyes or maybe gaze gently forward, and prepare their mind for the actions that are to come. This is all clearly visible, and it is often in this very moment that the success or otherwise of the routine stems.

Of course it's not just gymnasts. The same can be seen with concert pianists before they start to play, basketball players before they take a free throw, soccer players before a penalty, singers before a solo... The key is that the action is preceded by the calming and the integration of the mind and the body.

In modern sports this phenomenon is called 'the quiet eye.' It has become so important that in 2017, the European Journal of Sport Science devoted a whole issue to it. For a less academic take you can read a great overview of 'the quiet eye' in the BBC article linked here.

This clarity - this connection between the mind, body and action - is clearest in our elite athletes and artists but is something we can all practice. More than that, one of the ways I have found to help cultivate the connection between mind and body in meditation is to start by visualizing an athlete or artist, and to meditate on what they are doing. I can then, in my own imperfect way, transfer that to a feeling and awareness of integration between my own mind and body.

In the Satipatthana Sutta The Buddha says this of a meditator:
'Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
'Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,' thinking thus, he trains himself.
While you and I are probably not elite athletes, we can gain inspiration from them and learn from them. Great sporting or artistic feats are not done purely by the body, but by the integration of the mind and the body. This is also what we do in meditation.

I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on 'That Moment.' You are of course encouraged to listen along with it whenever you can, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday 2nd August. You are welcome to join us if you wish.

 Metta, Chris.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.

Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash.
"Satipatthana Sutta: The Discourse on the Arousing of Mindfulness" (MN 10), translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 13 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.soma.html

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Sky-Like Mind
Meditation for Sunday July 26th


Sky-Like Mind

“Do not view mountains from the scale of human thought”
– Dogen Zenji

This week I was fortunate enough to be able to take an afternoon off and drive up to Mount St. Helens. As those of you who live in this area know, it is a spectacular drive and the views from the observatory towards the volcano are breathtaking. It has been over four months since I had ventured further than a few miles from my house, so this trip was both refreshing and exciting. To be outside again with such a reminder of the power and majesty of nature was thrilling.

It has been forty years since the mountain erupted, changing the landscape beyond recognition and taking fifty-seven lives with it. Looking out over the mountain brings an incredible conflicting feeling of peace as we look out over such destructive - and regenerative - power.

We often use mountains as metaphors of permanence, and yet we see from St. Helens that they are far from permanent. They can be destroyed catastrophically, as St. Helens was, or they can erode naturally. There's even a good Pali word for that - a kalpa is a timespan longer than the time it would take a mountain to erode completely if an eagle brushed it with it's wings once a century! Whether through eruptions, erosion or other means, even our mountains are impermanent.

We can learn from mountains when we turn our thoughts back to our meditation. The Zen master Dogen is reported to have said that as we meditate we should have a "Body like the Mountain, Heart like the Ocean, Mind like the Sky." Meditation on these qualities in our practice can be very powerful.

Sometimes we can think that having a 'sky-like mind' means having a mind that is still and free from any activity. While it is wonderful when we experience those still moments, that isn't really what it is all about. It is about having a mind that is clear enough that when things arise we can observe what is arising, whatever they may be. The Buddha says:
“Develop a mind that is vast like space, where experiences both pleasant and unpleasant can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle or harm. Rest in a mind like vast sky.”
 From the Majjhima Nikaya, as rendered by Jack Kornfield

We have linked below a fully guided meditation on having a Sky-Like Mind. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 26th July. You can of course listen at any time, but you are welcome to join us then too.

Wishing you all a peaceful week, Chris.

P.S. For sci-fi fans, there is a fantastic Doctor Who episode that riffs on the notion of a kalpa - you can find the trailer here.

P.P.S. The Jack Kornfield article used in the linked audio meditation can be found here.

If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Photo by Chris Robson, July 2020


Saturday, July 18, 2020

No Badges
(Meditation for Sunday 19th July)


No Badges


We all meditate, or want to meditate, for different reasons. Maybe you need more calmness in your life, maybe you feel something is missing, or maybe you have a goal of becoming enlightened or 'awake.' For many of us we start meditating after some sort of crisis from which we need healing. Your own story may be different, but for all of us there was some sort of catalyst or drive that got us started.

All of these are good and valid reasons to meditate, but once we have started, once we have set foot on the path, it is important that we let go of them and not become driven by some sense of 'achievement.' This is hard for many of us, especially if you are a type-A person like me. I am used to setting goals and knocking them down - and that isn't how meditation works.

The truth is there are no Merit Badges for Meditation. Our practice is not to 'check something off our list.' Sadly with much of the media interest in Mindfulness over the past few years I have seen several commentators treat Mindfulness like a badge to collect. Of the many personal accounts published quite a few of them fall into one of these two categories: "I did it, so now I can move on to something else;" or "I tried it, but it didn't really do anything." Both of these responses stem from the same misconception - that there is something to achieve.

We can all fall into this trap. The teacher Phillip Moffitt says this in his essay on The Tyranny of Expectations:
On meditation retreats, I often work with yogis and their expectations. They will come to me for an interview and announce that they have had a "good sitting" or a "bad sitting," when they really are referring to the level of serenity or mindfulness they experienced. Likewise, yogis will come to a retreat or a meditation class with the expectation that it will pick up where the last one ended or that it will be better than the previous one. This is the delusion of expectations based on false notions of progress. Such expectations assume that you know what it is you are seeking, that pleasantness and lack of struggle characterize "getting there," when in reality, just the opposite is true at certain points. It is often not serenity that is needed by a student but the ability to stay present when the mind is caught in a storm. It is not hard to be clear when things are calm, but if you work diligently with mindfulness and compassion when things are difficult, you are in the vital training for your tumultuous daily life.
This is thrown into sharp relief in the core practice of Metta Bhavana - Cultivation of Lovingkindness and Goodwill. This Metta - an unconditional form of love that neither looks for deservedness nor return - cannot be truly generated if we are looking for reward. If we sit and go through the form in the hope of personal achievement then by definition what we cultivate will not be unconditional. We do the practice because we believe it is important, not because we have anything to gain.

None of this is to say that meditation isn't a powerful tool for transforming our lives - it absolutely is. The subtlety is that in order to practice truly we have to let go of the desire for those achievements. There are no badges - and that's a good thing.

Metta, Chris.

The link below is for a fully guided audio meditation on badges and Metta. You are welcome to listen at any time, but a few of us have committed to press 'play' together at the same time at 7pm PT Sunday July 19th. You are welcome to join us if you wish. Please feel free to share this with anyone else who you think may like it.


Saturday, July 11, 2020

Showing Up
(Meditation for Sunday July 12th)


Showing Up

Recently I heard an advert that started with the words "in these unpredictable times." Now we are all used to advertising platitudes at the moment, but that really stuck out for me. It begged the question "when were things ever predictable?"

Many years ago as a young worker I went to my boss and told him that we wouldn't be able to do something "for the foreseeable future." He just smiled at me wryly and replied "and how long is that?"

The truth is that we have this delusion that we know what is going to, or what should, happen. We hold on to a model of the world where things don't change, where institutions, systems and cultures stay the same. In short, we pretend that we know what will happen next.

The current pandemic has shaken a lot of people because it has exposed this delusion. Even so, people are treating it like a blip, like things will get back to normal soon, that we will get back to a place where times are predictable. Of course, times have never been predictable, and they won't magically become so in the future.

The Buddha said this:

You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
    is left behind.
The future
    is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
       right there.
Not taken in,
unshaken,
that's how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done     today,
for — who knows? —  tomorrow
    death.
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

Whoever lives thus ardently,
    relentlessly
    both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.

There is no other time to live in but right now. So if we can't live in the future, and we shouldn't live in the past, what should we do?

Show Up.

We often think about 'being in the present' in terms of some blissful meditation state. Sequestered in a quiet room away from distractions, sitting alone. That of course is part of it, but by no means all. Being present means showing up at all times. Not in some imagined future meditation session, but right now. Choosing to show up can be the hardest part of all in our practice and for most of us something we need to cultivate.

So, in these unpredictable times, recognize that all times are unpredictable. Show up and clearly see whatever quality is present, ardently doing whatever should be done today.

Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Showing Up.' A few of us have committed to hit 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 12th July. You are welcome to join us if you wish or listen on your own at any time. Please feel free to forward this to anyone you wish.

"Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day" (MN 131), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

Saturday, July 4, 2020

One Taste
(Meditation for Sunday July 5th)



One Taste


Today is July 4th and here in the US it is a holiday, a celebration of the country's independence. Most years the most visible part of this celebration is for people to gather, drink beer, watch football and 'blow shit up.'

This year feels different, as the holiday has thrown some of the divisions in the country into sharp contrast. As we work our way through a pandemic we still don't fully understand, a false dichotomy has developed where people see safety and caring as somehow antithetical to people's liberty. Even the choice to wear PPE or not has become politicized for some.

The word 'freedom' is always used a lot around this time, but this year it has become particularly pointed. And yet as we listen to how the word is being used it becomes clear that the meaning of the word differs greatly, and so it begs the question: What does it mean to be free?

There is a well-known and beautiful saying of the Buddha from the Pali Suttas that says:
Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this Doctrine and Discipline there is but one taste — the taste of freedom
'Doctrine and Discipline' here means the teachings and our practice. What this is saying is that just like the ocean, whether we practice a little or devote our whole life to the practice, the 'taste' is the same - that of freedom. In his wonderful essay 'The Taste of Freedom' Bhikkhu Bodhi explains it like this:
Whether one samples water taken from the surface of the ocean, or from its middling region, or from its depths, the taste of the water is in every case the same — the taste of salt. And again, whether one drinks but a thimble-full of ocean water, or a glass-full, or a bucket-full, the same salty taste is present throughout. Analogously with the Buddha's Teaching, a single flavor — the flavor of freedom — pervades the entire Doctrine and Discipline, from its beginning to its end, from its gentle surface to its unfathomable depths. Whether one samples the Dhamma at its more elementary level — in the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness; or at its intermediate level — in the taintless supramundane knowledge and deliverance realized by the liberated saint, in every case the taste is the same — the taste of freedom.
So what do we mean by 'freedom' here? If this is saying is that our freedom comes from our practice, then that seems at odds with those who believe that it means 'doing whatever I want, whatever the consequences.' Bhikkhu Bodhi addresses this in this way:
The solution to this seeming paradox lies in the distinction between two kinds of freedom — between freedom as license and freedom as spiritual autonomy. Contemporary man, for the most part, identifies freedom with license. For him, freedom means the license to pursue undisturbed his impulses, passions and whims. To be free, he believes, he must be at liberty to do whatever he wants, to say whatever he wants and to think whatever he wants. Every restriction laid upon this license he sees as an encroachment upon his freedom; hence a practical regimen calling for restraint of deed, word, and thought, for discipline and self-control, strikes him as a form of bondage.
For me, one of the best summations of what true freedom is comes from the (usually misquoted) Homily by Saint Augustine, where he says:
Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.
What Augustine is saying here is that if our intentions come from a discipline of love, then our actions will be guided by that. Freedom is acting according to the discipline of love. Or, in Bhikkhu Bodhi's words our elementary practice is "the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness." It is this that brings us freedom.

Wishing you all a taste of true freedom this holiday weekend,
Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'one taste.' A few of us have committed to hit 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 5th July. You are welcome to join us if you wish or listen on your own at any time. Please feel free to forward this to anyone you wish.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.
Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash