We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

One's Own Mind

One's Own Mind

The other day I came across an interesting quote from the 11th Century Zen Master Foyan Qingyuan:

It is as though you have an eye
That sees all forms
But does not see itself.
This is how your mind is.
Its light penetrates everywhere
And engulfs everything,
So why does it not know itself?
This really resonated with me - our minds are amazing, can know countless things and can understand or make inferences about so many external things, but our own mind often understands little about itself. We pay little attention to the fickleness of our memory, or the innumerable biases, assumptions, mental habits or delusions that come along with this wonderful capability.

The ability for us to reflect on our own mind - using our own mind - is of course one of the things we cultivate in our practice. This turning around from an outward looking stance to inward is what contemplation is all about. Mindfulness has become a trendy word but at root all it is is knowing our own mind, with our own mind. This reflexive ability is fundamental, and one of the big changes we experience once we start on a meditation path.

In the Sacitta Sutta the Buddha is talking with a group of monks and brings up this exact subject:

The Blessed One said: "Even if a monk is not skilled in the ways of the minds of others [i.e., not skilled in reading the minds of others] he should train himself: 'I will be skilled in reading my own mind.'

"And how is a monk skilled in reading his own mind? Imagine a young woman — or man — fond of adornment, examining the image of her own face in a bright, clean mirror or bowl of clear water: If she saw any dirt or blemish there, she would try to remove it. If she saw no dirt or blemish there, she would be pleased, her resolves fulfilled: 'How fortunate I am! How clean I am!' In the same way, a monk's self-examination is very productive in terms of skillful qualities: 'Do I usually remain covetous or not? With thoughts of ill will or not? Overcome by sloth & drowsiness or not? Restless or not? Uncertain or gone beyond uncertainty? Angry or not? With soiled thoughts or unsoiled thoughts? With my body aroused or unaroused? Lazy or with persistence aroused? Unconcentrated or concentrated?'

Now, I may be projecting here, but I read this passage as having some deep humor underlying it. It is as if The Buddha is saying, "hey - you know how bad you are at reading other people's minds - maybe you should try to read your own?" He then goes on to use a metaphor of an attractive young woman reflecting on her own beauty - which is an interesting one to use with a group of celibate monks! It feels like he is saying that this need for reflection is obvious to others, and yet the monks still need to be reminded of it's importance.

However you read the sutta the message is the same, that we should spend time reflecting on how our own mind is working. Of course this is true when we sit on the cushion, but it should be equally true in all other moments of our lives. Choosing to reflect on how our mind is as we walk, as we read the news, as we talk with a friend - all of these are moments where we can check what is really going on.

When we walk down a busy street we know to have our head up and eyes open to everything that is going on. What is not so obvious is that we should also be aware of what is going on in our minds at the same time - are we attentive or distracted, apprehensive or confident, angry with the crowds or enjoying the energy? Whatever we do there is another world going on in our mind, and self-examination is a critical tool in our development.     

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on these passages. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.


"Sacitta Sutta: One's Own Mind" (AN 10.51), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.051.than.html .

Saturday, November 13, 2021

All Time Like the Present

All Time Like the Present

I recently celebrated my birthday, the time when - as a colleague of mine used to describe it - "the earth once more passes close to the same arbitrary point in space that it did when I was born."

We all use language that refers to time, and have a vague feeling for it, but beyond noticing that it passes beyond us we don't really have a grasp of it. We may say "I don't know where the time went," but never comment on the fact that we don't know where it's coming from either. We throw around terms like 'Thursday,' but really have no true concept of Thursday-ness. As Ford Prefect observes in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."

In the Thirteenth Century Dōgen Zenji, the great founder of the Sōtō school of Zen wrote a treatise on time called Uji or 'The Time Being.' In it he lays out a theory of the oneness of time and being, observing that we don't understand time because we don't doubt our experience of it, and so like a fish not understanding water so we don't understand time.

Now I am not going to pretend for a minute that I understand what is taught in Uji, or that I can even begin to scrape it's depths. However, meditation is an empirical activity, and we can in our own practice explore our relationship with time. This is what is meant by 'doubting our experience of it' - not denying the existence of time (which would be foolish) but instead opening up to the fact that our experience and our assumptions may not be the whole story.

In Uji Dōgen says:

Do not regard time as merely flying away; do not think that flying away is its sole function. For time to fly away there would have to be a separation [between it and things]. Because you imagine that time only passes, you do not learn the truth of being-time. In a word, every being in the entire world is a separate time in one continuum. And since being is time, I am my being-time.

What he's saying here is that while the nature of time is to pass, that is not all there is to it. If we focus solely on it's flow, how it leaves us, then we miss the deep connection we have with it. We are beings that exist in time, we are not separable from it.

One of the ways we can explore this in meditation is to choose one of the phases of the breath and use that phase as a place we can dwell in the present, experiencing the expansiveness of that point in time. I find that using the phase between the end of the out-breath and the arising of the new in-breath to be the perfect place for this (what medicine calls the 'expiratory pause'). During this time we can learn to experience our connection with all of time, what some people call the 'spacious present.'

I have linked below a fully guided thirty-minute meditation where we practice experiencing this spacious present. If you find it useful feel free to incorporate it in your own practice. However we experience time, and whether we see viewpoints such as Dōgen's as literal or metaphorical, we can all learn from exploring and questioning our relationship with it.

Metta, Chris.

Uji quote taken from Dogen on Being Time - https://www.themathesontrust.org/library/dogen-on-being-time

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Feel What's Here

Feel What's Here

In the Tibetan traditions there is a compassion meditation called Tonglen. In it's form it is very simple, but like most forms the simplicity hides a rich and - frankly - difficult practice.

At its base it is a visualization, where we use the in-breath to visualize receiving suffering, pain and hurt from others (or our self), and the out-breath to visualize replacing that pain with healing, positive energy and spaciousness. You can see here where the difficulty arises, as being open enough to breath in the pain runs against our usual aversions.

This form is a very powerful meditation, and there are several modern teachers - most notably Pema Chödrön - who see this practice as an essential meditation for our age.

When we start with Tonglen - indeed when we start with any compassion practice - I always recommend starting with practicing it for your self. Working with the pain of others can be challenging, but working with our own pain is equally so. By starting with yourself, then recognizing the delusion of duality between yourself and others gives us a path to grow in this practice.

I recently came across an interview with the wonderful teacher Tara Brach, where she gives some instructions on practicing Tonglen for yourself:

Tonglen is simple and beautiful. Quite simply, if you're feeling anxious, angry, a sense of shame, whatever it is, breathe in and agree to touch or feel it. Breathing out, offer space and care to whatever's there. If there's blocking to touching it, emphasize the in-breath and stay embodied. Feel whatever you feel in the throat, the chest, the belly. Or if there's a sense of being possessed by the feeling, emphasize the out-breath. Offer the feeling into a larger field where there's space and kindness. It's an art, not a formula. Ultimately, the practice is to breathe in and feel what's here; breathe out and offer it some space.

I think in these few beautiful words she has captured the essence of Tonglen - breathe in and feel what's here; breathe out and offer it some space.

I found these words incredibly helpful, and I hope that you do too.  If you have never practiced this form before then go slowly and gently, but I think you will see how powerful and relevant this is. As we work to cultivate our compassion this is a powerful tool to help us on our way.

Metta, Chris

PS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on these words and an introduction to Tonglen. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way works for you.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash