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.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Mind-Ass Connection

Mind-Ass Connection

I am not much of a dancer.

Actually, let me start that again. In the history of lousy dancers, I am by far the most lousy. I dream of being good enough to be described as having two left feet. Whatever sequences in DNA are responsible for groove - well I am missing them all.

Now that doesn't mean that I dislike dance - far from it. I love watching people dance and of course enjoy all forms of music. It's just that when I am with a group of people dancing I will be stood off to the side, feet planted firmly on the ground, gently swaying to some other beat.

On Friday I had the joy of seeing the funk legend George Clinton in concert. Now George is 81 years old and still far more in the groove than I was in my 20s. That said, like all smart elder statesmen of music he has surrounded himself with a group of young, extremely talented musicians, and they did all the heavy-lifting. But make no mistake, all of the hard-dancing audience (and the fringe of older swayers like me) were there to see George. And what a wonderful, joyful occasion it was.

George Clinton is known as a psychedelic philosopher, and one of his most famous quotes (and the title of one of his albums) is "Free your mind, and your ass will follow."

Now, when he said that he was thinking more of chemical freeing, but as I was swaying to the music Friday night it reminded me of my root teacher, Ruth Denison. Ruth was a force of nature, and came to meditation with a background in dance. Throughout her teaching she emphasized the importance of working with our bodies as we work on our meditation. Sometimes we can think of meditation as a purely cerebral thing, all happening 'in our head,' but she would warn against this dualistic approach and instead encourage an awareness of both what is happening in our minds and in our bodies. One analogy she used to use was that before embarking on a meditation practice most people were just 'minds on sticks' - with no integration or awareness of their bodies. When interviewed about her own path she said:

The longer I taught, the more I realized the difficulties that the meditators displayed in their meditation; they did not have the cultural and religious background for the ability to simply sit and pay attention to their own living process, body-mind sensations. In focusing so intently on the breath and body parts for long periods of time, people would try too hard.

So I expand the selection of body sensations to keep the meditators engaged, and to foster softness and gentleness within themselves. I experiment with the application of mindfulness to body, breath and sensations in body positions other than just sitting. What evolves is meditation while standing, walking, running, jumping, lying down, rolling on the grass meditation in the entire scope of body's mobility and expression, in yoga ásanas, in dance and laughing, in sound, touch, taste, sight or imitation motions such as crawling like a worm, etc.

But let me stress that what I do is strictly within the prescribed bounds of Buddha's teachings using the body and its sensations as a vehicle for mindfulness training, for developing awareness for clear comprehension of the present moment, of correct understanding of life's living and dying.
I'm not sure she would have appreciated the analogy (though she might have, she did have a wicked sense of humor), but in some ways what she was teaching was "Free your ass, and your mind will follow."

However you want to think of it, it is important that we don't let our practice become a purely intellectual, cerebral exercise. We are not just freeing our mind but our whole being, including our body. Our awareness, our presence, should be complete.

Unfortunately though it hasn't improved my dancing skills.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'whole body breathing,' a breath meditation that encourages our awareness of our whole body. Feel free to use it in any way which helps you with your practice.

Photo: George Clinton (in sailor hat) with Parliament-Funkadelic at Pioneer Square, Portland, July 29th 2022

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Like Butter

Like Butter

Note: There isn't an audio meditation linked to this letter. There was going to be, but I chose not to post one - all of which I will explain later. So there are two parts to this - the message I wanted to discuss, and then a short discussion on my decision not to link the audio. I hope that this "Metta Letter" doesn't become too "meta!"

Earlier this week I was in New York City attending a conference. Like many parts of the country - and the world - at the moment, NYC has been experiencing some high temperatures and the highs were around 100° - not that unusual for the city in the summer but still quite oppressive when combined with the humidity (and the occasional thunderstorms). After the short walk from my hotel to the conference center I was a completely melted blob, and even in the highly air-conditioned conference center it took me at least an hour for my core temperature to return to normal.

Back here in the Pacific Northwest it looks like we are heading for similar weather this week, the summer having finally arrived with a vengeance. This could be a good week to stay in cool places if you can, and for all of us to reflect on the collective foolishness that is driving some of the extreme temperatures we are seeing around the world.

But - back in the conference center - this week I reflected on a common simile that is used when teaching meditation. Rather than trying to struggle in meditation we are told to be like a block of butter in the sun, allowing the sun to melt us. Rather than resisting we can instead be accepting of the environment we are in - hot or cold, noisy or quiet - and be present with that. This isn't a negative passivity but an integration as the butter and the sun become part of the same process.

The simile of melting butter in meditation has also been used as a healing visualization. The Eighteenth Century Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku tells a story of when he was severely ill, and sought out the advice of a Hermit called Master Hakuyu. Master Hakuyu taught Hakuin the following visualization meditation:

Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in colour and fra­grance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without. It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoul­ders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks.

You can read the full instruction here, but I am sure that many of you will recognize this as a twist on body awareness meditation. I have found that the vivid imagery of the melting butter is a powerful alternative to the simple 'body scan' meditations we often do.

So, as we head into the hotter weather this week I would like to first encourage you to stay safe and look after yourself (water is good medicine!) and also to use the image of melting butter as an encouragement in your practice.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. So, as a postscript to this I would like to mention why there is no audio recording for this week's letter. I know many of you like to follow along with the recordings. As I was planning this letter I recalled that several years ago I lead a meditation on melting butter, and sure enough I found the recording from 2015. I started to edit it as I usually do. The recordings usually need quite a bit of cleaning up, and as I did so I realized that I had extensively quoted from a well-known modern Tibetan teacher that I have read quite a bit of, where he eloquently describes meditating while visualizing melting butter. Unfortunately since that time it has become public that there are many credible and disturbing allegations of abuse by the teacher. Now, while what he wrote is still highly relevant it has become hard to separate that from his behavior. Now I know that none of us are without darker parts in our life (I'm certainly not), and while it is possible sometimes to separate someone's work from their behavior (I still listen to Wagner), in this case I felt it was disrespectful to the victims and it took away the authority of his words. This wasn't an easy decision and I went back and forth on it, but eventually decided to completely scrap the recording. I also decided that rather than just replacing it with another I would share my thought process with you. I know this is a complex subject and that sadly Buddhism has had it's fair share of these issues (in short, wherever there is a power dynamic someone will abuse it), but hopefully you will at least understand my decision here. I'll leave the last words to Jill Sobule: "Why are all our heroes so imperfect?"

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Skillful Acts


Skillful Acts

This week there has been a lot of chatter in the news about a TikTok phenomenon that has gone somewhat sour. There are several influential young TikTok creators who have devoted themselves to performing 'random acts of kindness' on their channels, and sharing video of them doing so in order to inspire others to do the same. The 'random acts' range from giving strangers compliments, flowers, money or even more substantial gifts. Some of the channels have millions of followers, who are enthralled by all of these acts. Sounds very positive, what could be wrong with doing nice things for people and encouraging others to do the same?

Well, the problem here of course is that for some of these it's not just about the kindness, it's about the clicks. The goal often isn't to do something nice but to get good footage to engage your followers. And many of the recipients of the kindness don't like being used in this way, and can feel ambushed and dehumanized in the process. They may receive an unexpected (and possibly unwanted) bunch of flowers, but their likeness and reaction is then used for the benefit of the content creator. This has lead to much discussion on the ethics of these so-called 'random acts of kindness.'

As I was reading all of the discussions on this many things arose in my mind, a couple of which I will share with you here. Turning intentions of kindness into action is remarkably hard, and it is so easy for things to go wrong.

One of the first things I thought of was the well-known example of when the late chef Anthony Bourdain was filming in Haiti. He and his crew had stopped to film at a roadside soup stall, and after filming him trying the food he recognized that they were a bunch of rich Americans eating while a group of young kids were starving around them. So they paid for the whole of the day's food at the stall and allowed the children to have some free food.

Which all sounds wonderful and noble, but it soon got quite ugly. Bigger kids, who were equally starving, arrived and pushed away the younger ones, and then came the adults, who were also starving, and very soon the 'act of kindness' turned into a full blown riot with violence and people getting beaten. You can hear Anthony Bourdain reflecting on this experience here - it is worth listening to as it shows how a well-intentioned act can have very negative results.

 A number of years ago I attended a weekend retreat with Sharon Salzberg and she shared a teaching that was very helpful for me, and I hope it will be helpful for you too. It speaks to exactly these issues and gives us a bit of a roadmap for how to navigate the tricky issue of how to turn Metta - lovingkindness or goodwill - into action. And - I want to be clear on this point - action is important. It isn't enough to just have warm and fuzzy feelings for people. If we are truly filled with Metta we will be drawn to somehow reducing the suffering of others. And that is tricky, which is why I found Sharon Salzberg's teaching so powerful.

She encourages us to think about action as having three parts - intention, execution and outcome.

Starting with intention, our actions should start from a place of love and compassion, of a genuine desire to bring joy to or alleviate the suffering of the other person. While it is not for me to judge the motivations of the TikTok creators, there is clearly a possibility for an impure motive, that the desire for clicks, likes and monetization is the true driver rather than the desire to actually bring joy. In Anthony Bourdain's case it feels like the motivation was truly one of compassion for the starving kids (it is possible that it was from pity, the near-enemy of compassion). On the surface at least it seems like the intention was positive. So what went wrong?

The second part of outcome is execution, and this is where things get interesting. We are taught that we should actually perform acts with skill (kusala) - and to use our best skill. Part of this skill is having the wisdom to know whether we have sufficient skill. It is possible to have the most compassionate and noble of intentions, but to perform the action without the necessary skill. This is what happened in Haiti, he didn't understand the dynamic, that the depth of starvation around him meant that the well-intentioned act would have seriously negative consequences. With 20-20 hindsight it can be seen that this wasn't a skillful act, though I am not at all sure that if I were in the same position I would have been able to predict the outcome either.

Which brings us to the third part of taking action - the outcome. The first two parts are within our control. We can examine our intentions and motivations, and question their purity to better ensure that our actions stem from a root of love and compassion. Having done that we can develop and work on our skills, and be sure that when we take action we are using our 'best skills,' and that we have the wisdom to know when our own skills are lacking. The third aspect, the outcome, is however outside of our control. We can never know fully the complexity of what is going on for the other person, where they are in themselves and how they are feeling. Sharon Salzberg teaches us that if we have examined our intentions, and acted with our best skill, then we have to let go of any attachment to the outcome. It needs to be a true gift - one where we attach no control or even desire as to how the gift will be used.

I find that viewing compassionate action in this way, with these three simple steps, is extremely useful and also explains why sometimes things go wrong. I hope that it is useful to you too.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. I would like to thank all of you for your patience over the last few weeks as I was away for a number of reasons. And special thanks for those of you who wished me well for the vacation part of my absence - yes I had a wonderful, relaxing time in CDMX and came back refreshed!

P.P.S. I have written before about how Wisdom and Compassion go hand in hand, and the above is an example of how important it is to develop both. I have linked below a fully guided audio meditation on the Bell and the Dorje, and how they can remind us to cultivate both compassion and wisdom together.