“The purpose of meditation is to clear the mind of all thoughts, right?” – All the students
I’ve been teaching meditation in my little corner of the world for quite some time now, and I’ve got some pretty sharp students. At this point, they have some pretty healthy ideas about meditation. So it definitely surprises me that this old idea keeps popping up. People still, to this day, complain that they can’t make their thoughts stop.
Like you’d really even want to. If it happened to you for real, it would be like one of those old bad Jim Carrey movies where his wish came true, and it turned out to be a curse. How would you function?
Shamatha practice, sometimes called calm abiding meditation, is a popular meditation technique, easy to learn, and yet sometimes easy to misunderstand. It’s simple. The practitioner focuses on a single object, most often the breath. They watch the breath go in and out, and when a thought pops up, it’s noticed, labeled (often ‘thinking’) and let go of. The attention then goes back to the breath. Sometimes, when this is practiced over a long period of time, there are extended spaces without thought, but sometimes there are not. But just because the practice is the noticing and discarding of thoughts, doesn’t mean that the purpose is the final destruction of all thoughts, or even the ability to be without thoughts at will.
The purpose is clarity. The purpose is focus, attention, and perspective. Just because you train a puppy to sit – sit….siiit…sit…sitsitsit….good boy….sit – doesn’t mean you want a dog that only sits. You want a dog that listens, is faithful and well behaved. We want a mind that knows not to chase squirrels through traffic, and doesn’t roll in the muck. When bring the attention back to the breath, we are telling ourselves that being peaceful is more important than following a resentful story, ruminating on our misspent youth, or worrying about a future that might never come.
We practice with watching and training our minds on the cushion, so that this understanding and value system will begin to permeate the rest of our life, as well. We have the clarity and perspective to make better decisions. We are less likely to getting sucked into an unhealthy situation. We are less likely to miss out on an opportunity because of fear. We have an increasingly better chance of responding from our center, and being the person that we want to be, the person we know we are. As near as I can tell, this is the purpose of meditation, not to be a mindless zombie, but to be who we are.
side note – if you’re unfamiliar with this practice, and you want to learn it, please find a qualified teacher. Of course, I’m also available.
We know that there are no shortage of stories and articles about ethical issues arising in yoga studios, and various other spiritual communities. Conflicts between teachers and students, issues with studio administration, conspiracies of silence. Even though everyone seems to have a vague idea that ethical guidelines are a good idea, they aren’t often agreed upon, and rarely are they explicit.
As a result, there seems to be a lack of oversight and accountability for those in positions of power. We’ve seen power exchanges go goofy all too often, and when they do, people don’t know what to do about it, and as a result, unpleasant situations get ignored or denied, and blame gets thrown around all over the place, seemingly indiscriminately. Sincere people, who want to be able to practice safely, deserve powerful ethical guidelines that are actually valued and adhered to.
I’ve read, as I’m sure you have, articles about people complaining about being treated unfairly at a yoga studio, or even being molested on some level. And, I must admit, some evoke more sympathy in me that others. Sometimes someone was obviously wronged, and its horrible, and heartbreaking. Sometimes, folks with bad judgement and poor boundaries get themselves in messes, then feel like it’s convenient to point fingers. Either way, we run into this issue of hindsight being 20/20, and/or trying to solve a systemic problem with anger and vengeance. I don’t see a lot of people being proactive about it, trying to create solutions. And I don’t see people showing up, making it known that they feel like it’s important to them that their community have guidelines in place to sort out messy situations.
This morning, I was really very pleasantly surprised. I was looking at Noah Levine’s Against The Stream Meditation Website. I recently moved to The Mission, and his center is within walking distance. I like Noah, he taught at my yoga studio, many years ago. All the punk rockers and I all went out for Govinda’s and Gelato afterwards.
Anyhow, on the website, there is a page called ‘Grievance and Reconciliation Procedure’. It acknowledges that emotional distress and/or conflict can arise within ones self, and between practitioners, and between practitioners and teachers. Practice, by it’s nature, brings up issues, for the express purpose of finding freedom. The website states that “The health of our community is not measured by the presence or absence of conflict, rather by our willingness to find effective, responsible, and compassionate resolution of interpersonal tensions when they arise.”
I won’t quote Against The Stream’s entire page, but I encourage you to read it. It’s here. I’ll wait. It goes on to detail a clear procedure for bringing up concerns, and how those concerns will be dealt with. It makes it very clear that this community takes its code of ethics seriously, and is willing to create time and space to deal with any perceived violations of this code in a thoughtful, grounded manner.
Consider how this shapes the culture of this community. How would you feel as a student, knowing that this kind of accountability is in place? If you were a teacher, how would it affect how you show up for your students? How would it change the standards you hold yourself to? Or if you are a studio owner, or community leader, do you have something this explicit in place? If not, why not? What would it require of you to implement this? What would it mean for your community?
Change happens when consciousness changes. And consciousness changes on an individual level. It happens when we do self work. Yoga Alliance isn’t going to save us from ground level ethical dilemmas, and neither are countless articles detailing who did what to who. As near as I can tell, the way is to work within ourselves and our communities to create environments that, as ATS puts it, values “dialogue over silence, reconciliation over estrangement, forgiveness over resentment, confession over accusation, and atonement over punishment”
I don’t want you to think that I’m not willing to help, either. If you want to have a conversation about how to work on this for your space, you are certainly welcome to reach out, and we can workshop this together.
From the roof, I can see coconut palms, stretching out as far as the eye can see, in three directions. To the west, is the Arabian Sea, disappearing over the horizon. It’s gorgeous, and new, but totally posting a podcast is impossible. I take a morning walk to the Goddess pujas (Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Uma) through tropical garden paths, and stroll the bridges over the backwaters, which is totally conducive to meditation, but not broadcasting. Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) was here for a couple of days, between tours. She hugged us, and gave us spiritual teachings, and passed out rice and dahl for 2000, and generally imbued the space with holiness, and I’d love to say I’ve got a podcast with her coming up, but she was pretty busy. Which is cool, I’m ok with that. Jungle Podcasting is difficult.
But I did want see if I could sneak this little post up through my 3g hotspot. (1 gig for 185 rupees) I had every intention of getting a couple of episodes out much sooner. For those of you that don’t know, I experimented with living in a yurt on a hillside in Marin County. And while that had some of it’s own first world level connectivity issues, it was lovely. Until it wasn’t. There was really heavy rain last month, and a lot of the area flooded, highways got shut down, and the yurt turned into a wet, moldy mess. So we (the gorgeous Somya Devi) and I packed up our stuff in a super big hurry, vacated by the end of the month, and hightailed it out of the country. It was a sprint, and didn’t really leave any time to post the two episodes I have on the hard drive. Now things have calmed down, there is plenty of time for this sort of thing, and the atmosphere is sublime, it’s the technology that’s off. Podcasting is apparently a first world activity. A privilege of sorts. But, I digress, and I’ll leave the politics and social justice talks for people who are better suited.
So, I beg the forgiveness of Vraja Kishor, and Noah Julian, who played their parts amazingly well. They showed up, and shared of themselves, their wisdom, their struggles. I really look forward to you hearing them. And, while at the ashram, I also ran into Prajna Viera. We did a session on location, overlooking the sea, as her husband laughed at us the entire time. It came out pretty good, even if the sound is a little off. So, as soon as I’m back in a place where uploading is possible, that’s not one, not two, but three recordings of conversations with some very brilliant, interesting, and patient people.
At every breath I’m happier
What’s this? Am I mad again?
I went mad once, then again.
At every breath I’m happier.
I sneeze: an explosion of ash, puff!
The city blazes, disappears.Once again I’ll build myself
A house, fire-proof, pleasant.
I begin carting bricks, with others.
The cornerstone is laid, my dream
Indestructible. But Then I sneeze-
The city rises like the phoenix.
I was talking to an old friend from The Philadelphia Satsang the other day, and she wanted to know what I was reading. That’s one of the kind of things we talk about. Better that than gossip, right? I was excited to answer, because I’m on this Zen Poetry kick. I don’t like saying things like ‘I’m on a zen poetry kick right now’, because I think it sounds pretentious, I can hear John Cusack’s character from High Fidelity making fun of Tim Robbin’s character, ‘he wears rings and reads zen poetry’.
I went up to Oregon last month, to help my friend pick out a little school bus to transform into an rv/tiny house. On the way back down, I stopped in Eugene, my stomping grounds from 95-00. I wanted to do some of the old things I used to do. One of my old rituals was, I’d go to John Perry’s yoga class, and then I’d spend an hour or two going through the yoga section at Smith Family Books. They shared a building. It’s really where I got my initial yoga education. Their yoga book section was huge, and was mixed in with books on channeled pleiadian teachings, buddhism, shamanism. It’s where I first really dug into Ram Dass.
So, It was college, and I didn’t have a ton of money to spend on extra books. I could do the Ramen Noodle equivalent of book collecting. And so, I read what I could while I was there, and I would also look for tiny little gems, needles in haystacks. How much wisdom could I buy for the smallest amount of money? What does $3, $4 worth of enlightenment look like?
Well, this trip, $4 bought me a copy of Afterimages: Zen Poems By Shinkcihi Takahasi. Shinkichi was born in 1901, and didn’t spend his entire life cloistered. So there are modern references, of TV, of Mexico, and even some romantic references, that I didn’t quite expect:
Thistles bloom in the vast moonlight
Cup of the Mexican Sands
Thistles bloomed on the round hillock
of a woman’s heart.
And he’s funny, “Exactly thirty years ago my father died, While Autumn flowers were fading. What’s happened since? Don’t ask him-”
And at the same time profound. The poem that I opened this post really spoke to me about the way the mind moves in meditation. Creating entire worlds, destroying them, building them up again, only to have them washed away by forces beyond our control. It happens over and over again, even in a short session, and there is nothing to be done other than to continue breathing, and continue observing. We get taught that all things are impermanent, that all things appear to rise, stay for a time, and then pass away. And we internalize that insight, and start to see it in our lives. But most of the time, when we talk about it, or read about it, it is in a dry, technical way. This is, of course, problematic. Our minds, and our soul require a certain amount of poetry. Poetry shines a light into corners of our mind that a lecture (like this one) just can’t. It’s almost like a little secret. You get it, and a wry smiles crosses your lips, and you grow.
Muso is much more old school. Born in 1275, he lived as a monk from a very early age, and sought a ‘special transmission outside the scriptures’. He became well respected for his insight, so much so, that several warlords and emperors all sought his audience, asking him to live at their various temples. In his later years, he took to tending the temple gardens, and is known as the father of the zen rock garden. Much of his work still stands today.
It is said that he attained enlightenment late in the evening while walking through his hermitage. He had no light, but thought he knew exactly where he was. He put his hand out to steady himself on a wall that was supposed to be there, and instead, found himself lying on the ground. In this moment, he broke through to the other side. He then wrote his satori poem, which is as follows:
Year after year
I dug in the earth
Looking for the blue of heaven
Only to feel
the pile of dirt
Until once in the dead of night
I tripped on a broken brick
and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
I had smashed the bones
of the empty sky
And this is why I practice. It’s almost instinct to dig with the rational mind, to try to figure out heaven, to try to computate our way into heaven, and it never works. I need to be reminded to that the sky is above me, and all I need to do is lift my head up, and breathe it in.
It only gets better from there. Muso is full of them. I’d love for you to hear more of them, but I really don’t want to type them out any more. Pick up a copy for yourself, your students will thank you. ——–
Muddy Water is best Cleared By Leaving It Alone – Alan Watts (from The Way of Zen)
It is time to move away from the metaphor of ‘mud as concept’ and move into the understanding of ‘mud as process’.
We tend to think of our minds as a container, filled to the brim with the complicated details of our lives. We have so much to do, and so little time. So much is asked of us, and resources appear scarce. If we can just get a little quiet time, without pressing demands, only then we can relax.
This may provide some relief, but it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. As long as we think of the mud as being something outside of ourselves, we are a victim, powerless to forces outside ourselves. And this is no way to live.
The mud of life is just going to happen, there is nothing to be done about that. Unless we are in some kind of untenable or abusive situation, we need to deal with reality as it comes.
Closer to the truth, is seeing the mud as being inside of us. But the mud is not some kind of ‘impurity’ or bad energy . Nothing so maudlin as that. We want to step away from ideas that induce shame, or perpetuate self hate. We don’t need to cleanse. We don’t need to buy indulgences.
It’s much simpler than that. Our minds have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. Hungry for meaning and spiritual satisfaction, the mind gnaws on the events of our life. It elevates the smallest details and the most irrelevant, irrational fears into high drama. Perhaps the mind is just trying to be helpful, but it often just really isn’t. It takes us out of joy and peace, all the while telling us it has our best interests in mind.
You can’t throw rocks at a ripple. There’s the rub. Hatred never ceases by hatred. (thats from The Dhammapada )
The best thing we can do, is leave it alone. If it wants to wrestle, let it wrestle itself. This is why we have our yin yoga and meditation practice. We put ourselves into poses, we breathe, and we let the mind do what it wants. Somehow, some-miraculous-how, it starts to settle all on its own. Something we couldn’t do, something we only made worse with our effort, just happens naturally, when we leave it alone.