Archive for the Buddhism and Recovery Category
Today, we are going to be answering a question from a user on on Instagram page that read, “How do I know that I live in honesty to myself?” Often, we hear advice about living true to ourselves, not pretending to be somebody else and not lying to ourselves about who we are and what we want. This question really made us think, and here are a few suggestions we came up with.
I know that it seems that we suggest meditation as a solution to almost every question, but it is because it truly helps! When we are trying to investigate if we are being honest with ourselves, there are a couple meditation techniques that can be of great help.
First, you may try a feeling meditation. Begin your meditation with a few minutes of concentration practice, simply focusing on the breath. After 5 minutes or so, turn your attention to your feelings. You may ask yourself the question, “What am I feeling?” Repeat this question at a pace that feels right to you. You may answer either with a feeling or with a simple, “I don’t know.” You may note when you are feeling anger, happiness, joy, confusion, etc. When you find that you are feeling something, don’t dive into the story. Simply note the feeling and how it feels.
This meditation practice helps us get in touch with ourselves. Although we may not immediately know when we are being honest with ourselves or not, this meditation can put us in touch with our hearts. When we repeatedly sit down with the intention of looking at our feeling states, we become generally more aware of what is going on within.
Open Awareness Meditation
Another meditation that we may practice to help us get honest with ourselves is a general mindfulness meditation. A mindfulness, or open awareness sit can give great insight. Again, start by focusing on the breath. After a few minutes open your attention to everything going on. Use the breath as an anchor, but allow your attention to turn toward sounds, smells, thoughts, and physical sensations. Your focus may be drawn to a pain in your knee. Simply note where your attention is, and return to the breath. Your attention may then be drawn to a thought. Note that you are thinking, and return to the breath.
Just like the other meditation above, repeated practice helps us get in touch with ourselves. Over time, we are able to know what we are feeling and where our attention is more easily. There are many things that go into the creation of our present moment experience. With daily meditation practice, we are able to see the causes of our experience.
Take an Inventory
Another great tool for trying to connect honestly with yourself is an inventory process. An inventory is fairly simple and can be done however you want. Twelve step programs stress an inventory as an important part of their program, and many religious and spiritual traditions encourage an inventory as well.
To take an inventory, simply sit down with a pen and some paper. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Begin by listing things that are going on with you right now. They may be resentments, fears, joys, successes, or anything else you have going on. Simply begin by listing these things, without judgement. Maybe somebody upset you today at work. Maybe you are fearing an upcoming event. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about a mistake you made earlier in the week. Whatever it is, jot it down.
When you feel that you have a good list of things you are carrying around, take some time to examine each of them. You may do this by writing more, or by taking a contemplative route and meditating. As you sit with each of these things going on with you, be sure to notice how they make you feel. Make an effort to be present for them. There’s no reason to run from them. Averting just pushes them down further, and doesn’t prevent them from affecting you. As you sit with them and get to know what is going on, you begin to know yourself a little better.
Follow Your Gut
Our last suggestion is to simply follow your gut. To judge your own honesty with yourself, sometimes you just have to go with your instinct. If something doesn’t quite feel right, it is probably not the right, honest thing to do. If you find yourself acting in a way that brings up some discomfort, you may not be acting in accordance with your true self. If you say things that don’t feel right, it is a sign as well.
It may help to check in with yourself before you do something that you are on the fence about. If you are not sure what to do or say, take a moment to see what your heart says. Often, a subtle discomfort or strange feeling is all we need to know what to do. Being honest with ourselves isn’t easy, but it is simple. We turn to our bodies and listen to what it has to tell us.
These ideas for practicing self-honesty are just a few. There are many other ways you may practice. We encourage you to find a way that works for you. Look out for the judgement and fear, for when you begin to touch your true self, you often come into contact with the protective wall you have built up for years.
A user on our Instagram asked us, “How can we start syncing meditation and technology?” I really enjoyed this question, as I think the technology of today (and tomorrow) can make huge differences in our practice. There are several areas in which technology can affect us.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of meditation and technology is the plethora of studies being done. A study taking fMRI’s of meditators found that the brain showed increase attention levels http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2010/132717/abs/). An article on Huffington Post lists many ways that mindfulness can help your life, all backed by scientific research (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html?utm_hp_ref=gps-mindfulness-research). Another study on compassion meditation found through use of fMRI’s that the subjects were able to “alter the activation of circuitries” related to empathy (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001897#pone-0001897-g004). Finally, a study of the jhanas found that experienced meditators are indeed able to self-stimulate the brain (http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2013/653572/abs/).
That may be a lot of information to take in. My point is that technology has helped us understand mindfulness, compassion, concentration, and other types of meditation. As technology progresses, so does our understanding of meditation. For those that enjoy having evidence behind their beliefs, these studies (among hundreds of others) may create some faith. These studies may not seem applicable to you in your daily practice, but they can be a great tool in further understanding what is going on during meditation. For example, you may learn that in a jhanic state, ”extreme joy is associated not only with activation of cortical processes but also with activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAc) in the dopamine/opioid reward system.” The Buddhist teachings of cause and effect apply here. With modern technology, we are now better able to see what meditation is doing to our consciousness.
If you are interested in this kind of information, I highly recommend checking out Buddhist Geeks, a community of Buddhists interested in the intersection of Buddhism and technology.
The Internet, Social Media, and Smartphones: Benefits
The technology available to us today can be of great benefit to us. To begin with, we have the Internet. The Internet is a great resource for us in our meditation practice. All across the web, we can find dharma talks and guided meditations. Places like Dharma Seed, Dhamma Talks, and Against the Stream offer free audio files. Sites like these did not exist twenty years ago. There are also numerous podcasts on iTunes offering free meditation material.
The Internet also hosts thousands of websites related to Buddhism and meditation (like us)! From Zen to secular mindfulness, you can find virtually anything you are looking for. One of my favorite sites is Access to Insight, a site that contains translations of many Buddhist suttas. Using the Internet to our advantage, we can make it a great tool in our practice.
Although social media is not often thought of as a tool for meditation, it absolutely can help us in our practice. Pretty much every major social media platform has accounts or pages related to Buddhism and/or meditation. Not only can we read about the experiences and opinions of others; we can connect with them. The social media boom and the Internet are important factors in globalization. Today, more than ever, we are able to connect with others around the world with ease. We need not struggle to find like-minded people. With social media, we can connect with and learn from other people. We can share ideas and experiences, and create communities encouraging growth. Sites like Google+ offer us the opportunity to lead group meditations on the Internet. If you are interested in a free online meditation group we do, email us at Meditate@TheEasierSofterWay.com.
Social media interaction isn’t the same as face-to-face interaction. Obviously we should strive to create connections in person. However, social media sites may help us build new friendships. Services like Meetup, Facebook Groups and Events, and Yelp allow us to find people and places in the real world.
Finally, there is a huge influx in smartphone and tablet use. There are many apps that I find to be just wonderful. My favorite is Insight Timer. Insight Timer is a meditation timer that offers multiple starting and ending bells, interval bells, meditation statistics, and Insight Connect, a social media for meditators. I also really enjoy the Dharma Seed, Access to Insight, and Podcast apps. Although the smartphone may be a huge distraction (see below), it also may be a great tool.
One thing to consider with the use of cell phones is that we are able to reach out more easily. I have a few mentors and teachers that I call and text regularly. Cell phones give us the opportunity to reach out when we need to, and for us to be there when others need someone. The cell phone is a truly powerful tool. Joanna Harper tells a story about mudita buddies. Mudita buddies are two people that call or text each other to share their joy. It may be something simple such as hearing a bird sing or finding a good parking spot. Cell phones allow two people to connect and share their practices.
The Internet, Social Media, and Smartphones: Hindrances
These new forms of technology can also be detrimental to our practice. We often use technology to check out. When we find ourselves experiencing something unpleasant, we turn to our phones, computers, and other gadgets. Our relationship to technology is often one of escaping and of aversion.
Although new technology has much to offer us in our meditation practice, we must be aware of the harms it may cause. I like to make a point to leave my phone behind or shut it off when appropriate. Times that may warrant freedom from technology include meals, conversations with friends or loved ones, and during meditation groups. For you, there may be different times to leave the phone behind.
The point is that we must use technology mindfully. I don’t think we should stay off social media and cell phones. I think it is far more beneficial to learn to use them wisely. It is not an easy practice; most of us use our gadgets mindlessly most of the time. Like our sitting meditation practice, it takes time.
Your attachment to technology may be a great teacher! Try going on retreat for a week or so. You will probably find yourself thinking several times about missed calls, emails, friend requests, and much more. Rather than beating yourself up over the craving, use it as an opportunity to learn. Dive into the craving. Get to know it. It is in the moments of suffering that liberation is possible.
Yesterday, we were asked on our Instagram page, “What’s the easiest, softest way to clear an anxious mind for meditation?” We do our best to answer the question as given, and our answer is: don’t.
We don’t need to clear our anxiety in order to meditate. Our anxiety makes for a great meditation subject. Often, we think that in order to meditate, we must have a completely clear mind. However, meditation is not about stopping the mind from thinking. Racing thoughts do not prevent us from meditating.
When we are anxious and sit down to meditate, we can turn our attention to the anxiety. How do you know you are anxious? Do you feel it in the body? When we sit in meditation, we may be able to see how anxiety affects us. We may feel a tightness in our chest, increased heart rate, or tension in our extremities. When we turn toward our anxiety, we gain insight about it. Rather than an overwhelming or all-consuming feeling, we are able to experience anxiety as it is: a feeling in the body, coupled with a quality of the mind.
The Buddha taught an antidote to restlessness and worry, or uddhacca-kukkucca in Pali. He said that when experiencing restlessness and worry, we should practice relaxation (passaddhi), concentration (samadhi), and equanimity (upekkha). When we are practicing these qualities, it is not that anxiety will immediately leave us. These qualities help us to see our anxiety more clearly and understand it. We eventually change our relationship with anxiety and are no longer under its control.
This passage from Analayo makes another great point:
Recently, we were asked on our Instagram page, “What can I do to help cultivate a commitment to regular practice?” The user also said, “…some ‘me time’ such as yoga or meditation would really benefit me, but my mind is rebellious and fights against the idea.” Another user added, “So hard to make it a regular practice.”
What a wonderful question. So many of us have seen the benefits of a meditation practice for ourselves, yet we somehow still resist. Even with the experiences we have had, we still can’t seem to sit regularly. When we are suffering, we think about meditating, but don’t actually get it done.
There are many ways to begin cultivating a commitment to regular practice. In the end, we all must discover what works for us. It may be different for you than for me. Here are a few tips we find helpful…
Find a Time
Finding a regular time to sit has been very beneficial for us. Some people enjoy sitting first thing in the morning, while others prefer sitting before bed. Maybe the middle of the day is best for you. Try to sit at different times to find what works for you. When something feels good, make it a part of your schedule.
For example, you may sit after waking, before eating breakfast. As you begin to do this more regularly, you may find that it becomes an important part of your daily routine. Meditation is a PRACTICE. It takes time and repeated effort. Finding a consistent time to practice every day helps us regulate our practice. Some people like to set alarms to remind themselves to sit during that day.
Sometimes, you just have to sit. One Instagram user, @merehut, contributed, “Some days are easy, some are not. Just don’t fret or judge your efforts.” Wise advice. We tend to get down on ourselves or anxious when we don’t want to sit. After years of meditation practice, there are still days when I have to drag my ass to the cushion.
When we sit, we are able to be present for this aversive feeling. Sometimes we sit in these circumstances and are not able to concentrate one bit. Other times we may gain some insight into our mind’s behavior. Whatever the case, sitting even when we don’t want to is a practice in facing our emotions head on.
Get a Meditation Buddy or Mentor
Having somebody to check in with about your meditation can be of great help. It may be just a friend. Having somebody else who meditates in your life is a great start. Connecting with this person, you can talk about your practice, and encourage each other to sit. We have found that making friends who also meditate benefits us greatly.
In addition to having a meditation buddy, you may find a mentor or teacher to connect with. This person doesn’t have to be the world’s foremost expert on meditation or Buddhism. Having somebody in your life that has a bit more experience than you do is incredibly beneficial. A mentor is somebody you can go to with your questions and thoughts. It is somebody to connect with and be accountable to. If you ever would like to check in, ask questions, or try to connect with one of us here, you may call or text us at (323) 790-6252. We do have both male and female mentors available to talk and text at no cost!
Join a Meditation Group
One way we can create a regular practice is to join a local meditation group. Many areas have groups that meet frequently. Building a sangha, or community, helps encourage us and drive our practice. We feel some accountability to practice, and often learn new techniques and practices.
Because we liked this question so much, we are starting a daily check-in routine for our meditations. Check it out and join us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/TESWmeditation/. You also may check out Insight Timer, an app for your mobile device. Insight Timer allows you to track your meditation sessions, connect with others, and listen to guided meditations. If you are unsure about meditation groups in your area, please feel free to ask us on our social medias or via email.
These are just a few suggestions. In the end, we have to buckle down and sit when we don’t want to. Maybe start with just 5 or 10 minutes every day. Be gentle with yourself, don’t judge, and allow yourself some wiggle room. If you really want to sit every day and get into the habit of a regular practice, you may have to experiment, and you definitely will have to deal with some discomfort.
When you think of Buddhist meditation, what do you think of? For many, especially those new to the practice, the word meditation brings up the idea of focusing on the breath. When our minds wander (as they so often do), we bring out attention back to our breathing. However, this is but one type of meditation. In Buddhism, there is a distinct difference between concentration and mindfulness.
What is Concentration?
Concentration, or samadhi in Pali, is the quality of single-pointedness of mind. In order to gain the quality of concentration, we must practice repeatedly turning our mind back to whatever we are focusing on. In concentration, we do not entertain thoughts, other stimulus, or anything else that draws our attention away. In this sense, concentration can be a bit forceful. This does NOT mean that concentration is unkind or harmful; it simply means that sometimes we must force ourselves back to the object of our focus.
What Does Concentration Practice Look Like?
The most common way that concentration is practiced is by focusing on the breath. In concentration practice, we turn our attention to our breath and let our thoughts go. We may focus on one point in the body, such as the tip of the nose or the abdomen. We also may focus on the breath’s path through our bodies.
When a thought arises, we let it go. We may see our thoughts as cars on a train. If we cling onto a thought, it often takes us quite far before we are able to get off. We practice not hooking into the thoughts, and returning to our breath. When we do get carried away, we try to come back. We must come back in a gentle way. We must be careful not to judge ourselves or be harsh when our minds wander. The practice is simply to come back to our breath.
What is the Point of Concentration Practice?
Different traditions may have different opinions about samadhi. In Theravada Buddhism, the jhanas are commonly spoken about. Jhanas are states of extreme concentration, and lead to nibbana. As verse 372 of the Dhammapada says:
There’s no jhana for one with no discernment,
no discernment for one with no jhana.
But one with both jhana & discernment:
he’s on the verge of Unbinding.
Concentration practice has other benefits as well. Any meditation practice benefits from a concentration practice. Whether we are practicing metta, compassion, or mindfulness, a concentration practice helps us to stay focused. Furthermore, concentration practice helps us in our daily lives. When practicing concentration, we are often able to focus and stay attentive more naturally.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or sati in Pali, is a quality that is broader than concentration. Theravada monk and scholar Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) stresses frequently that the Pali word sati that we often translate as “mindfulness” is more appropriately defined as “wise remembering.” When we think of mindfulness meditation, we may think of focusing on our breath, often more of a concentration practice.
Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment. The “remembering” part that Than Geoff speaks about is remembering what is useful and skillful, and what is not. If a thought or impulse arises that has caused harm in the past, we must remember, or be mindful, of its nature. Mindfulness is an open awareness of what is happening right now, and exhibiting wise judgement, or discernment.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a wisdom practice like concentration. However, we don’t focus on one object in mindfulness meditation. We may start with a concentration practice to center ourselves, but a mindfulness practice includes more than just our breath. In mindfulness meditation, we open up to other stimulus.
We may have thoughts arise, hear a sound, smell something, or have a physical sensation in our bodies. When these draw our attention, we investigate. This doesn’t mean we need to bounce around like crazy. When our attention is grabbed by a sound or thought, we stick with it for a moment. In mindfulness practice, we take the time to notice how it feels, what the cause is, and what it creates within us.
For example, if our attention is drawn to a thought about becoming very successful in our business, making great amounts of money, and finding happiness, we turn towards it. We may notice that it is a fantasy, and probably feels a bit pleasant. We may also investigate more deeply and see that it created a relaxing feeling in our bodies. Furthermore, we may discover that the root of this thought is a discontentment with the way our lives are in this moment.
Mindfulness practice is not as forced as concentration practice. In mindfulness practice, we don’t need to continually return our focus to one thing. If our minds wander and we get lost in thought, we do need to bring it back. For this, the breath is often a great anchor. On a final note about general mindfulness meditation, it can be useful to be present for your breath, so that you may identify what kind of breath your body needs next.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Again, the benefits of mindfulness meditation can be found both on and off the cushion. On the cushion, mindfulness is an essential quality. The Buddha spoke extensively about sati, specifically with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps bring us into contact with the three marks of existence: anicca, dukkha, and anatta (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self). The Buddha taught that full understanding of these leads to liberation from suffering (nibbana). Similar to concentration, mindfulness is a quality that helps in all of our practices. When we are practicing forgiveness and our mind wanders to other thoughts, our mindfulness practice may help us to understand why we are having these thoughts or what the wise response is.
Off the cushion, mindfulness simply helps us stay present. Mindfulness is about present time awareness and investigation. In our daily lives, mindfulness helps us be present for what is happening. With strong mindfulness practice, our minds don’t wander quite as much, and when they do we are able to investigate more easily. Mindfulness practice also helps us recognize what we are doing, and often helps us not cause suffering in the world about us.
So What’s the Big Difference?
There are a few major points to consider:
I showed up just south of Santa Monica Pier at 8am. Dustin was there waiting for me, having already trained several clients before. Dustin Conrad runs Bands and Body Fitness, a personal training business unlike any I have known.
Dustin is sober and has quite the spiritual life. From meditation to service-work, Dustin does a bit of everything. His passion for spirituality is matched only by his passion for fitness, and it shows. He smiles when speaking of his work. He enjoys what he does, and is a real people-person. Dustin has found a great balance of pushing his clients and bringing spirituality to his workouts.
Sitting down with Dustin was simply fun. His light-hearted energy and friendliness are contagious. Check out his interview below, and visit Bands and Body’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you would like to come join Dustin and a few of us from The Easier Softer Way on Saturday mornings at Santa Monica Beach, visit Bands and Body’s Meetup Page.
Please feel free to leave a comment, or contact us for a free $100 gift card to Bands and Body!
That’s what we want — or so we’re told by the people who try to sell us a mainstreamlined Buddhism. But is it what we need? And is it Buddhism?
Think back for a moment on the story of the young Prince Siddhartha and his first encounters with aging, illness, death, and a wandering contemplative. It’s one of the most accessible chapters in the Buddhist tradition, largely because of the direct, true-to-the-heart quality of the young prince’s emotions. He saw aging, illness, and death as an absolute terror, and pinned all his hopes on the contemplative forest life as his only escape. As Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist poet, depicts the story, the young prince had no lack of friends and family members who tried to talk him out of those perceptions, and Asvaghosa was wise enough to show their life-affirming advice in a very appealing light. Still, the prince realized that if he were to give in to their advice, he would be betraying his heart. Only by remaining true to his honest emotions was he able to embark on the path that led away from the ordinary values of his society and toward an unsurpassed Awakening into the Deathless.
This is hardly a life-affirming story in the ordinary sense of the term, but it does affirm something more important than life: the truth of the heart when it aspires to a happiness absolutely pure. The power of this aspiration depends on two emotions, called in Pali samvega and pasada. Very few of us have heard of them, but they’re the emotions most basic to the Buddhist tradition. Not only did they inspire the young prince in his quest for Awakening, but even after he became the Buddha he advised his followers to cultivate them on a daily basis. In fact, the way he handled these emotions is so distinctive that it may be one of the most important contributions his teachings have to offer to American culture today.
Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language.
But more than providing a useful term, Buddhism also offers an effective strategy for dealing with the feelings behind it — feelings that our own culture finds threatening and handles very poorly. Ours, of course, is not the only culture threatened by feelings of samvega. In the Siddhartha story, the father’s reaction to the young prince’s discovery stands for the way most cultures try to deal with these feelings: He tried to convince the prince that his standards for happiness were impossibly high, at the same time trying to distract him with relationships and every sensual pleasure imaginable. To put it simply, the strategy was to get the prince to lower his aims and to find satisfaction in a happiness that was less than absolute and not especially pure.
If the young prince were living in America today, the father would have other tools for dealing with the prince’s dissatisfaction, but the basic strategy would be essentially the same. We can easily imagine him taking the prince to a religious counselor who would teach him to believe that God’s creation is basically good and not to focus on any aspects of life that would cast doubt on that belief. Or he might take him to a psychotherapist who would treat feelings of samvega as an inability to accept reality. If talking therapies didn’t get results, the therapist would probably prescribe mood-altering drugs to dull the feeling out of the young man’s system so that he could become a productive, well-adjusted member of society.
If the father were really up on current trends, he might find a Dharma teacher who would counsel the prince to find happiness in life’s little miraculous pleasures — a cup of tea, a walk in the woods, social activism, easing another person’s pain. Never mind that these forms of happiness would still be cut short by aging, illness, and death, he would be told. The present moment is all we have, so we should try to appreciate the bittersweet opportunity of relishing but not holding on to brief joys as they pass.
It’s unlikely that the lion-hearted prince we know from the story would take to any of this well-meant advice. He’d see it as propaganda for a life of quiet desperation, asking him to be a traitor to his heart. But if he found no solace from these sources, where in our society would he go? Unlike the India of his time, we don’t have any well-established, socially accepted alternatives to being economically productive members of society. Even our contemplative religious orders are prized for their ability to provide bread, honey, and wine for the marketplace. So the prince would probably find no alternative but to join the drifters and dropouts, the radicals and revolutionaries, the subsistence hunters and survivalists consigned to the social fringe.
He’d discover many fine minds and sensitive spirits in these groups, but no accumulated body of proven and profound alternative wisdom to draw on. Someone might give him a book by Thoreau or Muir, but their writings would offer him no satisfactory analysis of aging, illness, and death, and no recommendations for how to go beyond them. And because there’s hardly any safety net for people on the fringe, he’d find himself putting an inordinate amount of his energy into issues of basic survival, with little time or energy left over to find his own solution to the problem of samvega. He would end up disappearing, his Buddhahood aborted — perhaps in the Utah canyon country, perhaps in a Yukon forest — without trace.
Fortunately for us, however, the prince was born in a society that did provide support and respect for its dropouts. This was what gave him the opportunity to find a solution to the problem of samvega that did justice to the truths of his heart.
The first step in that solution is symbolized in the Siddhartha story by the prince’s reaction to the fourth person he saw on his travels outside of the palace: the wandering forest contemplative. The emotion he felt at this point is termed pasada, another complex set of feelings usually translated as “clarity and serene confidence.” It’s what keeps samvega from turning into despair. In the prince’s case, he gained a clear sense of his predicament and of the way out of it, leading to something beyond aging, illness, and death, at the same time feeling confident that the way would work.
As the early Buddhist teachings freely admit, the predicament is that the cycle of birth, aging, and death is meaningless. They don’t try to deny this fact and so don’t ask us to be dishonest with ourselves or to close our eyes to reality. As one teacher has put it, the Buddhist recognition of the reality of suffering — so important that suffering is honored as the first noble truth — is a gift, in that it confirms our most sensitive and direct experience of things, an experience that many other traditions try to deny.
From there, the early teachings ask us to become even more sensitive, to the point where we see that the true cause of suffering is not out there — in society or some outside being — but in here, in the craving present in each individual mind. They then confirm that there is an end to suffering, a release from the cycle. And they show the way to that release, through developing noble qualities already latent in the mind to the point where they cast craving aside and open onto Deathlessness. Thus the predicament has a practical solution, a solution within the powers of every human being.
It’s also a solution open to critical scrutiny and testing — an indication of how confident the Buddha was in the solution he found to the problem of samvega. This is one of the aspects of authentic Buddhism that most attracts people who are tired of being told that they should try to deny the insights that inspired their sense of samvega in the first place.
In fact, early Buddhism is not only confident that it can handle feelings of samvega but it’s also one of the few religions that actively cultivates them to a radical extent. Its solution to the problems of life demand so much dedicated effort that only strong samvega will keep the practicing Buddhist from slipping back into his or her old ways. Hence the recommendation that all Buddhists, both men and women, lay or ordained, should reflect daily on the facts of aging, illness, separation, and death — to develop feelings of samvega — and on the power of one’s own actions, to take samvega one step further, to pasada.
For people whose sense of samvega is so strong that they want to abandon any social ties that prevent them from following the path to the end of suffering, Buddhism offers both a long-proven body of wisdom for them to draw from, as well as a safety net: the monastic sangha, an institution that enables them to leave lay society without having to waste time worrying about basic survival. For those who can’t leave their social ties, Buddhist teaching offers a way to live in the world without being overcome by the world, following a life of generosity, virtue, and meditation to strengthen the noble qualities of the mind that will lead to the end of suffering.
The symbiotic relationship designed for these two branches of the Buddhist parisa, or community, guarantees that each will benefit from contact with the other. The support of the laity guarantees that the monastics will not need to be overly concerned about food, clothing, and shelter; the gratitude that the monastics inevitably feel for the freely-offered generosity of the laity helps to keep them from turning into misfits and misanthropes. At the same time, contact with the monastics helps the laity foster the proper perspective on life that nurtures the energy of samvega and pasada they need to keep from becoming dulled and numbed by the materialistic propaganda of the mainstream economy.
So the Buddhist attitude toward life cultivates samvega — a clear acceptance of the meaninglessness of the cycle of birth, aging, and death — and develops it into pasada: a confident path to the Deathless. That path includes not only time-proven guidance, but also a social institution that nurtures it and keeps it alive. These are all things that our society desperately needs. It’s a shame that, in our current efforts at mainstreaming Buddhism, they are aspects of the Buddhist tradition usually ignored. We keep forgetting that one source of Buddhism’s strength is its ability to keep one foot out of the mainstream, and that the traditional metaphor for the practice is that it crosses over the stream to the further shore. My hope is that we will begin calling these things to mind and taking them to heart, so that in our drive to find a Buddhism that sells, we don’t end up selling ourselves short.
When you think of meditation, what do you think of? It probably includes somebody sitting still in a chair or a cushion, maybe with folded legs or touching palms. When we have spoken about walking meditation in the past or recorded guided walking meditations, people have scoffed. Many slight walking meditation, but it is an incredibly useful and important practice.
Theravadan Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Silananda says:
Unfortunately, I have heard people criticize walking meditation, claiming that they cannot derive any benefits or good results from it. But it was the Buddha himself who first taught walking meditation. In the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha taught walking meditation two times. In the section called “Postures,” he said that a monk knows “I am walking” when he is walking, knows “I am standing” when he is standing, knows “I am sitting” when he is sitting, and knows ‘I am lying down’ when he is lying down. In another section called “Clear Comprehension,” the Buddha said, “A monk applies clear comprehension in going forward and in going back.” Clear comprehension means the correct understanding of what one observes. To correctly understand what is observed, a yogi must gain concentration, and in order to gain concentration, he must apply mindfulness. Therefore, when the Buddha said, “Monks, apply clear comprehension,” we must understood that not only clear comprehension must be applied, but also mindfulness and concentration. Thus the Buddha was instructing meditators to apply mindfulness, concentration, and clear comprehension while walking, while “going forward and back.” Walking meditation is thus an important part of this process.
Walking meditation is important! The satipatthana sutta advises us to know when we are standing and when we are walking. Just as we focus on the breath when we are sitting, we focus on our footsteps when walking. It is an essential part of the First Foundation of Mindfulness.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the esteemed Thai Forest monk, even suggests that there are times when walking meditation is more helpful than sitting meditation:
These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation. Which five?
He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed & savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.
These are the five rewards for one who practices walking meditation.
Get out there and try a walking meditation. Somebody said to us of walking meditation, “A fine alternative to pacing aimlessly in the middle of the night.” When we fully understand what walking meditation is, the importance of it, and the Buddha’s teachings of it, we begin to see it in a new light. Walking meditation is an important part of my practice, and I hope that others give it a shot! We are constructing a labyrinth here in a public open space in West Los Angeles to encourage walking meditation (photo above, not finished yet)!
Karma is one of those words we don’t translate. Its basic meaning is simple enough – action – but because of the weight the Buddha’s teachings give to the role of action, the Sanskrit word karma packs in so many implications that the English word action can’t carry all its luggage. This is why we’ve simply airlifted the original word into our vocabulary.
But when we try unpacking the connotations the word carries now that is has arrived in everyday usage, we find that most of its luggage has gotten mixed up in transit. For most people, karma functions like fate – and bad fate, at that.: an inexplicable, unchangeable force coming out of our past, for which we are somehow vaguely responsibly and powerless to fight. “I guess it’s just my karma,” I’ve heard people sigh when bad fortune strikes with such force that they see no alternative to resigned acceptance. The fatalism implicit in this statement is one reason why so many of us feel repelled by the concept of karma, for it sounds like the kind of callous myth-making that can justify almost any kind of suffering or injustice in the status quo: “If he’s poor, it’s because of his karma.” “If she’s been raped, it’s because of her karma.” From this it seems a short step to saying that he or she deserves to suffer, and so doesn’t deserve our help.
This misperception comes from the fact that the Buddhist concept of karma came to the West at the same time as non-Buddhist concepts, and so ended up with some of their luggage. Although many ancient concepts or karma are fatalistic, the early Buddhist concept was definitely not. In fact, if we look closely at early Buddhist ideas of karma, we’ll find that they give even less importance to myths about the past than most modern people do.
For the early Buddhists, karma was non-linear. Other Indian schools believed that karma operated in a straight line, with actions from the past influencing the present, and present actions influencing the future. As a result, they saw little room for free will. Buddhists, however, saw that karma acts in feedback loops, with the present moment being shaped both by past and by present actions; present actions shape not only the future but also the present. This constant opening for present input into the casual process makes free will possible. This freedom is symbolized in the imagery the Buddhists used to explain the process: flowing water. Sometimes the flow from the past is so strong that little can be done except to stand fast, but there are also times when the flow is gentle enough to be diverted in almost any direction.
So instead of promoting resigned powerlessness, the early Buddhist notion of karma focused on the liberating potential of what the mind is doing at every moment. Who you are – what you come from – is not anywhere near as important as the mind’s motives for what it’s doing right now. Even though the past may account for many of the inequalities we see in life, our measure as human beings is not the hand we’ve been dealt, for that hand can change at any moment. We take our own measure by how well we play the hand we’ve got. If you’re suffering, you try not to continue the unskillful mental habits that would keep that particular karmic feedback going. If you see that other people are suffering, and you’re in a position to help, you focus not on their karmic past but your karmic opportunity in the present: Someday you may find yourself in the same predicament they’re in now, so here’s your opportunity to act in the way you’d like them to act toward you when that day comes.
This belief that one’s dignity is measured, not by one’s past, but by one’s present actions, flew right in the face of the Indian traditions of caste-based hierarchies, and explains why early Buddhists had such a field day poking fun at the pretensions and mythology of the brahmans. As the Buddha pointed out, a brahman could be a superior person not because he came out of a brahman womb, but only if he acted with truly skillful intentions.
We read the early Buddhist attacks on the caste system and, aside from their anti-racist implications, they often strike us as quaint. What we fail to realize is that they strike right at the heart of our myths about our own past: our obsession with defining who we are in terms of where we come from – our race, ethnic heritage, gender, socio-economic background, sexual preference – our modern tribes. We put inordinate amounts of energy into creating and maintaining the mythology of our tribe so that we can take vicarious pride in our tribe’s good name. Even when we become Buddhists, the tribe comes first. We demand a Buddhism that honors our myths.
From the standpoint of karma, though, where we come from is old karma, over which we have no control. What we “are” is a nebulous concept at best – and pernicious at worst, when we use it to find excuses for acting on unskillful motives. The worth of a tribe lies only in the skillful actions of its individual members. Even when those good people belong to our tribe, their good karma is theirs, not ours. And, of course, every tribe has its bad members, which means that the mythology of the tribe is a fragile thing. To hang onto anything fragile requires a large investment of passion, aversion, and delusion, leading inevitably to more unskillful actions on into the future.
So the Buddhist teachings on karma, far from being a quaint relic from the past, are a direct challenge to a basic thrust – and basic flaw – in modern culture. Only when we abandon our obsession with finding vicarious pride in our tribal past, and can take actual pride in the motives that underlie our present actions, can we say that the word karma, in its Buddhist sense, has recovered its luggage. And when we open the luggage, we’ll find that it’s brought us a gift: the gift we give ourselves and one another when we do drop our myths about who we are, and can instead be honest about what we’re doing with each moment – at the same time making the effort to do it right.
Taken from the book Noble Strategy by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
I used to think success was for others, but not for me. Even still, I sometimes find myself feeling unworthy of successes that I achieve. Recently, I have truly built esteem with my actions, and am beginning to know the good feeling of success. From a hopeless addict behind bars to who I am today, I would like to take a moment to share some recent successes and a lot of hope.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of recent successes is my relationship. I have always struggled with relationships in my life, especially intimate ones. Today, I am in a wonderful relationship with an amazing young woman. We aren’t always walking on sunshine, but we communicate, are honest, and keep trying. We both have our own personal programs and practices, but we share in our growth. We practice separately, and grow together.
This healthy relationship is a great success for me. In the past, my relationships have always been a source of major stress in my life and have not encouraged growth. My relationship today is far different from anything I have experienced. For the first time, I am able to be myself, and be with somebody who helps me grow. Instead of a source of stress, my relationship is a source of insight, wisdom, and growth.
The Easier Softer Way
One of the greatest successes I have had in my life is The Easier Softer Way. I started TESW in April 2011 as a small, personal blog. I was working at the time for an online marketing firm, and was using The Easier Softer Way to test my skills. I chose the name “The Easier Softer Way” as a reference to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous’s claim on page 58, “We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not.” To me, this is stating that the program of action as outlined in the book is the easiest, softest way. The name The Easier Softer Way was chosen as a reminder that working a twelve step program (of which meditation is an important part) is truly the easier, softer way.
The Easier Softer Way has grown since then. Now, almost three years later, we are a much larger site with many contributors. We now have three Daily Inspirational Emails available to our members. We also offer free guided meditations on Youtube, and have many free dharma talks and twelve step speakers. Finally, we now make and sell Buddhist Malas and Handmade Gifts. Users may join The Easier Softer Way for just $1/month to get access to our daily emails, download our guided meditations, and receive coupons to our store.
In the past year, I left my regular day job. I decided to take The Easier Softer Way a bit more seriously. I make a living off jewelry sales, memberships, and a private mindfulness coaching practice. I absolutely love my work with The Easier Softer Way. I love reading the responses to our gratitude posts, I love hearing the opinions and experiences of our users, and I love sharing my own personal practice. I didn’t think when I started TESW that it would ever turn into anything more than a guinea pig for my marketing skills. Today, I get to do what I love all day, talk to like-minded people, and market something I am truly passionate about and believe in.
Recently, I put on an event in Santa Monica. The poet Anis Mojgani came in from Austin and performed. Anis won the National Poetry Slam Championship twice and the International World Cup Poetry Slam once. He is an amazing poet, and I have been an avid fan for the past 6 or 7 years. Recently, I contacted him about doing a show in the Los Angeles area. He didn’t have any tour dates in Los Angeles, and I was wondering if he could come do a show. I am neither a promoter nor a producer, and have no prior experience putting shows on.
I worked hard to make the show happen. I set up ticket sales and ticketing, marketed the show, and organized with Anis. On February 12th, Anis showed up with Jeremy Radin, a local poet. We also had the blessing of having Sarah Key, a poet from New York join us. They performed, quite wonderfully, to a crowd of about 150 people. We were sold out, with people sitting on the floor of the theater.
Seeing the line of people before the show, the crowd in the theater, and everyone waiting after the show to meet the poets, I was overcome with a feeling of accomplishment. With the help of my partner, Elizabeth, the show went perfectly. A few artists who I admire greatly were performing to a sold-out theater, and we helped make it happen. I have always had great doubt about myself. To put this much work in and make something happen was a great point of growth for me. I followed my heart, and made something great happen with some hard work.
Recently, I have begun to take my personal wellbeing more seriously. Attending twelve step meetings and meditating have been great tools for me in the past years. However, I now am looking at myself as a whole. I have begun eating more healthily, exercising regularly, and generally taking better care. This is an extremely important part of my life today, and I am grateful that I have had teachers who have encouraged holistic wellbeing as an important part of my practice.
I share all this to encourage those that feel hopeless. I once sat in a jail cell with a few Class A Felony charges. I couldn’t get a few hours sober, let alone several years. Every day I struggled to get anything done. My ambition was nonexistant. Today, with much work, I am living a life I love, and no longer have a sense of impending doom. Life does grow, and as it grows, so do my obstacles. However, I am able to meet my obstacles today with more stability and determination. I am able to find contentment more easily, and struggle less.