Latest Event Updates

Prisons can be a place of healing!

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The way we treat prisoners is inhumane.
Am deeply touched by the video and by Fritzi’s vision, passion, and guts!
I’ll be donating and passing this on to others.
💖I hope you will, too.🙏

https://compassionprisonproject.org/

Grateful to have discovered this gifted teacher.

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Am so grateful to have discovered Mirabai Starr!In this half-hour video, she articulates my own spiritual yearning and perspective better than I can.

Gampo Abbey photos and video

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While Ziji and I were in our retreat, one of the other retreatants who is a long-time Shambhala practitioner shot some gorgeous video footage of the Abbey including drone shots and images of us in retreat mode and of Pema enthusing about the Abbey and its future. You’ll even get to hear us chanting. In some of the shots of the Shrine Room you’ll get a brief view of the backs of Ziji’s and my heads…woo hoo! And I make a cameo appearance as well: the mysterious guy in black shoveling snow. This will give you a better feel for where we were [the end of the earth!] and what we were doing.
Here are a couple of group shots as well:
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I continue to be overjoyed to be home in my beloved Vancouver. I’m feeling a remarkable sense of serenity and groundedness as the world has a collective anxiety attack due to the Corona Virus. I attribute Gampo Abbey with my equanimity.
Our full retreat photo album is here on Google Photos.

Week 7: the finale

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We crossed the finish line!

Summary:

~ this final week our schedule has gotten a bit lighter and gradually more social, with fewer sessions of meditation, and more open time. At first, it was hard to be in the dining room with all the chatter! A bunch of us got talking about American politics, all groaning. I retreated to my room, and so grateful to have it.

~ Meeting with Ani Pema one to one was a joy. [details below]

~ Maybe I’m finally beginning understand the enigmatic Buddhist idea that “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form”. At least Thich Nhat Hahn’s explanation makes sense. [details below]

~ Am finding a combo of mantra meditation with Shamatha [observing breath without mantra] to be very helpful to get to a relatively thought-free state. Used mantra + pause to access Emptiness / Pure Consciousness, then let go of the mantra and simply stayed with the breath and PC. Will use that more often. It’s like having training wheels I can deploy or disable as needed! More details below.

~ In this and most forms of Buddhism there is great devotion to the “Three Jewels”: Buddha, Dharma [teachings], and Sangha [spiritual community]. There is also devotion to one’s own teacher or guru, and the entire lineage of gurus/disciples going back thousands of years. My Baba taught that Consciousness is drawing us toward Itself, and that “The Guru” is an energy in the universe we can access or be open to. Teachings are ever available if we are receptive to receiving them: from a bird, flower, sunset, a child, a homeless person, as well as from all the wise teachers we now can call upon electronically. Another focus for meditation can be to visualize inwardly [or actually look at an image of] any person or things that inspires us deeply. Let the attractiveness of that image keep our attention focused. For me it is remembering the infinite compassion in my Baba’s eyes. Details below.

~ The retreat officially ended yesterday, Sunday the 23rd, with a lifting of our temporary vows, a sweet talk by Ani Pema, and heartfelt thanks all around. We all really have gone deep together, and now we are emerging into the outer world.

~ Today is Losar [Tibetan New Years] which began at 6 AM. I definitely felt a sense of excitement: I woke at 3 and couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s been full of festivities and feasting: a huge change from our very inward 7 weeks. Details below.

~ Tomorrow we’ll be picked up here by a shuttle bus from Halifax, which will take Ziji and me to the airport hotel. On Wednesday we’ll fly out at 0750 by way of Calgary and should be on the ground in Vancouver around 1230. It will be very sweet to be back home.

~ As promised, here are the photos from our time away.

~ Here is a link to a PDF of a beautiful Buddhist prayer we all recited around the bonfire on Monday, to mark Tibetan New Years. It is called “Aspiration of Samantabhadra.” What I like is how is summarizes the essence of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in a deeply devotional format, expressing the bodhisattva aspiration to liberate all beings from the suffering caused by the delusion of separateness.

~ Here’s my “monk’s cell” which felt very luxurious: all the other guys were in shared room a 10 minute walk away, which I was in the Abbey itself!
Age has its advantages 😉
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Thank you again for following this inner journey. Stay tuned to see who I am as I return to life out in the world.

Details:

Ani Pema one-to-one –

She began by complimenting me on my Tibetan vest, which was a perfect ice-breaker. Then she asked how the retreat is going for me. I told her of the sleep challenges, saying at home I need 9-10 hours in total to get enough sleep, meditating during the waking periods. She said she’s exactly the same, so I felt totally understood and validated. Then I said how blessed I feel to have had this time with her, how I’ve heard about her through several friends, and even watched a video, but was too busy to really tune into her then. I said I’ve experienced darshan several times with conscious beings and appreciate what a transmission there can be, so when Ziji told me of this opportunity to be with her for 6 weeks I could not resist. I said she embodies what she teaches with such humility and authenticity that I feel deeply touched. Her presence conveys even more than her very clear verbal teaching.
Then I asked my question about whether it’s okay to be a free-lance yogi: not following any one teacher or joining any sangha because I’ve never found a teacher whose organization I want to be part of. I explained how even my beloved Baba’s teachings around sexuality simply did not fit for me as a gay man. Nor have I felt sufficiently attracted to any other teachers or organizations to completely follow them. I asked if she thinks I’m deluding myself or have commitment issues or some sort of spiritual ego. She said if I was younger she would recommend finding one teacher so they can get to know me and challenge me, but she sees I’m doing quite well on my path, that my heart is quite open, and that I can just keep doing what I’m doing. I sense she’s able to read people pretty well after all these years, so I value her positive feedback.
She has found 2 teachers with whom to have personal relationships, Trungpa and another Rinpoche, and both have been able to dig into her underlying stuff, which she values. She’s doing some practice dying exercises because during that major transition the mind has an opportunity to wake up. So she wants to visualize her guru as she is dying. That made me reflect that is the perfect intention for me as well: to remember Baba’s eyes and loving energy when I’m taking my last breaths.
To my delight, her main support person asked me shortly before the interview if I’d be willing to walk Ani Pema back to her cabin, about 20 minutes away on icy roads. Of course I jumped at the chance.
I found her to be exactly the same on a casual walk: totally open, engaging, and sharp.
I expressed interest in how long she’s been a monastic: since 1975! She married young and had two children. It was a difficult period in many ways.  By her late 30s she was really ready for something different, when she heard about dharma, then ordination. “It still feels like the right choice.” At the edge of her stairs we bowed with much mutual love in our eyes: a moment I’ll always treasure. I definitely have had a transmission and feel inspired by her.

Form and Emptiness –

Buddhism teaches that all forms [things, beings, stuff] are impermanent: everything is made of and from other stuff and is in the process of turning into other stuff. Everything gets recycled and re-purposed! Nothing and no one has a separate, unchanging existence or “self”. “Emptiness” is the term used to describe that all is “inter-being or interpenetrating” with everything. There is remarkable agreement with the scientific notion of the conservation of matter and energy: nothing is ever destroyed; it merely changes form!
The Law of Dependent Co-arising says all forms are in interdependent relationship with all other forms. We give things names that describe only their current state of metamorphosis. For example we see a seed, then [with the right conditions of soil, sun, water] it “becomes” a sprout, then s seedling, a sapling, a tree, which becomes “dead” wood, and decays into soil, which will nourish other seeds, etc. All those stages of birth, death, dissolution also depend on sunshine, water, etc. A time-lapse video over decades or centuries would show that as an unbroken flow. Our mind perceives in short time intervals, erroneously seeing static “things” we name, only to have them change into other “things”.  The same with each of us! Because every “thing” is interwoven with every other “thing” inseparably, the seeming separation is merely a mental construct, or concept. What we call birth and death are simply part of perpetual transformation of every “thing.” No-thing came from nothing! No-thing becomes nothing! He uses the example of waves on water, which seem separate, are always changing, and are always water. To see this level we need to expand our sense of time, and also zoom in the the microscopic level and out to the macroscopic. Meditation helps free us from the limited views of ordinary perception.

My new hybrid meditation –

When mind is busy, I am discovering I can use a combo of mantra + pranayama [controlling the breathing] to access Emptiness / Pure Consciousness, then let go of the mantra and simply stay with the breath and Consciousness. It’s like having training wheels I can deploy or disable as needed!
First I tune into my breathing and heartbeat, noting the number of beats per breath. Then I synchronize my mantra with those beats on inhale and again on exhale: Om-Na-ma-Shi-va-ya is 6 beats, which is perfect for me. After a few rounds I insert a silent pause at the top and bottom for a few beats [for me typically 3 or 4 beats is quite comfortable]. I find when the breath pauses so do thoughts! Once I feel stabilized and can really dive into that stillness, I let go of the mantra and dwell in the stillness during inhale/pause/exhale/pause. If the mind is very stable I let go of any control of the breath, and simply ride it. If too many thoughts return, I add the mantra back into the mix until I again feel stabilized in mostly thought-free meditation. Am finding the stabilized Shamatha periods are getting longer.

Losar, the Tibetan New Years –

The dawn was clear and calm, and mild @ +2C. With much blowing on conches and banging of pots and pans we prayed to the 4 directions for blessings for all beings in the new year of the iron mouse/rat. Then after breakfast we set up for the big potluck feast. About 40 “locals” arrived a bit after 9, many of whom drove up to 3 hours from all over Cape Breton to be with us. At 10 we had a liturgy that is very high-energy, then a talk by Pema. At 11 we went out around a bon fire for more new years chanting and parading. The Shambhala vibe is still way too militaristic for me: all about victory and warriors.
The feast at noon was sumptuous. Ziji and I spent hours yesterday stuffing mushrooms with goat cheese and various additions. It was fun to do, and a was big hit. All the food was great! It was fun to see the monastics cutting loose and chowing down! Then Ani Pema gave a sweet homily and gave us all gifts of calendars. We each went up to receive it from her hands: another moment of darshan, and probably my last. She says this year of the iron mouse is one of inwardness for her, who was born in the year of the rat in 1936.
Guests began leaving around 2:30 and we all swung into an amazingly smooth clean-up operation, washing all the dishes by hand and putting away very many yummy left-overs. The residents will have many happy culinary memories after we all leave tomorrow!
This evening I went for a solo walk around 4:30 and watch the sunset outside on a bench around 5:30. It was unusually warm and calm, and crystal clear, just as the dawn was at 6 this morning. It felt like an auspicious way for me to end this contemplative time here and bid farewell to this very sacred corner of Canada.

Week 6: Coming into the “home stretch”

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The adventure in Inner Space continues!

Summary:

~ we’ve completed our last silent week: this coming week we’ll resume speaking during and after lunch, up until the 3:30 meditations. Breakfast and dinners are always silent.

~ my weight loss was short-lived. I’ve been enjoying my honeyed coffee and my peanut butter and jam toast a bit too much it seems, and have regained most of what I lost. Oh well, am fine with 155#: it feels perfect.

~ I’ve been pretty addicted to caffeine since university days. Yet my ideal is to be free of substance addictions. So I’ve been slowly weaning myself off caffeine here. It’s been easy because the decaf coffee is as delicious as the leaded. So I’ve simply been lowering the proportion of caffeine each day. As of Wednesday, I’m caffeine-free and having no discomfort [headache or spaciness], so will continue with that: just decaf. I’ll give myself permission to use caffeine medicinally if I feel the need, and will keep that to a minimum. Am happy about that :}

~ The Titanic resurfaced, so to speak. [details below]

~ our final week is ahead, based on the Tibetan lunar New Years, which is next Monday the 24th. So we’ll complete our practices in some ritual ways on Sunday. Monday there will be a big pot luck feast with perhaps 90 people showing up from who knows where, given that we’re practically at the end of the earth! On Tuesday the 25th we have the 6 hour shuttle to Halifax, where we’ll stay at an airport hotel for our 7:30 AM flight home on Wed the 26.

~ overall this past week I feel like I’ve “hit my stride,” with one bump in the road [see below].

~ the eye-open Shamatha meditation, which is simply following the breath and letting thoughts arise and dissolve [without the help of mantra], has begun to feel quite wonderful. Now I realize I can be meditating anywhere doing anything. It’s simply being fully present, in the body and breathing, and not getting caught up in self-talk and past/future thinking. [more below]

~ Ani Pema did not give a talk this week. Have had time to read more of the 3 books she recommended on working with emotions, and am finding Dzogchen Ponlop’s “how to” book, Emotional Rescue, especially clear and helpful. I can recommend it. I’ll be having an interview with her at my request. Stay tuned…

~ Intentions back home: stepping out of my usual habit patterns for this long is giving me a new perspective on what new patterns I wish to establish. Details below.

~ There is a lightness in the air here as we all anticipate completing our long, deep retreat. Last evening there was a brief meeting about our shuttle bus to Halifax on the 25th, and the mood was almost giddy: like school kids nearing the end of the school year looking forward to freedom!

~ With all the end-of-retreat rituals and feasting, am not sure when I’ll have time for my final report: maybe not till I’m on the flight home on Wednesday.

Thank you for following these adventures. I hope you’re finding some inspiration from what I’m learning. 
Wishing you every blessing until we reconnect in person. May it be soon!

With a deep bow,
sequoia

Details: as usual, I invite you to read more only if/when you have the time and interest. The earlier episodes are below.

Meditations:

Am feeling a major shift in perspective this week: to truly allow ALL thoughts/images! Grasp at none, hold onto none: allow the coming and going…the waves. Also grogginess is not “bad” any more than fog or clouds are bad. They all obscure the light and the light is always there! Simply stay tuned to the light, and allow obscurations to come and go…just like the ever-changing sky! All are “the play of consciousness” to quote my Baba Muktananda and paraphrase Trungpa.  

This week I reflected on what Pema calls our fear of groundlessness, and found a new ease. Shamatha really does mean dwelling in Emptiness. The comfort I’ve had all these years with Baba’s mantras is it gives the verbal, chatter-box mind a job to do: repeating sacred syllables. With Shamatha I am being invited to let go into Pure Consciousness without holding Baba’s hand, and without that devotional energy. Initially I was not sure I liked it. Of course the “I” who does not like it is the ego! Still I’ve been choosing to experiment with periods of each type of sitting.

One of Baba’s mantras I regularly use in meditation is “Aham Sah”, which translates as “I am That” where That refers to Pure Consciousness, or what in Buddhism is called Emptiness. I realized that saying that mantra is still dualistic: even saying the words keeps me separate from That. I have to let go of the words and simply BE That. So that’s the leap I made: to simply watch the breath and be Consciousness doing its dance, its play of thoughts. It’s been very freeing! Just as in gazing with Ziji I experienced going beyond twoness into oneness without losing awareness of the twoness, so now I am able to be in the Emptiness of Pure Consciousness and not lose my sense of ground.

Ziji showed me a passage in Trungpa’s Complete Works about meditation, and I’m inspired: clear as a bell! He says meditation it totally natural, and is characterized by Openness, Perfection, and Spontaneity. The only way to do it “wrong” is to separate from and judge the experience.

At the end of every session of chanting or meditation, as we are filing out of the Shrine Room, we all harmonize singing a few lines from one of the chants with poetic imagery about the nature of ordinary thoughts. It advises us  to view each of them “like a falling star, a visual fault, a candle flame, an illusion, a dew drop, a water bubble, a dream, lightening, a cloud…”

Adapting to this new culture – then a big bump in the road

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the resistance I have to this tradition is being replaced by deep appreciation. Of all the world’s religions, Buddhism seems the most active advocate for sanity, non-violence, and compassion. I am grateful to feel the support of Buddha/Dharma/Sangha: all forms of The Guru.

The past several decades, I’ve been so focused on staying in The Now, I have not deeply taken into account and valued all the spiritual work that has been done for thousands of years by countless souls. Our evolution has been furthered by all of them. What Tibetan Buddhism does, perhaps more than any tradition I know of, is invoke all those past gurus, teachers, and enlightened beings to support us now as we carry on what they did. Many names are still known and invoked…every morning! I see the value. In the same way what we are adding will carry forward to future generations. We’ll be invoked by them. We are part of a long succession of practitioners carrying dharma forward. What a blessing!

The last 10 days before Tibetan New Years is called the “dons season.” “Dons” are some sort of spirit beings that can wreak havoc if we are not living in accordance with the dharma. It’s a time for cleaning up accumulated bad karma from the passing year so as to begin the new year fresh and clean. It even involves a thorough physical house cleaning. So on Thursday we began including some new evening chants to appease the “dons.” Am still put off by that aspect of this tradition: it seems so primitive and superstitious! I’d call it quaint if it did not have such violent, gory images and language, which I find repulsive. They’re very much a carry-over from the pre-Buddhist Bon shamanic culture which Buddhism integrated into its teachings in Tibet. There was a chant we repeated 7 times which concluded with a long Sanskrit mantra. We were given no coaching in how to pronounce it, and each time we raced through it. I stumbled and only got about half-way through each time before the leader began the next recitation. Some seemed to know it: I felt lost and frustrated. Over dinner I realized I was feeling quite agitated; my gut was churning…so odd! My heart felt closed. My mind was baffled: why is that done that way? Why race through with no preparation? I felt like I’m in a strange cult: very uncomfortable! Trungpa writes, “being attacked by dons is like catching a flu, or being possessed”: a sudden inexplicable emotion arises beyond all reason. Yup! I felt suddenly crazy!
In our nightly check-in, I ranted to Ziji about it: I was really worked up with frustration! Perfect, he enthused! We’re here to work on emotions. What an opportunity: a full-blown klesha! Even though my churning guts were uncomfortable, I could see his wisdom. So I applied the principles we’re using. I used the Mindful Gap to step back, take deep breaths, and let go of my mind’s wanting to make a whole drama out of it [like writing an angry note to the retreat organizer saying how unreasonable it is to expect newcomers like me to be able to instantly recite a complex Sanskrit mantra quickly, not once by seven times!]. Instead I used breathing and mantra to calm my agitated mind and finally get to sleep. In the morning I did some journaling, and in the afternoon, had a conversation with my Meditation Instructor. He was so kind: very understanding and compassionate. “Have a National Geographic Mind: you’re visiting an exotic place. You don’t have to buy the whole package. Just look and sample and admire and take whatever is helpful.” Wow, I said, that is really helpful. He said not to worry about not being able to do the long Sanskrit chant: just listen, mumble a bit, and let it seep its way in gradually. Nice! In my response to my wondering if the energy of the evening chants was leaving me stirred up and interfering with sleep, he said the whole process stirs stuff up, and is designed to: it’s a kind of excavation, and bound to be uncomfortable. He said this retreat has a particularly demanding schedule…for him, too! He said sure, if I want to sit out some evenings to see if I sleep better, try it out. Am really appreciating his supportive response.
So I sat out the next two evening chants and did indeed sleep better. I’ll try resuming them and see if they disturb my sleep. If so I’ll just skip them the whole next week, with his blessings.

Overall I feel mixed about the program here. I could do without so much monotone, liturgical chanting [40 minutes each morning and 30-40 minutes each evening]. I’d rather use some of that time for reading and/or exercise. Am super-grateful for the atmosphere of silence and encouragement to meditate often, and would prefer a more flexible schedule about that. I’ve managed to make my own schedule, but still feel I’m sort of cheating. Am definitely learning more about meditation, and about working with emotions, so that part has been great. And the people, both monastics and lay practitioners, have been fantastic!

I hope Ziji and I will spend time with another Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Anam Thubten. I’ve read one of his books and seen one video, and I find his teaching crystal clear. He is much freer of the cultural baggage that gets in my way here: a clearer transmission of the essence of the dharma.

Titanic:
If you’ve been with me on this whole adventure you’ll recall a few weeks ago I had some vivid new scenes emerge in my seeming past-life recall of being on the Titanic. This week I had yet a couple more new images: being on deck with the bow nearly at the water line, and overhearing people saying “she’s unsinkable…we’ll be fine…they say rescue boats are coming. We’ll maybe be delayed a day or so.” Of course only a few of the senior officers and the builder knew her fate, and they kept that from spreading to prevent panic. Am not clear who I was in that scene. I did not know her fate yet either.
What a study in hope/fear/denial! Again I did tonglen for them all, especially those who froze in the water or were trapped below decks, which seems the cruelest fate. So horrible!
In my next meditation session, another brief scene appeared: being in the life boat watching in utter horror as she upends then splits in two. The stern half crashed back down carrying to their doom all those clinging desperately to the ship’s high point: horrendous to witness! Even as I was aware of sitting on my cushion here at the abbey, the feeling of horror and shock was so vivid! Again it was such an incredibly powerful lesson in impermanence! I have no idea if these images actually are from a previous life: perhaps it’s just my imagination. But it’s very unlike me to have movies play in my head unbidden, and to have such gut-wrenching emotional intensity. Perhaps more will be revealed…or not.

Intentions back home:

~ Upon waking:use the first hour or more for spiritual reading and practices before going on the web. Then check email & news either before or after [not during] breakfast.

~ Do 15-20 minutes of house-cleaning every morning after brekky, including desk de-cluttering: chip away at it.

~ Do not listen to NPR! Listen to good books or podcasts at gym or biking. Skim news headlines.

~ Evening: stop all computer/internet by 9. Read something inspiring and/or meditate. Be in bed by 2200.
Wishing you and everyone a very Happy Tibetan New Year!

Week 5: Cultivating Compassion

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The adventure inward continues!

Summary –

~ This week which began feeling pretty challenging, in part because of the cleansing diet I began last week, is ending on an up-note on the Leo full moon. Am happy to have completed the cleanse and now be able to enjoy treats like toast with peanut butter, and putting honey in my coffee. Abstaining for 12 days was not all that difficult, and am certainly enjoying indulging again. I do feel better for the cleanse, and trimmer, having dropped 5 pounds of sludge from who knows where!

~ Ani Pema was sparkling on Tuesday! I was deeply touched and inspired [details below]. Then on Wednesday she and we got the sad news her older sister suddenly passed away. We got to witness how she deals with a big emotional shock: with total grace, compassion, and equanimity…and even humor! I want to be like her when I grow up.

~ Ziji and I are both offering classes on our Free Days. Last week, he gave an amazing lecture on reincarnation: the Buddhist logic [details below]. Today I’m offering a “Easeful Yoga” class to augment the daily yoga we do during a mid-morning break each day. In that 15 minute break there is someone leading by example with no actual instruction. It’s clear as I watch people that many do not really know what they are doing, and many skip it entirely because it looks too challenging. I want to show them how to make it easy.

~ His and my love is deepening week by week. Details below.

~ This coming week we return to total silence for one last deep dive. I welcome it! With only two weeks remaining, the end is in sight. Am not eager for the end, yet I know I will feel satisfied and ready. This is being an incredibly profound altered state of consciousness…with more to come. Stay tuned!

Details:

Ziji’s lecture was all about “causes and conditions.” In Buddhism, nothing exists without a cause, except Unconditioned Awareness [aka Basic Goodness, shunyata, emptiness]. Each “moment of consciousness” is caused by the one before. So logically the moment of birth is not the first “moment of consciousness”, nor will death be the last “moment of consciousness”. Something continues [in the bardos] between incarnations. I cannot do it justice here, so if you’re ever curious I’m sure he’d be glad to explain it to you. He loves philosophy and logic!
The last several Mondays, he and I have been practicing We Space meditation. Because we are each practicing so much inward meditation, and have no outward distractions, our We Space is going quite deep. Last Monday I experienced spaciousness, warmth, openness, safety, deep stillness; the spaciousness was paradoxically womb-like…”a very large womb.” We are at one with Existence Itself, Emptiness which is totally Full. I am experiencing love that is deeper than any I have ever imagined.The idea of love almost does not apply because we are no longer really two, yet we can see that we’re still “in” separate bodies. So the paradox is being both separate and one…amazing!

Getting comfortable with non-mantra meditation.

Early in the week I wrote, “Am sad I don’t relish the meditations here. It feels too much like work done on a fixed schedule. It becomes a should, not a want to. Meditation has always been a sweet refuge from the world; I do not want to lose that. Still I realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to delve deeper, and I do not want to miss that either. It’s about balance.” For weeks I’ve been struggling with meditating without the “training wheels” of my beloved mantras. As this week has progressed, I’ve had a majoy shift. I’ve heard Pema say enough times to not worry about thoughts, and simply allow them without following them. Still my struggle was feeling I should not have thoughts…should be able to quiet my mind. Too many shoulds! Suddenly I relaxed and began letting thoughts simply emerge and dissipate on their own: neither resisting nor following them. It became analogous to watching fireworks, or seeing an image of solar flares emerging from the sun then subsiding. There’s a song we’ve sung which says not to worry about waves on the ocean: they’re just the ocean’s play. Clouds are just the sky’s play. Thoughts are just the mind’s play. Lovely! Just let it be…neither resisting nor engaging. Now I’m actually enjoying this new way to be!
Pema Talk #5 – 4 Feb:

We began as we have each of her talks with Shantideva’s Aspiration:

“And now as long as space endures,

As long as there are beings to be found,

May we continue likewise to remain

To drive away the sorrows of the world.”

She said that is the essence of the Bodhisattva vow. She cited examples of times when one person was able to remain calm in a chaotic situation and that greatly helped others not succumb to the chaos.

This tradition uses the term “spiritual warrior” which has made me cringe. Having been part of the America war machine, I have an aversion to all things militaristic. Yet I am beginning to get the concept: to truly effect changes in the world that actually relieve human suffering does require training and discipline analogous to military training. Early on I jokingly referred to this retreat as Buddhist Boot Camp, which increasingly feels accurate. Now I am beginning to see its value, and that makes me more comfortable with the language of “spiritual warrior” … a major re-framing!

She says the human predicament is that we are hard-wired to fear change, and yet change is all there is! So we need to re-program our brains, and meditation is the way. Practice: notice resistance to Life As It Is in any given moment [example being stuck in traffic]. In life we can count on there being difficulties. So the question is: How do we relate to them? In meditation, we are learning to relax the mind in order to experience spaciousness. This contrasts with talking to yourself all the time.

The Pause Practice, [version 2]: Close eyes and move head to some random new position, then open eyes for the duration of 1 breath, and simply see whatever is there, as a kind of snapshot. Repeat as many times as desired. From last week’s recommendation to do 108 Pauses per day, each of these counts as one, so a quick way to do several and totally BE in each moment.

Each of the “kleshas” or “afflictive emotions” has a corresponding “wisdom” it can transform into. It’s like an ice cube melting and becoming running liquid: it is no longer stuck or frozen. The former is being stuck in the illusion of being a separate being, while the latter is awareness of being interconnected with the entire web of existence.
The spacious mind is a “Cosmic Mirror” which can reflect anything. When troubling emotions arise, simply look right at them in that mirror of meditation, and gradually its wisdom aspect will reveal itself. Then we reconnect with Basic Goodness: open/fresh mind/heart. “The path of brave ones is open mind. With splitting off there is fear, then there’s attachment to things going your way. You’re attached to ‘I want  I don’t want; I like it/ I want it to go that way’.” The sequence is: first an emotion arises, then a “story line” fuels it, intensifying/solidifying the emotion. Then more emotion in a vicious cycle, which causes suffering for self and usually for others as well.
Outer consequences: possibly hurting someone.
Inner consequences: strengthening a propensity that keeps you stuck in a painful cycle.

Pema the person:

Am so touched to see Ani Pema’s heart and soul this week. On Wednesday she and we got word her older sister Patricia had passed at 92. Thursday evening there was a Sukavati Ceremony to send her on her way. Pema spoke simply, from her heart, about her recollections. The quality of her speaking was utterly genuine, and conveyed such deep mutual love between them their whole lives.
That’s twice this week she has taken off the persona of teacher. Tuesday during her talk she gave a clear, contrite reply to a verbal critique of her teachings. She simply took a breath to reflect then immediately said, “Yes, that was my ignorance. I need to educate myself.” Wow! Later, at the end of class, she commended the nun who spoke up critically, and said that was a model of how she want us all to be: to not passively accept teachings, but to speak up and challenge what is being taught. Yay! She even said she wanted that portion of her handout removed!
In both moments she was utterly sincere, direct, humble, and full of compassion. I am so grateful to be in her presence. She is indeed the embodiment of “awakened heart.”

I feel I’ve had a profound darshan of her: she really touched my heart. “Darshan” literally means “to see.” It is understood in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds that there can be a special power in being in the physical presence of a great being. If one is receptive, an energy transmission can occur. I really feel transformed by Pema’s presence this week. In the after-dinner meditation, my mind was almost totally still. I felt into the energy of the room: it was as though we were all one consciousness, which I know intellectually, and now I could feel it.

There Are Many Paths Up the Mountain ~ from the top it doesn’t matter which you take.

Am really struck to see how studious people here are! During every break there will be many in the library eagerly devouring the many Buddhist scriptures and writings. This is very much a path of the intellect!

The Indian Yoga tradition distinguishes several equally valid paths of yoga to suit people’s varying temperaments:


Karma Yoga is selfless service
Hatha Yoga works with the body, breath and energy.
Bhaki Yoga is devotional, usually involving chanting and/or mantras to specific deities or gurus who, for the devotee, become a love object.
Jnana Yoga is the scholarly path of the intellect.
Raja Yoga is primarily meditation.

My own path has been an eclectic mix of Bhakti, Hatha, and Raja with a little bit of Karma, Jnana and Raja on the side. So this 2-month retreat is the deepest dive I’ve made into Jnana and Raja, which is both challenging and growthful.

My biggest challenge here is it is so “religious”! After 16 years of heavy Catholic indoctrination in my youth, I have been phobic about hierarchical and dogmatic traditions ever since. So all the dogma, arcane terms and concepts, liturgy, and hierarchy here is quite weighty for me.
As much as I treasured the teachings and energy transmission of my beloved Baba Muktananda in the late 70s, I did not want get involved with his organization, Siddha Yoga. Even though part of me longs to be part of a spiritual community, I have yet to find one I feel ready to join. So I have been kind of a freelance yogi.
I think of myself as more “spiritual” than “religious.” For me, “spirituality” describes teachings & practices that are more free of dogma and elaborate rituals and liturgy. For example, I greatly admire Eckhart Tolle, who for me conveys the essence of many religious traditions without being weighed down by their cultural and historical baggage.
I do wonder if I am avoiding commitment. I have an interview with Ani Pema in 10 days, and will ask her opinion about that.

Some heart-opening practices are really speaking to me.
Was deeply moved again on Saturday evening during the eve of The Sojong [full or new moon] practice. It included a reading of Frankl’s Man’s Search about how some prisoners in Nazi concentration camps chose to give their last piece of bread to others. I got totally choked up. Then the liturgy about bodhichitta really resonated.

May the noble path of non-violence

Flourish in all the worlds there are

When beings meet and interact

May the connections they make be filled with love

And by this may auspiciousness

Light up the whole universe!

Through all of this auspiciousness

Wherever its light may be seen

With the love and the compassion

That make bodhichitta mind supreme

May this thought arise in everyone”

Other beings’ happiness is as important as my own”

And may excellent virtue and auspiciousness

Always increase, never diminish.

~ Kenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso


Am feeling increasingly in the heart of these practices: no longer either confused or put off by the form. Lining up before entering the Shrine Room every morning and evening, I am doing the same prayer as the guardian is doing:

Grant your blessings so that my mind may be one with the dharma.

Grant your blessings so that dharma may progress along the path.

Grant your blessings so that the path may clarify confusion.

Grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.


Increasingly I am feeling this tradition is simply another manifestation of The Guru. Its spirit as expressed in the prayer last night for non-violence deeply resonates. I have deeply yearned for non-violence my whole adult life. Am remembering in Vietnam: even though I was an active participant in a brutal war, I took an internal vow to not directly harm anyone. As a pilot I was required to wear a parachute that included a “flak jacket” with essential supplies for use if I had needed to bail out. Among those items was a 45-calibre pistol. I did not like carrying it, and did not want to be so obvious as to not carry it. So instead I chose to not carry any ammunition, knowing I would never need it.
During one of the special full moon chants yesterday morning in which we intoned a long Sanskrit mantra 11 times, I became aware Buddhist monastics all over the world were doing the same chant on the full moon, as they have for countless generations, and will be far into the future. I could deeply feel the blessing of being part of a sangha, a spiritual community of kindred spirits all aspiring to relieve suffering. What a blessing!
So as week 5 comes to an end I am feeling in my heart here, supported by the Leo full moon!

Week 4: The Pause That Refreshes

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The adventure in Inner Space continues!

Summary:

~ We are passing the half-way point in our retreat. As we complete our 3rd week and final week of total silence, the inner quietness is deepening as well. It’s working! Am feeling some reluctance to return to ordinary socializing over lunches [and maybe dinners] next week! Will I turn into a recluse?
Happily, breakfast will still be silent…whew!

~ Am still struggling with getting enough sleep, and needing naps during the day. Once I’ve gotten enough sleep, my meditations are definitely clearer and deeper. It seems fine for me to nap instead of doing the first meditation each morning and afternoon. Am finding a rhythm that works!

~ So now that I’ve more or less gotten into a good flow here, I’m adding a bit more austerity: a 2-week cleaning diet with herbal pills to do an internal house-cleaning. [It’s the Wild Rose D-Tox cleanse which I’ve done once or twice each year for a long while.] So from last Sunday the 26th through Feb 7, am off all dairy, sweets, flours, and fermented foods: all the fun stuff. The hardest part is no honey in my coffee/tea, and letting go of a recent indulgence: toast with peanut butter and jam. Am happily surprised it’s not being as hard as I imagined. The food here is so healthy and wholesome, it’s easy to feel well-nourished. It’s just the treats that are on hold. And, hey, I tell myself: it’s only 2 weeks! And I always feel better after a cleanse.

~ One of the main new practices we’re being encouraged to use is simply called Pause Practice. It is deceptively simple: details below.

~ Pema’s teachings and practices about compassion for self and others continue to deeply resonate. Details below.

~ Am so grateful for this container where we lead such a simple life of practice. The whole day is devoted to practices [sitting/walking meditation and a bit of asana] or a little reading, plus a couple of hours of house work, eating and personal care: so luxurious [in an austere sort of way].
The full-time residents are going to great lengths to create a retreat atmosphere. They get up earlier than we [I get up at 5:15] and stay up later [I’m in bed by 9] doing chores needed like snow shoveling. They even organize a shopping trip every other week to the nearest town, which is 2 hours away! We each give them our list and credit card and they get essential like toothpaste, etc. So sweet!

~ As the week began, I was feeling happy and peaceful, and noticing some home-sickness: biking, racquetball, and the beauty of Vancouver and my simple life there.

~ As the week ends, am feeling bouts of grumpy negativity. Boot camp is wearing me down! The cleanse is probably kicking toxins into my system as well: have had some foul gas and equally noxious moods, which is pretty rare for me. I hope that will pass when my cleanse ends next weekend. I do see all the contributing factors: sleep not fitting this schedule, not my usual exercise and activity level. This really is a pressure-cooker. So as I lay in bed after not enough sleep at 5 this morning, I decided to put into practice what Pema is recommending: self-compassion, then compassion for others. First I did Tonglen for myself: deeply inhaling the thick, dark, hot yuckiness of my mood, then exhaling to myself the pristine white snow, blue sky, and crystal clear air of this place. After doing that several times, I thought of all the other people who are feeling yucky this morning, and did the same process for them. For sure it helped me; I pray it helped others as well.

Details if and when you have the time & interest.
Previous episodes are below.

Pause Practice

It is deceptively simple: frequently throughout the day, when it is safe and practical to do so, simply STOP for 1-3 mindful breaths, then resume. The idea is to come back into The Present again and again. It’s easy in the midst of reading, writing [I just did one!], eating [my new fav], flossing, internet [for those who have it], washing [self, dishes, floors, etc]. You get the idea. Not recommended while operating machinery! The effect is to train ourselves to rein in the “discursive mind” which is always wandering into the past/future. It’s really a way to bring meditation into daily life. The recommended frequency is 108 per day! In a 16-hour day that works out to about every 8 minutes.

"What? When will I ever get anything done?!!!"
"Hey, it's only 1-3 breaths!"

It’s merely a suggestion, and a bit of hyperbole, me thinks. So far I’m nowhere near that frequent, and it’s fun to consider the challenge. Am certainly enjoying being in-the-moment more often. It could be habit-forming!


Working with emotions:

Pema’s message yesterday really struck a cord:

We have the aspiration to help others. Yet we easily feel overwhelmed; the heart and mind close: we just want to get out of there. Experiencing others’ suffering up close brings up our unresolved stuff.We are here training to be there for others without shutting down. It’s hard! It’s essential to accept our difficulty in trying to be helpful. Whether we’re dealing with our own or others’ “stuff”, make friends with our self. With vulnerability and tenderness, sitting in the middle of the mess, feeling the genuine heart of sadness, sit there gently. Come back to being gentle, kind, fully present and embodied. Sometimes we have feelings we just want to go away. We don’t like what we’re feeling. It’s our enemy. As soon as it becomes our friend, it’s gone. It’s not that you should just forget yourself and try to be compassionate with everyone else. Start with compassion for yourself: embracing, becoming one with what you’re feeling can be the seed of understanding what others feel.
It is important to be aware of what we are feeling: what’s happening in us spills out in speech and actions.
Pema took us further in class about the 3 main kleshas [craving/aggression/indifference]. Anyone we’re strongly attracted/repelled by we probably have a karmic connection needing clearing. We push away people who arouse our unresolved kleshas. When we choose to transform the klesha, it can become a stepping stone to compassion/empathy: feeling our own pain is the seed of feeling others’ pain. “The poison becomes medicine.” Recognizing our inter-connectedness is profoundly healing.
Practice: look at any person anywhere and reflect, “They are just like me!”

One of her recommended readings was Chogyam Trungpa: Myth of Freedom
Chap IV Working with Emotions – Dualistic Barrier:
The ego structure is threatened by strong emotions. We fear their power to break out of the confines of our persona; we’ll be out of control, lose our dignity. So we either suppress or act out, attempting to ease the discomfort. Neither is skillful. The only way is through: become one with the energy. Go toward it, not away. Dance with it. See the transparency of it. Then shunyata [emptiness] is there all along. Emotions can become a source of creativity. There is no good and bad. Go beyond inner struggle in duality. Be at one with it all.
“The Lion’s Roar is a fearless proclamation that any situation, including the emotions, is a workable situation…Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.”


Different ways to quiet the mind:

The Dalai Lama [“The Universe in a Single Atom“, 2005] describes Shamatha meditation [“tranquil abiding”] as holding one’s focus without distraction; single-pointedness. In contrast, Vipashyana [“insight”] adds discerning investigation and analysis.
On p. 158 Meditation:
~ deliberate intention not to allow one self to be distracted by past/future
~ then simply observe thoughts without judgment…”like bubbles arising in a glass.”
~ gradually one sees the water more than the bubbles, and understands experientially the Buddhist definition of consciousness as “luminous and knowing.”
~ then the meditator can begin to investigate consciousness itself.

As I mentioned, most of my previous experience in meditation has been in the Yoga and Hindu traditions, and I’ve been strongly drawn to Tantra. Am increasingly aware this Shambhala tradition, and Buddhism in general, is about training the mind. The path I’ve been on has been more about opening the heart, using a variety of breathing techniques, mantras, and visualizations. I find when my heart energy is really strong my mind is automatically quiet: as though the energy drops from the busy mind into the heart. Being here affirms that is my path, and I do see the value of this mind training as well. So I’m alternating practices. When I want to shift into the heart I say or mentally chant any of Baba’s chants, and it takes me there immediately. Or I use some visualizations I’ve learned about running energy up through the chakras, connecting earth and sky through the subtle spine. For me those are the easy practices that are most rewarding. I’ll continue the more arduous technique of Shamatha: just watching the mind, even though for now it’s less satisfying. This is the perfect time and place to train my mind more!
Yesterday I had one of the best meditations in memory. Did some asana before the evening sit.
Then I did an intentional kundalini, which is not part of this tradition: I used chakra sounds and colours with Om Namah Shivaya, then inhaling earth fire up and out on Aham [“I am”], and exhaling white light on Sah [“That”]. Then Gurumayi’s cave of the heart appeared with a candle flame, which really focused me into utter stillness. I let go of all images and dwelt in spacious awareness for a long while. Was sad the bell rang: could have stayed much longer. For me it was a validation there that are many ways to get to that place of emptiness or pure consciousness. What a rich exploration!

Conclusion:
These 3 weeks of almost total silence have been incredibly quieting for my overly busy mind. Am getting to witness all the fluctuations of consciousness the Buddha described. There is certainly no one “me”!
Despite my sleep challenges, and the sometimes downer moods, overall my time is being profoundly restful for my entire nervous system, as well as inspiring about how to live more harmoniously with myself and all. In the remaining 3 weeks I’ll be contemplating specific changes I may with to make in my life back home. Stay tuned…

Week 3: Diving Deep into The Heart of Compassion

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The adventure into Inner Space continues!
Summary:~ Our third week began as the sun was moving from Capricorn to Aquarius. I am always surprised, exactly a month after winter solstice, how suddenly the light is brighter! Here is was especially thrilling as it came with clear skies for the first time since we arrived. Though it has stayed below freezing [-5C to -8C], the sunshine on the snow made for dazzling brightness, which has lifted many of our spirits.
~ There is a deepening sense of community, with much mutual kindness.
~ I’ve greatly appreciated a second full week of silence after our Free Day on Monday the 20th. Now again it is a Free Day: a wonderful to compare notes with Ziji and others, and make contact with the outside world. I so enjoyed hearing updates from many friends, and getting a glimpse of the ongoing political dramas.
~ For me the major theme for this week has been the practice of Tonglen, which I have loved for years. It is a visualization for taking in others’ suffering and sending them peace and light. Here we are taking it deeper [details below].Details if/when you have the time and interest. If you missed earlier episodes, they are  below.

Sleep and energy fluctuations have continued.

I had a conversation with my Meditation Instructor, a senior monk, 67, who has been living here the last 16 years. He shared he also has difficulty staying asleep. He says melatonin is a natural hormone that makes us sleepy; it declines with age, so supplementation helps. He gets to sleep fine but wakes after 4-5 hours, so that’s when he take 1 tab which lets him finish a full night’s sleep. Am just beginning to try it. Will report more next week. Do you have any suggestions? I welcome them!

Community:

Am amazed by how harmoniously we 23 are sharing this space. It comes in part from how well organized we all are, thanks to all the preparation of the resident monastics, who are building are many years of prior experience. Outside our practice sessions, all the chores are done cooperatively. After each meal we rotate through being on clean-up teams of 3 people. So I’ve generally gotten that job 2-3 times per week. Every morning from 6:40 to 7 we each have our regular assigned tasks to spiffy the house. My job is the men’s shower room: cleaning the shower and 2 sinks, the mirror and floor. Others are vacuuming halls and cleaning everywhere. Every afternoon from 1:30-3 we divide up into pre-assigned teams for other house-related tasks. I am on the Facilities team: we’re the Fix-it Folks. We’ve shoveled snow, measured one house for some new wiring, repaired doors and plumbing and loose hand-rails. The team leader [the older monk I mentioned] is aware Ziji and I are partners, and often assigns us jobs to do together, which is a sweet acknowledgement of our connection, and gives us a chance to hang out. Even though we are mostly in silence [except for “functional speaking” during task time], there is a lovely, loving energy among us all, communicated with smiles, bows and other caring gestures. The love is growing stronger every day.

Tonglen:

I first learned about this ancient Buddhist practice about 10 years ago, reading the “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. It has the same intention as Maitri/Metta aka Loving Kindness Meditation, which I first learned from my beloved brother Eric Toozy over 40 years ago. Maitri uses words to send oneself or others loving kindness. For example, I most often use:

 

~ May I/you/[name] be happy.
~ May I/you/[name] be free from suffering.
~ May I/you/[name] dwell in The Heart.
~ May I/you/[name] be healed into wholeness.
~ May I/you/[name] be at peace.
               
Instead of words, Tonglen uses images coordinated with the breath. After first centering in one’s own heart and grounding, one inhales another’s suffering visualizing it as dark, thick smoke, and takes it deeply into oneself. Then exhale some healing colors or light to them, seeing them bathed in that color/light, and repeat several times.
Here I am reading one of Pema Chodron’s books, “Welcoming the Unwelcome.” She includes a brief appendix about Tonglen, and makes it a 4-step process, which I am finding even more satisfying. I highly recommend it!
In general what I am most appreciating about Buddhist practice is its emphasis on relieving the suffering of others through the power of intentionally focusing thought/energy. Here, in this pristine environment, with the support of this community [sangha] of devoted practitioners, I feel the power of our practice strongly amplified. My focus is on several friends facing major health challenges, and on political leaders who are grappling with major existential questions which will impact everyone for a very long time: visualizing the thick, dark smoke of their confusion and pettiness being replaced by the bright light of true compassion for the well-being of all. It felt great to do Tonglen for Washington, visualizing all Senators and Representatives standing in a circle holding hands and breathing together surrounded by golden light. I wished them Wisdom and Compassion [not for Trump, but for ordinary people].
From Welcoming p. 156: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”Working With Difficult Emotions:Once each week on Tuesdays, Pema Chodron gives us a 2-hour talk/discussion about skilful means of working with our more challenging emotions, which in Buddhist psychology are called the “Kleshas”:

– Passion/craving
– Aggression/addiction
– Ignorance
– Pride
– Jealousy
– Greed/avarice

All 3 books on our reading list address that:

  1. “ Emotional Rescue” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

  2.  “Welcoming the Unwelcome” by Ani Pema Chodron

  3. “ Emotional Awareness” by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekmans book

“Emotional Rescue” is a direct translation into simple, modern language of those ancient teachings.
She is inviting us to reflect and journal about our own emotions each week, and put the teachings into practice. Am finding, in this serene setting away from worldly stresses and stressed out people, not many challenging emotions are surfacing. Still, living in such close confines with 22 others, there are bound to be little frictions and annoyances. It’s a great opportunity to witness the contraction, the feeling of being separate, that is the basis of all our suffering. Then breathe and relax and let the contraction gradually expand like a bubble and gently float away! May I remember how to do that back home when I encounter people who are totally caught up in themselves and who do something that irritates me. That’s when the rubber hits the road!
Many of Pema’s talks are available free online, on YT and other platforms. Her delivery is disarmingly low-key. She models humble awareness of her own human foibles and struggles, and teaches with utter compassion for our inherent human challenges.

More Memories of past trauma:

The process of being here, living so quietly and mindfully, is allowing a kind of psychic/emotional house-cleaning to go on. Many memories from earlier times are coming into awareness, both during formal meditation, and during the night in dreams or when half-awake.
A few nights ago I was awake in the night and vividly recalled my tortured teen years when I was struggling with my bursting sexual energy, totally conflicted and confused. My attraction to other guys was then [mid-1950s to late 1960s] considered a perversion, a degeneracy, an “abomination”, a mental illness, criminal, and completely unmentionable to anyone. I struggled in utter isolation with my shame, guilt, and desires. I was “looking for love in all the wrong places”…for some kind of loving contact with other men. All I found was casual sex that was anonymous [I was terrified of being discovered], hurried and heartless. Remembering those encounters, the feelings of shame, confusion and intense loneliness were vividly present. So I did Tonglen for my teen self: breathing in the dark smoke, and sending “him” [me] the clear blue skies and pristine white snow all around us here. It felt deeply healing. Then I extended that Tonglen to others of all genders who [at whatever age] are now in similar struggles with the social condemnation of their deepest desires for intimacy. May it relieve their suffering and lead to deep self-acceptance and love, which can then be shared with others.
Also for Titanic [see last week’s email] it feels so good to have a tool to send loving and healing to all those traumatized: the victims, survivors, and family/friends. If indeed all times exist in The Now, then healing truly is possible. Certainly I feel lighter! Am just realizing the deep healing that is possible here, by doing this much inwardness, both during practices and at night. What a blessing! So grateful!

For balance, am happy to report that some memories are quite pleasant: I am deeply experiencing all the ways my parents loved me and were devoted to my well-being. At the time I was more inclined to see their short-comings, like alcoholism. Now I see their underlying love, and feel deep gratitude.

A model of aging gracefully:

It’s common among many of my contemporaries to complain to ourselves or anyone who will listen about our annoyance/frustration about our declining physical and mental abilities. What I am learning from Ani Pema: to accept age gracefully. At 83, she loses her train of thought and simply asks, “What was I saying?” She forgets words and without any trace of annoyance simply asks. When she got up from her chair to walk out she asked for support, smiling as she said “My legs are working yet.” What a gentle gem!
Throughout life, “stuff happens” that we do not like. She is showing that we always have a choice about how we respond to what simply IS: react against it and deepen our own suffering [and that of others if we complain] or simply take a deep breath, acknowledge the challenge, and move on.

Variety of meditations:

I have found myself struggling with Shamatha [just watching the breath and witnessing thoughts in a detached observing way]. Am amazed how hard it is. It’s like I’m taking off the training wheels: suddenly my meditation feels wobbly. I’ve been so comfy with mantra for decades. Without that steadying influence, mind wanders a lot! Inspired by Pema, instead of saying “Thinking” I am saying “Forgiving” [my mind for wandering]. I see the value: I need to train myself more to tame the “monkey mind.” As the week progressed, Shamatha was easier. Thoughts were few and fleeting.

Over the decades I’ve learned many kinds of meditation. Am most drawn to visualizations, and/or mantras; either focuses my mind and energizes me. Yet I wonder if it’s some sort of spiritual ego that wants a light show or other inner entertainment instead of being willing to go into Emptiness. I’ll continue to experiment. Am finding I can do a combo…if I’m awake enough. Now I am alternating Shamatha, mantra, kundalini, then Tonglen the way Ani Pema describes in 4 stages: beautiful.

In one meditation, I invited images, and immediately I was sitting on a white lotus feeling held; the lotus morphed into loving hands [of God/Guru]. Then I truly felt grace! Did Tonglen for most of the time, again following Pema’s 4 steps. I sent out the white petals tinged with gold to loved ones who are struggling with health issues. Then I focused on Congress. This is such a crucial, decisive week. I pray many senators are moved to consider history and the future of the country/world, not just this election cycle.

I was deeply moved by the Saturday evening practice called Maitri Bavana: like Tonglen but specifically intending to inhale the illnesses of others and exhale spaciousness and peace. Apparently it’s done monthly on/near new moon. It is described on the Gampo Abbey website: “We invite you to send names of those suffering from mental or physical pain to be included in our regular Maitri Bhavana practice. Maitri Bhavana meditation practice cultivates compassion by being willing to take on the sense of suffering of others, acknowledging our deep inter-connectedness. A sense of spaciousness is directed to those who are suffering, with the intention of providing relief from the claustrophobia which suffering creates. This is intended for those who are ill as well as for their family and friends. Along with names, please send the nature of the pain, for example, cancer or depression.” The ceremony leader read a list of names we had each submitted, which was long and comprehensive: a vast array of ailments among people we know and care for. Then we chanted a lovely text on Friendliness which brought tears, and did the special Tonglen. I could fairly feel my heart opening and getting larger as I/we took in all that suffering of sisters and brothers all over the world. It was the clearest and most heartful practice yet: like we all dove deep into the heart of compassion.

Conclusion: It’s now Monday, our weekly Free Day. We arrived 3 weeks ago today. What is most striking is how so many strangers can come together is such harmony and peace. It has to do with us largely setting our egos aside to commune in a larger shared consciousness. I pray all of us humans learn these simple and profound skills.

Thank you for following my adventure. I welcome your comments, questions, and insights! 

Week 2: Buddhist Boot Camp

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Warm greetings from wildly windy wintry Cape Breton!Summary of Week 2:

~ We spent the entire week in silence…and I loved it!
~ Am still struggling with getting enough sleep at night and then staying awake during meditations.
~ Am surprised by some memories surfacing [details below], and having glimpses of total stillness: just being present.
~ Am having more experiences with snow shoveling than I expected…or needed 😉 Makes me feel like a real Canadian, eh?
~ Am gradually getting more comfortable with the whole scene here. There is a lovely, predictable rhythm to each day, and a wonderful simplicity.
~ Mindful eating is clearly something I need to learn, and this is the perfect opportunity!
~ Ani Pema Chodron’s presence and teachings are indeed a blessing. She is translating the arcana of Tibetan Buddhism into something human and immediate. She is the very embodiment of egoless humility and total compassion…with humor as a bonus!
~ Overall, after a full week of silence, am feeling more in my deepest heart and soul. It’s not new; no big surprises. After so many decades of meditation, I seem to know myself pretty well. This deeply peaceful environment is supporting my hanging out there again. Perhaps in the remaining 2 silent weeks there will be further deepening into vast, spacious, loving presence.

The details are below if/when you have the time and interest to climb inside my head. It’s definitely “inner space” explorations!

 

The Power of Silence:In our second full week of Winter Retreat, we have moved into almost total silence. The first week we could speak socially during/after lunch until the afternoon practice period began at 3:30, then silence was kept through supper and breakfast and the morning practice. This week, and the following 2 weeks we’ll do lunches in silence in a ritual way in the Shrine Room with chanting before/after we eat a “one bowl meal.” So the only talking all week is “functional speaking” during work periods when we need to coordinate our tasks. Ziji and I are choosing an additional brief verbal exchange at the end of each day: he comes to my room and we compare notes on our experiences of the past 24 hours, then have a long standing hug before saying good night. We’re all observing a vow of celebacy, so that’s as intimate as we’re choosing to get. It’s very sweet!

After the first silent day I journaled: “The stillness is getting both thicker and clearer. It’s deeper than any I’ve experienced. The outer environment is totally still today: no wind at all. We’ve been in silence all day: wow! It’s a dream come true! I had tastes of this at a couple of ashrams, and this is way deeper and more thorough. We’ll be in silence all week…yay!”

Now, as our Free Day is approaching tomorrow, I imagine it will be a shock to go back to regular conversations. Ziji and I both want to practice We Space Meditation on our Free Day. I am curious what will arise between us in the We after so much deep inwardness all week.

Energy is unpredictable:

Am still struggling with being too awake during the nights and too sleepy during the days. Some of that is to be expected at my age, yet it does make it difficult to fit into this demanding schedule of meditation. If I participated in all sessions of meditation [alternating sitting and walking] it would be 6.5 hours per day plus over an hour of chanting! So far, I have needed naps during meditation period at some point every day.

Meditation images:

Ani Pema gave a talk on a Buddhist way of working with the emotions. One image really spoke to this former pilot: to remember that above all clouds and storms the vast blue sky is always there. It helped with the drowsiness. I “see” that the drowsiness is in the energy body, like a layer of clouds. I can be aware of Consciousness going way beyond that. In the second sit I saw the vast blue sky stretching over an endless plain of snow: white below and blue above…forever! I again saw the red/orange fire rising up through my root and out the crown. This time instead of white light coming down, it was golden: like a single ray of sunlight meeting the earth fire in my heart. So the sky was Consciousness; the fire is Energy. Even though the sky seemed horizontal, I sensed the vast space between earth and sun and beyond into all the galaxies: unimaginably vast “emptiness” full of Consciousness. Then I saw/felt the vast galaxies [bones, organs, etc.] within this body similarly full of the Consciousness. This body is a passing shell containing merely a drop of Consciousness. Yet “I” am all of It: beyond time and space.

Overall, am feeling a deep clarity now, and so appreciating the collective container we are creating with the guidance and support of Ani Pema and this lineage. I bow to The Guru in this form and pray for guidance along the path.

Soul memories:

Surprising things are coming up during these meditations, including old memories, many quite vivid. I enjoy them, then just let them evaporate. The most vivid and striking was a couple of days ago when the winter winds were howling with great swirls of snow and wildly churning waves on the ocean. It evoked a strong visceral memory of deep sadness.

Some of you have heard about my history with the story of the Titanic, which has intrigued me since age 11. Ten years ago I had a vivid past life recall session in which some details emerged of my experience in the lifeboat and during rescue. Perhaps because here on the north tip of Nova Scotia I am only 400 miles from the site where she went down I am now having a strong recollection: Titanic had sunk and I was sitting in the life-boat, shivering with cold, fear, and unutterable grief at all those still crying for help and the others already silent. What a shockingly powerful lesson in impermanence! One moment we were living the good life on the finest ship in the world, and moments later she had sunk and we felt doomed to freeze to death on that heartless, icy black ocean.
Now I am recalling the time after arriving in New York on the rescue ship. Again, as on the lifeboat, I was plunged into grief and wonder. I stood in the wind looking east over the vast Atlantic, sobbing. I now recall so vividly feeling “why was I spared?” and wondrous gratitude for the grace of God. Perhaps it was that experience that gave this soul such deep trust in divine guiding love. I do seem to have had this trust my whole life, though that could be my mother’s devout influence.
Besides instilling a deep trust in grace, that horror also left a lingering mistrust of large corporations, who put profits above people. Now it is Boeing acting that out unconscionable greed. Again I am appalled and outraged.
As I sat in the Shrine Room, aware it’s now 2020, I could so feel that heartbreak and how it shaped the later portion of that lifetime and now this one. Having been spared that death in 1912, how did I relate to World War I a few years later? More heartbreak for sure: profound sadness at human folly.
Somehow that grief and the sense of divine grace guiding me led me to this lifetime of seeking greater connection with a greater consciousness.
I do appreciate this Buddhist orientation of acknowledging and working consciously with human suffering. I do agree that the heart needs to be broken to fully open. Maybe that’s the process that began for me with Titanic: such a sudden and shocking display of suffering!
As I sat in meditation, and now as I write, I can fairly “feel” my soul: that part of me that carries both the depth of sadness and a strong longing to make the world a better, more conscious place, to help uplift humanity. I so appreciate that is also the aspiration of Shambhala and was Chogyam Trungpa’s vision. Am grateful that Ziji deeply shares that vision/yearning as well; it is one of our deepest bonds.Mindful Eating:So far one of the biggest takeaways is getting to practice eating as meditation…what a concept! All my life I have treated eating as a task to get done quickly, usually while carrying on a conversation or reading or looking at news on the web. Sure, I’d enjoy the taste, albeit briefly…efficiently. Here I am with 22 others, all eating silently, mindfully…wow! I am learning to slowly move my spoon toward my mouth, pause to smell the food, then take it in without chewing at first: just savor the sensations of texture and taste. Then chewing slowly releases many more layers of flavor. It’s almost orgasmic! Instead of preparing the next shovel-full to be inserted as quickly as possible, I pause after I swallow, and take a breath or two to savor that experience, then fill my fork or spoon, and repeat. I truly am in awe how much more pleasure I am having! I’ll probably eat less and enjoy it more after this retreat.

Digesting Tibetan Buddhism:

Shambhala is a complex amalgamation of 2 major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, which is itself an amalgamation of original Indian Buddhism with the earlier Tibetan shamanic practices dating back to unknown antiquity. So I am finding the language and images both rich and very hard to understand, even though I have 40+ years in the Yoga tradition from India, which arose from Hinduism, and is itself replete with a vast array of arcane language and images. I’m in a steep learning curve, which has ironically put me more into my head and ego: worrying I’m not getting it, feelings of failure, and general stress.

The spiritual teachings I like best are the simplest ones. The teachers I most respect and resonate with convey their teachings in almost child-like simplicity. If the ultimate truths are beyond words, I prefer pithy poetry to elaborate erudition. Think Rumi, not Nietzsche.

My favorite poet-philosopher is my beloved friend/mentor James Broughton [1913-1999]. He sums up reams of philosophical treatises with these succinct lines:

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So as I am attempting to translate all this new liturgy and iconography into a digestible form, I’m finding it helpful to review what I now understand from all I have learned and experienced thus far over all these decades of study and practice:
~ Formless Pure Consciousness [“Emptiness”] is the ground/source of All Form.
~ Sant Kirpal Singh taught, “Each embodied soul is a drop in the Ocean of Consciousness.”
~ To take it further, water vapor is everywhere and invisible. It gradually forms into clouds, then into separate rain drops [birth in a human body]. Each drop begins a mysterious and frightening journey of falling out of control toward an unknown obliteration [death]. All drops feel separate from one another and afraid of their fate. Some land on mountains, some on tress, cars, houses, and have many varied experiences before merging with the streams, rivers and the ocean [home again as simply water!]. All eventually evaporate back into the invisible vapor of Pure Consciousness.
~ The challenge is to become aware, while we are a falling rain drop, that we always were and always will be the same water vapor of Pure Consciousness.
~ Then fear evaporates. Love is all.

Learning to meditate beyond all doing: to Just Be.

For 46+ years I’ve been using mantras as my main tool to focus the mind. Here I am learning to let go of mantra, or any doing, and just be: to not resist whatever arises in the mind, yet not entertain it either. We can just notice the play of the mind and let it go and become aware of their source: the field of Consciousness out of which all the thoughts and images arise then dissolve. They are of no substance: totally ephemeral. Only Consciousness IS…our ultimate identity.

I am reminded of a metaphor that may work for those old enough to remember when “movies” actually involved a moving strip of film being projected onto a screen by a light bulb. In meditation, I am the movie-goer being aware of the bulb in the projector instead of getting caught up in the drama on the screen. The light of Consciousness is the source; all the images are merely its play.

I continue to ponder the Buddhist denial of a self, even though they speak of an ego. At least Trungpa does. What is the difference? To me, the ego/self is a necessary part of being in a body. It contains all our memories of experiences and learning, and so guides us. The problem is the ego sees itself as separate, and concerned with MY survival and well-being, without awareness that we really are all one. So the ego needs to be cleansed, educated. The mind needs to be calmed so the light can shine through. Today I meditated on the projector: I “am” the bulb, and my ego/self is the film, with my thoughts/emotions on the screen of mind being my projections. The light shines through the film of my ego to create my thoughts/emotions, which are not “real”. I am not them, nor the film. I am the light! Maybe that’s what Buddhists are trying to say.

Week 1: Buddhist Boot Camp

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Wow! This is about as close as I’ll ever get to Tibet [see map]. It feels nearly as remote and wintry, with mostly sub-freezing temperatures and oodles of fresh snow almost daily, mostly of the wildly windy variety.
 
 
It’s perfect being in a cosy warm monastery with 22 sweet souls ranging in age from 20s to 70s. Half are monastics; 2 are “life-monastics”, and the other 10 are “temporary monastics” who commit to at least a year of living the vows. Most of the rest are long-time “Shambalians” who’ve been in this tradition founded by Chogyam Trungpa in the 1960s. I feel like I’m visiting a very foreign county with an unfamiliar language and exotic customs. There’s a lot to learn!
 
Happily last week we eased into the very full daily schedule which has us engaged from 6 AM to 8 PM every day except Mondays. Am savoring a day off, and internet access. I feel like I’ve come up for air!
Overall I am surprise how much I am enjoying sharing a big house and all meals with 22 others: quite a change for someone who cherishes solitude and autonomy. The people are truly lovely, gentle, open-hearted and kind. I feel immersed on love.
I do find the schedule daunting though. The nights are too short. The mornings are way too early, and the meditation times do not align with my natural rhythms. So I am fighting drowsiness during meditation which is a new challenge. I hope my system will soon land in this time zone!
 
A major irony for me here: I feel in some ways like I’ve come full circle back to [a much more enlightened version of] Catholicism of my roots. The practices here are highly ceremonial and liturgical. We chant many chants in monotone, and move from sitting to standing to kneeling on one knee, with much bowing and many prostrations. The decor is bright and uplifting, as is the energy of the place and people.
Now all I need to do is figure out how to get enough sleep so I can be awake enough to fully enjoy and engage in it.
There is a great sense of reverence for this ancient tradition and lineage, dating back 2,500 years to Buddha, and further back to the Bon tradition in Tibet which apparently originated in remote Syberia! The reverence and devotion is ultimately toward the consciousness that underlies all manifest reality. Theistic traditions would call this God.
Pema Chodron is directing our training, and leading some rituals. At 83 she looks like a frail bird, yet speaks with a wonderful dry humor and deep compassionate wisdom. I feel blessed to be in her presence and tutelage. She is focusing on working with emotions in meditation, and is recommending we read:
  1. “ Emotional Rescue” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.  

  2.  “Welcoming the Unwelcome” by Ani Pema Chodron

  3. “ Emotional Awareness” by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekmans book

Overall, the effect of being in this remote location in such a consciously constructed and maintained home is that the energy feels amazingly pristine. Am loving being in such a conscious community of caring aware beings! There is such mutual consideration, kindness, gentleness…so sweet! It affirms who I want to be and who I wish we will all become. The bodhisattva vow is to dedicate my life to uplifting all sentient beings. These practices affirm that intention again and again, sinking deeper roots in that soil.

Because of lack of sleep, most of my meditations have been either dull/drowsy or “busy mind.” But one brought up an inspiring image: “…fiery orange/red rising up from earth through root and up/out crown while white light descended like water flowing over me, and the combo creating a golden egg-shaped aura that morphed into a flame. Then all our flames were like candles on a cake: each separate, yet each made of the same wax and flame. So each was unique and all were the same! Our separate flames grew larger/brighter gradually becoming one. Then I saw the whole globe as the “cake” with 7.5 billion candles…all growing, glowing brighter becoming one flame of love light surrounding the planet.”