Integration

The point is to look at meditation as awakenedness and awareness throughout daily life in whatever way we live and in whatever conditions…Be that which allows things to be what they are.

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Postscript on vulnerability

First, I want to assure you that I am quite well! The experience I shared in the last post was a wonderful opening for me, not something I am upset about or wish had been different. Not at all. It was exactly the teaching I needed at exactly the right time. Isn’t it always?

Second, I want to say how incredibly privileged I feel to have people who aren’t just reading what I’m writing here, but are thinking about it, reflecting on their own experience, sharing and dialoguing, and just generally being supportive–allowing this to be much more than one meditator’s personal narrative. It’s really a testament to the ability of our current technology and this particular manifestation of “sangha” to build authentic community. One which is coming and going, continually evolving, and discovering its various strengths and weaknesses. So, thank you, thank you so much.

I shared what I did in the last post for whatever reason I did. Part of what this blogging practice is about for me is accepting that I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t because I wanted consoling or defending. It wasn’t really even about me or the guy interviewing me or that particular experience. It was intended as more of a genuine exploration, as a part of the inquiry. So I guess I was a little surprised that a number of people were concerned about my wellbeing and felt I was being “too hard on myself”. I applaud Nathan for not only saying maybe I shouldn’t be too soft on myself, but for taking what I had shared and expanding upon it, applying it to his own daily life and practice and emphasizing the importance of “paying attention to patterns of disconnection and avoidance…even if it’s just little incidents.”

I wonder if you noticed how you felt reading the post? How did the heart react to my vulnerability? Did it make you uncomfortable? Did you respond in the way you did because it was what you believed I needed to hear or because it was what you needed to hear? What might you be projecting about the story, about me? Were you identifying in some way? And to pick up on K’s comment, re the immediacy of this mode of communication, did you sense any desire or aversion motivating your action? Whether it was stopping reading mid-post, or commenting on the post, or whatever? Because it happens right here, right now. Nowhere else. This closing and opening of the heart. And it’s absolutely no one else’s responsibility. As Aly said, in the end, “it doesn’t matter what he/she was or wasn’t projecting–just use it!”

And a last word on the crucial need for flow between the inner and outer aspects of practice, from Nathan:

“[R]egardless of form, whether long retreat, ‘practice intensive,’ or just a daily sitting practice or sutra study – none of it necessarily leads to being a more open, vulnerable, and alive person. The threads often need to be deliberately teased out, so that the introspective insights are translated into awakened relationships based on love, vulnerability, and wisdom.”

Yes. And here’s to that awakening, that awakening to deeper and deeper love…

Chop, carry

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. – Zen saying

Several days ago, a tornado stormed through my little town and in about 10 minutes or so dumped torrential rains and brought down countless trees. Among them was a yellowwood which was unwisely planted just below our telephone and electric line 10 years ago. A few weeks ago we had woken up to a large branch from said tree leaning against the house, so it wasn’t surprising that the rest of it had had it when the storm came.

This morning we chopped up the tree and hauled it into the woods, where it can happily disintegrate. For some reason I didn’t grow up helping out with these kind of chores – nor did I remotely have any interest in the domestic ones – but nowadays I find it some of the best daily practice. Unlike work activities that require language to get done, physical labor naturally tends toward concentration and tranquility (though this mind certainly doesn’t!). Being a problem-solver by nature, I don’t even have to think about it but, intuitively know how to attack a fallen tree in the most efficient way. Awareness is impenetrable: cutting, dragging, piling, sweating, back tightening… It’s so different when the thing needing to be organized is people or information or events. I’m likely to be caught in a cascade of planning, worrying, and vengeful thoughts. The mental anguish that can ensue. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t consider a less intellectual line of work all together. However, for the time being, just this.

I don’t know anything about poetry but when I was on retreat at my home sangha last week, these words suddenly emerged. It wasn’t a creative process; like hauling the tree, it was just pure being.

Morning mist / after storm

Smell of dog shit / heron soars above

This just this.

Opening to uncertainty and walking the path

Learning to balance internal and external, retreat and daily life, contemplative and engaged practice is difficult. It takes diligence and effort, and it usually means tilting to one side of the scale for a while, then over-adjusting, then trying to come back to equilibrium. I left my job and career a year ago next week, and I still don’t know what’s next. Only that this practice is whatever it is, and that is life itself. It took a lot to disengage from all that security and I’m not keen on jumping right back in. The word I tend to use to describe to people what it is that I’m doing is, to just let things unfold.

Since January of this year, when I was still on retreat, the practice has been very much about being with uncertainty, confusion, not knowing. It is a difficult place to be for most people – certainly not a culturally-supported kind of practice, and therefore something that can bring up a lot of self-judgment among other things. I’ve always been very decisive and clear, so hanging out in an extended state of confusion is unsettling to say the least, though I’m learning to be with it and I know it’s exactly what is needed at this particular moment. And, again, finding the balance between truly being present and actually making plans takes skill and understanding.

The week before last, in a moment of equilibrium during formal practice, there was the realization that it’s totally okay if I drop out of the workforce for a few years. Many people have done it before. Whether people stop working to raise a family or for spiritual practice, the point is, it’s not unheard of to not be a totally “productive” member of society. Although ideally I do want to be in the world and want to work in a profession that better integrates the contemplative practice with my intellectual and analytic abilities, the best thing may be for me to cultivate wisdom through intensive practice until it makes more sense and there’s not just a taking a stab in the dark. The revolution does start within.

I read a letter from Ajahn Thitamedha announcing her decision to leave the Forest Sangha and to disrobe after 16 years as a nun (you can read the whole letter here). I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to arrive at a decision like that. She seems very at peace with it and says at the end:

In regards to my future plans, I would still like to be a wandering yogi-practitioner, a pilgrim for a couple of years. And after that I do not know. The Path is wide Open.

I suppose that is always how life is. We create an illusion of security with work, relationship, house, family. It’s a beautiful thing to open up to the absolute reality of constant change, nothing solid.

I was also very moved by a post from Nathan at Dangerous Harvests. Like Nathan, I have chosen to live a simple, modest life and I don’t know that I want or could even really go back to a more conventional lifestyle. He says following on the heels of explaining his frugality and the consequent fear of making a leap of faith:

From a practice perspective, I think I’ve always had a major rub between the silent, contemplative, meditative aspects and action in the world. [...] I find myself sitting in zazen, or walking around my neighborhood, listening. Maybe expecting answers to come and/or a direction to take as well, which I can see is probably a hindrance. Thing is, in the past, that direction, and the actions required have come to me [...]

So, I’m feeling impatient. Thinking maybe I just have to leap in some direction, and letting what comes come. Wondering if the whole leaping off the hundred foot pole teaching is foolish if done in haste. And what is “in haste” anyway?

I like to be a confident person. I like to have some sense of what I’m doing, and to be able to support others in finding that sense for themselves. It’s part of the reason why I love teaching. But being in a lead role too often makes it that much harder to feel confusion, directionlessness, and incompetence because not only do you expect the opposite of yourself, but others come to expect you’ll have your [stuff] together as well.

The rub that Nathan talks about is exactly what I’ve come up against during this period of confusion. I left Burma because I wanted relationship to be a more central part of my practice – the things you learn in relation to others are invaluable and cannot be replicated working with the mind only. And now I want to go back to Burma because the conditions are so supportive there and I crave (even more) solitude and the kind of understanding that emerges from intensive practice. Ultimately I know the place is insignificant, the conditions unimportant. And yet…

I too have done a lot of things, have been successful, and have taken on leadership roles. However, there was also always a sense of unease there because the application and the context was so dis-integrated, as I’ve discussed before. At this point I don’t identify with being a leader, a decider, a manager, or any of that. “I don’t know what I am. What I am is unknown, but continually revealing itself.” So said an anonymous teacher, and quoted by Doug Phillips in a talk you can listen to here.

Right now I’m hanging out, relating, volunteering again for Hospice after several years of “not having the time to”, reading, writing, practicing formal meditation and, as they say in the Tibetan tradition, doing “post-meditation”. I’m living, awaring (so fittingly used as a verb by both Toni Packer and Sayadaw U Tejaniya). I’m so lucky to have conditions supportive to my taking the time to let the unknown reveal itself, parents who don’t mind their almost 34 year-old living with them for a while, enough money to continue to give dana for the teachings I’m receiving, good health, etc. Gratitude is a wonderful thing. Uncertainty is a wonderful thing. Every difficult experience is. They are our best teachers. I will keep checking in to make sure I’m not being complacent, waiting for something to happen. I will continue to try and find ways to share the little wisdom I do have, while still cultivating more.

So what am I going to do next? Keep practicing. Definitely forever a yogi. Monasticism would be a possible path, but I see that there are few really desirable options for women at the moment, not to mention the inherent conflict with my secular tendencies. And that doesn’t work so well with the engagement piece, or the relationship piece (though of course unless you go the cave route, you would likely live in community). Get another master’s degree, become a Buddhist chaplain or contemplative educator perhaps? Continue with IT and operations and become a contractor and just build 2-3 months a year into my schedule for formal retreat practice? Who knows. Echoing Ajahn Thitamedha, I believe by following the Path, it will all work out.

Here’s to opening to uncertainty and walking the path. I’d love to hear others stories about being with the rub. Please do share in comments. I may not approve/respond until next week though because I’ll be in silent retreat this week.

Readings on this topic:

The yin and the yang: Thanissara and Kittisaro on balancing spiritual work and social activism (Part 1 ) and (Part 2)

Awakening to Revolution, excerpted from Spirituality and Social Action: A Holistic Approach by Vimala Thakar (she worked with Vinoba Bhave and the Land Gift Movement for many years)

As mentioned at Dangerous Harvests, Barry Briggs’s Ox Herding has a series of posts on the “One-Percent Solution” directly relevant to this subject. In fact the whole site deals with formal vs. daily practice.

Organizations:

Zen Peacemakers

Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Buddhist Global Relief

Engaged Buddhism Resources | DharmaNet

The (elusive) middle way and social media

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with balance. Though a reasonably good student, I often opted for socializing over studying. I had semesters of really putting the nose to the grind and others where I hung out with friends for hours in a bar playing electronic darts, or in a club dancing to house music (I know, you’re thinking, “really?”). When in intimate relationship, I have struggled greatly with wanting to be with that other person virtually all the time. When alone, I make solitude a fortress. When working, I put myself in it whole-heartedly, but then I end up being burnt out from working 12-hour days too frequently and just quit everything … Then there are the addictive behaviors re technology that result in a sort of “binge-and-purge” approach to life. When I was younger, it was computer games, then pre- social media Live Journal, then Last.fm. Obsessive behavior for a while and then a complete relinquishment. Now it’s reading, aggregating, and sharing Dhamma tidbits I find online, through conversations, and through scouring my own bookshelves. And so much of this, particularly personal blogging, as I’ve discussed before, just enables becoming, “selfing”, creating images of me, myself, mine over and over. See how many images of “me” lie just in this one paragraph alone! The wonderful thing is there’s an awareness that these are just ideas and that that illusion of an identity is dismantling and recreating itself all the time.

"Eliminating Sufferer": Seriously, not surprising if FB knows I'm a, ahem, Buddhist and quite a sense of humor if so...

Like many Western Buddhist-types (I still have trouble claiming the identity of a religious person tied to an institution), I started with pure theory. And often my eyes were bigger than my brain – to borrow from the metaphor about putting more on your plate than you can eat – and there are books that remain unread, but still I buy more. Dhamma talks I download when so many remain unlistened. Technology can enable the same sort of over-consumptive behavior we see in so much of our society – even when the object of such consumption is Dhamma. These days, part of the reason the books aren’t being read is because I’m sitting and practicing instead of just thinking about it, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s also a lot of engaging in social media, and not always all that mindfully. The momentum of a sensual life can be much stronger than that of a contemplative one, and there’s always the danger of talking about the Dhamma but not living it, not realizing it in the sense of the kind of understanding that comes from direct experience alone.

And to be quite honest, this is a big struggle right now.

I’m someone that’s also always been pretty anti-establishment and resisted enforced structure. So, it’s not surprising that far from a Mahasi method of vipassana, I practice a “choiceless awareness” kind of meditation, which encourages inquiry and investigation right from the bat. And Shwe Oo Min was just the right retreat center for me since it provided structure if I chose it, but never enforced it. The Forest Refuge in Barre, MA is similar in that regard but it’s disadvantage is it doesn’t provide the opportunity for talking meditation, and it costs an arm and a leg compared to Burmese standards of dana. (However, I should note, both those drawbacks can be remedied with a work study.) For the same reason, I have no trouble incorporating teachings from Zen and other traditions into my practice as well. Theravada, Mahayana, who cares? The guys below don’t.

The kind of structure I like. No walls.

During the seven months I was on retreat, there were long periods where I followed the prescribed schedule: rise at 3:30 AM, sit / walk, sit / walk, etc. all day and there were times when I totally just did my own thing. Times where I talked with other yogis, times where I totally retreated. Having that freedom was really important to the learning process. And I deeply believe all human beings should be given this balance between structure and independent choice from early in their lives (but that’s another matter all together, perhaps to be explored in future ramblings). At the same time, because life was so simple on retreat, things were really stripped down – there were no opportunities for distraction, for numbness, for completely checking out. That’s why being in a meditation center is so supportive to the practice. You just can’t get away from the mind when there’s nothing else going on.

But then, here we are in daily life and the distractions are there. For me, namely, that’s an Internet connection: more specifically Google Reader, email, Tumblr. I have a focused approach to my Internet usage certainly, and so I don’t waste my time swimming through seas of “irrelevant information”, but it remains something that can entirely take me away from contemplative practice and put all my focus outward if I’m not careful. It’s a constant balancing process. Every time there is an urge to check for new information in one of those buckets (or tabs to be precise), I have to look at the intention. What’s the motivation. Is it just lobha, sense desire, that I’m trying to provide momentary relief to? Is it even possible for it to be entirely pure when it happens so many times during the day? It moves into addiction so quickly, and since currently there is so little structure in my life (liminal, jobless, hermit-like lifestyle) it is far too easy to just avoid looking at what’s at the root of those patterns.

Meanwhile, being back in the West, I immediately fall prey to the illusion of needing to be productive. So the online activity somehow feels like proof of creating something, delivering something. Being a productive member of society! When really, even if there are a few people who are reading what I write or reblog and are being inspired, life feels all too meaningless because of some idea that things are supposed to be some other way. Because of not opening to life as it is in all its isness. Then there’s the comparison, the idea that life was more meaningful when I was practicing more diligently in Myanmar. The idea that somehow, watching my mind in this new context, where concentration is pretty hard to come by, is not a valid form of practice. Is not worthwhile. That somehow I’ve plateaued because there’s not enough mindfulness from moment-to-moment, not enough continuity, not ripe enough conditions for wisdom to emerge. Forgetting that it is the difficult situations, the confronting deeply engrained habits of behavior (in relationship, in addiction), the feelings of uncertainty and lack of meaning, that ultimately are the best teachers.

We’re like a student who skips class, who doesn’t want to study his lessons. We don’t want to see the mind when it’s happy, when it’s suffering. We don’t want to see it change, but what will we ever know? You have to stay with the changing like this. Get acquainted with this: “Oh, the mind is like this. One moment it thinks of that, the next moment it thinks of this, that’s its ordinary nature.” Know it when it thinks. Know when its thoughts are good, when they’re bad, when they’re right and wrong. Know what it’s like. When we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re simply sitting, thinking about this or that, the mind is still in concentration. If we know what it’s up to, we don’t get irritated or distracted.

via Not for Sure: Two Dhamma Talks

Had Ajahn Chah spoken these words in the digital era to a bunch of Western Buddhists, he might have included the verb “blogging” or “engaging in social media” in the sentence that starts “when we know the affairs of the mind, then even if we’re…”

The challenge for so many of us that are attracted to Buddhism, perhaps initially from an intellectual perspective, and to all of those that embrace social media for sharing the Dhamma, is to make sure that we do it mindfully and that it doesn’t interfere with (and hopefully rather supports) the non-verbal forms of our practice. Because of working in IT and in a professional setting for many years, spending an inordinate time on a computer has been normalized for me, so that even when I don’t have to, I still do. In Burma, I didn’t miss it at all and thought I’d never go back. It’s strange, the all or nothing. It’s been difficult to find the balance.

So now it’s learning to be present in this reality, with these particular conditions, to live in the world but not be of it. To see and understand the patterns and learn from them. To see the desires and the aversions, the confusion and frustration. To inquire into their root.

So simple, but not easy. As all of this is.

There are of course many conversations – and now even an annual conference – dealing with the subject of mindfulness and social media. Here are some resources:

(Ed. 8/31/2010 My Personal Internet Usage Policy)

In Hindsight: To Blog, or Not to Blog

Mindful Blogging

The Plain Truth About Wisdom 2.0 and Addiction

You Are No Longer Following Buddha

How to Skillfully Live with Technology

Did You Get the Message?

Inquiring Mind | Volume 26 | Number 2 | Spring 2010 “Addiction”

Dharma and Technology with Anushka Fernandopulle

Soren Gordhamer Home Page and Columnist Page at Huffington Post

Wisdom 2.0 Conference

Photo Credit: “Walking Talking Meditation”, Jiri Pavlik

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