Inquiry as practice

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.–Albert Einstein

→Ask questions.

I’d like to say this is the first present I received when visiting the Gimme Presence site to partake in its creator Kristen’s challenge. But I can’t.


Awareness for daily life

Awareness is your refuge:
Awareness of the changingness of feelings,
of attitudes, of moods, of material change
and emotional change:
Stay with that, because it’s a refuge that is
It’s not something that changes.
It’s a refuge you can trust in.
This refuge is not something that you create.
It’s not a creation. It’s not an ideal.
It’s very practical and very simple, but
easily overlooked or not noticed.
When you’re mindful,
you’re beginning to notice,
it’s like this.

- Ajahn Sumedho

“Awareness just is.” My teacher said through a crackled, hollow Skype connection half-way across the world. Regardless of the aural challenge, ears alert – in fact, hanging on every word – this simple sentence really broke open a stuckness I had been experiencing for nearly two months.

Ah, yes, awareness – that thing that always is, if we just tap into it. That thing that lies beyond conventional reality, concepts, beliefs, ideas, time and yet is the one constant. The one thing that is always there. As my Burmese teacher says, “just be happy that you are aware!”, even if that awareness comes from realizing that you were previously unaware. (This sentiment was also expressed in a recent post at Mind Deep.)

Awareness is not consciousness; according to Zen tradition, it is rather “the self prior to our parent’s birth”, at least so says Dainin Katagiri in Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life. Katagiri goes on to explain that it’s pretty difficult to know this “self” since consciousness is virtually always operating and carrying us away from one thought to another. The best way to research it, however, he says, is “to sit down and do zazen and let the flower of life force bloom in thusness.”

So, awareness is the essential self, and we get to know it deeply through the practice of meditation. There are Zen ways and Theravada ways of talking about it, and it seems the Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings in Tibetan Buddhism particularly stress it as well. In fact, perhaps the one piece that is consistent — regardless of the method being taught, from what tradition the teaching comes, or what words are used to point to the Dhamma — is awareness. This is the crux of mind training and to realizing meditation as a way of life.

Awareness is something that we can and should be cultivating all the time. However, as Ajahn Sumedho and U Tejaniya both say, it’s not a creation; it’s cultivation in the sense of bhāvāna, the Pāli word for meditation. And while an awareness practice’s potential for deep insight is probably greatly reduced without formal meditation and time for intensive retreat, awareness in daily life has a lot of benefit in and of itself.

Even though I have not fully returned to a conventional life and am to some extent continuing to live in retreat mode, daily life is the core of practice right now. Why? Because the great majority of our day is spent in daily activity and not in formal meditation. And awareness is applicable to whatever situation we find ourselves in – whether we are doing chores, talking to friends, in meetings at work, driving, doing exercise, engaging in social media (that’s a tough one), practicing sitting or walking meditation, etc. There are lots of relevant quotes on what awareness and mindfulness consist of. If you follow the links you can see some of my favorites. But Charlotte Joko Beck, as always, gets right to the point with the following:

There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichū, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’ Master Ichū picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’ The student said, ‘Is that all?’ The master wrote, ‘Attention Attention.’ …

For ‘attention’ we could substitute the word ‘awareness.’ Attention or awareness is the secret of life and the heart of practice….[E]very moment in life is absolute itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don’t pay attention to every little this, we miss the whole thing. And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting one we don’t want to visit. It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute. That’s all there is, and all there ever will be. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention. If we miss not just one moment, but one moment after another, we’re in trouble.

As a part of my own practice – of ensuring that this writing is supportive – in the next few posts I hope to explore different elements of our daily life practice including things like intention, the four right exertions (reflections on effort and wholesomeness), right speech, Wisdom 2.0, and aspects of relationship that serve as fodder for self-inquiry.

Until then, a couple of exercises that may be worth engaging in:

  1. Notice the state of mind when you first get up and when you go to sleep. What activity do you engage in and what’s the mood and thought content associated with the activity? And how do you engage in that activity?
  2. Per instructions from Andrea Fella’s daily life retreat, pick a recurring activity throughout your day (standing up, checking email, etc.) and make an effort to be mindful as you engage in that activity. See what you discover. If you realize you’ve forgotten to be mindful, just recognize that you’ve now remembered and see what that feels like…As U Tejaniya says, notice what the difference is between being aware and not being aware.

And some recommended reading / listening on daily life practice:

Every time you talk to someone on the phone or when someone approaches you, try to remember to check how you are feeling. What do you think and feel about that person? Throughout the day, whether at work or not, make it a habit to always check what kind of emotional reaction you have every time you interact with another person. How do you feel when the phone rings? Is the mind eager to pick it up quickly? You need to notice these things.

I really emphasize this moment of remembering. And what is helpful over time, is that you get familiar with what it feels like to be awake, to be aware — that moment of coming back into awareness. When you get familiar with that feeling, you’ll actually discover it happens a lot. It happens a lot to us throughout our day but we usually don’t recognize it because that moment of coming back into mindfulness is kind of subtle, and we generally leap onto what we’re paying attention to and start thinking about it, so we miss the fact that we’ve become mindful.

  • Interview with Charlotte Joko Beck posted at Ox Herding, originally published in Shambhala Sun, and an excerpt from Nothing Special: Living Zen published in Tricycle from which the above quote was referenced

Mindfulness tools for dealing with emotional and physical pain

Like many women and quite a few meditators (including a young S.N. Goenka), I suffer from migraines. These severe headaches are not all that well understood in the medical community and are often extremely difficult to treat through either allopathic or homeopathic means. Fortunately, through the practice, I have found that mindfulness meditation offers some insight into the causes at the same time as it provides significant relief.

As any meditator knows, one of the biggest obstacles we face in the beginning (and sometimes in perpetuity) is the physical discomfort experienced in formal sitting meditation practice. Regardless of whether you’re seated in a chair, kneeling on the floor, or in half-lotus – the body is not accustomed to remaining in one position for extended periods of time. Even when practicing lying-down meditation, we experience pressure and eventual pain if we stay in the same posture for too long. At the same time, the discipline of formal practice, particularly in community, asks us to sit a little longer and to explore what physical pain is all about. When we develop some stability of mind in our meditation, it can be pretty interesting to investigate what really constitutes pain.

Yesterday I spent the day with Ajahn Amaro at the New York City Insight Meditation Center. The day was dedicated to the Spiritual Faculties or indriya, a favorite topic of mine thanks to my Burmese teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. I won’t entirely side-track this discussion, but Ajahn Amaro described the five indriya as akin to a bird, with mindfulness being the heart of the bird, and the partner qualities of energy and samadhi representing the wings, and with the elements of faith and wisdom — also a pair — representing the base and the head of the bird, respectively. In our practice, keeping these faculties in balance is an ongoing act of minor adjustments made possible only through our remembering to be aware (sati or mindfulness).

As part of his response to one of the retreatant’s questions regarding difficult emotions, Ajahn Amaro talked about how we are able to see concepts of pleasant and unpleasant in a broader perspective through mindfulness. Specifically, when we refrain from getting involved in the story line that produces difficult emotion and instead just bring our attention to the physical sensations associated with that emotion, we find that even seemingly pleasant emotions result in discomfort in the body (e.g., excitement). On the other hand, those emotions that we associate as unpleasant such as anger or fear, when we see them for the sensations that they are, aren’t really all that bad. In fact, the physical response to both strong positive and negative emotions is pretty similar. It’s the thoughts about the emotion, the thought content itself, or the fixed ideas (shoulds, etc.) that color our perception of these passing phenomena…

Particularly from my experience with migraines while on intensive retreat, I would argue that the same principle can be applied to physical pain to a large extent. While I can’t say that I know the pain of childbirth or of a terminal illness, migraines have been very debilitating and generally the only way that I have been able to cope with them is to sleep as much as possible. In discussing the quality of energy (viriya), Ajahn Amaro talked about the mind’s tendency to either have too much or too little energy. If too much, the mind is restless and racing around discursively, if too little, we are constantly nodding off and unable to maintain interest in meditation. Often, this is a kind of “mental numbness” or shutting off to something we don’t want to deal with – like physical or emotional pain. Unconsciousness is nature’s anaesthesia, Ajahn Amaro says.

When we experience chronic pain like this, the mind develops a pattern of relationship with the pain. Obviously, we don’t want the pain. We want to shut it out. We want it to go away. We don’t want to be aware of what’s happening. We want to wake from a deep sleep feeling refreshed and totally recovered. So to then try and practice mindfulness meditation while experiencing intense pain can be extraordinarily difficult. While I was in Burma, I had several migraines and was unable to go to the meditation hall. But rather than fall asleep, I wanted to understand the nature of these headaches, so tried in earnest to practice lying-down meditation. What I found was that the object of the meditation – the pain, and to a certain extent the mind’s reaction to the pain – was so gross as to be virtually impossible to be at peace with. But I began to see improvements in the way the mind was relating to the pain over time, because I wasn’t vomiting from the sheer exhaustion of the pain anymore. I also began to recognize the mental states that contributed to a migraine’s appearance, and was able to stop them ahead of time (as long as they didn’t come in my sleep!). Still, the pain was real and challenging, but there was definitely a change under foot.

Three days ago I woke with a headache. I sensed that it might turn into a bad one. And it did. Try as I might have to divert it. We were going to a family wedding and the last thing I wanted to do was get in a hot car in the middle of the day where the sunlight would be moving in and out of my view and the sounds of the highway would constantly be droning. I brought a pillow and an ice pack, covered my eyes and dropped into my body. I felt the migraine. I didn’t think about the migraine. And in the feeling, in the just being really present in my body, an extraordinary peacefulness emerged. An acceptance of the way things were and, in that, a significant relief.

When pain is constant and unrelenting, it is very hard not to identify with it, “MY pain”, “MY back hurts”, etc., and it seems to defy the law of impermanence while we are experiencing it so a tremendous amount of aversion or resistance arises in the mind. But when we can create some distance between the mind that is aware of the pain and the body that is experiencing the pain, when we can truly observe objectively, it changes the whole equation. The more I think about how much my head hurts, the more it hurts, but if instead I’m just experiencing sensation, the intensity goes away, and then suddenly I find myself virtually headache-free. It seems almost a miracle.

It is in this way that we begin to redefine the mind’s relationship to that old pain. And it’s not in shutting ourselves off to it or trying to push it away, but rather in opening up to it and allowing it to be that we find freedom.

For a long time I have looked at the practice of meditation as a way of learning to live so that we can learn to die. Death often is accompanied with physical pain, and clearly represents the ultimate letting go, which if we are not prepared for will then be accompanied with significant mental pain as well. And, if my experience with migraines is any indication of what we are capable of through cultivating the mind, I can’t imagine anything more important to help us to both live and die well.

For more reading on the Five Spiritual Faculties, refer to Ayya Khema’s description here, or to Thanissaro Bhikku’s commentary and translations here. Also, you can listen to Ajahn Amaro speak about Faith and the Spiritual Faculties here.

For more reading on vipassanā and pain management, see below.

The Internet is a perennial source of dukkha

Has any person ever not had the thought, at one point or another, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t said that.”? Or felt remorse after sending an email? I think it’s a pretty common human experience to not always speak or write as wisely as we might like upon reflection. I know I’ve certainly had my fair share of regrets. One thing I’m hopefully learning to do right now is to reduce the opportunity to feel such shame and remorse. By cultivating awareness moment to moment, we can probably avoid saying the wrong thing. By asking ourselves whether what we have to say is 1) necessary and 2) beneficial before we say it, we also will end up speaking less but more meaningfully when we do. I know this is easier said than done, but I can think of few things more important in developing ourselves and our relationship with others.

Unfortunately, at one point I had the realization when reflecting on Right Speech, that I had written something critical about an organization on this blog. Being new to blogging, I wrote something for narrative effect without considering carefully that by putting it up on the Internet it was becoming something that was a permanently searchable archive that anyone with an Internet connection could access. The point at which I had this realization was on a meditation cushion in Burma, several weeks away from having access to a computer and web connection for editing purposes and months after the original post. So, if I had done damage, it was likely already done and a couple more weeks wouldn’t be the end of the world (or so I reasoned so as not to totally torture myself), but the reality is that even after removing the potentially defamatory words, the thought about this unwise action has come back to haunt me several times. I’ve learned a hard lesson and as such, it’s raised the question whether or not the Internet is an appropriate venue for communications of this sort, or for someone that’s trying to cultivate more skillful speech, at least when one feels still so unskillful…

This may therefore be a swan song post, but I will think about it and reconsider if I trust wisdom will prevail.

The Buddha thought speech was so important that he included it among both the moral precepts that every disciple, lay or ordained, follows, and he also included it in the Noble Eightfold Path – the means to end suffering. A lay person that takes an additional three precepts on as a lifetime practice, the ajiva atthamaka sila (not the training precepts or atthanga sila I observe as a yogi – for more info on the distinctions, see here) abides by them in an even stronger way. The elements of Right Speech are to refrain from false speech and to speak only truth; to abstain from engaging in malicious speech (i.e., slander); to abstain from engaging in harsh speech (i.e., profanity, etc.); and to abstain from engaging in frivolous, unnecessary and idle talk (i.e., small talk and gossip). Here at Shwe Oo Min, unlike most meditation centers, we are allowed to talk. We are neither encouraged nor discouraged by the teacher, but are strongly advised to speak only of Dhamma and our practice. Even when we do that though, it is so easy to fall into our personal story lines or to fall into habit patterns of wanting to be witty or funny and lose sight of what really matters.

Especially in the West, we spend our lives constructing a self identity, a charming personality and yet, as Sayadaw U Jotika, who also studied with U Tejaniya’s teacher Shwe Oo Min, says, the “I” is the single greatest burden we carry around in our lives. It is so much to deconstruct! Perhaps nowhere is it more apparent how we cling to a permanent idea of self than in the context of social networking (and blogs too…). The information we choose to share and the images we choose to represent us become so self-identified. The news articles, the interests, the avatars, the humor, the originality of our words we think all make us “me”. We spend so much time culling just the right stuff to formulate our persona on the Internet – something archived and in many ways static and so counter to reality where everything is constantly changing!

One thing I’ve realized through meditation is that most of the thinking we do is conceptual and a function of language. Words are great – they give shared meaning to common experiences and enable us to communicate with one another – but they are also very limiting, taking on individual bias and conditioning, and more important, creating a huge distance between the experiencer and that which is being experienced. We can rarely directly know what is happening because we form stories, based on past experience, of what a thought about an object means. So we end up with thought upon thought upon thought as opposed to experience. And if you think of this beyond the level of individual consciousness to universal consciousness (we are conditioned from the beginning of human existence, maybe even time!) it’s mind-blowing how trapped we really are by concept.

So, is it possible to take words both more seriously and more lightly? Knowing both their limits and their depth? Can we try to be more kind and less angry when we speak? Can we pause and think about what we are going to say first? Can we listen more attentively? Can we be more aware of everything that is happening as it happens, and better understand the complex emotional-mental-physical network that is our body and mind? Try it. See what happens.

To be a Buddhist

I’ve always balked at the question, “Are you religious?” because it’s such a loaded question and because the word religion has connotations in the English language limited to its Latin root. Nor have I liked the term “spiritual” because it too has negative connotations (as in New Age, fruit loop, etc.). But this experience has been the thing I’ve done so far in my life that has felt the most true, the closest to my heart, that I’m rethinking how I would answer the question. In Burma, people just assume I’m Buddhist, so they skip the question and instead ask “Is your family also Buddhist?”

Before leaving the US, I asserted that probably I’d never call myself a Buddhist since I could never adopt the cultural component of the religion. This was before I lived and practiced in a Buddhist country. Meditation in the West is made available to people as an independent thing, something that can be integrated with other faiths and belief systems. But after observing eight of the 227 precepts that monks in the Buddhist tradition practice (what nuns and lay people in a monastic setting observe) and understanding the value of morality in committing to a spiritual life; and after reflecting on just how much faith I had to have in the Dhamma in order to end up here, as well as to really build the foundation for earnest meditation practice, I feel differently.

Since I’ve been interested in the Buddha’s teachings, I’ve always been skeptical about an academic or purely intellectual approach. This brought on a nearly existential crisis during the creation of my undergraduate thesis (re the Enlightenment experience and the ability to convey the ineffable through words…). It’s quite astounding that it’s taken so long for my practice to get started, given how very convinced I was that the Four Noble Truths and the systematic teachings that have persisted over 2,500 years, if directly understood and experienced by the practitioner, could lead us out of suffering. But here I am, nearly 20 years later and a total beginner. It’s been utterly humbling to come to Burma.

So, I suppose I am Christian by birth and Buddhist by choice. How my quasi-religious parents produced a Jew, a complete non-believer, and a Buddhist is beyond me. For me, I no longer believe that meditation can be incorporated into my life apart from its belief system. I see how very important saddha, confidence or faith, is in this practice. This is not blind faith, but the kind of faith that develops from seeing the benefits in one’s own life, and a belief in the teachings through one’s own experiential learning process. After going to Episcopal summer camp and boarding school, I’m pretty averse to rites and rituals, but now I happily chant in Burmese and bow to the Buddha – not out of fear, superstition or obligation, but out of a deep reverence and gratitude to this person that taught for nearly 50 years so that he could help others discover the truths that he did. I bow to my teacher, and to his teacher, and all those before them because they have – through direct transmission – shared these teachings with me and countless others so that we too may be liberated. I observe the precepts because I can’t imagine not observing them (The first 4 at least – the moral ones, and the 5th – abstaining from intoxicants which makes you less vulnerable to breaking the others. The other 3 support the practice and the development of wisdom through the weakening of defilement.), and because I know I will suffer if I don’t; not because I feel that I should or because I wouldn’t want to get caught, but because the mind is complicated and there are consequences to all actions – that’s why we can beat ourselves up over something that we said 10 years ago. This is the real meaning of kamma. There is cause for every effect.

Meditation then becomes a way of living, of being; which is something I’ve understood for a long time conceptually, but only through immersing myself in a daily mindfulness practice here for this time have I really begun to know. So much knowledge we depend on has no basis in direct experience and yet we hold onto it so strongly in our beliefs and opinions, separating ourselves from others who hold different views and blinding ourselves from the truth. If everyone took a peek inside, they’d see that the best teacher, the best book we have is the mind itself. And yours and mine, they’re all the same. Maybe a little bit different conditioning depending on where you were born, etc., but all full of the same challenging tendencies rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion.

So, as I learn about the mind and build confidence in this religious tradition by so doing, I will point you to some of the core aspects of the teachings here in case you’re interested. The Buddha taught to people of varying levels of education and understanding and he understood that people learn differently, but he always used lists that people could easily come back to. I’ve only just skimmed the surface and have a lot more reading to do, but here are some basics:

-The Four Noble Truths (and an alternative here)
-The Noble Eightfold Path
-Dependent Origination (Four Noble Truths expanded)
-The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
-The Five Hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni)
-The Five Spiritual Faculties (pañca indriya)
-The Four Foundations of Mindfulness / Frames of Reference (satipaṭṭhāna)
-The Ten Fetters PDF (saṃyojana)
-The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (satta sambojjhaṅgā)
-The Spiritual Perfections (pāramīs)
- The Divine Abidings (bramivihāras)

I’ve tried to link to reasonably good brief definitions for each of the above terms, however, not all are available in pithy form and since there are many different philosophical variations it’s tough to find just the right description. For detailed explanations, probably Access to Insight would be the best resource.


%d bloggers like this: