Monday, December 15, 2008

What do we do when it all goes pear shaped?

As I progress through my life review (during the week of 03-12 December, my time-line focus is on the period between 1976 ((when I was 16 going on 17 years of age)) to 1981 ((when I was 21 going on 22 years of age)) -- Just the time period where I began to make my first forays into making major screw-ups, fouls, and failures.

The basic method of following this practice is to move through the selected time-period using the 'Gratitude practice' method... allowing situations, persons, and events play through my mind and bringing focus upon those specific factors for which I am grateful, or should be grateful, and mindfully expressing my gratitude.

In some cases, I find that I am grateful for certain turns of events that, at the time, struck me as being catastrophic. Whether this means that they were actually fortuitous at the time, and I was not skillful enough to recognize it, or whether they were in fact catastrophic and I managed to respond to them skillfully enough to garner some measure of gratitude is a question for another day, perhaps... when all is said and done, however, I am grateful for most things... and find that I am surprisingly grateful for many things that were on the face of it, not very appealing or enjoyable at the time.

In retrospect I have come to see how those painful and difficult times, places, people and events have served to shape me in sometimes surprising ways; by making me dig deeper into my spirit to find reserves of resiliency, strength, toughness, tolerance, endurance, kindness, compassion, and in most cases; acceptance.

Not enough can be said for that last, I think.. particularly in light of the fact that I am a relatively insignificant person, with not so very much power or influence, and not so very much in the way of wealth or financial solvency... who happens to live in a world where these things count for much. So. I have had to learn to accept many things that I am powerless to change. It has, I think, made me become a better person. Maybe not better than others around me... but better than I would have been otherwise. For this, if nothing else.. I am profoundly grateful. So, it seems that even when I fall, the universe has a way of embracing me.

Once the time period has been gone over using Gratitude practice, it is time to go back to the beginning and start again, but this time with the focus being on 'Forgiveness Practice'. (After forgiveness practice, we go through the time-period an additional time, using a practice called 'Open-Gate Practice' in which we move chronologically through the time period allowing whatever situations happen to come forth to do so.. and dealing with them as we see fit, or as seems appropriate... perhaps revisiting them with 'soft-belly', 'noting & observing', 'gratitude' or 'forgiveness' practice as the situation demands. In this journal entry, I want to touch on forgiveness practice for the most part.)

In this practice, call forth situations where either we have committed wrongs or made mistakes, perhaps hurting others, perhaps hurting ourselves... or both, and we also focus on situations where others have wronged us. The goal of this practice is to recognize that a wrong has been committed, to understand the ramifications and consequences that resulted, and to try to follow the chain of dependent origination back to the point where the first delusional or wrongful thoughts may have occurred, in an attempt to recognize such similar thoughts in the future (the idea being that every action is preceded by a thought... and every thought is preceded by some causal factor).

Once we have investigated the circumstances surrounding the event, we call forth the wrongdoer (whoever they happen to be) and forgive that person. By opening our heart, and opening the fist of anger and resentment, we give our spirit room to breathe, room to grow, and room to live.... and we do so by setting aside the burden of blame, remorse, hatred, anger, and all of the afflictive emotions that are associated with such burdens.

I find that it is quite difficult for me to find a way to forgive myself for whatever wrongs I have done. Particularly when my actions have resulted in harm to others... harm being mental anguish, sadness, disappointment, pain, etc.

I am able to 'mouth' the words adequately (or whatever verb is used when you are speaking within the confines of your own mind... I suppose 'mouthing' is inappropriate since the mouth is not involved... but... well.... pfwssht!) but, when it comes to actually buying into the forgiveness... I am having a very hard time.

You see... I was there when I screwed up. Each and every time. I was there when I should have been making better decisions... when I was making horrible decisions... and when I was avoiding the prospect of a decision... I know that I could have done better, and I let myself down... and although I know that it is important to be able to put these things aside, I also have some inherent resistance to self-absolution.

I imagine that if there was some method by which reparations could be made, it would be helpful... but, what if the someone who you wronged or could have treated somewhat better has since died or is no longer in contact with you? What if the situation is not something that lends itself to reparations? How do we find a way to allow ourselves off the hook for what we know was not our best day or best choice?

What I understand intellectually, if not viscerally, is that we all make mistakes. We all cause problems. We all fail to abide by the rules. We all let ourselves, and others, down at some point. Everyone does this. This is what it is to be human.

I also realize that without mistakes, we would find it very difficult, if not impossible to learn, grow, and mature. It is through stress, pain, and difficulty that we forge our spirits... chiefly because the monk who is warm and comfortable in his bed is less likely to get up and start a long day of training if an extra blanket is placed over him then if he is doused by a shockingly cold bucket of ice water!! We don't change when we are comfortable. We change when the situation becomes no longer tenable for us. So... difficulty and discomfort are part of the process... and this is so particularly when we cause the difficulty for ourselves.

It is through this very pain that we force ourselves to look inward to address whatever it is that must be addressed so that we can improve ourselves.

In so many aspects of my life, when I look back with the clear eye of hindsight, I lament to myself that I could have done *so much* better. (Naturally, I have now learned the very thing that enables me to recognize that I could have done better... but very likely would NOT have learned it had I not 'Put my foot in it' in the first place!)

So, it appears that I am torn between two mindsets... Learn from the mistakes, or, failing that, recognize them as being part of my story, for good or otherwise... resolve not to make the same or similar mistakes again... and forgive myself, setting aside the burden of guilt and moving forward with a somewhat lighter heart... perhaps thinking that the whole thing is a huge crock...

Or; Being continuously disappointed in whatever bad decisions or bone-headed mistakes that I have made, and soldier on determined not to let it happen again, but with a bleak and disappointed view of my past actions.

Neither seem quite acceptable... so I have to wonder if there is some way to simply forgive myself for making mistakes... or for not doing as well as I think I should have and moving on from here... having become a little bit wiser, hopefully.

I think that we all tend to be a bit egocentric when it comes to these situations.

As children, the sun comes up so that we can go out to play... it rains in order to prevent us from going out to play... and mommy is there solely to love us, feed us, and do all the things that moms do.

Eventually, we come to learn that we are not the center of universe (though we are, each and every one of us *AT* the center of the universe... since the universe extends infinitely in every direction from whatever point we happen to be occupying... but that has nothing much to do with my screw-ups, thankfully!!) and that we are a part of a larger society of other beings, and that our actions impact upon the lives and feelings of others, and that their actions impact upon the lives and feelings of ourselves, and our loved ones.

We all tend to harbor some belief, (mostly, I would imagine, due to our folk stories, mass media input, and socio-religious beliefs -- at least in Western society) that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, crime does not pay, the good guys always win, and they live happily ever after. But... does it work that way? WHO says so?

This is a perfect example of the gap between our EXPECTATION and LIFE AS IT IS causing us unnecessary pain and suffering.... and this is why the Buddha instructed his disciples to not automatically trust anything that was said to them, or anything that they read, even though it may have been the Buddha himself who had said it or written it!! UNTIL they had tested whatever was said or written against their own observations and their own experience and wisdom. The bottom line here being that we are each and every one of us charged with the sole responsibility for our own well being and for the awakening of our own consciousness.

We must all be a lamp unto ourselves... open our eyes, open our ears, open our minds and our hearts and investigate the world for ourselves... live life FIRST HAND and not through the eyes and ears of others. By doing this we get back in touch with life, living, and the world as it is.. just as children are in touch with the world. Everything is new, and interesting, and full of the promise of some new thing to be learned or experienced!

We have proforma conversations... not really listening to what is said by others.... we ask people how they are doing.. without in the slightest bit wanting to know how they are REALLY doing... and we look to others to answer questions that we are too lazy to ask!

Nobody can answer these questions for us... nobody can give us answers,.. and nobody can solve our problems. We must do it ourselves. We must realize that holding ourselves to some lofty and unattainable standard is not only impossible and fraught with danger and the certainty of failure to come... but also arrogant. By understanding that we are all fallible, that we all make mistakes from time to time... and that only by mutually supporting one another, caring for one another, and truly finding ways of coexisting in a peaceful and caring fashion can we hope to survive as a people for much longer. It is so easy to point the finger of blame at others... to be impatient, angry, and critical... so easy, in fact, that we begin to point the same accusatory finger at ourselves... and we begin to find ourselves wanting. We are intolerant of our own shortcomings, and forget how to love ourselves and how to love others... and this is the beginning of trouble. Because we are a social species, and we cannot do it alone. Every one of us impacts upon the lives of every other one of us. This is a very simple truth.

We make mistakes. We screw up. Things don't go as planned.

When we attach to the concept of a separate self, we immediately follow that attachment with the desire for our 'self' to be better than other selves... superior to others in thought, action, purity, and every other aspect. We are the star of our own show... and we want more, better, faster, harder, NOW.

But.. where does that get us? Run around, run around, no time, no room for others, no ability to connect, no time to listen, no time to FEEL.... and in the end, what then?

Same grave. Just as dead as every other dead person. And all that stuff just gets fought over by those that we leave behind.

This is the reality of being a human being, at least to my point of view;

I am human, with all of the strengths and weaknesses of a human. I am of the nature to grow ill, to suffer, and eventually to die. There is nothing that I can do to change or to avoid this. This is my nature.

I am human, and, being human I cannot see all ends and will often make mistakes. My mistakes will cause me pain and difficulty, and will likely cause pain and difficulty for others. There is little that I can do to avoid this from ever happening, and nothing at all to do that can change what has already happened. This is also my nature and the nature of the world in which I live.

The very best that I can do is to train and to culture my body, mind, and spirit, to the best of my ability... to allow my ego-self to settle and dissipate... and allow my 'greater' self, my 'true' self to arise. My method of doing this is to direct, concentrate, and distill my thoughts in order to achieve a calm abiding, serene, tranquil, clear and agile mind; this is important because whatever life unfolds and reveals to me (*WhatEVER life reveals!) will be better confronted by a calm and tranquil mind than by a mind that is clouded, confused, and in constant turmoil.

By doing so, I prepare a fertile ground for a better future by making calm, reasonable, sound decisions that are based upon accurate observations that are unclouded by inappropriate and unskillful emotional reactions, preconceived notions, and faulty apprehensions.

This will not guarantee that my future will be better, only that I will be better equipped to respond to whatever opportunities that may arise, if any, and better prepared to recognize opportunities for what they are and respond to them effectively. Even if no such opportunities should ever present themselves, I will still be better prepared to confront my life as it is, and will therefore have some capacity to find happiness wherever I am able, and to enjoy it to the fullest.

If I make mistakes, despite my best efforts, I can only accept responsibility for them, face whatever consequences that may follow, forgive myself for having done so... and move on to face the day. If I make mistakes having not put forth my best efforts, I can only do the same, and attempt to learn from this shortcoming.

Whatever I have done, and whatever I do *IS* my story... and this crucial.

Whatever I have done or have not done is not what I *AM*.

Every breath offers a choice.

Every moment is a new moment.

Every day that I awaken is a day. I have the power and ability to make of it what I may.

I may do nothing but good things, and bad things can still happen to me... I may do nothing but bad things and good things may still happen to me... this is not something over which I have any control... I can only exercise my judgment, and follow the moral compass that I have set for myself.

Having made my own share of mistakes and foul-ups, I can be more understanding and tolerant of the mistakes of others.

Being free of the resentments which arise from the judgments of others, and from false expectations of how life *should* be... I am better equipped to experience life JUST AS IT IS to the fullest extent possible.

So... maybe forgiveness practice isn't so much about forgiving in the sense of acquitting or letting ourselves 'off the hook' as it is about facing up to what has happened, accepting it for whatever it is.. accepting the responsibility for whatever our culpability in the situation happened to be, and then finding a way to move forward without letting past mistakes plant seeds that will only bring forth new ones... Like so many things then, forgiveness is all about learning to let go. Forgiveness is about letting go of all hope for a better past.

Sometimes we think that we are the only ones who make the mistakes that we make, think the thoughts that we think, or harbor whatever darkness we happen to harbor.. but, it isn't really like that. Every combat soldier has secretly thought himself the only coward amongst a company of brave men.

Having said this, it is also true that for some mistakes, we may face repercussions that will last the remainder of our lives, or some significant portion of it... and having learned whatever lesson that the mistake had to teach us will in no way lessen the impact of those repercussions or consequences.

The very fact of learning from the mistake or gaining some insight or wisdom may well make the situation all the more painful, difficult to bear, or poignant for us.

Well.. this is another of those things relegated to the nature of being a human being. This is karmic reaction.... karma being the results of our thoughts and actions as opposed to the somewhat misapplied definition that most westerners seem to have of karma as being some type of luck, or fate, or destiny... it is not. At least not in the sense that it is used in a Zen context. To us (Zen folks), if you throw a bucket of water straight up, and fail to move... the karmic burden that you have assumed will soon get you soaked to the skin!

Cause and effect. Pure and simple.

We all know of some person or persons who live a remarkably 'good' life and who are remarkably 'good' people but who have had many tragic, difficult, or painful events enter their lives.

Many people will react to this with anger, demanding to know how God or the universe can allow such things to happen.

I think that these things are not allowed or disallowed.. they just are.

The universe, as I have said, does not conspire.

We live our lives, and we must deal appropriately with whatever we are confronted with... that is simply the way it is.

Being good or bad has little to do with what may happen... though it is true that certain lifestyles are more likely to call 'bad' things, people, and events into our midst. Unfortunately, living a 'good' life is not an iron-clad guarantee against such things... There is some joy to be taken from living a 'good' life simply because it is a 'good' life, and not out of some sense of having struck a bargain with fate. Perhaps if we are able to avoid viewing things as inherently 'good' or 'bad' life will make more sense as it flows and offers us whatever happens to occur. When confronted with a situation, rather than label it 'good' or 'bad' and loading up our emotional rucksack with all of the adjacent feelings, judgments, and notions... what if we simply accept is as being whatever it is... and then find the true function that the moment demands and do our best to respond effectively? Easier said than done... I know. But... that's life! The better quality stuff is more expensive than the crap!

Looking back at my life through this practice, and watching this year tick past has sharpened my focus immensely.

I can see how life simply flows independent of my wants, needs, hopes, desires, and fears.

Life just..IS... I can see much more clearly that life does not necessarily respond to us and that there is often no connection between what we do and how life twists and turns seemingly in answer to what we do or fail to do. At least there is no connection that we can easily see.

However, that is not a problem that you or I can solve.

We are left to deal with the situations in which cause and effect are within the scope of our ability to influence via our thoughts and actions.

By focusing on what we *can* do to improve things rather than on what we cannot hope to do saves a great deal of time and energy, and may actually get some decent results into the bargain!

Case and effect - that is what the life review is all about, really. Good things happen, bad things happen, neutral things happen... but the universe does not conspire. Some folks have better opportunities, some have not so good opportunities... some are rich, others poor... some talented.. others less so. Most of us are somewhere in the middle... but we must all struggle with something.


The question is not so much "How do I get what I don't have?" as "How do I best proceed with what I DO have?" - and this is the crux of this whole life-review process.

Whatever has happened has happened... you are where you are... you have what you have... you have lost what you have lost... and now... what are you going to do with it, and where are you headed?

In other words, what is the best possible course of action given the present set of circumstances as you perceive them? (the perfect situation NEVER comes... and it is important to constantly re-assess your perceptions; as you take in more information, or revise and process the information that is available to you, your perceptions may change... and it is equally important to always remain open to this change and to be prepared to implement it if it is needful to do so!)

As for forgiveness practice;

For those of you who feel that you have wronged me in some way... if there are any of you out there who have such feelings.. please know that I forgive you for whatever slight or wrongdoing you may have perpetrated against me. I wish you only the best, and I profoundly hope that you will set the burden of guilt aside and move forward with a lighter and perhaps more tolerant heart. What is done is done, and today is a new day.

For those of you that I have wronged, whether you are still upon this world or have moved on to some other plane of existence: You may have forgotten whatever I have done.. or you may never forget whatever I have done... but I am very, very sorry for having done so, whether my wrongdoing was large or small, unintentional or deliberate, or due to my own ignorance.

Please know that I am working tirelessly to better my understanding and to improve my abilities to confront life and to engage others.

Though I would very much wish to undo whatever unskillful and hurtful thoughts or actions I have done in the past, which have had an impact either upon you, or upon others... it is not within my power to do so.

Though it may not be acceptable to you, I offer my most profound apologies and hope that whatever pain I have caused through deliberate actions, negligence, inconsideration, weakness or incompetence has either passed quickly or has helped to make you a stronger and better person as other pains have served to strengthen me.

Lastly, though I have no right to ask it of you, or to expect it, I wholeheartedly hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive me so that I may put this burden aside.

I will do whatever I am capable of doing to take wisdom from the experience of having wronged you, and to use that wisdom to do whatever good I am able to do to constantly enrich the lives of those around me. I thank you for being my teacher in this respect, more so for perhaps having had this role inflicted upon you against your will.

With palms joined in peace, love and humility...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pratītyasamutpāda & The U.S. BIll of Rights

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

I called a very close personal friend yesterday afternoon. We have known each other for many, many years, have served together, laughed together, trained together, and cried together. We have gotten into trouble together, and we have alternately gotten one another into various types of trouble (deliberately!). Each of us has rendered the other unconscious, drawn one another's blood, broken or sprained one another's limbs, and carried the other when it became necessary.

We have alternately watched one another build lives and careers.. and have watched as those same lives and careers came crumbling down. We have shared some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations that I have ever taken part in, and we share a connection that few people ever share. We give of ourselves, unquestioningly... and our friendship is deep and abiding. Somewhere within the first 15 seconds of knowing one another, we forged a brotherhood that has never wavered in over 20 years.

As they usually are wont to do, our conversation wandered over various and sundry topics... with each of us taking turns pouncing upon the other in mid-sentence and hijacking the conversation.

We discussed our feelings about the law and the constitution, the rights of gays and same-sex unions (neither of us are gay, and I would not say that either of us would be described as 'gay rights activists' - I *would* however be quite accurate in stating that we are both HUMAN rights supporters... and we both derive the same meaning from the rather unambiguous words of the American Declaration of Independence when it says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." and, "Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

We discussed the U.S. Constitution as it applies to this issue, specifically the Bill of Rights, and, recognizing that the principle reasons that have been cited for preventing same-sex couples from enjoying the benefit or marriage or civil union (i.e., the ability to make decisions regarding the partner's health care in the event of serious illness... funeral arrangements in the event of one of the partners deaths, the disposition of personal property, insurance coverage, etc., - benefits that the majority of people in this country quite take for granted!) are primarily based in religiosity.


This is a problem to my way of thinking, and also to my friend's, judging from his comments during our conversation. You see.. we have both served to protect that very same constitution. Both have shed sweat, and blood to protect it. Both have made considerable sacrifice to protect it... as have many other men and women who served before us, after us, or alongside us.

Simply because I do not share the lifestyle choices, opinions, or proclivities of my fellow human beings does NOT mean that I have free reign to impinge upon the rights that have been granted to others by the very documents and ideas upon which this country was founded and built.

Folks, it is simply wrong.

The Bill of Rights also prohibits Congress from making any law respecting establishment of religion and prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Since we do not allow a State Religion to exist, the inference is that this due process should take place absent the influence of religious doctrine. This is a fundamental right due to every human being under the First & Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution!

Now, clearly, it is difficult to separate one's religious thinking from one's secular thinking... the brain doesn't work that way. However, it takes no stretch of the intellect to understand that we are talking about fundamental rights that are owed to fellow human beings - REGARDLESS of whether we happen to agree with the way they choose to live their life.

What is most mystifying to me is that we are discussing the prospect of allowing or disallowing one human being to LOVE another human being!! The very idea of making even a half-hearted attempt to dissuade one person from loving another person is simply too perverse for me to seriously entertain, and I am saddened and appalled.

We live in a supposedly enlightened day and age, folks... it is time to open up the hand of fear and anger... the fist of control.... and let go of this notional and pre-conceived mode of thinking.

We are all born into this world as equals, and there is not one among us with some divine right to make choices or rule over any other one of us. The very idea supposedly went by the wayside in the 18th century... so, perhaps it is time to buy a new calendar, huh?

You cannot simply pick and choose who is worthy of fair treatment and who is not.

Now, I am sure that my comments and opinions will anger and incense some of those who will read this...

I assure you that I am not trying to be deliberately inflammatory.

I know that in many cases, the religious upbringing of a person will make it extremely difficult for them to accept ways of thinking which extend beyond the boundaries of their upbringing.

My words are not meant to foment oppositional behavior... they are intended to spark thinking that I sincerely hope will enable some who will stop and consider... and perhaps open their heart... and realize that hurting other people is simply wrong... no matter the authority that condones it... and that they will extend a hand and accept even those people who are so different in their beliefs, appearance, lifestyle, and demeanor as brothers and sisters.

We are all in this belly-button together. One wrong sparks another wrong... eye for an eye & tooth for a tooth.... and pretty soon the whole bloody world is blind and toothless.

I have a countdown on the right side of this page... well, newsflash... you have one too! You might not be able to see it, and you might not be able to read exactly how much time you have left to live in this world... but, the countdown is steadily ticking away. We are all dying.

We all have less time to live right now than when we started to read this very sentence.

Is anything really so important that it is worth diminishing the quality of life of a fellow human being?

Can we not just STOP THAT!!.. once we realize the harm that it causes?

I both think and fervently hope that we can.

(I am absolutely not taking a 'holier than thou' stance here, by the way. It is not as though I have never made mistakes, or have never done wrong - either through negligence, knowlingly, or deliberately... I most certainly have. Guilty on all counts! What I have also done, however, was to accept my wrongdoing, face it squarely, learn from having done so.. and desisted. Over the years, I have become a nicer, more loving, gentler, and, I hope, kinder person. It isn't all that hard. Most importantly, it is better for all of us!)

People just want to live their lives, for the most part. They want to love those whom they love. They want that love to be publicly recognized. This is a very simple and easy to understand concept. The sky will not fall if they are allowed to do what is their RIGHT! I am groping for some idea of how one person loving and caring for another person can be harmful in some way to any other human being... but it just isn't coming to me....

People have tried to tell me that what gay couples do isn't right... that it is in some way unnatural... well, I have a hard time with that.

Look at the animal world and you will find that in nearly every case any and all types of sexual behavior can be found. This ability that we have been born with to engage in not only sexual behavior, but all types of affectionate and playful behavior is a form of expressing our love for one another in a playful and intimate fashion.

In a human context, this is a private occurrence which takes part out of sight of the general public. It is simply irrelevant with respect to how we should view or judge one another. What possible difference can this make? Sex should be like baby pigeons, I think... I *know* they have to be out there... but I have never personally seen one. It simply doesn't affect me in any way, and it certainly isn't an acceptable reason for me to discriminate or otherwise mistreat other people, *that* much I am certain of.

While it is true that inappropriate behavior, whether it is sexual or otherwise, can and does cause suffering, I think that it is equally true that when discussing a moral compass, however, you cannot force your own beliefs upon other people who are acting within the bounds of the law. To do so is to do some degree of violence or to practice some form of aggression upon others.

In creating and enforcing such laws... it it extremely important that they be fair, just, and also that they do not force any specific group or individual's personal religious belief system upon others. Each person has a right to live their life as they see fit. As they say; "It's a free country". That means for every single last one of us. Period.

I personally believe that a spiritual practice and belief are extremely important. I myself follow a relatively narrow path insomuch as my actions are concerned. Particularly within the past 8 or 9 years and continuing... however, I also recognize that a religious path or belief system is a very personal thing, and the decision to adhere to such a belief system, or to choose NOT to adhere to such a belief system is also a very personal thing; and both of those choices are protected rights under the U.S. Constitution.. so, if you live in this country, at any rate, this is the law, and the law of the land is the law... plain and simple.

Do I want to know what gay couples are doing behind closed doors?? Do I want to know what nearly any of my friends and family are doing with their significant others behind closed doors? is it ANY of my business??

After the conversation between my friend and myself meandered over this issue of same-sex marriage, and all of the implications... we began to discuss anger, hostility, and all of the other afflictive emotions which arise when confronting such things as injustice, unfairness, and the exercise of oppressive control over us... or the mere attempt at such.

We each shared our personal views, and we offered one another helpful components of our individual spiritual practices (He being a Vedic Priest, and I being a Zen Buddhist Monk... our lives have led (creepily) similar but slightly divergent paths..)

What I would like to offer here now... for anyone who may find it helpful, is the concept that what we do that may cause harm to another being, whether that being is great or small, or whether that harm is grievous or slight.. also causes harm to ourselves, and to every other being who shares this existence with us. (Including those we most love...).

This harm may be something as seemingly passive as looking the other way when someone else is being treated cruelly, inhumanely, or unjustly. By not deciding to take appropriate action when action is dictated by the circumstances, we, by default, are deciding not to take action. In this case, action may be defined as simply as monitoring our own thoughts and feelings, testing them according to our beliefs and our observations, and adjusting whatever must be adjusted to reflect reality when viewed with tolerance, care, compassion, and loving-kindness for our fellow sentient beings.

We are *all* connected.... we all share in the same interbeing, the same 'true nature'. We truly and really are one... we simply cannot escape the impenetrability of our lives and existences with one another and with our environment.. it is a bloody great web of connection, and not a single one of us can see all ends and predict how our actions might impact upon everyone or everything else... but, we should try to do our best to do as little harm as possible, in my opinion.

In this respect, therefore, it is vitally important that we look closely at our responses to such afflictive emotions as fear and anger, and to the impact that our response may have on the lives of others... whether that response is individual, or collective. In either case, we are responsible for our thoughts, and for actions which stem from those thoughts... just a gentle reminder.

So, in support of this concept, I am offering the following somewhat simplified Buddhist teaching in hopes that it may help you with your own daily spiritual practice;

Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda): often translated as "dependent arising," is an important part of Buddhist metaphysics. Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as "dependent origination", "conditioned genesis", "dependent co-arising", "interdependent arising", or "contingency".

The enlightenment (or bodhi, a word that means "to awaken") of the Buddha was simultaneously his liberation from suffering (dukkha) and his insight into the nature of the universe – particularly the nature of the lives of sentient beings (principally humans and animals). What the Buddha awakened to was the truth of dependent origination.

This is the understanding that any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in an incredibly complex web of cause and effect covering time past, time present and time future. This concept of a web is symbolized by Indra's net, a multidimensional spider's web on which lies an infinite amount of dew drops or jewels, and in these are reflected the reflections of all the other drops of dew ad infinitum.

Stated in another way, everything depends on everything else. A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being. Everything in the universe is interconnected through the web of cause and effect such that the whole and the parts are mutually interdependent. The character and condition of entities at any given time are intimately connected with the character and condition of all other entities that superficially may appear to be unconnected or unrelated.

Because all things are thus conditioned and transient (anicca), they have no real independent identity (anatta) and thus do not truly exist, though to ordinary minds this appears to be the case. All phenomena are therefore fundamentally insubstantial and empty (sunya).

Wise human beings, those who "see things as they are" (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana), renounce attachment and clinging, transform the energy of desire into awareness and understanding, and eventually transcend the conditioned realm of form becoming Buddhas or Arhats*.

* Arhat: In the sramanic traditions of ancient India (most notably those of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha) arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant (Pali) signified a spiritual practitioner who had—to use an expression common in the tipitaka—"laid down the burden"—and realized the goal of nirvana, the culmination of the spiritual life (brahmacarya). Such a person, having removed all causes for future becoming, is not reborn after biological death into any samsaric realm. The word "arahan" literally means "worthy one"[1] (an alternative folk etymology is "foe-destroyer" or "vanquisher of enemies"[2]) and constitutes the highest grade of noble person—ariya-puggala—described by the Buddha as recorded in the Pali canon. The word was used (as it is today in the liturgy of Theravada Buddhism) as an epithet of the Buddha himself as well as of his enlightened disciples. -- We don't really use this term in a Zen context... but, I thought it might be relevant to this teaching. Naturally, any error is mine and mine alone, I take full responsibility, etc., and the usual disclaimer applies: Individual mileage may vary, blah, blah, blah.....

With palms joined....

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Getting Down to It.


The past month has presented me with some of the most difficult moments of my year long experiment thus far. As it sometimes seems to happen with such things, life has curiously contrived to present me with some rather daunting difficulties to go along with all of the memories and incidents that my practice has uncovered and stirred up!

Here is a question; What do we do, as humans, when we are confronted with such painful and difficult situations in life?

Clearly, there is no way to avoid such things. Pain and suffering are part of our lot in life. We are of the nature to experience these things from time to time... and, naturally, at some point we are destined to grow ill, to become weak, to suffer... and, eventually, to die. This is not something that can be avoided.

Many people, particularly in western culture, go to some rather shocking lengths to remove all trace of this possibility from our daily lives. We no longer witness the slaughter of livestock that ultimately end up on our dinner plate. Instead, those who eat meat can obtain their dinner neatly packaged in cellophane & Styrofoam with hardly a trace remaining of the pain & suffering caused by the killing and butchering of the creature that now sits placidly on our dinner plate. Every last ounce of responsibility has been neatly swept under the proverbial rug.

We rarely verbalize death when it comes to our loved ones, opting instead for pithy euphemisms such as, "He (or She) passed away....", "Moved on...", "Went to heaven...", "Expired" (!! like a discount offer?), "Met his end..", "Was taken", "Resigned...", "Surrendered..", "Departed..", "Yielded up the ghost...", "Went the way of all flesh..".

Death has become the ultimate taboo... don't think about it... don't talk about it. And yet, it is one of the things that every single one of us holds in common; the inevitability of our death.

It strikes me as a bit, ah... "Ostrichy" to refrain from facing it and calling it what it is. What is wrong with saying that so and so DIED?? Why do we have to stretch it and pull it and put all of the lipstick on this pig that shall remain a pig regardless of what we try to do to disguise it!?!?

What is next? "404 ERROR - Pulse Not Found"??

Look.. no matter how fast we run, we cannot run fast enough to escape death. We carry the seeds of our own death within us.... along with most of the problems, pains, sufferings, and heartaches that we will ever experience. The good news is that we also carry the solutions, joys, happiness, and triumphs... or at least the potential for each.

As I face my days of late, I am confronted with problems... problems are good; By learning to face them squarely, to push our envelope farther and farther until we find viable solutions to the problems that confront us, we improve, we learn, we mature... we become stronger and we push our roots deeper and deeper into the earth. At the same time, we learn to be more flexible... to open the fist of force, arrogance, anger, fear, and all of the other afflictive emotions that often plague us, and to allow ourselves the vast and limitless growing room of the accommodating and loving heart. Only by learning to let go will we ever be able to hold on.

As I sit in meditation, working on my life review, I am uncovering some of the most painful memories that I possess.

These are memories that I have long pushed down into the farthest recesses of my mind... covered over with the detritus of time... shut the door upon and turned away from. It is peculiar to me that I now find myself digging down to uncover and expose all of this stuff and bring it out into the light of my attention and focus.

Somewhat surprisingly, these memories have not dimmed at all in their ability to cut, to sting, and to wound. I now realize, however, that only by actually accepting and feeling these feelings - completely and honestly - do I have any hope of ever exorcising them... or, failing that, ultimately accepting them just as they are, and then setting them aside and moving on to whatever happens to come next.

I don't need these memories, really, but, I cannot un-remember them.

This much I have learned.

The only alternative, really, is to open my arms to them... accept them... accept that they are a part of me... and, with some practice and skill... love them. This is really the only alternative that seems to be within the scope of my abilities. It isn't easy... but nothing that is worth anything ever is.

This process of accepting the facets of ourselves that we would prefer to forget isn't really so different from embracing death, is it? We don't like it... but it wont go away.. so, we live in fear, reacting and allowing the resulting afflictive emotions to guide us... and in the long run creating more pain and suffering for ourselves and for those around us.

Or, we stop, turn, and face this impending death. Recognize it for what it is. Accept that it cannot be avoided. Accept that it may claim us at any moment... for death is the ultimate 'Equal Opportunity Employer' - death has no respect for age, position, wealth... it cannot be bargained with..cannot be intimidated... and cannot be bought off. Death is coming, and we are absolutely and completely powerless to stop it. But, we are not powerless to accept it, and to love that part of our nature that we call death. And once we have learned to do this... we lose our fear of living.

By embracing death, and by thereby embracing life, we strike off our shackles, cut away the strictures, and allow ourselves, at last... to breathe... and to live. Rather than run, we stand. Rather than react, we respond. Rather than causing pain and suffering through needless (and useless) avoidance and aversive behaviors, we bring about healing and acceptance.

I don't like every part of my past. I don't like every part of myself. I don't like everything that has happened to me, and I don't like everything that I have done.

So what? What can I do about that?

If I continue to hide, to run, to avoid... it is like telling a lie. One lie necessitates the telling of another to support it... and soon, they exponentially increase until we find ourselves so tangled up in our own deceits that we are rendered immobile. Immobility = death; and so... by attempting to run from it... we have instead run directly towards it.. and perhaps quicker than would have otherwise occurred. And let me ask you; Is there much in this world that less pathetic than a life that is nothing more than a day to day living death??

What has happened, has happened... what we can do about it is to simply recognize it for what it is... and figure out the very best response available to us given the circumstances; whatever they happen to be. The perfect situation never comes. The perfect time never arrives. At least not in the sense that most people conceive of it. The truth is that the perfect time and circumstance is never NOT present... it is ALWAYS the perfect time.

How we approach the present moment dictates how the present moment will unfold. Our ability to respond to the moment is entirely up to us. If we allow ourselves to be blinded, shackled, and crippled by old baggage, notional thinking, pre-conceived notions, groundless fears, biases, prejudices, hatreds, and aversions; We are already dead.. already the victim of each and every one of our fears... and simply walking in a gray, tasteless, featureless nightmare ... a parody of a life.

I am beginning to learn that I am not actually "anything". I am completely and utterly empty.

STOP. Before you process those last two sentences, I want you to go back, read them again, but this time use the following definitions;

Anything= stagnated into a pre-existing list of qualities, conditions, traits, opinions, and actions.

Empty= devoid of pre-conceived attributes - completely open to all potentialities - accepting, open, attentive.

When I have conceived of myself in the past, I have often created a view of myself that I held somewhat dear and close to my heart. I was "this" kind of person, but not "that". I wore "these" kinds of clothes, but not "those". I am such and such and so and so, and this what I am. It was like painting a picture of myself; in essence, living life one-step removed, rather than living it firsthand. I have come to realize that all of these notions are simply my own creations... they are mental formations, and nothing more. In truth, I am none of that. I am not particularly honorable nor dishonorable, truthful nor deceitful, nice nor nasty, kind nor unkind... not in the sense that it is a concrete, unchanging reality.

What I am is what I choose with each unfolding moment... and with how I respond and act according to those choices. Nothing more. Nothing less. I don't have some narrow path that I must follow because I am 'such and such' or a particular 'kind' or 'class' of person. I am what I am when I act in a certain fashion. Period.

When I embrace a loved one... fully and completely... giving every last ounce of my being into that embrace... God is present in that 'God function' of loving and giving. This is what I have learned.

I feared this life-review, I feared standing up to my own judgment... my own opinions.. my own distastes. I did not want to hold up past thoughts, past actions, past circumstances to the harsh light of my own hindsight. But, you know what? We have to make both good and bad choices in life... and we have to live with the consequences of each.

A Rabbi friend of mine once told me that Jewish people are taught to give thanks for blessings before they have received them, because it is quite likely that they will not be able to recognize them when they arrive, as they often come cloaked in the guise of a curse!! Imagine that!! There is wisdom in that, I think... and it is pertinent to my life review. Why? Well, it is quite easy for me to sit and look back over my life, my choices, my mistakes, and even the willful harmful actions that I have perpetuated with a clear eye and pronounce them as 'wrong', and thereby condemning myself to being 'bad' or at least wanting in some way... However, each action that I have ever chosen was chosen in a particular frame of mind, at a particular time, and in a particular set of circumstances.... often, the decision point at which some incident or action could have been avoided was missed simply because I had not yet developed the coping skills or the ability to recognize it by having had the painful or difficult experience. And that is the key. We learn through our own mistakes. We learn (hopefully) through the mistakes of others.

Mistakes are gifts, in a way. They help us to fine-tune ourselves... they teach us... they help us to become better people.

I am slowly developing the ability to let go of these burdens. And I am beginning to teach myself to open both my eyes, and my heart.

Problems will come... difficulties will come... that isn't what is important.

What I choose to do when I am confronted with these situations is, however... and as I allow my heart to open, and as I learn to let go and give myself entirely into whatever situation arises, I am finding that I am better equipped to keep my legs under me, my feet upon the ground, my spirit in balance, and I am therefore able to step forward with confidence into whatever my life has in store for me.

My life review is not yet over... but it has already taught me a great deal about what I am, and what I am not.... and what I have learned is that I am not anything that I thought I was. I simply am... and I continue to be... I am like a work of art; I can never be finished really...

... only abandoned.

That isn't a part of my plan.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life Review - The First Ten Years

The Life Review Practice has been more difficult in some ways, and more easy in other ways than I had expected. Expectations are rarely in synch with reality, I think....

I have slowly been working through the first years of my life... By Friday, the 17th, I will have reached age 10.

Thus far, therefore... I have mostly been working with years that I have no independent recollection of whatsoever, or years in which I have been essentially innocent in all of my thoughts and actions...

Soon, however, I will be entering into some of the more difficult years; I think that this is probably true for most of us... and I will be doing my best to squarely face the truth of my life, my thoughts, my experiences, my actions... and my life.

I think that perhaps it is our secrets, more so than nearly any other facet of our inner lives, that separates us from those around us and makes us feel lonely and isolated.

Rooting these secrets out, gently opening them and holding them under the light of truth and reason, then, is my primary goal.

It doesn't really matter who we are.. we all harbor these secrets... naturally, one person's secrets will differ greatly from another's, but, secrets in and of themselves serve to have much the same effect on our heart.

It is curious to me to see how I alternately see myself in glowing terms, or, alternately, in gritty, stark terms. Neither of them is an accurate depiction.. both being a construct of sorts... holding a small piece of the truth... but not the whole truth. This is what we do! We take puzzle pieces and snapshots, and with that small facet of the overall reality, we take some wild leap to a conclusion that we have produced, and hold onto it with frantic obstinacy!

It is my hope that I will be able to smooth out the wrinkles, open my eyes, my mind, and, ultimately; my heart... and accept myself completely... just as I am.

It seems that we are harsh to others in our judgments and in our assessments... it is very easy to point out and emphasize the faults and shortcomings of others. Nobody is capable of living up to the expectations and hopes of any other person. We have, as a society... at least here in the U.S., become intolerant of one another, callous, unfeeling, and dismissive of one another. When I watch people, I notice a dismaying penchant for listening to nearly four words of any sentence or comment, and immediately either filling in the rest with what we expect to hear, or, alternately; tuning out whatever wont fit into our pre-formed expectation. As a people, we have lost the art of 'caring' for one another. It isn't considered unacceptable any longer to hurt someone else's feelings, or to be in some way negligent or rude to other people.

Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to be much, much harsher when judging ourselves even than we are to others. As it turns out, we have become disenchanted with our own inability to meet the expectations and hopes that we have formed for ourselves.

We live in a culture where everything seems possible, everything can be attained 'now', and the common and mundane facets of our lives are no longer noticed.. never mind appreciated. Just being a good person counts for nothing! We set our sights high, and then, when we are unable to attain our own lofty goals, we beat on ourselves, berate ourselves and, ultimately, begin to lose the sense of inherent sacredness or worth that we all possess. This is our inheritance, and our right... yet... we drop it to the ground, and we spit upon it and tread it underfoot... to leave it lying, soiled... in the mud and muck and other detritus of broken lives and lost dreams.

This is doing terrible violence to ourselves... and to everyone around us. It is a toxin that we spread to one another... and we are dying.

It seems to me that the only worth that a person has in this world is the material wealth that others may be capable of prising or coaxing away from him by some means. Why is it so that a person is not valuable simply because they are alive?

I am sure that many will judge my words as overly harsh... I don't think they are; One simply has to look at recent events to see precisely what I see; New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, the workplace... nearly any public place. We no longer have time for one another... and we no longer have time for ourselves. The most important thing is the acquisition of more and more wealth... and, sadly, in some cases this drive is forced upon us by rising costs and stagnated, diminished, or lost wages. We frantically run over one another in our need to keep ourselves and our families housed, fed and clothed.

So.. what can I do about this, and what has it got to do with the Life Review Process or Dying Practice?

Quite a bit, actually...

Firstly, Dying Practice is serving, at least for me, to underscore the very real inevitability of my own impending death. It is coming... much more quickly than I would like to admit... and there is not a single thing that I can do to avoid it. And, most importantly, when that moment (that will last what? A minute? A fraction of a second? A half hour at most?!) comes and I *do* die... everything that is so bloody important... the money, the working, the schedules, the expectations, the hopes, the dreams, everything... ALL of it... will be rendered instantly and totally meaningless.

I will be still... but the world will continue to move onward... and my passing will not make a bit of difference to anything... save for the few folks who happen to love me.

According to my countdown, I have perhaps 8 months and just over 3 weeks left to live... according the THE countdown, I may have more time... or less... but, it is passing just as quickly, isn't it? And the time WILL come. And I WILL die. And all of this stuff will be unimportant.

I have this image of myself as being 'this' kind of person... but not 'that' kind of person. I am a person who ".....", but not a person who ".......". But, what I am learning through this life review practice (although I am working on the early years of my life... it is true that other times and situations creep in on me... and, when they do, I let them unfold, and then gently return to my focus time period...) is that I am not so easily pigeon-holed or classified. As it turns out, when I look at myself with brutal honesty, I am much, much more than I generally suppose myself to be... and, simultaneously (and paradoxically, I should add..), I am also much, much less.

I find that I have a tendency to view myself as being whatever happens to be the most appropriate parts and components of myself/my personality that serves to fit the moment and the view that I have already decided to hold. So, I manage to quickly rummage through my memories and my psyche, selecting the bits and bobs of my personality that best fit whatever point I wish to make (either to myself.. or to others... it doesn't matter), and I quickly kludge these disparate parts together to form some composite image of myself that suits me in that moment.... so.. I have become this sad little shadow box, or collage of a person....

What I am trying to do is to scrub away all of the crap, falsehood, and prejudice that has built up over the years to occlude my own ability to view myself, like greasy filmy crud on a window... so that I might catch at least one totally honest and accurate glimpse of what, and who, I truly am...

My current intellectual view is that I am more of a stream of thoughts, choices and actions... and less of a static, ossified being. Every breath brings a choice... every moment is new... NOW is new... and I am not quite the same me that I was a moment ago... much like a candle that burns all night long; it isn't the same flame all night, because it burns different fuel, and uses different oxygen ... however, it isn't the same candle flame either... it is the same/different candle flame... an illusion of continuity... like a motion picture... a series of snapshots that appear to be a continuous, evolving reality....

Most of what I view myself to be is most likely false and inauthentic to some degree.. though some of it is not. I have surprised myself a few times by really and truly looking inward through this practice. Sometimes it is clear that there was some moment when I basically decided that I was LIKE THIS... and I immediately and ever afterward went about conforming myself to that view... sort of like trying to blow up a balloon inside of a milk carton... no room to grow.

Maybe, if I am able to strip off the masks... (yes maskS... because there are multitudes of them, one over the other.... placed there each one, over the years, by my own unskillful apprehension of the truth, and my inability to allow myself to be what and who I am... or to become that person in favor of meeting some expectation that was held by others, or by myself), I may be able to pick up whatever authentic scraps of myself that are left and allow them to flourish. To some extent, this process has been occurring naturally, both as a part of this specific Dying Practice, and also as a part of my greater monastic practice. As with many such things that we choose to undertake in life, it seems to me from where I now stand that I will never progress far enough for any of it to make much of a difference in a real, concrete sense... but, this may be an unskillful view in and of itself; so I will simply continue with my practice... viewing it as journey, and not as a destination... and understanding that, most likely, there *is no* final, ultimate destination... I am always arriving in some sense of the word.

One hope that I still harbor is that this process will, in some mysterious and unforeseen manner, lead me to find some meaningful vocation or employment in which I can (at long last) be content and happy, perhaps even be passionate about, which simultaneously affords me the opportunity to meet my financial responsibilities, and perhaps even manage to put something away for the future. Currently, it seems that I simply move from one low-paying, fruitless, droning job to another.... like a lurching, shambling, animated yet lifeless zombie from a cut-rate "I got a camcorder and a few free hours on Saturday.. let's make a movie!!" movie, enduring rather than enjoying what turns out to be a bloody great chunk of time that is used up doing somebody else's ultimately meaningless dirty work for some pittance that I cannot manage to survive on... time that I cannot retrieve, ever... time that I am forced to be away from those aspects of my life that *are* important... time that is, in a sense, completely wasted....

Time that is becoming increasingly precious to me given the focus of my practice.

So... this is my journal entry for these past few weeks... it has been relatively uneventful up to now, but since I am fast approaching the period in my life review where I am working with the years where I begin to be somewhat more antonymous; having my own thoughts, making my own choices, and facing the consequences... the practice will most likely deepen and produce a bit more in the way of interesting material for my journal entries.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Looking back.. looking forward

Up until this point, my Dying Practice has consisted mainly of Soft-Belly Practice, and Observing and Noticing Practice. To briefly recap what these practices involved:

Soft-Belly Practice is a type of "Opening Practice" whereby we attempt to make room in the body and mind for our 'whole life'. The point of the physical "Soft-Belly" is to create a physical trigger to assist us in letting go. This softening melts the 'armor' that we have created over the course of our lifetime up to this point through whatever afflictive emotions or unskillful habits we may have developed.

Observing and Noting (Or Noticing) Practice is a form of "Labeling Practice" - Labeling or Noticing is simply a method of developing self-awareness.. what we in the Zen Community refer to as 'Mindfulness'. We are attempting to train ourselves to notice various mental and/or physical states and body patterns of mental states (the body patterns help to cue us in regarding what is transpiring within the confines of our mind.. which may be much more difficult to detect, and the shifts that occur between them, such as Open (minded) to Closed/Closed to Open, Liking/Disliking, Desiring/Averting.

The point of both of these practices is to assist us in gaining the skills and habits to further our overall 'Dying Practice' goals:

Some of these (and these may be extremely personal, and, thus, different to some degree for each practitioner). My goals are as follows:

  • Practice Dying (as opposed to 'Death' - Dying is a process... Death is a state... and will take care of itself)
  • Be fully alive
  • Investigate the dread of, and resistance to, life & death
  • To comlete my 'birth' before it is over! (Birth being a constant process of development and growth into a spiritually mature being.
  • To investigate that part of myself that refuses to take birth fully, and which hops about as though it still had one foot in the womb
  • To enter the healing process
  • To place both of my feet upon the ground at last
  • To live with mercy and awareness in the midst of the consequences or love... or the lack thereof
  • To explore this ground; this "ground of being", out of which this impermanent body and ever-changing mind originate
  • To cut through a lifetime of confusion and forgetfulness
  • To undertake a life review with gratitude and forgiveness
  • To explore that which holds to its suffering, and to cultivate a heart that cannot be distracted - even by death

The process of this practice is:

  • Open to pain, discomfort, illness, fear. Observe grief, self-pity, helplessness and other afflictive emotions that are attracted by discomfort and pain.
  • Learn to respond to discomfort rather than simply (and mindlessly) react to it.
  • Rather than meeting pain with fear - meet it with love - develop compassion. Do not try to escape from the pain. Open to the sensations at the very point of their origin - soften in to awareness that embraces rather than disclaims.
  • Break the implanting!
  • Experience the personal in its Universal aspect.
  • Learn and internalize the fact that survival is overrated. Learn to remember only one life-one death (this one!)
  • Make a commitment to live through; awareness, being profoundly alive, taking responsibility for being alive, recognizing that it is the the ability to respond instead of of the compulsion to react, living life 'first hand' - and breaking the dreamlike quality of a half-attended life.

So: The One-Year life exploration begins by remembering that we are life itself unfolding as thought, as feeling, and as evolution.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Up until this point, my Dying Practice has consisted mainly of Soft-Belly Practice, and Observing and Noticing Practice.

Tomorrow begins the Life Review Practice process.

This practice essentially will involve a process of mentally reviewing my life as it has transpired thus far and inviting myself to resolve those issues which may be in need of resolution, chiefly by forgiving those individuals (including myself... in most cases, myself) who have caused me pain and suffering in the past and putting the resentment aside in order to create a 'clean slate' - a platform from which I may eventually embark upon the next phase of my life without the emotional burden of guilt, resentment, hatred, etc.

My plan for going through this process is to begin as early in my life as I am capable of remembering, and reviewing approximately five years per each (approximately) three-week period. During the 'off-time' - time not actually spent in meditation, I will use photos, letters, or any other memorabilia to help to assist my recall of the time period that I am reviewing.

This mental process will be a visualization of encountering the situation and the individual who is involved, and engaging in dialog with that person... even if it is a past version of myself (i.e., 10 year old Bunan, or 25 year old Bunan.. etc.). I will start with those persons and circumstances that caused the least amount of pain to me... essentially working from easy to more difficult. I imagine that some circumstances or persons may take multiple encounters, and that during the process my mind may 'jump' forward or backwards through time as certain situations move to the forefront of my awareness. I do not plan to try to discourage this from occurring, but will allow a certain amount of free-association to occur, gently pulling my focus back to the time period that I am currently working on when it seems most appropriate to do so.

This process also involves physically purging unnecessary clutter, belongings and habits (a good match since I am doing precisely the same thing emotionally and mentally!).

The first step will be to create a personal inventory - listing persons, items, or circumstances of interest, or which I feel requires my attention. Naturally, this list may grow or shrink depending upon my memory, or how the process flows. The persons of interest will be persons who I have placed burdens upon, or who I have hurt in some way, and persons who have injured or wronged me (or who I have perceived to have done so). The circumstances would be any type of unfinished business at all.

The Life-Review then, is basically a form of Forgiveness practice. In many cases, the issues cannot be resolved due to loss of contact, untenable differences, or what have you... in this process, the main concern is with what is going on internally - i.e., my feelings, and my reactions/responses to those people, or to those circumstances.

Not all of the Life Review will involve negative situations... those memories that bring happiness and contentment will also be addressed, as will those persons who gave me love and joy.

I will oscillate between three basic types of practice. Forgiveness, where I deliberately introduce a person or situation and deal with it or allow it to unfold. Gratitude, where I recognize those circumstances or situations, or those persons (even circumstances, situations or persons that caused me suffering, pain or difficulty) which helped me to mature, grow, and learn... and to formally express my gratitude for having had the experience. Lastly, I will practice what is termed 'Open-Gate Practice', where I will flow through time in chronological order... allowing memories and thoughts to come in whatever order they present themselves... basically letting the process unfold in its own way. I will take a particular period and first work with 'Forgiveness' practice for a week... and then revisit it with'Gratitude Practice' and finally once again with 'Open-Gate' practice for the final week... and then I will move on to the next five year period. (The math will not work out exactly for the 'counters' out there... this is a mutable and more or less free-flowing practice. I have given it a light semblance of a structure.. but this is simply a guide... which is meant to assist me in ensuring that I cover the entire course of my life, and hopefully to help me to achieve my overall goals).

This process will cycle through the three types of practice, moving through the years until the week of 30 November 2008 when I will begin to gather and organize all of my personal documents, photos, etc. - both to bring a chaotic mess under some control, and also as a gift of kindness and compassion to whoever the task of setting my affairs in order happens to fall to after my inevitable death. It is my hope to make this task as simple and as painless as possible for whoever must see to it.

At a later date, I will be introducing additional forms of practice, as well as some other projects and exercises. Essentially, we have ended the first phase of the practice, which, for me, involved a certain degree of difficulty... a 'Dark Night' of sorts... but, I can feel an upswing beginning, and am looking forward to beginning this next portion of the practice.

Friday, August 29, 2008

La Noche Oscura Del Alma

Over the past twenty days or so, I have turned my attention inwards... as I am wont to do from time to time (I am a monk, after all... )

My days have been long, and I taken some perverse joy from the physical exhaustion, even while I was suffering as a result... The economy has done nothing to help out, financially, and there is nothing other to do than to work as hard and as long as I am capable of doing. This has become more or less a matter of survival. The choice is 'Just do it'.. or possibly end up with no place to live, and nothing to eat. I take joy from the simple truth of my being physically strong, mentally tough, and spiritually resilient, and that I have the opportunity to work the extra hours in order to get through the rough patches. This is a blessing that many others do not enjoy.. so, I am not complaining at all. I am fortunate. The situation is difficult, but by no means insurmountable. Of late, the financial situation has taken a turn for the better, so hopefully the 'work binge' will slack off a bit.. or, more accurately, the dire need for the work binge will slack off. In any case, this is what life is bringing, and it is my story... so I am diving into it, with both feet, and immersing myself in life, just as it is.

I am training in two monastic offices simultaneously, and holding two others... this involves a great deal of memorization, as well as the learning of a huge body of very exacting liturgy and ritual. I love what I am learning, but it takes a huge effort to learn properly.

Somewhere in the midst of all this the truth of my mortality hit home with the force of a hurricane.

Although the life review, which is a part of this practice, doesn't start until 15 September, I am finding that it is nearly impossible for me to avoid conducting informal impromtu 'mini life reviews' as I go through my daily routine, and also, at times, I must admit that it creeps into my practice.

I have been 'remembering' many of the failures, bad decisions, false starts, and out and out crappy things that I have done... as well as the disappointments, heartbreaks, and bleak times.

Many of these topics and incidents had been conveniently pushed from the forefront of my mind, and now I find them all rushing back; which tells me that they have never been properly confronted or dealt with effectively - simply swept under the rug. (Any rug will, apparently, do just fine it would seem). At first I was somewhat dismayed by all this crap that came rushing in to wash over me and leave me gasping and flailing and trying to keep my head above water...

... Now I think I am grateful for a chance to simply face this stuff directly, and accept it for what it is. I am beginning to realize that we need both day and night. Both good and bad... so, I suppose I must find my center, and try to achieve some degree of balance.

While I have more or less let my mind flow with the thoughts that have been coming... observing, noting and practicing soft belly as the need arose... I have not done much more than to simply let the thoughts arise and move on...

When Life Review practice begins, I will start to work with this stuff. I am not particularly looking forward to this... but it is going to be a long and probably difficult process... and the only way past it is through it. I don't want to turn my face away from the unpleasant parts any longer... I think that by doing this, we injure ourselves in some fashion.

So.. I will be facing whatever comes... in practice, or in my life, directly and head on. Pretty much from here on out. This is more or less what I do. But, in all honesty, this is not what I have always done... so there is a great deal of work to be done.

Intellectually, I am aware that this work will involve opening my heart to whatever comes during the life review, and of forgiving both the others who I perceive to have done me wrong, and, most importantly - forgiving myself for the stupidities, failures, and all of the other things that didn't work out as planned, or just plain blew up in my face over the years. This is the part that I fear will be the most difficult. Nevertheless.. I am going to have to find a way to do it, or I will be stuck swimming in circles over these issues that now long in the past... so I suppose it is up to me to decide what it is that I am going to do.

Life Review will not be all bad, of course... actually, most of it will be pleasant and enjoyable... but, thats sort of like saying "You can play and enjoy yourself all day long... for hours and hours... I will only be sticking a needle in you for a few seconds each day!!" -- you see?

But, this is the practice.. and it is already doing a great deal of good for me.

One of the offices that I am being trained to hold is called 'JikiJutsu -- here is a Wikipedia entry:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A jikijitsu (直日) is the individual in charge of directing monks to the zendo to sit zazen in a Japanese Zen Monastery. Their position is that of head monk, and they are generally regarded as strict disciplinarians. Their position is considered most desirable to hold in the meditation hall. The jikijitsu also ensures that the monks get to sleep and wake up on time according to a strict protocol. During zazen, the jikijitsu will walk around the zendo wielding a kaisaku (or, Zen stick), which is used to strike a student's back when they have lost focus. These strikes are generally not violent, and will often relieve muscle cramps for the individual being struck. In the Rinzai school, the jikijitsu may strike a student without a student's request if they feel the student has gone astray. In the Soto school, a student will ask for a blow by placing both palms together as the jikijitsu walks in front of them.

The other office is called 'Eno'. The Eno in a Zen Monastery, Temple, or Zendo is the 'Chant Master'. The Eno chants the dedications of merit before each chant and also leads the chanting service. Often, when some special chanting ceremony or ritual is required, it is the Eno who is responsible for doing this.

The way that we are taught our duties and responsibilities is through a one to one relationship with the teacher. Day by day we are taught a little bit more, and we are constantly corrected on what we have already been taught. By this method, we eventually learn what we must know, or at least enough to do a passable job.

As for perfection? Well.. I am still trying to figure out precisely what that is...

These positions take literally years to learn properly. Every action is deliberate, and every movement must be polished and executed with poise and with grace. This is Zen.. and, this is life. We take it a second, a minute, a day at a time... In Zen, it is the journey that is the focus; and not the destination. In this journey, we are always arriving, every minute... and we are always dying.. with every breath.

In my forays into the 'pre-life review life review' I have been mostly satisfied with my life.. thrilled actually with how things are currently... somewhat regretful of how I chose to do things in the past... but extremely happy with how things have turned out. Just about the only exception to this is in the realm of my career... So, much of my attention is likely going to be cast in this direction. I have mentioned this issue already, and I have been letting it slowly turn and percolate in my mind.

I am taking heart from my determination to face things directly, and I have been doing this for some years now... and it has worked wonders.

Although living a perfect life may be out of reach for most people, I think that living a life of authenticity is not so far out of our reach, if we are willing to simply face things and to see them as they are.

While I think my lifestyle lends itself to authenticity, I suspect that there is a great deal of work to be done. This is probably the most important issue that I am facing.

As T.S. Eliot said, "
  • There is one who remembers the way to your door:
    Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
    You shall not deny the Stranger.
  • They constantly try to escape
    From the darkness outside and within
    By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
    But the man that is shall shadow
    The man that pretends to be.

Authenticity. That is all there really is.... because everything else?? ... is Bullshit!!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

One Month

A month has already passed since I have begun this practice.

The corollary being that I now have eleven months (and change..) left to live..

One month ago, the thought of having only one year left to live was.. well... frightening.. at least on the surface.

Intellectually, I feel as though I should be appalled that a month has slipped through my fingers, already... except;

it hasn't.

With very few exceptions, I have squarely faced every moment of this past month. I haven't retreated from unpleasantness by trying to wish it away, or by succumbing to pointless anger, or by simply retreating into my head and "getting through" the tough parts by numbing my brain, or turning my thoughts entirely inward... nor, for that matter, have I shrunk away from introspection... I have simply done my best to keep my focus on that point between.

We look inward to explore our past... Outward to hope and plan for our future... but where to we actually exist?? Well, on that tiny point in between the past and the future... the present moment.

Soft-Belly practice has helped me to begin opening my heart... even to the unpleasant & unavoidable occurrences that come along with frightening regularity.... Observing and Noting practice has helped me to learn how my body, and how my mind react to these moments and incidents... and I am beginning to learn how to replace that reaction with a more appropriate response.

There is a paradox in this; while I am living more and more mindfully, and finding that I am becoming more and more successful at staying in the present moment... and living much more fully in so doing! ... I am also noticing a certain measure of detachment to all of these goings on.

It isn't that I care any less... I actually care much more... it just seems that life doesn't strike me as being so personal... where the good things are mine... and the bad things are aimed at me. It occurs to me that the universe is impersonal... it does not conspire... it doesn't hold grudges... and it doesn't help or save either....

If you are standing on the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits... you will die. If you are standing a few feet away from the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits... you may be injured. And if you are nowhere near the spot where the rocks will fall when the earthquake hits.. you may emerge unscathed, or you may not. Something else might happen. Its as simple as that. That sounds as though we have only a one in three chance of making it safely through.. and perhaps that is true... but, here we all are, despite the odds.

So... time passes... day and night cycle by... turn into weeks.. months... and years... we look back and wonder where the time went, and talk about how much better it was way back then... in the good old days! (The implication being that today isn't quite as good).

Well.. maybe that is so... maybe we live through times where the world is spinning itself apart all around us... but, whether or not we can change that... we are still living in it...

Today... right now... will, at some point in the future... be looked back upon and remembered by someone as "The Good Old Days".

In order to remember those great times... there had to have been great times to remember... so, to my mind, why wait years before we enjoy them??

I have less than eleven months to live... my good old days are right now!!

... and do you know what the freaky weird part of it is??

So are yours!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

All of it


I have been following this practice for just short of one month. I had expected that there would be some insights, perhaps a shift in perception or priority, or something.

One very huge change in my way of viewing things, however, I did not at all expect;

I am finding that when days come where I am not feeling all that well, when I am tired, or when I am in a great deal of pain (such as this morning.. I did quite a bit of work yesterday which involved many hours of standing, bending, and turning, lifting heavy loads, and often carrying them on slippery floors - which makes one stand and walk oddly; out of fear of falling, I suppose...) - I am hurting in places where I hadn't known I had places! (My hair hurts ... and I don't have any hair!)

I am finding that, rather than being miserable, or annoyed, or any of the emotions or mental states that have habitually accompanied such pain or disability, I am actually happy, appreciative (yes.. that's what I said!) and upbeat, pain not withstanding.

Yes, I am hurting. Yes, it prevents me from being able to move or even be the way I normally do.. at least physically. But, I don't care. It is simply one more thing to get used to... they stream at us unendingly... so, why kick and scream about it?? Bring it on!

The pain isn't any less than I remember, and I still find it somewhat embarrassing to be hobbling about, but, with only 11 months and just over 5 days of life left; I am simply happy to be able to feel even this. At any rate, it certainly beats getting stabbed in the eye with a sharpened stick! And.. I don't intend on allowing some discomfort to steal away the the precious time that I have left to me.. however long it is. I can choose to get bogged down by some issue that is less than pleasant, or I can accept it with an open heart, appreciate that my physical body is functioning properly, and efficiently protecting itself from more damage while it repairs and mends all of the wee bits that I strained, stretched, spindled, and mutilated, and simply get on with it!

In the Irish language, current protocol insists that when we are speaking in English, and describing the language, we should call it 'Irish' as opposed to 'Gaelic'. When speaking Gaelic (Hey!) however, we call the language Gaelic, in Gaelic.. so there! Don't ask... its just the way it is!

Scottish Gaelic is Ghaidhlig in Gaelic, and Irish Gaelic is Gaeilge in Gaelic, but, when speaking of (Irish) Gaelic in English.. its 'Irish' and not 'Gaelic'.. or you get one of those looks! You may, however, refer to Scottish Gaelic as Gaelic, and although you may still get a look, it will be a look that has nothing to do with what term you are using to refer to Gaelic, but more of a look that is wondering why you would refer to it at all... or something.

Anyway, in Irish we have a proverb; "Marbh le té agus marbh gan é" (we don't use the letters the same way as they are used in English - this is pronounced ((roughly)) as Maruv ((or Maduv, since you sort of roll the R)) luh tay ah-guss maduv gahn ay) - 'Marbh' means 'dead'. 'Le' means 'with'. Té is Tea. 'Agus' means 'and'. Gan is 'gone' and 'é' is 'it'.

So the overall meaning would be, literally "Dead with your tea, and dead without it." - the implication being, for those whose eyes have begun to glaze over, that one should, when faced with an unavoidable and miserable set of circumstances, take enjoyment out of whatever becomes available to you.. regardless of how seemingly insignificant this enjoyment may appear to be. Each situation will present different possibilities... some are better than others... some are much, much worse... but there is always something. The trick is to find it, and to make the very best of it. Truthfully, it may be all you have.. so... why waste it??

When I was a young warrior attending Paratrooper training or 'Jump School' we were, on one particular day, receiving instruction on possible malfunctions or mishaps.

In this particular part of the class, we were learning how to deploy our reserve parachute if the main chute failed to properly deploy, and if we were unable, for some reason, to cut it away... due to altitude (which determines how much time you have to fart around with things... sort of like life, right?! The closer you are to hitting the ground.. the less time you have to fool around with unimportant details! Ha!)

Anyhoo.. we were taught that this particular situation would likely result in a 'spin'.. this means that as we plummeted towards earth, the raggedy-assed and useless malfunctioning parachute that was trailing our fall in a streamer of death would cause us to spiral towards earth, rather than simply falling to earth in an orderly and military fashion!

If we were to simply pop the reserve chute this is what would likely happen; as we spiraled towards the earth, the reserve chute would begin to deploy, and our spiraling motion would cause the reserve parachute to wind around the main parachute, getting it hopelessly entangled and effectively putting an end to any minute hope we may have harbored at actually living through this situation.

If the main chute winds and becomes entangled with the main chute - you are a bomb.

That's all! Thank you for playing... Good EVEning!! It's sort of like winning second prize in a Mexican Cliff Diving competition - you get a plaque that reads '2nd Place - "Stuff on a Rock"' Very nice.

So.. in order to avoid that admittedly yummy sounding outcome, we were taught to hold the parachute tightly to our body (the reserve parachute is located just over your solar plexus.. just so this makes sense) ease the ripcord out, and drop it...(you don't need that any more.. it just gets in the way, and its one more thing to land on if you screw this up!), gather the parachute into both hands, and throw it down and towards whatever direction you happen to be spinning.

The Blackhat (Airborne Instructors are called Blackhats.. because they wear hats... that are, well, black... so, well... you know... I'm just sayin'!) who was teaching the class described this action as being similar to passing a basketball - you sort of bounce the ball towards the other player.

Some bright-light amongst us Airborne student asked "What do you do if it doesn't work?", and the Blackhat sagely replied, "What the hell do you think you might do, cool breeze?!?! You reel that reserve chute back in and you try it again! -- UNTIL YOU GET IT RIGHT!!"

He then put his fists on his hips, surveyed the motley crowd of soldiers gaping at him and asked "...and how long do you think you might have to GET IT RIGHT??"

After a few seconds of 'deer-in-the-headlight' eyeballs and fly-catching gaping mouths, you could see the wheels begin to spin as each soldier present began to try to extrapolate a suitable time-frame from dividing the likely altitude by the terminal velocity of a falling human body (A free falling object achieves its terminal velocity when the downward force of gravity (Fg) equals the upward force of drag (Fd). This causes the net force on the object to be zero, resulting in an acceleration of zero.

Mathematically an object asymptotically approaches and can never reach its terminal velocity. However, in something that will likely only last for a very short period of time, relatively speaking, the Army allows us to approximate a correct answer in this instance, so we are taught that terminal velocity for our purposes is approximately 120 MPH which can be increased to approximately 200 MPH if the falling individual pulls his or her limbs in close to their body... in case you were wondering) in order to come up with some answer that sounded plausible... (it would be measured in seconds, by the way...) after a few moments of mental gymnastics on the part of the student body, the answers began to trickle in; "Um.. a minute?" "NO, JACKASS!! NICE TRY! GET DOWN!!

('Get Down!' is Army parlance for 'Do pushups!' -- this act of doing pushups serves as penance, punctuation (i.e. a physical exclamation point to be appended to some concept, issue, or statement that the person in charge is trying to convey..) or, strangely, a way of enhancing esprit de corps. Go figure! But, it works.. This particular set of pushups translated as, 'Wrong Answer! Stop that!') - wrong answers continued to roll in.. "Ten seconds?" ""NO! GET DOWN!", "2.354 seconds?" "HOLY SHIT!! WHO ARE YOU?! ALFRED EINFELD?! NO!! GET DOWN!!"

(I, rather diplomatically, I thought.. forewent the correction which begged to be administered in that one, by the way...) followed by punitive pushups, until the Blackhat, in exasperation at the density of our skulls, leaned his face closer to us (obstensibly to get his huge, loud mouth a few inches closer to our ears, I guess..) and bellowed, at the top of his lungs, "YOU HAVE THE REST OF YOUR MISERABLE, WORTHLESS LIVES TO GET IT RIGHT!! SO KEEP TRYING UNTIL YOU DO GET IT RIGHT.. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!?!?!"

Point taken. This happened to be one of those moments in my life when somebody made a point with a specific situation in mind.. and the advice turned out to be a gem of wisdom that applied to everything although they may not have intended it that way. As an aside, I happened to run into that particular Blackhat just a few months ago, and was able to tell him how that advice had made such an impression on me, and to thank him for teaching me well, and for doing his job in such an exemplary fashion. In turn, he introduced me to his entire family, and I got a bone-crushing, gut squelching hug that one can only receive from a fellow soldier, or a fellow boxer... you soldiers and fighters out there will recognize this as a truth.

Regarding my present practice, and some of the realizations that are stemming from it - Well, they are fairly simple, really; The time is passing very quickly; more quickly than I would have expected. The time that I have left to live is literally flying by at an unprecedented speed... and there is nothing whatsoever that I can do to slow it down, or to stop it.

I have the time that I have... and that is all. Apparently, some part of my brain that is not readily accessible to me has shifted in some fashion, with the result that I am feeling appreciative of even the moments that in the past I most likely would not have found so very deserving of my appreciation.

What is even more surprising to me, is that I have never made this jump in perspective in the past. Oh... I have briefly made a token nod to it when I was in a "sour grapes" frame of mind, and powerless to change it... but underneath the facade of bravado and partial acceptance, I was... well, dissatisfied. It seems to me that fundamentally, there is no difference in my life during this practice than there was prior to it. The end of my life was rushing to intercept my life with blinding speed from the moment I drew my first breath.

I reckon I was simply blind to it until now.

Another strange thing is that I would have thought that keeping the fact of my not so distant death (well.. no matter how you look at it.. it can only be what... 50 years, tops?) in the forefront of my mind would have been oppressive and saddening.. perhaps even causing anger, or at least a sense of helpless futility. But this is not what I am experiencing. On the contrary, I find it to be liberating. My life from moment to moment is lighter and I seem much better equipped to take the bumps and knocks in stride. The crappy bits that plague most of our days simply don't seem to me to be all that big of a deal really.

There are no bad days... and there are no good days; there are only days. And, frankly, when I open my eyes in the morning to find that I woke under my own steam, and that I can get up unaided - no tubes, no wires, no medications.. just me. No matter whether I am sleepy, or that I have to go somewhere and do something that I might not prefer to do... or that I have financial worries, or any other types of concerns. I woke up. You have to be alive to wake up.... its a good day to start with; So why bring a bad day to you?

Every thing that passes my attention and my focus is my life. Every single minute detail. What I decide to get hung up on is within my power to decide. What I am learning is that when I would turn my attention to some physical pain that is hindering me, I allow it to encompass my entire world with the result that I miss the tens of thousands of other things that are pleasant, and welcome, and indescribably beautiful. Whatever misery I happen to be facing is only a very small part of the whole - but, it is a part... and I will take it. Whatever it is. I have learned to accept my life in whatever form it takes as it unfolds.

This is well, because it is my life... all of it!

This practice has bestowed some very special, very valuable, and quite unlooked-for gifts upon me. I am very grateful for this. Life is short, and nothing is guaranteed. I cannot afford to squander a single second. Not ever again.

My life, you see, is just as it is.. and that is precisely what it should be... Other people's lives may be different... but mine is following the path that it follows... I can direct it to some degree, but wherever it goes, and whatever form it takes, it happens to be the only life that I have.

Marbh le té, agus marbh gan é! - HA!