Saturday, July 19, 2008

Artificial Flowers

I am more or less fully into this practice at this point... or, more accurately; fully into this stage of the practice. Until 15 September, the practice will remain more or less as it is right now - comprised of "Soft-Belly" practice and "Noting & Observing Practice". This isn't to say that the practice will stagnate, or that there can be no 'forward motion' or progress; quite the opposite. The task now is to deepen this practice, and to bring it into everyday life, rather than only holding it when 'on the cushion'.

In Zen, we include simple physical tasks and activities as part of each day's practice in order to be afforded the chance to 'carry' the mental state achieved during Zazen into daily life. We walk, we drink tea, we eat meals, and we do simple work tasks - all while attempting to maintain our mindfulness and mental clarity. Why is this so?? Well... what use is Zazen if it can only be done while sitting on a cushion?? This would be a stagnant practice, but life is dynamic! And in order to live it, you have to be capable of moving along with it in order to be able to respond to what is before you NOW rather then to what was or what is yet to occur. Life takes place in the only moment to which you have access; the present moment. Living in the past.. or in the future.. is to completely miss the point! (This is not to say that you should not take the past into account, or plan for the future... but you must remain in the present when you look inward to find the past, or outward to plan for the future. It is only by way of your actions in the present moment that you may influence the future by using the wisdom that was gained through past experience.)

It is this idea of 'carrying forward' the practice that we are focusing on now in Dying Practice.

Applying 'Soft-Belly' practice during daily life... in true-life circumstances. This is the aim. The first milestone is even remembering that Soft-Belly exists when we are sad, angry, fearful, or overwhelmed.

Once we can remember that such a thing as 'Soft Belly' exists... we can attempt to practice it 'on-site' in some semblance of a timely fashion.

At first, naturally, this will take place pretty much after the fact. We will have some incident or circumstance take place, and then, thirty minutes, an hour, or a day later the thought will hit us; "OH!! I should have practiced Soft-Belly!!" When that thought arises, that is the time to practice Soft-Belly.

Little by little, we work to decrease the time lag between the actual incident and the practice, until we seamlessly practice Soft-Belly whenever it is appropriate - such as when we blink in response to something coming to close to our eyes.

Naturally, the long-term goal would be to exist in a 'Soft-Belly' state at all times... but for now, we take bite-sized problems and work on them... little by little.

One of the problems, of course, is realizing that a situation is occurring where Soft-Belly practice is appropriate. How do we deal with this??

This is where 'Noting & Observation' practice becomes beneficial. By monitoring the body patterns of various emotions (particularly afflictive emotions) we can come to recognize them earlier and earlier in the process... further 'upstream' and closer to the source of the emotion. Once we are mindful enough to recognize these patterns beginning to take shape, we can begin our Soft-Belly practice immediately, effectively cutting the afflictive emotions short.

By working with these two practices diligently, and mastering the skills that they afford us, we are learning to 'respond FROM' rather than 'react TO' these difficult and trying situations that life presents to us each day.

By learning how to effectively deal with life, we can learn how to face perhaps the most difficult fear; the fear of dying. In turn, by conquering our fear of dying; and in so doing by learning to die properly and skillfully... we learn to LIVE properly and skillfully!!

So. I can present you with an assurance at this point: If, just if, when we die... that is IT. If we simply cease to exist and there is NOTHING afterwards... and all of the talk and words and belief concerning an afterlife, of any kind are completely incorrect... this practice will still be beneficial to you while you are alive. And.. by learning to live more fully, without fear, and by learning to approach life's inevitable difficulties with skill and equanimity... calmly, serenely, and with mental clarity... you make much, much better use of whatever time you do have left before the end of your life. Naturally, most of us would prefer to think that dying is simply a change in our journey, which continues after this current life... but now you have an assurance that even if this belief is inaccurate, we can still improve our condition RIGHT NOW.

When people ask me about an afterlife, I generally point out that I am still learning about this one, and that I can't afford to worry about the next one while this one is still being figured out. And when they ask me "Why are we here?", I ask, in turn, "ARE you really here?? Are you fully and completely HERE?? Rather than letting your mind wander amongst such questions as "Why are we here?" - perhaps it would be a better practice to simply BE HERE... and let the why work itself out."

I want to briefly point out that for the purposes of this practice, I make a definite distinction between "Dying" and "Death". To my mind, they are two different states. Just as "Being Born" and "Being Alive" are two different states. We are all born... after which we are alive. We all die... after which we are dead. So. This is not "Death" practice... Once we die, we will be dead. Death will take care of itself. I am concerned with the process that takes us between the stages of Life and Death.

If you enjoy going to the beach, you notice that there are cycles in the tides... the waves come in... go out... a series of them will come in somewhat further... then a series will recede.... Overlaying that are cycles of the tides.... and encapsulating these cycles are cycles of day and night... the seasons... and so on.

If we turn our attention inward, we have cycles also... breathing in... breathing out.... heartbeats.... sleeping, waking... and so on. Nature works in cycles. Nearly everything has a cycle of some sort or another... and the nature of cyclical behavior is change. This is the song of creation... everything is constantly changing...

If this is true of life and death, as well.... then the process of dying would be very important... it may very well be so that the mental and emotional state that we have as we die influences our next life... or whatever comes next. If this is true.. and I'm not saying that it is.. only that it would stand to reason to be so given my observations of everything else... anyway, if this is true, then it is vitally important to cultivate a mental/emotional state that would be conducive to a calm, serene, tranquil and mindfully present existence during whatever comes next. And this is what Dying Practice addresses insofar as dying is concerned.

I have explained how Dying Practice benefits us if dying/death is the END of everything, and how it may benefit us if dying/death is simply another beginning. Since we don't know which case we are dealing with, it is my preference to deal with it as though it were a sleeping tiger on the lawn; The tiger may be the kindest, gentlest, and most affectionate tiger in the world, and it may be possible to cuddle up to it and read a book. Or; it may be the most dangerous, cruel, bloodthirsty tiger that has ever existed. Our problem is that whichever tiger it turns out to be; there is not much we can do about it once we are too close to it to get safely away. So we have to deal with the problem before it becomes a problem that we are incapable of dealing with. We have to consider our options and take appropriate steps from a safe vantage point, from which we are able to respond quickly and effectively whichever tiger it turns out to be.

Luckily, however, the description of a tiger isn't a tiger... and many of our problems are of this nature... purely problems that arise in our minds. Doing something is usually much easier than thinking about doing it... and it is the same with Dying Practice. This is not something to consider... to think about... to ruminate over... it is something that must be directly experienced... directly faced.... its personal. Nobody can die for you. You have to do it all alone.

Practice makes perfect.

We are pressured to practice by the unyielding certainty of our impending death. While some people prefer not to think about it.. to push it aside and avoid contemplating this eventuality there are yet some who take solace in the ability to stand up and face it squarely. This won't change the fact of our death. We we will still die. I will still die. And, unless there are some anomalous circumstances surrounding our death, the time is uncertain. Nevertheless.. its coming. You can be assured of that. And it is most likely coming somewhat quicker than we hope or expect. So, in this seemingly insurmountable problem we can find a gift.. a grace of sorts.

(What the hell is the crazy monk yammering on about, you are probably wondering..)

I know of at least two readers of this blog who were stationed with me in Korea. Neither of which will remember the 12:00AM curfew, I think (I was stationed in Korea on a previous tour when the curfew existed, and I met both of these individuals on a subsequent tour after the curfew had been abolished).

When I first arrived in Korea, the country was under martial law, and it was unlawful to be out on the streets between midnight and, I think, 4:00AM.

This created a certain 'pressure' on everybody to take care of their business.. whatever that happened to be, before curfew put an end to the evening.

The partiers partied their asses off... the shoppers shopped like there was no tomorrow... the lovers loved with all of the passion that they could muster... and the fighters knocked the living shit out one another.

Every. Single. Night.

Everyone.. me included.. would comment that it would be *SO* great if they would abolish the curfew so that the night could be longer!! The fun would go on incessently!! The partiers would have a never ending party!!..... the fighters could beat each other to within an inch of their life!!.... the shoppers could buy EVERYthing!! The lovers could embrace until the end of time....

Except that... although the lovers truly loved one another and wanted to embrace forever... there is a problem; Somebody always has to go to the bathroom!

They *DID* lift the curfew... and the party DID continue all night long...

Exactly TWICE.

.. and Korea was never quite the same after that... the force that put everything into motion weakened... there was no drive to make the best out of the night... there was no tension... no pressure.... and the magic simply fizzled away... and Korea..

um.. I mean...


...became korea after a fashion... this is not strictly so... I always loved Korea.. but something vital did get taken away.

How do I explain that? Well... people in New York very seldom go to the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty... or, while they existed, the World Trade Center. I grew up here... I have been to the top of the Empire State building exactly twice, the Statue of Liberty once, and I have never been to the top of the World Trade Center even though I watched them being built.. and watched them fall. Why?? Well... what's the hurry?? They are THERE ... and on some level, I suppose I feel (or felt...) that they would always be there... so why should I go do that when I have to do this?? Of course, in light of recent events, we are all painfully aware that they will NOT always be THERE.... and, if we are wise, we can extrapolate that knowledge to realize that neither will we. So if we are going to live... we have to do it NOW.

Once the curfew was lifted in Korea... there was no need to push things.. there was no pressure to enjoy life while we could. We could always do it later.. but later never comes.. until it is much later than we realized and staring us in the face... and, I suppose, in many cases... it is too late by then.

We don't value artificial flowers, contrary to what logic and common sense would dictate. Artificial flowers nowadays often are virtually indistinguishable from real flowers... we have to actually touch them to discern whether we are confronted with a real flower or a synthetic flower. They last almost forever... certainly longer than we will... you only ever have to pay for them one time, you don't have to water them or care for them... there is no water that goes skanky after a few days.... and they don't wither and die. It would seem that the synthetic flower is the better choice. But... we prefer real flowers.

Why is that, do you think??

To my mind, the very fact that a real flower does wither and die is the key.

We are pressured to enjoy them while they last... there very ethereal quality is what we most value it would seem....

We are aware that this flower in front of us has blossomed, is gifting us (very temporarily) with its delicate beauty and perfection, with its wonderful aroma.. but mostly with the knowledge that this flower will only be available for us to appreciate for a relatively short period of time...

.. and then... there will be another flower!!

Perhaps it is this unconscious recognition of the cyclic nature of existence that gives us heart and that makes us love the beauty of a flower.

In this way, we are not so very different from flowers... are we?

The wisdom that we can take from this realization is that an authentic life is a life that we will value much, much more than an artificial one. Once we have internalized the reality of of own impending mortality, we can gather the courage to put aside pre-conceived notions, conditioned responses, and the expectations of others... and inject our own meaning into our lives... thereby living a life that is vibrant, and full, and dynamic.

By facing our fears, and putting them to rest, and by picking up the reins of our own life, standing upon our own two feet, and taking responsibility for living... we can realize our inheritance, wake up to our true nature... and, at least for as long as we have left in this world we can finally LIVE!

Life is the common thread all creatures share... no matter how insignificant they may seem to us.. we are all part of a greater totality... we are all part of the one great family under the sky... and the sooner each of us comes to this realization; the better for all of us.

We really, truly are ONE. Just wake up!! You'll see. You can do it.. right now!!


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