Thursday, February 26, 2009


Fear is something that we are all intimately familiar with.. everyone has, from time to time, confronted some situation or circumstance that has turned their insides to ice water, and their knees to rubber.

There are many different types and gradiations of fear, probably as many as there are individuals to experience them.

Fear can be debilitating. It can cause us to close the fist of our heart, close our minds, close our ears... withdraw...

It can result in a life that is not lived honestly, fully, and completely.

As human beings, we must experience fear... it is part of what it is to be human. We cannot escape this... and we cannot avoid it.

This journal, in its entirety, is, more or less an investigation into human fear. A very basic fear that we each share: fear of dying. I do not say fear of death, because once we are dead, I would imagine that there is no longer anything to fear. But, the actual process of dying is a different matter entirely!! Will there be pain? Will there be indignity? Suffering? These are things that we all face, sooner or later, and must therefore consider.

Fear can take many forms.. however, in its basic essence, it is fear of dying that is our greatest fear. Naturally, I am generalizing.. but, I don't think that I am so very far from the truth in making this statement.

Does this mean that we are all cowards? Because we have a fear of dying?

Well... I would have to say that cowardice is a refusal to acknowledge fear. How so?

Courageousness and bravery are not products of the reduction of fear, but of transcending fear... of going beyond fear... of acting according to our values despite the presence of fear!

Do you think that Jesus Christ did not feel fear during his long night in the garden of Gethsemane?

Do you suppose that Mohammed was not in fear when he entered the cave called Hira and was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and commanded to read? (recite).

Fear is something that can steal our resolve, or cause us to shut down ... the meaning of 'petrified' means to be turned to stone, and the true meaning of horror is to be rendered incapable of communicating with others... as when buried alive, or locked in to some place with some form of terrible person or creature or other fearsome thing and not able to get the attention of others, i.e, help.

The underlying purpose of both Zen practice, in general, and Dying practice, specifically, is to foster fearlessness in the practitioner.

To be fearless is to be free. To experience fearlessness, to make it an integral part of one's nature is to be at home wherever one happens to be.

What better way to begin to understand the nature of fear than to confront and examine one's own mortality, as well as one's responses and reactions to that mortality?

There are many situations that can trigger fear, not just the thought of dying... new or changing circumstances or people, pressure, attachment to loved ones (i.e., fear of losing them), attachment to belongings, attachment to status.. these are just a few.

I often see people begin to confront fears and anxieties when they first come to learn how to practice Zen; they very likely have never attempted to constrain themselves either physically or mentally in a similar fashion... or, if they have, there was no social pressure as there is an Zendo to 'stick to it'. There is no escape! (In the strictest sense, this is always true - for you cannot escape from yourself ((if you have one! HA!)) ). Sometimes they confront these discomforting feelings and learn to engage them and not to try to control them.. to 'let go' in essence of the illusion of having control over everything in one's life.. and we see them again. More often, they do not... and we don't see them again, or, perhaps not for a while. It isn't an easy thing to do. To sit quietly, in stillness, and in silence is a tall order for someone who has spent most of their life doing just the opposite... it can be like sitting upon an ant hill! The pain comes in waves.. physical, mental, and emotional.

I watch them as they begin to feel the physical discomfort set in.... and they struggle with that.... and then the anxieties and fears begin to gnaw at them; How long will this last? (we tell them at the outset... but time doesn't pass the same way when you are on 'the cushion'.) My leg is going numb! Will it fall off?! I shouldn't be sitting here doing nothing!! I should be [insert 'productive' activity here]. While I am here.. what is my husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/TV/cat/child doing?? I have been sitting here for nearly 20 minutes!! When am I going to get enlightened?!?!

For some, there are some very deep-set anxieties... perhaps the loss of a loved one that they have never yet found closure for... some 'failure' or what they view as a failure that crops up to fill the silence... lost loves... lost wealth... loss... failure... BOREDOM.

In our modern culture, boredom is to be avoided at any cost!!

I think that on some level.. this is a coward's attitude. When boredom sets in, anxiousness begins to rear its head. We are beginning to get closer to our fear. It is time to find some form of entertainment, and to banish any thoughts of death or of loss!

The truth is somewhat simple; you cannot control everything that happens to you, or around you. You DO NOT control most of what happens... more likely, you do not actually control anything other than yourself.. and perhaps that not so well without working very hard at it. So, why go through the trouble? Why not just live life with one's head in the sand and be content with that? Well.. most folks don't really ask these questions, and so there is no answer if a question has not been posed. For those of us who do ask... it is up to us to seek out the truth... or at least a truth that will suffice for now.. until we learn more.

There are many ways to avoid thoughts of death and loss... and most are probably not overly healthy on some level. No matter how much we avoid thinking of it... it is still a part of us. Not behind us... or out there... not in us ... simply 'us'. We *are* our own death... we *are* our own sadness and loss. It is not something that we can be separate from.

Fear has to be acknowledged. We have to realize that we fear, that we feel fear... and we must reconcile ourselves with that fear. We grow up thinking that it is somehow wrong to feel fear or to be sad or to be vulnerable to fear or to sadness. That is hogwash. We fear. So what? It is part of being what we are; human.

I think it is an act of cowardice to avoid acknowledging fear. I think it is an act of cowardice to live a life as though we have no fear, and nothing to fear. As though we will never die.

In times past, death was part of daily life. When a family member died, they were cleaned and prepared for their funerary rites by the family. (this is where we get the term 'parlor' for living room from... the dead were laid out in the parlor. This is probably why we call it a funeral 'home'.

Nowadays, death is hidden from view and it is taboo to discuss it openly. Nobody says that so and so 'died'... we avoid the point by using all sorts of euphemisms. But, this changes nothing. ... and it never has. The only thing that changes is our method of dealing with and of apprehending reality and truth.

I think it is better to acknowledge fear. To face it... to observe our behavior when in the grip of fear... even tiny fears. I have noticed how fear often manifests itself as a form of restlessness.

Acknowledging fear isn't a cause for us to be ashamed (another form of fear), dismayed or depressed. Only by feeling fear and by acknowledging fear can we ever hope to claim our legacy of being fearless. Fearlessness is not by any means the absence or the reduction of fear.. it is simply the ability to move beyond that fear.

Fearlessness begins when we stop... when we cease... when we are still.... and when we begin to examine our fear. To observe it, and to notice how it affects us mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is important to study and learn how we respond to embarrassment, shyness, loneliness, anger (another form of fear), prejudice, bigotry, (both forms of fear), anxiety, nervousness, concern... we will notice that these emotions are always 'moving' and creating energy in our bodies... making us feel restlessness and vamping up our breathing, our heart rate, and our blood pressure. However, when we stop... when we deliberately observe and control our breathing... when we examine these feelings that cause restlessness all the way to thier root cause; what we find is sadness, which is calm and soft.

When we find our sadness, there is a tight feeling in the chest... and in the throat... rather than in the abdomen, where fear is held. This feeling culminates in the production of tears from our eyes.... and we release the sadness.... like a gentle rain in spring... or perhaps like a fierce winter gale... but, we are able to find release nonetheless.

Only by working with and discovering the softness and the openness of the human heart can we hope to find the beginning of fearlessness. There is nothing so strong or so powerful as gentleness.

This may seem awkward at first for some... that is okay... awkwardness is fear in another guise... but, eventually it becomes very apparent at how appropriate and proper it is for a human being to be tender, open and compassionate. And, perhaps, a little bit sad. Sadness is soft, and pliable... it gives, and it bends. Bravery by itself is brittle and hard - and easily broken.

When we are tender and open, we learn to become fearless... when we are gentle and compassionate, we accept the fear in others... and we learn to communicate honestly and directly... both with ourselves, and with others.

In Buddhism, this compassionate nature is embodied by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit: Literally "Lord who looks down and hears the cries of the world". ). Avalokiteshvara is known as Kannon in Japan, Kwan-Yin (Gwan-Yin) in China, Kwan-Sae-Eum Bo-SSal in Korea, Chenrezig in Tibet, and in Mongolia; Megjid Janraisig. The Dalai Lama is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be an incarnation of Chenrezig. Clearly, the embodiment of compassion, tenderness, kindness, gentleness and love is a very important concept to Buddhists.

Clearly, it is a very important concept to all beings.

Whether you are practicing Zen, conducting your own dying practice, or following some other spiritual practice... whether you are not following some spiritual practice... regardless of who or what you are... I would like you to discover your fearlessness.

Fearlessness is the most profound gift that can be bestowed upon one. It is said that power corrupts... but I disagree. I would submit to you that it is fear that corrupts. Fear of losing power. Fear of what those in power may do. Fear corrupts the mind. Fear corrupts the heart.

Fear builds walls. Fearlessness builds bridges.

Sit still. Stand tall. Be fearless.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Learning How to Die is Learning How to Live

As of this writing, I have approximately four and a half month left to live. Much of my practice has been devoted to my life review, in which I am primarily focused upon the past.. sorting things out and bringing them to mind so that I may meditate upon them with gratitude, forgiveness, and so that I might treat each encounter with those who have shared my life's journey for some period of time with finality. In each case, I say goodbye to them with the understanding that this is very likely the last time we will ever meet in this life.

More than anything else, this practice of 'parting as though it is our last meeting' has had a profound effect on me, on my way of thinking and approaching my life, and, truthfully, on what and who I am.

There are experiences and practices that alter our understanding, perhaps by increasing or refining knowledge.

There are experiences and practices that alter our emotions, perhaps by enabling us to either release them or to control them... according to our particular need.

There are experiences and practices that alter our behaviors, perhaps by offering some type of ethical guidelines, a moral compass, or some other 'benefit' ( I am thinking now of the military, perhaps incarceration, or a monastic vocation -- each of these are likely an amalgam of the aforementioned experiences, however... they are different somehow.)

Lastly, there are experiences and practices that change a person on a fundamental level. (Now that I sit here and let my thoughts go where they will for a few moments... the three examples in the previous paragraph/parentheses actually qualify to live in this paragraph, but, I am going to leave them just where they are... ) In any case, the practice of treating each experience with finality is just such a practice. At least for me. Treating each meeting with another person, each meal, each day, each breath ... as though it is the very last time it will be experienced, adds a vibrancy, a poignancy, and a degree of gratitude and appreciation that makes behaving otherwise seem colorless and devoid of meaning.

If I take nothing else from this practice, I will take this.

As it turns out, I will take much more from my Dying Practice... as a matter of fact, I have been slowly incorporating a great deal into my way of living. In many cases this was deliberate, and in a great many more cases I hadn't realized I was doing so until I re-read my journal, or otherwise found reason to review 'pre-dying practice' time period and compared it to the present time period. Not in one case have I found this to be unwise, unpleasant, or unwelcome.

Life review practice is beginning to enter the time period where my monastic practice began to flag, everything was in doubt, and I started making less than wise choices. In a few cases, where I made some of the worst judgment calls and biggest mistakes of my life. Happily, there was enough of 'me' left in those days that I was able to curtail my journey down that particular path of unskillful behavior, unskillful thought, and harmful effects. For me, this way is better. Maybe better for those around me, too. You know, people have said things to me on more than one occasion along the lines of 'well, you monks are sacred, you are different from the rest of us... its easier for you! You never do anything wrong...', etc. Well, that is very far from the truth. We are no different from anybody else on a fundamental level.. meaning the building blocks of what we are.... we are human, and we have all of the facets that every other human being has. What may be different is that we choose with each and every breath, to behave in a certain fashion, in a non-harming and morally upstanding way.

In Korea they have a proverb that translates, roughly, as; Garbage human beings become monks, garbage monks become Zen students, garbage Zen students become Buddha!

What this means is that only a person who self-examines, identifies a shortcoming, and is willing to put forth the effort to change will change and improve. We need problems so that we can learn whatever they offer to teach us in the very act of our solving them.

Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, was once queried as to why he had become a monk. But the tone of the question was, "You think you are so special, you are putting yourself up on a high pedestal." Merton's response was "I became a monk because I am just exactly like everyone else."

What does it take to become a monk? It takes exactly what has brought all of us to practice: our minds have gotten stuck on a question or problem. Unable to find the answer in our minds, we have reached a dead end. That is why we become monks. That is why we practice.

This was the problem that the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama (Shakyamuni) faced, and which ultimately resulted in his awakening and enlightenment, and true of his axial age contemporaries around the civilized world. It was and remains a human problem.

The reality is that we do not become monks in order to run away from life... but to run towards it. Indeed, there are many different paths and methods for embracing life, and my way is but one, and most likely a somewhat peculiar method. My Dying Practice is merely an offshoot or augmentation of my monastic practice... but, I am finding that they compliment one another in numerous, previously unlooked for and unexpected ways.

One such way is what I would like to discuss here today.

We all live, breathe, wake up, go to work, seek some form of entertainment or leisure, and go through our lives either leaning towards things that make us happy or give us joy, and leaning away from or averting from those things that cause us discomfort or make us sad. Time passes, and either, we die, leaving behind a few wonderful memories and a lot of wasted time. Or, we run into a figurative wall, take stock of what we are, what we have become, or where we are headed... and we find it to be less than satisfactory. We realize that we are not living life according to our values. That we have no values. That we are living life according to some other person's expectations, or some other similar situation or circumstance that leaves us feeling cold, dissatisfied, or out of tune with our heart, mind, and spirit.

This causes us to suffer. When we suffer, we bring suffering into the lives of those with whom we interact. It is a vicious cycle of sadness, disappointment, regret, guilt, and anger.

So. What do we do with that? How can dying practice help? Does this mean that everyone should become a monk or a nun?

Firstly, it does not mean that everyone (or most people... or even a significant number of people) should become a monk or a nun. That is not a path for the vast majority of people, and for good reason. Those of us who do have such a vocation are very much aware of it, most likely would not choose to have it, and would not willingly inflict it on others. But, if it exists, it is there whether we welcome it or not. And so, we are pushed to answer whatever burning question that drives us. For the rest of you.. if there is no question, there cannot possibly be an answer, so... why would you choose to go through the difficulties and discomforts of monastic life when there is no valid personal reason for you do so?

Perhaps many of you might benefit, however, from some form of daily spiritual practice. Whatever that translates to in your particular case. Much time is spent each day caring for your hair, teeth, fingernails, skin, clothing, belongings, dwellings, etc. With this in mind, it is mystifying to me that so few people will take the time to care for their inner self with the same level of care and attention. It is not my place to tell others what they should or should not do, or how they should live their life. But, perhaps it may be my place to simply let them know that some other path may be available in the event that they might one day decide that it is needful, or may offer some comfort or direction in their lives.

Dying practice is a temporary practice, though it does not have to be. It is only one practice of countless others. Most such practices however share many things in common. After all, they all address human lives, human concerns, human problems... and they all help us to discover human answers for our human questions. In quite a few cases, they even help us to formulate the questions to begin with.

For those people who feel that life is missing something, or is simply not satisfying. And, also, for those people for whom life is missing nothing, and is greatly satisfying.. but who are prepared to deepen their life experience, a daily spiritual practice is an appropriate and wonderful thing to incorporate into one's life.

I don't think that any such practice will give you the answers to your questions... you are always the sole party to discover answers which are relevant to your own life. Only you can inject meaning and purpose into your life, and only you can find the appropriate answers to the questions that you hold.

What a spiritual practice will do, is to help you to refine your life experience, focus your energies, maintain a sense of balance, centeredness, serenity, and tranquility.

Why is serenity, calmness or tranquility important?

My answer is that silence and calm abiding are the underlying commonality that we all share... every conscious being has, as its legacy, a simple quiet awareness that underlies everything that comes afterward; all of the facets of our 'individual personality' that overlay who and what we really and truly are.

This calm, abiding, silent awareness is the root of consciousness... of the sense of self, and of the sense of a world that is 'out there' somewhere.

We all share this. It is what we are. And we are all precisely that.

When we reconnect with it, and bring it into our daily life, we find that whatever we are called upon to face, whatever confronts us, no matter what it may be, we will do it better with a calm, clear, agile, and tranquil mind than with a mind that is disjointed, filled with strife and upset, and distracted.

In order to find out what we are, we must re-discover the silence that is at our core. This is what a spiritual practice will offer. But, that is not all that it offers; Once we have rediscovered this calm, centered, tranquil, silent aspect of our inner self, we begin to look outward once again with a clear perception of truth and authenticity.

What does this mean? What is authenticity and why does it matter?

Well.. for many, life consists of running around each and every day doing whatever is necessary to amass more and more material wealth, regardless of the cost to themselves or to others. They buy the 'things', and they expect that happiness will somehow spring from this. Each day is filled with a yearning, a desire, a hunger for 'more, bigger, better, shinier, harder, NOW!!'

But how long can this go on, realistically? How much 'stuff' must one own before happiness sets in?

I cannot deny that some level of financial viability is necessary in our life in order for us to be happy... we are physical beings with physical needs. But, how much do we REALLY need?

What I have learned is that the huge open mouth of desire can NEVER be satisfied. It doesn't matter how much you pour into it... it will always want more. So.. what can we do?

This is where a daily spiritual practice and the concept of living an authentic life comes in. This is precisely the purpose of Dying Practice. This is precisely the purpose of a monastic vocation. And, most likely this is precisely the purpose (the original untainted purpose) of any religious practice, at least before human beings, filled with these self same desires, have turned and twisted religious practice to serve their own ends.

On a personal level, however, we all need harmony and balance. We all must find our place in the world, and learn to live with all of the other beings that share the world with us without killing and hurting one another. We all want to be happy, and we all want to avoid suffering. Even an insect will run away from something that is hurting it or threatening it. It is part of our nature to do so.

In order to get someplace. Anyplace. We must have three bits of knowledge. We must know, firstly, where we are. Secondly, we must know where it is, precisely, that we wish to go. Once we know these two things, we can begin to figure out how to get from one to the other.

A spiritual practice helps us to study and learn who and what we are. To discover our own inner truth. It may offer some guideline that may help us to discover where it is that we wish to be. And, in most cases, it helps us to figure out how to negotiate the world in order to get wherever it is that we are heading.

One of the greatest benefits of such a practice, Dying Practice included, is that we sharpen our perceptions, and we habitually seek out the truth; of whatever it is that we are confronting or engaging.

Falsehood, delusion, illusion, fantasy, lies, deceit, and other assorted facets of bullshit and fuckery are confusing to us in the best case, causing us to chase our tails, waste time, and become disoriented... and in the worst case, they result in wasted, unhappy, and perhaps harmful, toxic lives that bring only pain and suffering to the one whose life it is... and to everyone and everything with whom they come into contact.

These people end up being shunned and disliked by others, rather than loved... and it only gets worse.

The truth is that we all share the same sacred underpinnings of life, and silence, and consciousness... and only compassion, tolerance, and kindness can break through and access the true nature of the person that is hidden beneath all of the layers of pain, hurt, sadness, and other afflictive emotions that have built up as a result of living an inauthentic and delusive lifestyle.

So. I have rambled on about 'authenticity' and the living of 'an authentic life'. But, what does this mean? How can you possibly live an authentic life if you aren't sure what an authentic life is comprised of? And if you were to pose such a question, it would be a fair and appropriate one.

I will list ten facets of an authentic life below, but please be aware that this is in no way a complete or exhaustive all-encompassing and 'correct' answer. We each live our own life, we are all slightly different in our definition of purpose, happiness, and many other things... and so this is a highly personal and subjective thing. This list therefore only poses a guide. A fairly accurate guide... but, a guide nonetheless. Enjoy!

1. Discover a Purpose for your life. What is your path? We mostly inject meaning into our own lives, and it is very important that we do so! Are you wandering through life with little direction – hoping that you’ll find happiness, health and prosperity? Or, hoping that it will somehow find you?! Identify your life purpose or and you will have your own unique compass that will help to keep you moving in the proper direction even when it is difficult to discern.

2. Identify your values. What do you value most? Some examples are kindness, honesty, integrity, security, freedom, family, spiritual development, learning, etc. As you set goals for your life and your immediate future – check your goals against your values. If the goal doesn’t align with any of your values – you may want to reconsider it or revise it. Every breath offers a choice - Do you act within the boundaries of your values? Or do you violate them? What are you going to do? In order to answer this question, it is important to be cognizant of what, precisely, it is that you value, and what kind of person you wish to be.

3. Identify your needs. Unmet needs can keep you from living authentically. Grandiose or unrealistic perceptions of your needs cause suffering. It is important to find a 'Middle Way' between the extreme of self-denial, and self-indulgence. Take care of yourself. Do you have a need to be acknowledged, to be right, to be in control, to be loved? Honestly determine your needs and take action to see that you are able to meet them! Take care to identify only NEEDS.. as opposed to wants, wishes, hopes, or desires. They are not the same thing.

4. Know your passion. Honor those things that make your heart sing and your spirit fly. Bring your passion into the world in whatever form it takes. Arrange your life so that you will have the time and the ability to pursue this passion. Whatever it is, do more of it!

5. Live from the inside out. Increase your awareness of your inner wisdom by regularly reflecting and contemplating in silence. Commune with nature. Breathe deeply to quiet your distracted mind. Walk gently upon the earth, and plant kisses of peace and tranquility with each step, rather than stomping around in urgency and strife. Walk in harmony and beauty each moment of each day.. and remember that you carry the seeds of this harmony and beauty within you.

6. Honor your strength. What are your positive traits? What special talents do you have? Are you imaginative, witty, good with your hands? Find ways to express your authentic self through your strengths. Each of us has untapped strengh within us. It is a matter of choosing to find it and to put it into practice. You are the one with sole responsibility for your life, and for your well being. So, no matter *what* you do; stand up straight, on your own two feet, be courageous, give it all that you have got, every time, do the best that you can, never quit, and be a lamp unto yourself. Don't believe anything that you are told, or anything that you read until you have experienced it first hand, compared it to your own personal experience and wisdom, and have lived it FIRSTHAND. Don't ever be afraid to give. This is true strength.

7. Take time to play. Give yourself time to recharge doing things you love to do or by just doing nothing. When you breathe, you must both breathe in *and* breathe out. Study your breath... try to find the exact moment when the inbreath becomes the outbreath, and vice-versa... and realize that life is a never ending stream... it doesn't wait... it won't slow down for you. So, you must take the time for play... work it into your day. You are responsible for caring for yourself and for your own happiness and well being.

8. Be aware of your self-talk. Are you blocking your potential? Choose the kind of chatter that’s goes on in your mind. Become aware of the negative messages you give yourself. Gently catch them and turn them into positive affirmations. Thoughts will arise and they will fade... incessantly.... be mindful of your thoughts and responses. Thoughts are just thoughts... like bubbles... you cannot weigh one... you cannot touch one. Watch your mind, study it, learn how it works. When you discover thoughts that are self-defeating... gently set them down and turn your thoughts in more positive directions. Repeat as necessary!

9. Surround yourself with inspiration. Keep a journal. Create an altar or other sacred space where you live, work, or play. Place things that inspire you in this place. Make it a habit to visit this spot on a daily basis and reflect upon the things that these objects symbolize. Find ways to bring this inspiration into being in your life. Do something... even if it is small. No great thing is comprised of only a great thing... but of many small and seemingly inconsequential things. Allow your inspiration to direct you and to goad you into action!

10. Serve others. When you live authentically, you may find that you develop an interconnected sense of being. When you are true to who you are, living your purpose and giving of your talents to the world around you, you give back in service what you came to share with others. Never be afraid to give. In small ways, in big ways, in any way possible. If you have nothing to give materially, give of your attention and your time. Find some small thing that you *can* do... and just do it!

How long is your life? Can you stretch it? How much time do you have left? Can you afford to not live authentically? Can you?