What’s-his-face and the experience of humiliation

With the US election of 2016 just 7 days behind us, the prospect of President-elect What’s-his-face being our next president is one of the most depressing state of affairs I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve been trying to stay present with the emotions: anger, fear, disbelief, frustration, disgust. The fact that this person ran on a platform so antithetical to the Buddhist concepts of Right Intention, Right Speech, and Right Action suggests that we’re about to take a giant step backwards, collectively, from liberation towards suffering. The wind has completely left my sails. My stomach, throat, and breathing are all heavy. My face feels tension. My mind is racing between all of the awful statements that were made during the campaign, to all of the helpful agencies that will be disbanded, to all of the platform promises filled with hate and discrimination that will be enacted and all of the environmental damage that will be done as ignorant policies are unleashed on the land.

Along with all of this is a feeling of lethargy. While investigating this, I realized that there is another emotion that’s present, and calling it out has been helpful: I feel humiliated. I had to tease apart the difference between simply being embarrassed and feeling humiliated. If we drew a lottery and What’s-his-face won, then we’d be embarrassed about it. Knowing that this is something that was intentionally done to us, though, by individual’s choice and action – that moves the feeling from simple embarrassment to a sense of humiliation.

We as a nation have been humiliated – by (just fewer than!) half of the voters. They knowingly, willfully did this to all of us. They chose explicit hate, fear, and anger. And now the nation has to live with a known liar and scam artist, a cheating abusive husband, an ogling peeping tom beauty pageant owner, a litigious bastard of a business owner – the nation must humbly accept this man as our rightfully elected president. That’s humiliating. He will speak on my behalf on the international stage. He will make decisions on my behalf regarding the welfare of my family, my neighbors, and all the creatures of our planet – on the land and in the air and sea. His picture will hang in the post office or even in the principal’s office at my daughter’s school. That’s revolting. The fact that so many others chose him to play this role in my life feels – humiliating.

On reflection, this can only be the case in so far as I identify with being a citizen of this particular country. You can be sure I’ll be examining this identification, but I want to love our country. I do identify as an American and I want to be proud of who we are. Please note: I’m not always proud of everything we do, but I’ve been hopeful that we’re at least heading in the right direction, with a ‘one step back and two steps forward’ kind of trajectory. This just feels like an all-out retreat in the wrong direction towards so much sadness, so much unnecessary suffering. This is why people are struggling so badly, saying “he’s not my president” and dissociating themselves from their affiliation with the country. They are trying to find a way out of the humiliation.

Naming the emotions has helped. Recognizing the feeling of humiliation has helped. It doesn’t solve the underlying pain, but it is letting me see it more clearly, so I can sit with it. I’m trying to stay connected to the Dharma, sitting on my own, reading passages from teachers addressing the election, and sitting with others in my office (which, so far, has been the best response to all of the craziness).

Right now, things are like this: unpleasant feeling tones, confusion, uncertainty. Humiliation feels like this. Sadness feels like this. Breathing in; breathing out. Tension feels like this. Worry feels like this. Breathing in shallow, breathing out shallow. Feeling the body. Aware of the thinking mind, thinking, thinking, thinking. Right now, it is like this.

Good luck to all.

Conditional happiness is not yet freedom

I wanted to transcribe this because it’s been on my mind since I heard it – and listened again to it on Facebook via the live feed stream that Mary did that night. I found the idea that chasing happiness causes a dependency in us, a form of bondage, a critical idea. Please read below. If you want to hear Howie give the talk, you can search for Mission Dharma on Facebook and go back to 11.1.16 for the live stream. Here is the first 4 minutes of the talk:

“We all want freedom. We all want to be happy. We all want to be free of anxiety, worry [and] suffering… and it is possible. But the way that we ordinarily try to discover that sense of  well being is by trying to experience as many moments of pleasure as we can. And then devote a lot of our time to seeking pleasure. And when we get a little pleasure, we say, “Oh, I’m Happy” but we don’t actually realize that this very means of seeking happiness is actually making us, creating in our mind much more dependency on having some pleasure to be happy. The Buddha described the happiness that depends on things being the way we want them – he called that ‘conditional happiness’. He called it ‘worldly happiness’. He called it the happiness that depends on satisfying some kind of hunger. He also called it the happiness of bondage because it just creates … less and less feeling of freedom; much more dependency on things being the way we want.

The Buddha said that we have to have these kinds of pleasures in our life, but we also have to understand a few things about them: their pleasure; their defects – they don’t deliver in the long haul; and what it means to be free from this kind of dependency. We want to know the dangers of getting caught up in the wheel of endlessly looking for sweet experiences. And we also want to experience the pleasure because our senses need to be glad.

That kind of happiness is part of our life, but it hasn’t made anyone truly happy. It has mostly made us feel bound and dependent on conditions for our sense of wellbeing. On the other side, the Buddha said there is this kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on conditions.. called ‘lokuttara sukkha’ the happiness that is unstuck from conditions… beyond the common influence of whatever is happening.. it’s called the happiness of freedom… so that’s what the teachings really aim for, a reliable kind of freedom.”


-Howie Cohn

November 1, 2016.

Pleasure and Pain – is that all there is?

Over the summer, I was at my dad’s house and his good friend stopped by. He’s a very friendly and nice guy and one who enjoys philosophy and analyzing the zeitgeist of our current culture, whatever that may be at the time.

This day he says to me, “David, all there is is pleasure and pain”. This was meant to be an awe-inspiring and irrefutable insight. At the time I didn’t say too much about it. I haven’t  let it go. “There’s only pleasure and pain”… it seems to cover everything at first glance and explains humanity’s motivations – but if you look at it from a Buddhist perspective, it’s such a precise expression of that-which-keeps-us-stuck in Samsara.

If there is only pleasure and pain, the whole objective of life would be to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And, in truth, this is precisely what many people (and animals) are in the process of doing. This seeking and avoiding could also be called “clinging” or “attachment” and “aversion”. These are the very things the Buddha says lead to suffering. Isn’t it the very addiction to pleasurable sensations that leads us to our consumeristic culture? Isn’t it what drives us crazy as we constantly seek out newer, better, more satisfying experiences that never really satisfy us – but leave us in debt and frustration, in agitated states of desire, or addiction? Isn’t it the seeking that causes us to live in our minds, instead of being with what is actually happening? And isn’t it the fear of pain that causes us to constantly judge ourselves, avoid experience, hate one another, and grow more guarded and tight in our hearts and our minds, fearing loss, separation, loneliness and death?

If pleasure and pain don’t cover all of the options, then what does? Well, for starters, there is a quality called ‘equanimity’ that functions as an antidote to clinging and aversion. With equanimity, one can experience pain without the accompanying state of mental suffering. Similarly, one can experience pleasure without automatically clinging to that pleasure, thinking that it’s the only path to happiness. Developing equanimity allows the mind to stay steady as pain or pleasure arises, persists, and passes. A calm abiding becomes possible for one who develops equanimity. Where does calm, peaceful abiding fit on the scale of pleasure and pain?

The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is also a solitary one. What if one’s pleasure comes at the price of someone else’s pain? If you can’t feel someone else’s pain, then should it factor into your equation? Wouldn’t the world be viewed as a zero sum game, with resources that bring pleasure being hoarded, while painful and unpleasant parts of life shoved onto the backs of the less fortunate? This approach sounds somewhat familiar. It is compassion that is the antidote to pleasure-and-pain’s solitary end game. Opening oneself to the pain of others, cultivating non-harming, well-wishing, and loving kindness is the path of an open heart – one that leads to the benefit of all and leads to a more freedom for those who practice it.

What’s to be said for renunciation by those who see only pleasure and pain in the world? It’s quite clear that the path of letting go – simplifying – finding happiness in the practices of mindfulness and concentration is quite the opposite of constantly seeking satisfaction through the acquisition of that-which-brings-pleasure.

The Buddha’s path has often been described as going “against the stream”. Most of the world seems to be spellbound by the illusion that “there’s only pleasure and pain” but a few have found the value of equanimity, compassion, and renunciation. Given the inevitability of death, the horrors of treating the world as a zero-sum game of accumulation, and the inherent lack of satisfaction from raw sense experience, perhaps it’s worthwhile exploring this path that goes against the stream to see where it leads.

Movement within stillness and stillness itself

Every teaching I come across these days seems to point to Awareness as the primary realization of spiritual practice — the unborn, aware, awake, “that which knows”. All beings have this aware quality. It precedes any sensation, any phenomenal activity. It’s supremely simple and closer, even, than our thoughts or our bodies.

“Rest in Natural Great Peace”, says Howie Cohn all the time, quoting Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche. That natural great peace is the ‘knowing’ that lies beneath the thinking mind. Even thoughts are known. Thoughts are ripples in the stillness of awareness. Everything is, in a sense, ripples in that still awareness.

When the mind has a chance to settle down, there is an opportunity to rest in that still awareness. If the body and mind are restless, sleepy, angry, wanting, or doubting (experiencing the hinderances), then it’s not easy — perhaps not possible — to catch a glimpse of this stillness. As the mind settles, there is a greater and greater opportunity to discover, and even rest, in that stillness. With stillness of mind, one’s object of meditation, for instance the breath, becomes very tranquil but also very easy to stay with. Like a ripple in a still lake, it’s so easy to spot, so easy to rest one’s attention on. There’s not a lot of distraction around the breath to compete with it. It’s peaceful. It’s calming. The attention is collected, secluded. Desires to be doing anything else fall away. There’s sukkkha, or joy arising from concentration.

Finding the stillness of awareness can be a great aide to breathing practice in this way.

There is still more to explore, though. Becoming stabilized in awareness-in-itself is also possible. After discussing one pointedness, Phillip Moffett invited those at the concentration retreat to become aware of ‘knowing’… of ‘knowing knowing’ and finally ‘knowing knowing knowing’, where the awareness is turned back on itself and uses itself as it’s own object. I recall Alan Watts sort of denying the possibility of this with his “teeth cannot bite themselves” argument, but Phillip invited us to do just this and it was a unique and powerful experience. There have been echoes of it since the retreat and I see so many teachings pointing to it now. It takes practice to put yourself in a position to experience a calm abiding in only knowing, but Phillip pointed to it as a vast and interesting landscape. I think I only made it through to the lobby.. but I have faith that there’s much more to come.

Calm abiding

It’s been two weeks since the 2016 Concentration Retreat, and though I made a lot of notes in my notebook about various things that arose, and lessons learned, it’s taken a while for me to get a clearer picture of what the retreat was about.

I noticed two years ago that the return from the Concentration Retreat was qualitatively different than the post-Vipassana retreat re-entry. Things feel more matter-of-fact and ordinary, but very precise. I have less interest in chasing the ups and downs — not needing to feel entertained or distracted or overly worried — and more interest in being present and feeling the pleasant sensation that comes from effortlessly staying in the present.

Often a Dharma talk or book will say something about meditation and I find that that very something will manifest in my practice soon thereafter. I’ve even thought there is some aspect to practice that involves suggestion, in the sense of persuasion, and that our minds produce the expected state or result because we are leaning into it unconsciously. I don’t know if this is the case, or if it’s better understood as being the mind’s malleability – that doors are opened and we are inclining the mind to step through them and it does! In this case, the Leigh Brasington book on the Jhanas, Right Concentration, suggested that the power in remaining in deep states of concentration is that it teaches the nervous system how to access and remain in states of not only concentration, but bliss, serenity and equanimity. I didn’t spend inordinate amounts of time in absorption states on this retreat, but I was able to get into these states and stabilize them– spending 10 minutes in some cases to a full period in another case– in what I took to be the first, second and third Jhanas. I think soaking in those states even that much has proven to be beneficial in just the ways Leigh spoke about. The qualities of a highly concentrated, happy, and calm mind were certainly present at the retreat — especially during walking meditation following the absorption-state sits. I think these qualities are still accessible as baseline mental states even two weeks after the sit.

My two sits at Mission Dharma last night were in the realm of access concentration and it’s re-invigorated my sense of calm and clarity to a great degree.

It’s so interesting to watch the path unfold.

May all beings know the great natural peace of a calm and collected mind. May all beings be free. Thanks for reading.

Not stopping and not going

During the 2016 Concentration Retreat, two different translations of a sutra were given and both became, for a time, great aids to my practice. The sutra in question is the story of the flood from the Samyutta Nikaya. The Buddha is asked by a deva how he had “crossed the flood [of craving and ignorance]” and in the first translation, the Buddha replied that he had crossed by “not stopping and by not striving”. This became a little post-it note sized reminder during meditation – don’t stop being mindful, and don’t push too hard or look too far ahead to the results or effects of what you are doing – just keep doing it one breath at a time.

Later in the retreat, another teacher used a different translation, wherein the Buddha’s reply became, “… by not stopping and not going.” This version of the answer, again a tiny cheat-sheet sized meditation hint – really struck home and brought great results.

Let me back up a bit.

Last January, Howie Cohn had taught a retreat at Spirit Rock where he also used the term “going”, or more appropriately, “not going”, to refer to simply not following the mind on any of it’s trips. Not getting caught up in the papañca of the mind. The phrase took on great significance at the time and became a whole instruction to essentially stay with what is real — stay with what IS as opposed to going with our thoughts about reality. Learn the difference between that which is arising NOW and thoughts about things that are simply… thoughts.

I’d spent a lot of time on the cushion and the sidewalk practicing “not going” — staying with what IS — during the last six months and it’s been great. Now, with instructions to follow only the breathing on this concentration retreat, I’m told the Buddha says he crossed the flood by “not stopping and not going”! Don’t stop being mindful of breathing and don’t let anything take you away from the breath. Continue on — and guard the sense gates!

This created the perfect little pocket for me to stay with the breath. It didn’t specify how to be with the breath – it’s not a demanding instruction. Just stay with the breath. Don’t stop and don’t go. Now, that’s a formula for concentration!!

How to sew a zafu

This post is just a link to the resources you’d need to sew your own zafu. I have a sudden hankering to try this out, and maybe you do, too!

Two sites with instructions* on how to do it (in case one disappears (impermanence and all that)).


Source for Kapok and/or Buckwheat filling: http://www.zafu.net/buckwheat.html


Update 8/31/16:  Before my retreat, I used some material (from the timer bags) and sewed the zafu cover. When I got back, the Kapok had come from Carolina Morning and Lucy helped me stuff the zafu, which was a little crazier than I’d expected – that stuff is seriously fluffy!!!


*The instructions above and illustrations were originally published by John Daishin Buksbazen in a book called “To Forget the Self: An Illustrated Guide to Zen Meditation.”

Metta for my Grandmother, now that she has passed

The news of my Grandmother‘s passing wasn’t shocking. She’d been in a home for years, and I’d already known that she had been moved to hospice care. I’m happy she was finally able to let go. She was a real fighter, and her final years were full of confusion, delusion, and struggle.

I began doing metta practice for her. The phrases that typically express a wish that a living person is happy, healthy and free still work fairly well for someone who has passed on, but there were some modifications that seemed better suited to metta for the recently deceased.

To orient myself, I could add a thought like, “Wherever you are…” “Whether you have taken form or are formless…” before reciting the metta phrases. This allowed me not to assume too much. I don’t know the nature of one’s being after they have passed. I don’t want to create or posit a certain entity – but rather wish peace and freedom in a more abstract sense, however it may apply.

May you be happy. Happiness is a light, uplifting feeling. Happiness is joyful and free from sorrow and worry. All beings wish to be happy. Getting a sense of my Grandmother, freed from her old and worn body, but still embodying happiness, felt easy. The wish flows simply and brings a sense of lightness, and indeed, light.

May you be peaceful. Peace is another universal quality that benefits all beings, no matter their state. Peace, serenity, quiet, tranquility — these are all aspects of experience where one is undisturbed and at rest.

May you be clear and free from confusion. Typically, I’d use “…healthy” here, but now that the body has been abandoned, that brings some conflict to the mind. My Grandmother suffered a great deal of confusion in her later years, so now that she’s free from her body, I wish her a similar freedom from that confusion. Perhaps she’s free to experience phenomena with clear knowing, or clear comprehension, with a clarity she’s not known for years. Wishing this through metta allowed me to picture clarity and embody it more and more fully.

May you be free from suffering. Whatever experience you may be having, let it be free from fear, free from struggle, free from doubt, free from pain. Not knowing “where” she is, I wish her safety and well being. I picture her with loving connections to those who have gone before her.

May you have ease of being. Much like peacefulness, ease of being suggests positive feelings associated with the arising of phenomena, with little or no effort required to sustain a sense of well being, or function in whatever situation one finds oneself.

May you be free. May you be free from attachment, aversion, and becoming. May you be free from the bonds of samsara, at last. May all past karma be released, may all suffering and struggle come to an end.

Great concentration can be attained through Metta practice. Metta also establishes the mind in wholesome states of freedom, of letting go, of positivity and well being. Maybe, just maybe, there is some connection to the recipient of metta and some guidance that allows them to let go a little more as well, or makes their transition easier, or allows them to become completely free. It was a nice way to connect to my Grandmother, even though we were thousands of miles apart. I guess distance is no longer relevant, anyway.

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Being big enough

In my ongoing pursuit of understanding the first noble truth, I wanted to link to an article I just read in the very excellent Lion’s Roar web site. The article is entitled “Are We Really Meditating” and includes the following paragraph [emphasis mine]:

The Buddha, in his very first teaching, said, “There is suffering.” Sometimes we mistakenly interpret this to mean that we are doomed to suf­fer. I take the Buddha’s words as an invitation to practice nonviolence toward my inner and outer worlds. In this simple but powerful statement, the Buddha suggests that suffering is not some­thing we can fix, ignore, or get rid of. Rather, he is intimating that practice provides the ability to make ourselves big enough to include both the pain and beauty of the human condition—not only our own but also that of others.
Our ability to bear witness to suffering with­out pushing it away or getting overwhelmed is linked to liberation. What is experience before we shrink from it, try to subdue it, or manipulate it? This is thequestion for practitioners.

Typically, I think of accommodating suffering and experience as having to do with equanimity, but choosing to look at it as making oneself “big enough” is interesting to me. For one thing, it’s very simple. For another, it echoes the contrast between being small, tight, solid and being big, expansive, open and available.

In my worldly circumstances lately, I’ve been trying to better understand how practice can help with the stresses in my life. Something as simple as ‘being big enough to include the pain and beauty’ of life is a great answer to this question. I’ll have to sit with that tonight.

Understanding anxiety in the modern world as Dukkha

I noticed a pattern of thought a few years ago whereby my mind would constantly try to have the big “aha” breakthrough that would then secure my worldly independence. I searched and scrambled to find the one big invention so that I’d be set for life — or come up with a concept so fresh and marvelous that I could share it with others and be ensured a future of well being and abundance. Lottery tickets. Thoughts of becoming this or that; starting a company; changing careers; even winning a settlement or being given a lucky break so that my struggles would be over! I’d literally examine every experience and item that arose in experience looking for some kind of twist – some kind of clever insight – some kind of magic ticket that might somehow land me on easy street. I started to see that this was underlying so many of my thoughts. It was a hidden obsession.

I’m sure lots of us experience this type of mental formation. I’d bet that most aren’t aware of it as a pattern. It took me a long time to see it. The mind trying to get ahead of the struggle – to solve the problem of constantly working to survive, to provide, to make it. Jobs aren’t guaranteed. Relationships aren’t guaranteed. Life itself isn’t guaranteed. Whatever we do.. we’re still at risk. However much we manage to make it seems like we’re just getting by — and never saving enough for our kid’s college, our retirement, our future!! So we continue to struggle. The mind continues to spin out on idea after idea about how we can finally solve this never-ending quest for relief.

Isn’t this all just a perfect definition of Dukkha? Didn’t the Buddha have something to say about Dukkha? What was that all about, anyway? 25 years studying the Dharma and here I am spinning out about life and work and money and having enough and making enough and saving enough and knowing that it’s all based on fear. I’m swimming in Dukkha!

At least I’ve come to see it for what it is. Now what?

The four noble truths start with Dukkha: There is Dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood. Those are the insights of the first noble truth.

A friend at Sangha last night said to me regarding Dukkha: “It’s not a mistake..”. It’s not a mistake that this is the way it is. It’s not a mistake that all conditioned things have this unreliable, dissatisfying quality to them. It shouldn’t “be some other way”. This is life. This is Dukkha.

As much as my finally figuring out that the mental flips and twists I go through trying to “solve” the unreliability of life is itself more Dukkha… at least I feel like I’m making a tiny bit of progress on insight #2: Dukkha should be understood.

The more I learn, the more I see that I have a lot of work to do.