Neurological connections on the Buddha’s path

This is a fascinating demonstration of how neurons make connections within the brain.

I came across this on the web and thought it might be a good thing to post. In the context of Buddhism, it could be helpful to have a basic understanding of how these pathways are built because they would play a part in some other aspects of practice and the path. Imagine how this would play a role in: setting intentions, developing wholesome habits, Metta, non-reactivity and equanimity, etc.

Let’s take, for example, the association between ‘calm’ and ‘pleasant’. If we are able to develop a concentrated mind that is calm and quiet, and bring our attention to the Jhana factor of Sukha, (sweetness or joy), then we’re building a connection between getting calm and experiencing joy. Typically, we seek joy through sense pleasures, new experiences, excitement, stimulation. What if we could re-wire ourselves to experience joy through peace.  Perhaps our brains will relax in their pursuit of constant stimulation and novelty and begin to seek out joy through calm. Sounds like it could provide motivation for practice and get some momentum going, doesn’t it?

And Metta practice could form bonds between ‘other beings’ and compassion, loving kindness and Mudita–joy.  Having positive thoughts arise naturally when we encounter others is very beneficial — opening the heart, encouraging compassionate acts, and reducing suffering.

Enjoy the demo and let me know what connections it triggers for you!

Bodhipaksa’s 100 Days of Loving Kindness

I’m posting this as a reading reference for anyone interested in the buddhist practices around opening the heart, developing loving kindness, compassion and equanimity.  The writing in this 100 day series is excellent and comes directly from the heart and mind of the dear and wise Bodhipaksa.

I hope you find the posts there as inspiring and wonderful as I do.


Wisdom 2.0 & the two wings of freedom

The Wisdom 2.0 conference last week was one of the most amazing events I’d ever attended — over 1700 people under one roof, all with an interest in mindfulness and compassion, coming together to meet and talk to each other sincerely and with the intention of collaborating and sharing their unique embodiment of these concepts.

Everyone had their own personality, their own practice, and their own story about how they discovered their spirituality. There were lawyers who started bringing yoga into their law practice, Nasa employees using modern networking technologies to create meditation communities, TV producers who were interested in starting drop-in meditation studios (and those were just a few of the people I met on the very first night of the conference!)

The founder of the conference, Soren Gordhamer, manifested (and hopefully, will continue to manifest) a brilliant vision in putting all of this together. I can’t say enough about how great his karma must be for creating an environment where so much mindfulness and so many compassionate projects will cross-pollinate. Truly, this is a modern cauldron of spiritual practices — and the outcome will be both unpredictable and amazing (if the energy of the group is any indication of the future direction and results). Soren said it wasn’t so much a conference as it was a practice. I thought that was beautiful. The though occurred to me, however that Wisdom 2.0 was actually an “inside-out retreat”. Lots of talking about mindfulness and meeting like-minded people and just a little bit of formal sitting (there was a meditation area with zafus and zabutons)!

The one place where I saw a deficiency was, ironically, in the presentation and discussion of Wisdom itself. I felt that wisdom and compassion were treated not as equal and necessary “wings” of spiritual practice, but rather as a single entity — as if that which is compassionate and thoughtful is equivalent to “wisdom”. One speaker, who had a heart of gold and spoke passionately and brilliantly collapsed wisdom all the way into the knowing of “right from wrong”. Discernment and morality are important, but they shouldn’t be mistaken for wisdom. Allowing these concepts to be collapsed in this way, and for the discussion to focus primarily on compassion, undermined the very power of wisdom (as understood from a traditional Buddhist standpoint) and kept it from being articulated and shared. The function of wisdom is specific and I felt it needed to be brought into the discussion, to complement and inform the idea of compassion.

What is the Buddhist concept of Wisdom that was missing? How does it relate to Compassion? The answer is pretty simple and we’ve touched on it throughout this blog: Wisdom is the understanding and view, that when put into practice and perfected leads to the end of suffering. Wisdom is what the Buddha taught very succinctly in the Four Noble Truths (the first 3 provide the basis for Wise Understanding and the fourth, a broader and more inclusive path to guide us there). How would I sum it up? I would sum it up like this: All things that arise are conditioned, and have the nature to pass away. Clinging to anything that will pass away leads to suffering. Through mindfulness, we can come to see the impermanence of things, and the unreliability of phenomena to bring lasting happiness. Seeing this again and again with clarity, our innate nature, which is not a conditioned “thing”, begins to stop clinging to impermanent phenomena; stops identifying with that which is impermanent and limited. Allowing all things to arise and pass in awareness– without clinging or identifying any of it as ourselves– we find freedom. Dwelling in this state of freedom and experiencing the happiness that is not dependent upon conditions, we cease all clinging. As clinging is part of the chain of dependent origination, a link in that chain, a necessary element of that chain — without it, the chain of causation is broken. Becoming, Birth and Death are also part of the chain, which is why identifying with unbound awareness is called by names such as “the unborn” and “the deathless”. The understanding which leads to this practice and it’s fruition is properly understood as Wisdom.

The Buddha’s four noble truths start with the existence of Suffering, then explain the cause of Suffering, then the cessation of Suffering, then the path to the cessation of Suffering. I can understand that the conference didn’t want to (and probably shouldn’t) present wisdom in these terms exclusively. People already equate Buddhism with suffering and that’s a turn off for people.

Restating Wisdom as the Path to Absolute Freedom, as the Path leading to the end of Suffering, as the necessary understanding required to be free at last — that allows one to see that it’s this very idea of wisdom that is ultimately necessary for the practice of Compassion!  If compassion is seeing the suffering of others and doing what we can to help — isn’t it necessary to understand what leads to the end of suffering in the first place?

I wanted to bring this conversation to the conference. This year, 2013 in San Francisco, I tried to do just that. I offered a “Hosted Conversation” about The Buddha’s Wisdom — and nobody came. Maybe all I could do was plant the silent seed.. and who knows, maybe it will grow into a mighty Redwood in conferences yet to come.

Sitting in an urban environment

Today I sat twice. I found myself unable to do my normal sitting on my usual cushion with my beloved timer, but rather, I made two openings in the day among the moments of my urban existence.

I sat on the Muni train. And I sat on a low marble wall in a city courtyard. Both sits were fairly formal, in terms of the mindfulness practice I was using. Both were fairly successful in the sense that I had time to settle, became focused primarily on the breath and present moment body sensations and thoughts.

On the wall, I was in a fairly noisy environment. I could sense others around me, but didn’t feel I was disturbing them, and they gave me the courtesy of not disturbing me. But still, it was unsurprising that self-referential thoughts would arise about others seeing me sitting there upright, with eyes closed, not moving for a period of time. I have a light green rain shell that I wear – it’s a modern sort of windbreaker, and common enough. I had my hands folded completely within the sleeves, so that my mudhra was not in sight, so as not to draw too fine a point on the fact that I was sitting. So I sat with a busy sort of mind, in a noisy sort of place and came to eventually settle down a little and get present. Then the timer I was keeping in the upper coat pocket went off and I stood up and went to get my salad lunch.

On the Muni, I was able to get a seat. Sitting there with eyes closed is much more common and typical. People often sleep or close eyes on the train. I have only 13 or 14 minutes before my stop. My focus was quite good already, so my attention didn’t waiver much. I played primarily with seeing if I could focus intently on the breath’s more subtle aspects, and then open up some and be more broad in my awareness, relaxing a little, but seeing if I could still keep a constant awareness of breathing. I was completely conscious of each stop as it was called out and as I got to mine, I stood up and walked off the train, with a momentary glance behind me at the empty red seat to see if I’d left anything behind. Nope.

What are your urban sitting stories?