Archive for February, 2011

Did I Sign On For This?

Did I Sign On For This?

by Susan Downing

I’ve just finished week seven of my intensified practice schedule, which I began when my son Michael went off to the Marines’ Officer Candidates School.  My friends have been asking me how it’s going, whether I’m noticing benefits, and if yes, then what they are.  I thought about answering those questions in this post, but then I realized I wanted to talk about how the challenges we place on ourselves, in the form of spiritual or other intense practice – can affect those closest to us.

I’ll start by saying, for those who haven’t read my earlier post about my practice, that I made my own practice more challenging as a way to support Mike, as an act of solidarity: if he was going to push himself, I was going to push myself, too.  So, even before he began the challenging OCS program, his commitment inspired me.  But when I laid out my own revised practice schedule, I didn’t think too much about how it might affect my friends and family.  I was most concerned with devising a program that would challenge me and which could fit into my regular life: after all, I couldn’t go off into a cave somewhere for ten weeks.

One of the biggest changes the new schedule has introduced into my life is that I have certain times scheduled for meeting clients or students, for working on my writing projects (I’ve begun writing a Reiki book), for meditation, for my daily walk, and for eating.  So, right away, I had to start saying to people who wanted to see me, “I can see you at 10 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon,” because those are the time slots in my day that aren’t otherwise occupied.  And although I’ve made a few exceptions in the past seven weeks, I’ve kept pretty darn close to the schedule.

My new regimen has really benefitted me, and my friends, family members and clients have been incredibly supportive and so considerate about working within the time constraints of my schedule. I am so grateful for that support!  But there was also a friend who told me a couple of weeks ago that she was really hurt that I hadn’t been in touch with her since just after Mike left for OCS.  Explaining my retreat-like schedule didn’t cut it with her, and I can see why.  After all, although I’d told people that I was intensifying my practice, I didn’t explain to friends or family what that might mean for them. That’s because I didn’t know what it would mean for them! After talking with this particular friend, it occurred to me that when I started this, I really should have told people to pretty much consider that I’m on retreat, and that they would not be seeing much of me.  But that seems kind of cold, doesn’t it?  Kind of “oh, I’m around, but I just won’t be seeing you.”  I’m not sure there’s a good way to phrase something like that.  It makes it seem that the point of this practice is not to not see people, which it’s not.  It’s just to give my life more structure and intensity of practice, to push me outside of my comfort zone.  Me. Not my friends or family.

About the same time I was trying to smooth my friend’s ruffled feathers, I was reading a book another friend had lent me, about a woman who began practicing silence by just not speaking at all for two days a month.  Not to anyone. Not even to her family members who lived in the same house.  Think about that.  Not a single word all day.  If you’ve ever done any kind of silent practice, you’ll not be surprised that she experienced all manner of positive benefits from not speaking.  But her family and friends were quite ambivalent, sometimes hostile.  They felt she’d imposed her spiritual program on them without giving them any choice in the matter.  This caused her real trouble with a friend who came for a regular visit to work around the house on what happened to be a silent day.   The friend was quite annoyed, even angry at not having her usual tea and chat time, but the author kept her silence throughout the day. Some days later the friend explained that in her family, silence had been used as a weapon, as she put it, and so the author’s silence had unnerved and upset her.  But then, she added, she’d understood the source of her discomfort, and it had ended up being a useful opportunity for reflection.

I cringed when I read this. As I saw it, the author had decided to pursue her own transformative path, and everyone close to her ended up being part of it, too, whether they liked it or not.   Had she and her husband and son all decided together that they would engage in this as a joint practice two days a month, that would have been one thing. But as it was, her family was left seething, with no chance to talk about it in the moment. This seemed a little bit like spiritual path as a weapon to me.

I think it’s easy to not fully consider how the pursuits we adopt with great gusto and devotion affect those around us, but I think it’s particularly easy to fall into this trap when we call what we’re doing a “spiritual path.”  We can convince ourselves that because we’re devoting every waking moment to transforming ourselves into shining bundles of compassion, we don’t need to keep on taking the best care possible of those closest to us. That’s the possible down side of committing ourselves to any really challenging practice. As my own experience shows, I’m not immune to these negative consequences myself.  But there’s a big upside, too, if we manage to at the same time stay focused on taking care of those around us, if we remember that integrating our transformative work into our whole life is part of our practice, too, not separate from it.

Take Michael’s training as an example.   I see Michael’s decision to devote himself to more than a year of preparing for and then attending OCS as an embrace of a life of practice.  And his commitment and effort inspired me to intensify my own practice. But what’s more,  I recently realized that how Mike’s decision has affected  my daughter Emily.  Her band performed at the Iron Horse this week, and for the past month, she and the band have been working tirelessly to prepare.  They turned their schedules upside down to get together to practice, including a weekend-long rehearsal marathon last weekend. They reworked songs they weren’t thrilled with and fine-tuned others, and got new ones in the best possible shape.  On her own, Emily consciously worked on taking her singing and stage presence to another level.

The afternoon of the show, she was going down a checklist she’d written up so that they wouldn’t forget anything. She looked at it and remarked, “It’s like the checklist Mike made before he went to OCS.”  It sure was.  What I saw in her in the weeks leading up to that show were the same qualities I saw in Mike as he prepared for OCS: discipline, clarity of purpose, consistent dedication to the practice that would make success possible, and a resolute confidence, free of arrogance.  And I am quite sure that it wasn’t by accident that Em’s checklist reminded her of Mike’s.  I know how his dedication and willingness to challenge himself in the service of a far-off goal have inspired her.  She has been one of his fiercest supporters in this endeavor.  And  I see now how his life of practice has served as a fine example for her to emulate. He has shown her how one can approach and meet this kind of difficult challenge. Oh, and while still living as a caring and engaged family member in the process – he and Em are very close, and I am sure she has never felt that his dedication to OCS has compromised their relationship in any way.  It’s as if, in the way he’s pursued his goals,  he gave her a template for focused practice within life as a whole. She adopted it, adapting the methods to suit her own, musical, goals.

Watching this process of a sister following her beloved brother’s example has been very moving for me.  It’s shown me one way a dedicated life of practice, done right, can serve as an inspiration and  a means for transformation for those close at hand, even if they haven’t consciously signed on for such a path.

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Christian Dharma

Christian Dharma

by Jeff Brooks

In times of peace and prosperity people turn away from inner life and pursue the things of this world. It happened in Rome and Greece, Alexandria and Assyria, Babylon, New York, London, Paris, Munich and it was the same cycle every time. People partied and hustled and prosperity declined and as access to pleasure was withdrawn they suffered. Some turned to violence. Some to superstition. Some to despair. And some turned to the inner wisdom that has been handed down from generation to generation for millennia that offers the means to put an end to suffering, to find honor and dignity, redemption and value in human life and life as we pass beyond death.

That is the place of spiritual life.

Now sophisticated people find the idea quaint but religion was devised out of necessity. And like farming or like navigating across the ocean by examining the night sky and the ripples on the water’s surface, spiritual knowledge does not record well. It needs to be lived, modeled and taught from generation to generation – in the company of people who value the knowledge, live it and take their custody of it seriously.

There is a page that western Buddhists can take from early American Christians and their descendants practicing fervent Christianity today. The page is well represented in a shape note hymn from centuries ago which contains many essential Buddhist teachings and more, a means to understand and use them, helping to orient us in the vast ocean of experience, and helping us traverse that sea with skill.

As you read the words take note of the natural sense these singers have of the pervasive condition of suffering as fundamental to life. These singers assume this to be as true as any Asian Buddhist – they did not have the misfortune of being deceived by a few generations of golden calf worship – they knew hardship and want all their lives.

And they did not complain about it. They did not hate life, protest, expect someone else to rectify this condition – they were inspired. They recognized it, as Buddhism teaches, that suffering is one of the qualities of all dharmas, that it is the nature of this life.

Notice the singers graceful and intimate understanding not only of the first noble truth (the truth of suffering) but of a well-developed non-attachment to that which has no self-nature.

What after all is vain about this world? The singers seem to know something the empire builders, titans, moguls, hacks and hustlers all have missed. That there is no lasting satisfaction in holding on to things. They disappear. Buildings and monuments, books and even movies cease to provide lasting satisfaction. Like the folly of Ozymandias laying in pieces in the desert sand, or an aging star staring at herself across the vanity table by candle light, or anyone anywhere anytime: our time, our life, our achievements will vanish without a trace. That is the vain world referred to in the song.

But this world, this realm of desire, suffering and vanity, (samsara as it is known in Buddhist teaching,) is not my home, the singers say. Just as sentient beings take rebirths in every condition imaginable as they cycle through the six realms of existence until they find ultimate refuge in their own Buddhahood, so these singers know that their suffering too is impermanent, and that ultimately they will return home. To peace. To a warm and loving welcome. To a place they belong and where they will feel at home.

A place they will travel in company – with their friends and family, like minded members of their community (called the sangha in Buddhism) with whom they share the trials and difficulties of life, the path ahead, and with whom they will ultimately pass through the gates of peace and joy and ease (nirvana as it is known in Buddhism.) They use the term “Christians” in this sense. It is the name of their community.

They honor the virtue of non-attachment, because they know that to be attached to impermanent and meaningless things, things that arise out of desire, things of this world, is a mistake, is a result of ignorance, is the cause of suffering. (The second noble truth, in Buddhist terms.)

And that beautiful world, that true home, like the Dharmakaya (the all-pervading truth body of theBuddha), is not far away. For those who can see, its right here, for some it is right down the road from here, or right up that hill, or just beyond that cloud-covered peak, yonder, you can just about see it. And to sing praises is the insight of someone in ecstatic union who reported back and described something of the experience in a way like the blissful endless sounds of Buddha words shared by the community of bodhisattvas in the Sambogakaya.

The place we will all be someday. Taking rebirth in a place they are callign the New Jerusalem, the holy city. A place beyond time, where every sound is bliss and every sight is magnificent and every act is virtuous and every person joyful and filled with boundless love for everyone they meet.

Want to go?

Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

(Chorus:)
Right up yonder, Christians, away up yonder,
O, yes my Lord, for I don’t care to stay here long.

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

(Chorus:)
Right up yonder, Christians, away up yonder,
O, yes my Lord, for I don’t care to stay here long.

(Chorus:)
Right up yonder, Christians, away up yonder,
O, yes my Lord, for I don’t care to stay here long.

(You can click here to listen to this song.)

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

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From “I” to “We”

From “I” to “We”

by Susan Downing

In the Family Orientation Guide on the Marines Officer Candidates School website, they tell you what the candidates will be doing throughout the ten weeks they’re in training.  In writing about the first three weeks, they say, “This is the hardest three weeks your loved one has probably ever endured as they undergo a transition of ‘I’ to ‘we’.”  Reading that before my son Michael began OCS training in January, none of us in the family quite knew what that would entail, or how the transformation would take place.  Last weekend, when we spoke with Mike, just after he’d finished his fourth week at OCS, he brought up that topic.

He said that he’d recently been wondering how it happens that all of them in the platoon come to feel that they are a unit, how they buy into seeing themselves as a group of future Marine Corps officers.  He didn’t offer any conclusions, but the stories he’s told us this week and last on the phone helped us see that the transformation has indeed happened, even if no one can explain precisely how.

I haven’t experienced OCS myself, and the only stories I’ve heard about such training have focused on how difficult it is. Brutal is a word that tends to come up a lot.  The aforementioned family guide warns us that in the early weeks, candidates are challenged to work under conditions of food and sleep deprivation.  Indeed, Mike’s first few letters focused on his amazement that he could function so well on 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. And on not getting enough food.  In one letter from his third week of training, he wrote, “I no shit plan out what I will eat for breakfast the next morning for entertainment.”  The next day’s long list included eggs, pancakes, grits, cereal, hash browns.  ”I will eat that in 5 min.  And still be hungry.”  Add to this what must seem like endless days of daunting physical testing and training that included going through a water obstacle course in 38 degree water, and I certainly wondered how the candidates could manage to think about anything besides their own individual welfare and self-preservation.  Mike’s stories gave me the answer.

That water obstacle course I mentioned. They had to do it twice in one week, on two days during their third week of training.  (That was the week we were having nothing but snow and temperatures around zero up here.)   The second time through, Mike developed hypothermia.  They took him off the course, got him warmed up, and he headed back to the squad bay.  When he got there, one of the other candidates came right over and helped him get his gear off, even though he, too, had just gone through the course and had also had to shower off his clothing and gear outside before going in to warm up.  Despite his own fatigue, he had helped Mike take his boots off.  I can’t describe to you how moved Mike was by that.

He described certain interactions his instructors, too, how one gave them hints about how to keep the soles of their boots from cracking when they had to stand around in the snow for long periods.  And how another, when Mike asked a question during class about a topic they’d already covered, responded thoughtfully, that if Mike hadn’t gotten it the first time around, then he should rethink how he was teaching that point.

Then there was the second time they were about to go through that damn water course.  Mike said that on that day, the Colonel came out to talk to them before they started out.  Colonel Jackson, the commanding officer of OCS.  He addressed one of the instructors: “What’s the air temperature?” “Single digits, Sir.”  “How much snow’s on the ground?” “Twenty inches.”  As the candidates took in this (exaggerated) info, the Colonel addressed them now.  “This is your Valley Forge,” he told them.  He said that he knew the difficulty of what they were about to do.  “But when you look back at this in 6 months or a year, you will be proud of what you were able to do.”  You can bet Mike won’t forget that.  By taking the time to come out and address the candidates, the Colonel let them know both, that he knew how difficult the task was, and that he knew they were up to it.  Did anyone listening to him think about how apropos it was that he had mentioned Valley Forge, at a time when they were being forged, both individually, and as a platoon?

In the past couple of weeks, Mike has both been supported by his fellow candidates and given help, too.  He was assigned to tutor his rack mate in one of the academic classes, and he has also made it a point to encourage one of the candidates who was struggling with getting his gear organized properly and had been constantly upbraided for it by instructors. Before telling us about this candidate, Mike said, his voice stern, “One thing I refuse to do is throw the weaker candidates under the bus.”  He said it’s hard to tell what people might be capable of if you work with them, and he said this fellow was really trying, and had improved in the last week.  “What am I going to do,” Mike asked, “just make sure I graduate and not take everyone else along with me?”

From “I” to “we”.  Hearing these stories and others, I came to the conclusion that a major way the OCS instructors help candidates make this transition is by putting them in situations in which they have to depend on each other – whether it’s to get through a water obstacle course or an academic course.  Under such circumstances, there is the opportunity for humanity, compassion and caring to come through, an opportunity to make the effort to go outside oneself for the sake of the other guy.  And then it becomes a chain reaction of support and kindness.  The candidates model it for each other. The instructors, in their moments of sincere humanity and encouragement model it, too. When the candidates feel the instructors’ warmth in even the slightest encouraging word, they know that their own kind words can help their fellow candidates.

I can honestly say that I never expected to hear so much from Mike about kindness and support.  Which tells you a lot about my own preconceptions about this kind of training.  It is so heartening to me to hear that the challenging work Mike is doing is not only helping him master technical, physical and academic skills that he’ll need as an officer.  It’s also reinforcing and strengthening his core humanity and compassion and helping him practice going beyond thoughts of his own welfare in order to help those around him.  As I send you this blog, he’ll have finished his fifth week of OCS.  Halfway done.  And when we all go down to his graduation in March, I will be there to congratulate not only my son, but all of his fellow candidates, because I can already see that it really is a group effort, this forging of an OCS platoon.

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Kinhin

Kinhin

by Jeffrey Brooks

It is human to have a long and vertical spine. Also it is human to walk on two feet, with your head high, your breath free to move and your gaze flexible and alive.

This is not the posture of mind or body we assume at a computer or a desk, in a car or on a couch. Do we feel, under those circumstances, less than human?

We may not be able to escape these settings completely. But we can recover our humanity sometimes, and we can remember who we are. As we do that memory will become more familiar to us, we can have our dignity and nobility back, and we can build a life as free people, not slaves to tools, desire and time.


Go to your back yard. Go to the roof top of your building. Go to a place in the park where you will not attract too much attention. Go to a churchyard, a museum, a basketball court, a cemetery, a mall, a quiet road, a tiny room, the hallway in the back of your office, the space between the couch and the TV in your living room.


Go there and quietly, without anyone noticing, place your palms together and tip your eyes down. Hold your left fist in your right. With your fists at the center of your chest and your elbows lifted, bring your life back to where you are. Where ever you are, leave the thoughts of what you did and what you need to do behind. Where ever you are, depart from all the things that you regret and want. Put your hands together and make your spine tall. Breathe easily under your belt and cast your gaze softly down. No one needs to know what you are doing. Take one step.


You can move forward one half step each time you take a breath. Let your mind settle down and be undisturbed by daydreams, distractions or desires. Not like a robot that is insensitive to the world. But as a human being who does not need to be caught by every impulse, sight or sound, or yearning.

Make your spine tall. Hold your head high on your neck. Breathe under your belt. Take another step. Rolling your body weight from the ball of the rear foot to the heel of the front there is a feeling of gliding forward, without sudden shifts of balance. You can do it at a slow pace. In an hour you might go once around the room.

You can go faster, at a normal walk, or you can go faster than that. But as you go your head stays high, your breath stays free, your mind unburdened by concern and unoccupied by objects. Just open the hand of thought and hold on to nothing that arises in the mind. If you become distracted return your attention to your spine and mind, tall and noble and human, and continue.

Do this for one hour each day. Or half an hour. Or for ten minutes. If you are too busy then consider making a change in your life. We all need a way in this age, to recover the humanity that is being leached away from us as we encounter more temptations and distractions, as we are encouraged to ditch our humanity for fun.

Do this for an hour a day at the same time each day. This is a practice. And it is a holy one. It is a practice because in order to fulfill the requirement of the form – the physical, mental and schedule demands it makes on us – we change our body, our mind, and the structure of our life. Because the result is good – that is by conforming to the demands of this practice our minds settle down, insights arise, we are encouraged to recover our humanity and to recognize the humanity in others – it is a holy practice.

Just doing something a lot is not a “practice.” Doing something which requires us to give up our bad habits, create good ones, increase our health, decrease our disturbance, and recover the dignity, decency, and nobility which are really ours, really us, is a practice. A holy and wonderful one. One worth doing. Starting now.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

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