Archive for Meditation

Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

by Jeffrey Brooks

At a public talk a Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama about a matter that was very troubling to her.

She told him about some men traveling in China, dressed in the saffron and maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. These men called themselves “Dharma Rajas” or “Kings of Buddhist Teachings” and attracted many followers in China.

But, this woman said, these men were only interested in getting money from their followers and having sex with the female disciples.

The Dalai Lama had been speaking to his Chinese audience about practicing Buddhism today. He said that today people give great care to their bodies – meaning they seek comforts and pleasures and are very interested in clothing and appearance – but they treat the Buddha’s teaching as “something lower than the bones left over from their meals that they would feed to a dog.”

He does not speak this way to western audiences. But to Asian Buddhists, who have longer experience with Buddhism, he is frank.

The Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama, “What can we do about corrupt phonies like this, who go around disgracing the Buddha’s teaching, and abusing the sincere people who come to them for help and understanding?”

The Dalai Lama was very direct in his response. He told her these followers have no one to blame but themselves. According to Buddhist teachings, he explained, it is essential for each of us who seek out a teacher to examine the teacher’s character and ability scrupulously for as long at it takes to determine, confidently, for ourselves, that this teacher is capable and good.

This is a very different response than she was expecting. She seemed to expect the Dalai Lama to swoop down on the phonies with his dharma squad, discredit them and announce forcefully that people should not study with them or follow them.

Instead he said it is up to each of us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our training.

This kind of careful evaluation of a prospective teacher is the opposite of what too often happens when people seek out training in martial arts and in Buddhism. It is normal for people find their way to a dojo or a dharma center hopefully but casually, by accident or by advertising, and, taking for granted that it’s all about the same, get seduced by a sales pitch.  Then, after putting a little time and money into the relationship, declare their teacher the greatest teacher and their style the greatest style and thus validate their path and privilege their judgment over all others.

This is commonplace, it is naive and it is corrupt.

It is common to all religions. It causes unhappiness, limits people’s intelligence, reduces their freedom, and it often leads to friction and even violence on the way to decline.

In the “Mitra Varga” or “Verses about Friends” it says

People degenerate by relying on those inferior to themselves

By relying on equals, they stay the same

By relying on those superior, they attain excellence

Thus rely on those who are superior to yourself.

If you rely on whoever is superior – thoroughly

And endowed with ethical wisdom

And exceeding wisdom

You will become superior even to those who are superior.

In the “Sutra Lamkara” it says

Rely on a teacher of Buddhism who is disciplined, serene, thoroughly pacified;

Has good qualities surpassing those of the students;

Is energetic;

Has a wealth of scriptural knowledge;

Possessing loving concern;

Has thorough knowledge of reality and skill in instructing disciples,

And has abandoned dispiritedness

We can understand through Buddhism that if we are deceived by a teacher it is a result of our own karma. That does not absolve the corrupt and abusive teachers or political leaders or radicals from the evil they do. But it does tell us that the responsibility is ours to choose well and to deal with the consequences if we don’t.

According to Buddhist teaching we now live in the age of decline. We live in the time when, 2,500 years after the historical Buddha came into the world, people no longer are able follow the Buddha’s teachings. Even though the teachings themselves are present in books and are as valid as they ever were, the cultural conditions have declined to the point where, according to sutra, political leaders no longer support morality, people are primarily concerned with sex and money, minds are disturbed and bodies are sick.

During this age of decline, according to sutra, there are countless Bodhisattvas, great spiritual practitioners, at large in the universe, who keep the teachings alive by manifesting the teachings, by living out the profound wisdom and kindness in them, who maintain a karmic connection with the Buddhas past and future, and work tirelessly to return to the world and by sharing the dharma, save beings from suffering.

In an age when it is not unusual to encounter people who believe that most of the world is your enemy, that happiness will come from sex and money, that whoever dies with the most stuff wins, that we should kill people to express our grievances, that lying is to be expected, that we should brutalize and enslave people who criticize us, that we should hide when frightened and placate our oppressors, it is difficult to practice well.

But despite all the imperfections of our age and the limits of our own lives, we do have some freedom even now. A few blessings, a clear mind, a healthy body, friends around us. A few moments of peace in the morning and evening for practice. The energy to do some good for someone every day.

One of these blessings is that we get to hear this: the Great Bodhisattvas are everywhere. Around us and within us. They will appear to us to guide us immediately, in infinite ways, as soon as we want them.

And that we can join with them right now.

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Sure I’m Grateful, But…

Sure I’m Grateful, But…

by Susan Downing

What are you grateful for? Think about it: are you grateful to have someone or something, maybe a circumstance or event, in your life?   Really, take a moment right now to consider this.  And when you’ve come up with at least one instance in your life where you feel gratitude, then keep reading.

Seriously.  Don’t read on until you’ve tried this!

Now let me ask you this.  When you were reflecting on this question and thought to yourself, for example, “I’m grateful that I have a job,” did you feel only your sense of gratitude, or did you feel something creep in afterwards, a “but”, as in, “I’m grateful that I have a job, but the commute is long”?  Or, “I am grateful to be able to spend time with my family, but I wish I could see them more often.”

If you sit down and make a list of things or people you’re grateful for, don’t be surprised if a “but” comes up more often than not.  I went through this process recently and was horrified at how many “buts” popped up. If I had a scale and piled up all my “gratefuls” on one side and the “buts” on the other, the “gratefuls” would tip the scales, but the “buts” are still there.  And the insidious thing about the “buts” is that they have the last word.  I’m grateful for the nice weather, but soon it will be freezing.  I love the fresh farm tomatoes, but I get really hot in the sun when I’m picking them.  And on and on.

Here’s the problem with this pattern.  When we’re focusing on how grateful we are for someone or something, we’re feeling really happy and satisfied and contented.  But when the “buts” push their way in, suddenly we shift to feeling unhappy and dissatisfied and discontented.  And since the “buts” have the last word, they tend to dominate our thinking, and the dissatisfaction they drag in with them drags us down.   All this in spite of the fact that we truly are grateful for many things in our lives,

Fortunately, we can learn to shift this pattern.  Allowing the “buts” to have the last word is no more than a habit we’ve developed, so with practice we can change that habit.  Our task is to learn how to give the “gratefuls” the last word so that happiness and contentedness become our habitual state of mind.  And then to practice that consistently.  This practice is simple, and although it’s not necessarily easy, you’ll experience the benefits both immediately, in the form of greater happiness and contentedness, and long term, as the “buts” begin to fade.

So, here’s how to do it:

1)   To start with, pick a time each day when you’ll spend a few minutes doing this practice.  It can be any time you will have a few minutes to yourself to sit quietly without being interrupted. Turn off the TV, the music, your cell phone…

2)   Close your eyes, take several deep breaths in and out and allow your body to relax, especially your shoulders.  It’s okay to slump back in your chair or lie down.

3)   Silently ask yourself, “Who or what am I grateful for?”  Don’t concentrate on trying to figure something out. Just ask yourself and see what answer comes to you.

4)   When an object of gratitude comes to mind, reflect on it.  Think about why you feel grateful or happy thanks to this person or thing or circumstance.

5)   If you begin to feel happy, or begin to smile or feel a warm sensation in your heart, then just rest in that happiness and allow yourself to continue reflecting on what about this person or situation leaves you feeling grateful and happy. Stay focused on it for another minute or two, then end your practice period.  That’s it.  That’s the basic practice.

Now, if a “but” creeps in at any point during your reflection, the first thing to do is to note that it is there.  It’s not always easy to recognize a “but”.  You may not even notice it right away.  You may notice it only when you find yourself thinking a whole string of negative thoughts about the person you identified as an object of gratitude!  You might sense a “but” or even a “No!”.  Or the “but” might take a physical form. Maybe you’ll feel discomfort in the pit of your stomach, or a pang in your heart, or sadness, or anger, or your breathing will quicken, or your muscles will tighten, or you many begin to feel antsy, as if you just can’t sit still.  All of these counts as “buts”. All of them show that you are resisting your grateful feelings on some level.

When you realize that a “but” has crept in, your task is to shift your attention immediately away from it.  This does not mean that you think, “You stupid ‘but’!  Get out of here!  How could I be thinking this way about this wonderful person?” and so on.  No.  That’s the equivalent of inviting the “but” in for tea and a chat.  No.  Just calmly but firmly turn your attention away from the “but” and back to the “grateful.”  Here are two ways to do this:

1)  The first way to redirect your mind is to remind yourself that you are grateful for your object of gratitude and reflect again on the reasons for your gratitude. Instead of being carried away by the arguments that the “but” presents, you focus your attention on these reasons for gratitude.

You may find that the “but” doesn’t go quietly, but instead keeps butting back in.  Don’t worry. That’s natural.  You’ve built up this habit of thought over many years, so the “buts” won’t give up in three minutes.  Keep at it and don’t be discouraged.

But what if that doesn’t work?  What if, despite your best efforts, you consistently find you’re unable to end your practice session on a grateful, happy, contented note?  If that’s the case, the second way to move your mind away from the “but” is to use a mantra or prayer:

2)  Begin your practice as above, by calling to mind an object of gratitude.  When a “but” comes in, and you’re unable to shift your mind away from it, recite a mantra or prayer for a short while (30 seconds or a minute or two) and then try again to shift your mind.  Repeat this as needed until you’re able to focus on the object of gratitude once again.

The key here is to distract your mind from thinking about the “but” so that you can feel grateful and happy and content again and end on that note.

Once you are able to stay focused on your object of gratitude for several minutes or more, by which time you will probably be experiencing some warm, happy feelings.  End your practice period while you are still feeling this way.

But what if you find you can’t end on a happy note, even if you’re using a prayer or mantra to help?  Then shift to an object of gratitude that doesn’t bring up a “but”. When you do this practice, you’ll find that different objects come with stronger or weaker or no “buts”.  And although practicing on the ones with the strongest “buts” will really benefit you down the line (and I’ll write about that in my next post,) when you’re starting out, it is a wonderful idea to focus on those that are “but-free”.

You’ll know when you find one of these, because you’ll be able to just sit there and feel really happy and content.  And that is the point of this practice – to allow feelings of happiness and contentedness to bubble up by focusing on feeling grateful!  So, don’t ever chide yourself for having a hard time finding an easy object of gratitude.  Just do the exercise until you find one. Be grateful that you’ve done so, and stay with it.  Enjoy it!

Do this practice at least once a day, and even more if you feel like it.  You can do it anywhere, any time.

By engaging in this practice, we gradually create a new habit of mind. As we get better and better at letting the “gratefuls” have the last word, we find that although the “buts” still show up, we find it easier to redirect our attention to the “gratefuls” and to keep our focus on them.  Over time, we notice that the “buts” begin not to shout quite as much.  Then, we notice that they still come around, but leave without a fight.  Then, finally, they seem to lose interest in showing up at all, because we’re too busy being happy to pay them any mind. In other words, thanks to this practice, we move from “Sure I’m grateful, but…” to “I’m grateful,” to “I sure am grateful!”

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Dharma Compass

Dharma Compass

by Jeffrey Brooks

As we navigate the vast ocean of our lives our senses continually come in contact with things: Things we like and things we don’t like and things we don’t care about at all.

These encounters disturb our peace. As we make a habit of chasing things we like and deleting things we don’t like we get agitated and unhappy.

If we have an overriding purpose that guides our actions and choices we may be able to navigate a course that is not based on responses to pleasant or unpleasant experience.  Instead we can set out to learn what  causes happiness and we get the skills we need to truly be of help to other beings.

One of the skills we need in order to do this is skill in meditation.

Buddhist meditation is different from other kinds of meditation. Its purpose is to train our minds to put an end to suffering forever.  Its methods are devised to achieve this purpose.

We sit in a calm stable posture. In a place that is not too cold or hot, not noisy or busy, free from bugs and wild animals, where it is not too hard to withdraw the senses from their objects of attention and turn our attention within.

Pleasant sensations like soothing music or words may calm our minds temporarily but when these sensations cease the calm vanishes with them.  So in Buddhist meditation we do not stimulate the senses.

There are two training steps in Buddhist meditation. One is to develop a calm clear mind: Mental focus so strong and stable that you can place your attention where you want it for as long as you want it there. Then we learn to use that attention to examine the nature of reality itself.

Gradually we learn to see our mind in operation, to see the flawed mental habits that cause us to suffer, and we learn how to eliminate those flaws.  We begin to do that through study, through the use of our ordinary intelligence and experience. Then we do it more deeply, in practice. Because the mental habits which cause our suffering are so deeply ingrained it takes a very calm clear mind to notice them.  Because they are subtle it takes sound explanation to recognize them, to see how they veer from the truth, to see why they cause us troubles, and what to do about them.

This is why Buddhist meditation is done in serene silence. Not to create a pleasant alternative to the agitation of daily life, but to provide a vessel where inner transformation can happen.

There is a third aspect of practice in Mahayana Buddhism:  training to care for all beings as the underlying motivation for everything we do. Developing that concern for others is a long and difficult training for most of us, due to the fact that our long standing mental habits cause us to encounter beings that appear as annoying and bad.

But training in it is possible and useful. It causes love to fill our hearts and our world.  And taking responsibility for others’ well being becomes the compass by which we navigate the ocean of our life.

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Reiki With a Chance of Insight

Reiki With a Chance of Insight

by Susan Downing

In recent posts I’ve been writing about how to use Reiki to survive turmoil in your life, and about how learning to practice in this way will help reduce the intensity of the storms that swirl around you.  But that’s not the full extent of what Reiki can do for you: by carving out a quiet space and time and going more deeply into your practice, you also make it possible for profound insights to bubble up, insights you can use as the basis for making positive changes in your life.

Every time we do Reiki for ourselves or receive a Reiki session or attunement from someone else, we experience the release of tensions in our body and mind.  Knotted-up muscles can relax, and disturbing thoughts and emotions can also relax their grip on us.  We can describe this process as a letting go – if only for a short while – of patterns of thought and behavior that have caused us discomfort.  One way experiencing this helps us is obvious – we simply feel better! But it can also help us in another way.  During each Reiki sessions, our thought and behavior patterns’ negative effects on our body and mind are temporarily relieved.  We can see this as temporary liberation from habits which do not serve us well, which serve not to increase our health and well-being, but to impair it.

But when we sit up after a Reiki session feeling marvelously relaxed and happy, the last thing we’re inclined to reflect on is what habits may have led to the discomfort we’ve just released while we were lying on the table.  We’re so happy to be free for now of that pain or tension, which at that moment is good enough. And really, we don’t have to consciously go down that road.  Rather, all we need to do is be open to gaining insights, because it’s precisely in the hours or days after a Reiki session that we are likely to gain new awareness of habits that cause us pain.  Reflecting or meditating on insights can help us get even more out of Reiki than temporary respite, whether we’re practicing on ourselves or receiving Reiki from someone else, because they can lead us to make changes that will free us from the habits themselves and not just their unpleasant effects.

This process of recognizing habits and then seeking insight into them is not something you can begin by force of will.  You will gain the moment of insight only when you’re ready to address a given habit.   Here’s an example from my own experience.  All my life I have had an incredible sweet tooth.  I have long known that I was probably consuming more sugar than was good for my body and mind, but I never took any steps to change that habit.  I never saw any need to.  Or rather, I pushed aside any concerns that would occasionally surface.  But one day about a year ago, I suddenly came to the conclusion that it was time to do something about the sugar. A day or two later, I happened to read an article by a nutritional therapist acquaintance about the ways sugar negatively affects the body and mind, and, much to my own surprise, I decided to take the plunge and give up sugar.  I worked with my acquaintance to develop a plan, and within a few days I had cut sugar out of my diet, although it had been an overwhelming food addiction for me my entire life.

It just so happened that this thought popped into my head at a time when I was both giving a receiving a great deal of Reiki.  I have noticed in the past that during such periods I will often gain insight into some long-standing area of tension or conflict in my life, or that it will occur to me that there might be a new way of looking at a situation, if only I would take the time to reflect on it. This is what happened with the sugar – for decades I was not at all convinced that it could be harming my body and saw no reason whatsoever to even consider that possibility, but one day my mind simply opened up and I had a Hmm…. moment: maybe it made sense to look at this issue after all?   I accepted that challenge and was able to make a change in my life that has brought me tremendous benefit.

That is exactly the kind of opening up or shift in perspective that Reiki can facilitate within us.  Sometimes it happens after one session, sometimes after many, or after more intensive Reiki work.  I can’t explain how this works, but I know that it happens, and not just to me! Here’s one way I’ve thought of to describe it: the more frequently and fully the body and mind relax, the more often and deeply we temporarily release our harmful patterns. There eventually comes a tipping point at which we gain both clear conscious awareness of one of these patterns and also a subtle openness to the possibility of changing things.  And in my experience, that is the time at which we have the opportunity to take action in our lives to change those habits for good.  In my case, there was actually once a four-day period after I did a number of Reiki attunements three years ago, when I totally lost my taste for sweets.  But even then I did not take action to cut down on sugar permanently, not for another two years.  I was not ready.  But the opportunity presented itself again, and when it did, then I took the necessary steps to change my pattern.

It’s important to note here that while the Reiki treatments and practice help our body and mind release the effects of our habits for short periods of time, Reiki alone generally does not remove the habit itself.  But when we have reached that tipping point, Reiki can help us gain awareness of the habit so that we can take the steps that are necessary to change it, if only we pay attention to that tiny willingness within us to do so.

That’s what I was able to do with my sugar addiction: the thought occurred to me that maybe I really should look at this situation and delve deeply into trying to understand it.  In other words, I gained the awareness that my craving of sweets really was harmful.  That was the insight, the shift, the new way of seeing things – a willingness to look at the problem of eating so much sugar, instead of resisting looking at it and telling myself there was no reason to stop. And after I had the insight, it was up to me to do the conscious inquiry and take the steps to adjust my behavior.

What this means is that instead of using Reiki only to relieve the effects of my harmful patterns on a temporary basis, I was able to use it to gain insight into how to change the habit and relieve those effects long-term.

Facilitating this type of transformation is one of the most powerful ways continued Reiki practice – or receiving Reiki on an ongoing basis – can help us, and being consistent and diligent with our practice is key. The more frequently we use Reiki to get our energy moving, the more quickly we will reach the tipping points that help us release the patterns that are disturbing our body and mind.  And what I really love about this is that you never know what insights will bubble up.  Out of the blue, one day, you will find yourself taking a new look at a long-standing habit or belief or way of thinking.  When you do experience this, that’s the time to do some reflection, because that’s the time when you are finally ready to make some profound changes in your life.  By receiving (or even giving) Reiki, you can feel a question arise: you can experience a Hmm…  moment.  And then you can take that Hmm… moment and with some reflection,  turn it into an Aha! moment, one that can motivate you to work to shift the way you live in this world and take one more step on the path of healing your body and mind.

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Extra Credit

Extra Credit

by Jeffrey Brooks

If you practice sincerely your life will change. Your mind will become more stable and clear. Your relationships with others will become more pleasant and wholesome. Your understanding of what is good to do and what is good to avoid will become more natural and more profound.

These changes occur when we follow the advice of the Buddha as described in the Dharma teachings and as modeled by the enlightened Sangha. Sometimes doing this is easy. Sometime it is difficult. It is difficult when it conflicts with our long standing habits of behavior or of mind; or when it is obstructed by the culture or environment in which we find ourselves. Then we need to use our intelligence and character to find a way to keep our practice on track – with a good, peaceful meditation schedule and good, positive ethical conduct. It is not always easy but it is always possible.

In Mahayana practice the measure of our success and the material of our practice is the well being of other people. If we begin to develop spiritual pride we diverge from Mahayana; we need to note this tendency and dismiss it, because otherwise it will obstruct our practice.

In English the word pride has several meanings. The two relevant ones (other than a bunch of lions) are arrogance and dignity. These are different and in spiritual jargon are sometimes confused. We do want self confidence and we do want dignity. We want to be proud of ourselves and of our purpose. These are consistent with the Bodhisattva action of “Joyful Effort,” the fourth of the six Paramitas or actions of the Bodhisattva.

But we want to avoid arrogance, avoid separating ourselves from others, avoid seeing our interests as divergent from theirs.

When we develop spiritual pride in this negative meaning of the word we begin to seek distinction as a spiritually accomplished person. We seek recognition by other people of our special goodness or abilities. We seek admiration, approval, ranks, titles, diplomas and so on. This is distracting and harmful if it infects our motives.

In the dojo it is evident when people preen and pose and signal their rank or status or ability.  We can see self regard continually mixed with their interactions with others. This is a sign of small achievement and a lack of self confidence.

We should note this tendency in ourselves and delete it so that we can practice without the distraction and waste of energy this habit of mind produces. We do not need extra credit for being a spiritual practitioner, and we do not need to seek it.

Then we are free to live each moment of our practice for its own sake, for the sake of the wonderful results we experience in this life, and for the good effects we can have on the lives of the people around us, and in the entire universe.

Shantideva in the Bodhicharyavatara verse 109 says:

The work of bringing benefit to beings

Will not make me proud and self admiring

The happiness of others is itself my satisfaction

I will not expect some ripening reward

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Reiki-Induced Climate Change

Reiki-Induced Climate Change

by Susan Downing

In my last two posts I’ve written about how our practice – whether we’re talking about Reiki, meditation, yoga or prayer – can help us ride out life’s storms.  But that isn’t all it can do for us.  As we keep up with our practice, we’ll find that not only is it easier for us to get through storms, there will be fewer storms to get through.

When we begin practicing, it can seem as if we’re just doing damage control.  Sometimes it’s all we can do to manage to take cover from all the storms that swirl around us, whether they arise outside us or within us.  But as we keep practicing, we begin to notice that the storms don’t throw us for such a loop as they used to do. Instead of feeling that we’re permanently in the path of a series of F-5 tornados, it gradually begins to seem that the storms that bear down on us are less and less powerful.  The first time we notice this, we might be surprised and think, wow, this isn’t quite so bad as the last one that blew through.  It seems that way because we’re getting better at spotting the storm from far off and taking refuge in our practice.  All the same, we may have the impression that storms are somehow unavoidable, a simple fact of life that we have to deal with.  But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Once we’ve settled into our practice with a regular routine and are beginning to see some benefits from it – in other words, when the time comes that we no longer feel that we’re mostly in crisis mode – then we can begin putting more time and effort into another key part of our practice, which is taking more care in all our interactions with those in the world around us.

Usui Sensei, the founder of the healing system that has come down to us as Reiki, referred to Reiki as “the secret to inviting happiness.” In addition to teaching his students to practice hands-on Reiki, Usui Sensei also gave them five precepts to live by:

Just for today, do not be angry.

Just for today, do not worry.

Just for today, express gratitude.

Just for today, devote yourself diligently to your work.

Just for today, be kind to people.

It’s precisely this combination of hands-on practice and living by the precepts which brings about transformation in our body and mind, a transformation that is both subtle and profound: without even realizing it, the way we see the world begins to change, and it begins to seem to us that the world around us is changing, for the better.  Here’s one way to describe this process: as our minds become less saturated with anger, we sense less anger in those around us.  As our worries fade, less that is worrisome comes our way.  Feeling grateful for even small things in our lives, we find ourselves among others who also take care to cultivate and show gratitude.   Our hard work bears fruit, and those around us begin to seem more serious about their endeavors, too.  Meeting the world with kindness, we find more and more kindness around us.

In this way, as we not only engage in our daily Reiki practice – or other practices, such as yoga or meditation or prayer or other healing arts – but begin to take more care with how we approach those around us, by living with the precepts in mind, we are able to bring about changes in the weather patterns in our lives.

When you begin to notice these changes in your own life, and when you recognize them as the fruits of your diligent practice, you will feel even more motivated to practice and to observe the precepts.  Realizing that you are able to directly affect the conditions in your own little neighborhood is liberating, and once you realize that you have the ability to transform your world and invite happiness into your life, practicing becomes a no-brainer.  Why wouldn’t you practice?

And really, it’s good to be aware of the precepts and do your best to observe them right from day one of your practice, even if that’s a challenge, because it’s the combination of the two that brings about climate change the fastest.  If you’re new to the idea of practicing the precepts, you can check out my previous posts.  Perhaps they’ll give you some thoughts about how you can begin to make them a regular part of your practice and your life, so that F-5 tornados – and even all tornados  – can be a thing of the past.

Just for Today, Do Not Be Angry

Just For Today, Do Not Worry

Just for Today, Express Gratitude

Prairie Precept (Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work)

Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work)

A Pail of Sand (Just for Today, Be Kind to People)

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Storm Shelter – Part 2

Storm Shelter – Part 2

by Susan Downing

In my last post, “Storm Shelter,” I wrote about how stepping up your practice – whether that’s Reiki or yoga or meditation or another healing or contemplative practice – can help you weather life’s turmoil.  But I also noted that sitting tight as emotional tornados (whether your own or others’) swirl around you can sometimes be difficult, or unpleasant, since doing so usually involves exercising patience in the presence of psychological, emotional or physical discomfort and distress (or all three!)  So, this week, I’ll talk about how learning to go through this process benefits us, in both the short and long runs.

Let’s start by considering the premise that we all want to be able to meet whatever comes our way in life with at least a small degree of calm.  I think it’s probably accurate to say that from time to time we all find ourselves in challenging situations – times when anger or despair or desire or jealousy arise in us.  Sometimes we may even feel these emotions are threatening to overwhelm us, and we wish we could find a way to minimize their effects on us. As I detailed in my previous post, we can learn to recognize an approaching storm and use our practice elements more intensively to ride it out.

As I also mentioned last time, this process is not necessarily easy: although using your practice in this way is less painful than being helplessly tossed about by anger or any of those other powerful emotions, it is still no cake walk.  That’s because once you get yourself into the storm shelter of intensified practice, what you’re mainly doing there is sitting as patiently as you can – while meditating, doing Reiki, etc. – until the skies clear.  You’re being present with whatever distressing emotions or physical sensations you’re experiencing, without running from them or railing against them or reacting to them in some impulsive way, or distracting yourself from them.

I think that one reason this can be so difficult to do is that we simply aren’t used to responding to discomfort or distress by what seems like doing nothing.  Representatives of mainstream medicine and psychology tend to encourage us to respond to discomfort immediately by doing all we can to alleviate it, whether we’re advised to take a pill or let our anger out so that it doesn’t fester inside us.   This gives us the impression that any experience of discomfort is a bad thing and also that it won’t go away unless we actively do something to dispel it.  But as I mentioned last time, these types of storms follow a pretty predictable arc and are generally self-resolving – they’ll wear themselves out and dissipate on their own if we give them the chance.  That means that our only job is to take cover – by taking refuge in our practice – and allow the whole cycle to play itself out instead of trying to stop it or outrun it.

The tornado analogy I used last time is applicable here.  If an actual storm comes up outside, you don’t stand there shaking your first or yelling at it; you do your best to make your way to a place of safety.  And you stay there, managing your worries or fear as best you can until the winds die down, even though you might hear branches or debris flying around outside.  If you find yourself in the midst of a bad storm, you just find something as stable as possible to hold onto and bear up until the danger is past.  And that something stable to hold onto is your Reiki – or meditation, or yoga, or breathing, or prayer – practice.

Now, if you able to approach things this way and tolerate the discomfort of this process, you will see the storm wear itself and lose steam all on its own, without any active participation from you. And you will be left feeling relieved and calm or, and this is usually the case, extremely happy.   The first time you experience this, you’ll be amazed that you managed to get to a state of such happiness by not doing anything except sitting tight and engaging in your practice.

At first this outcome seems so counterintuitive as to be impossible.  But once you see for yourself that turning to your practice as soon as you sense the first signs of a storm will bring relief and joy, you’ll feel encouraged by your newfound ability to weather storms, instead of being overwhelmed by the distress and pain that can arise with them.  Once you see that tolerating a state of discomfort can bring a positive outcome, doing so becomes less of a challenge, And each time you’re able to use your practice in this way, the easier it becomes to be patient with that discomfort, more patient as you go through the cycle.  In other words, you become more confident, because you know that if you persevere in this approach, you will feel things shift to a place of calm and relief.

So, don’t be afraid of allowing yourself to experience some discomfort in situations like this.  By taking refuge in your practice and letting it help you stay calm, you’re developing skills that will enable you to move through life’s challenging situations with less and less disturbance.  You’re establishing the habit of remaining calm in the face of the most challenging situations in your life.

So, keep practicing, and although the tornado warnings will continue to sound in your life, you’ll be able to use them as a way to strengthen your practice, reduce your suffering, and invite more and more happiness into your life.

(This week’s post is adapted from a chapter from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Reiki.)

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Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

by Jeffrey Brooks

If we carve out a half hour of peace in the midst of a busy day it can be very healthy and good. But if we are only spending the half hour trying to feel better then the effect of the time will dissipate quickly, will leave us longing for more peace and dissatisfied with the rest of what we do.

If we have a greater purpose, a purpose to which we apply our experience of peace in that half hour a day, a purpose which encompasses not only that practice period but our whole day and our whole life, then the effects of practice, instead of dissipating, will accumulate. Then we can have the life we want and put an end to suffering.

Staying sequestered in a monastic retreat setting, high in the mountains, surrounded by nothing but sky, light, rocks and trees, if you are prepared and can practice well, you can sustain a feeling of exaltation and profound peace.

You may sense that this is a feeling. You may see that although this is a good feeling, this is a feeling that can pass, because it is produced by conditions and which, when those conditions change, will dissipate. You may remember that down the mountain there are people who have never even imagined such a feeling. Who are trying to make themselves happy in a way which is inadequate, which is producing dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering. You may want to offer these beings something to help them if you can.

You better know what you are doing. Because most of the beings you have all that compassion for have no particular interest in your assistance and are pretty sure they are on the right track already. And anyway, what makes it your business to butt in?

If we take Buddhism seriously and we study it we will learn what to do and what to avoid. We will be advised to avoid killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct and we will be advised to take care of other people, and see deeply into the way things exist.

If we study well, both the scriptures and our own heart and mind, we can learn that following this advice leads to happiness and ignoring this advice leads to misery. If you do see deeply, through persistent meditation and study, you can’t help but want to help other beings who do not know about these ideas and methods.

Example: One human may startle awake, open his eyes which are hurt by the light, with a pulsing headache behind them, and see inches away from his face a crumpled, open, half empty Fritos bag that says Good Fun! on it in happy, red letters.

He does not notice it and instead goes in search of the pipe he used last night or this morning or whenever it was, in the hope that there will be a little rock left in it, or at least some residue, just enough to get him going. His mind is feverish and he is in a rage. He finds the pipe. Lights it up. Nothing.

He gets in the car. It is filled with junk. He checks the mirror and backs out. He catches a glimpse of his face. To others he looks sallow and sunken with bad teeth and sores but to himself he just looks tired. He backs out. He rolls down to a subdivision he knows well. He used to know a kid that lived there. He rolls slow, looking in windows, looking at driveways, looking at doors. He knows what to look for. He pulls down a driveway and his car disappears behind a line of trees. He knocks on the door. If someone comes to it he asks for Jason. If no one comes he kicks it in or pries it open or walks around to the back and uses the slider. Whatever.

He walks in. He goes right to where he knows that people keep their stuff. Fuck them if they are so stupid to not take care of it, he thinks to himself as he goes through the closets and the drawers. And fuck them if someone is in here and shoots me because it would not feel any worse than I feel right now – a thought he has but not quite consciously.

He walks out with a bag in each hand and gets in his car and drives away with a billion bugs crawling under his skin.

It wasn’t always like this.

It used to be he would scope a neighborhood carefully. Watch the houses and watch which ones were empty when and for how long. He really knew his business.

And he would get high and he would be bulletproof and fearless and it was fuckin perfect and he would go out again.  He was untouchable. He would hit ten or twenty houses in a day or two and then party. Then he started getting sick. Then he got into a personality conflict with someone which was only about the money, not about anything else. Then his friends turned against him.

Then he got caught. It was totally unfair, because the time he got caught was a chance thing. Some people came home when he was inside and then the po pos was just everywhere.

“I didn’t even know they had that many cars. They could have talked to me. I never hurt anybody.”

It’s easy to feel sorry for a self centered predator if you would like to do that. Look how he grew up. Look at the songs he listened to and the games he played. Look at the people he surrounded himself with and look at a world that ignored what they thought, and tolerated the way they behaved, until it was way too late.

It’s easy to feel sorry for the people he preyed upon. Who restrained themselves when tempted, who were kind and generous when they could be, who took care of their children, regretted their shortcomings, and worked hard every day. Or who didn’t, but were scared to death anyway when they came home to their door kicked in and their precious things gone: people who are targets not only of addicts and thieves but of sophisticates who make points by mocking them and artists who make a living by shocking them; people whose decency is out of style at a era of social decline.

So what do you do? First train yourself thoroughly in what to do and what to avoid. And then, when you are ready, leave the training hall and see what you can do. Teach the ignorant, heal the sick, protect the innocent. Have a purpose that encompasses your training period and extends through every hour of the day and permeates every word every gesture every act every thought.

Then the exaltation of the mountaintop and the agony of the pit are united within your purpose and all of it will be available for the benefit of beings. But, according to Buddhism, you better know what you are doing.

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Language as Symbolic Act

Language as Symbolic Act

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddha was known as the Enemy Destroyer because he fully defeated his true enemies: the mental disturbances and wrong views which chain beings to suffering. These are the true enemies of all beings.

Mental disturbances can be crude or subtle. Just as intoxicants distort perception so envy, jealousy, hatred and desire disturb our minds, distort the impressions we receive from the world around us, cause us to experience suffering and to behave in a way that perpetuates our suffering.

Sometimes we carry negative emotions from the past around with us. These produce a disturbance in our mind and we seek a way to relieve the disturbance we feel. If we are unwise about the way this works, instead of relieving our mental disturbance, we can make our situation worse.

Late one Friday night a call went out for a domestic disturbance. I went to the address and met up with another officer a few houses away. Even before we got to the door I could hear the shouts from inside. Screams of outrage and frustration, shouts and howls from people who had argued the same things a hundred times before, reaching their breaking point for the hundredth time. It’s a bad sound. Each volley would start “You said…” and crescendo from there… “How the hell can you…” “You can’t tell me…” These folks had practiced.

I looked through the small vertical window by the door and couldn’t see anyone but I could hear someone hit someone and someone cry out and go back at it again, and something went flying and cracked against the wall.

I said “Come on…” The officer I met was newly out of the academy. She did not want to go in. She said “No. We need to wait for back up. It’s an officer safety issue.” It was an officer safety issue. But then it was a citizen safety issue too, and I did not want to stand there while someone got killed. So I went in. She followed.

Inside we found five pissed off drunks who had probably never agreed on anything in their lives but suddenly came together, united in the conviction that I was not needed. Two of them were still shouting at each other and the others were grumbling at me. A busted cell phone was laying in pieces on the floor.

I just had to go for it. Get them all separated but keep them in sight. Sometimes cool heads prevail. Sometimes just keeping your composure in the midst of chaos works wonders. This was not one of those times. Perhaps I appeared nuts to them.  Somehow I was able to convince them that I was about to snap. One by one I persuaded them that it would be best if they would to go to separate corners until we all could talk. They went.

I picked one to speak to first. Through her tears, her mouth contorted by hurt and frustration, face flushed with memory and hate, I got a story. When another member of the party began to chime in, counter a statement, argue or comment, I told them they would get their turn shortly. This was not their time.

In a minute medics and more officers arrived, and each member of the group got the chance to tell their side of the story to their own officer. We conferred. We photographed injuries, took statements and collected evidence. The couple both went to jail. The rest called a cab.

The stories were venomous. They were each other’s victim. It had been going on for years. He said. She said. On and on. They had all been insulted, ridiculed, disrespected and cursed. They were outraged and they wanted to fight back. Against each other. Against us. Against whoever had disrespected them in the past. It wasn’t about the drinking, they agreed about that.

How was all that history going to be resolved? The cops come when society says it’s gone too far: when people injure each other and break their stuff.  The years of simmering and barbs and rage are a private matter. Until it boils over.

This fight is an example of crude mental disturbance. There are subtle forms that afflict us every moment. But, although we act on them, we rarely notice them because our minds are occupied and our understanding is limited.

Two of the vows we take as Buddhists, two of the “ten prohibitions” which, if we follow them, restrain us from acting on impulses which will perpetuate our difficulties, are to refrain from harsh speech and from divisive speech. Speaking directly, even sharply may be necessary. But speaking to wound people or to degrade them or to maliciously set people against one another is not.

If a therapist tells you to vent your emotions then you can help the therapist by telling them that you are not a pneumatic system. And venting does not work any better than bloodletting did, in the centuries when that was considered sound and scientific therapy. Hollering your angry feelings at people deepens those emotions, it does not reduce them.

To allow our minds to settle down so that we can observe the subtle disturbances we need to train to eliminate the crude ones. Then we can choose what we do instead of being slaves of impulse. As we remove more subtle disturbances we can begin to see how our mind works and examine the ways in which our mind participates in the fabrication of our experience. By continuing this process we eliminate both disturbing thoughts and wrong view – we too become Enemy Destroyers. We then can get the skills we need to also save others from suffering.

That couple that got arrested that night were in love when they got together a few years before. So in love they thought nothing else in the world would matter as long as they could be together.

But a few harsh words and a habit of resentment and hurt takes everybody downhill fast if you don’t know what to watch out for and what to do about it.

Government leaders use harsh and divisive speech to pit groups against each other. They inspire envy and resentment and produce mental disturbance in the mindstreams of the people that they lead.  Soon people who have lived side by side as friends and neighbors for generations or centuries are hanging each other and shooting each other.

All the great miseries of the last few hundred years were precipitated with harsh and divisive speech. That kind of speech produces mental disturbance and it also produces wrong views. Because although each individual has their own characteristics, flaws and virtues, people whose leaders persuade them to hate a type of person set that fact aside and attribute identical characteristics to every member of the group. So instead of having an undistorted view of an individual they project a mental fabrication upon that individual and hate them and want to kill them.

It’s happened in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and it is happening here. But no one has to fall for it. If we are aware of the poisonous nature of harsh and divisive speech and understand how to avoid getting caught in it. Then we are free to act as vigorously as necessary to save people from suffering.

Some details in this police incident have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has been teaching Buddhism and martial arts for more than 20 years. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a police instructor of firearms, defensive tactics, anti-terrorism and use of force; and in criminal investigations.

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Vigilance

Vigilance

by Jeffrey Brooks

At first it seemed fine. The guy was going to come out of the door and we would make contact with him. No problem. Do it every day. There were only three ways out of the building and we had all of them covered. It was an office building. There were 50 to 100 people an hour going in and out of the building, except at 9 am and 5 pm. So we waited. And watched.

We did not know if he would come out of our door, or when. But he might come out any time. You couldn’t look away for more than a second. In a second he could disappear into the crowd on the street. And be gone.

This wasn’t the usual arrest. He was about to pull the trigger on a very big deal and many people would be hurt.

At first, watching that entrance was no problem. But unless you are trained to do this you will not be able to do it. People coming and going through an entrance are mostly very boring and your mind wants to wander away.

Some of the people coming and going are impossible not to watch. Your phone is on, it has to be, but you can’t look down to check it.

The world is swirling around you, your heart is beating, and your legs are cramped, and you have plenty of time to think, with a lifetime of dreams and regrets, fantasies and perplexities, and your mind would love to be absorbed by it all but you can’t let it. Not now. Not with what is at stake. So you keep your eyes on the door and your mind upon the deal.

You cannot pull off that level of vigilance just because you need it, just because you want to. No matter how sincere and motivated you are you have to train to do this.

Sitting in a meditation retreat in a cold mountain hut at first seemed not a problem. It was a great opportunity. After a few hours, more so after a few days, even in the pristine silence of the alpine slope, a world swirls around you.

Wind blows, water runs through the ravine, the wood stove crackles and then it cools and somehow a fly comes to life here in the dead of winter and performs swan lake in the rafters. Your heart is beating, and your legs are cramped, and you have time to think, with a lifetime of dreams and regrets, fantasies and perplexities.  Your mind would love to be absorbed by it all but you can’t. Not now. Not with what is at stake.

To get your mind to settle down is just the beginning. After a few days you are ready to begin to probe the quality of your mind. There is no way you can do this just because you want to. Just because you are persuaded that it is a good idea; even if you are persuaded that it is essential, you have to train to do this. You have to prepare.

I had memorized the face of the bomber we were looking for. His threats were real. He had the capability to do what he threatened to do. I looked at the images of his face again and again. A lot of people look sort of like him. But not exactly. I wondered if I would recognize him when I saw him.

It is possible to shoot a missile out of the sky from a thousand miles away. And the lead time may even be long enough to get a second shot. But if a thousand missiles are heading your way it’s a different story. You can’t afford to miss even one. You have to stop all of them or your city is cooked.

Master Shantideva wrote the classic “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” when he lived at Nalanda University in India 1300 years ago. 90% of it is about self restraint and ethics. And about practicing them, so you get better at them. That requires understanding of what to do and how to do it. But it also requires motivation. He explains in that book that if you were asked to walk across a room with a bowl filled with oil you would probably spill a few drops on the way. But if someone put a knife to your throat and told you not to spill a drop or you would be killed, then you would pay very careful attention to what you were doing, and by trying really hard you could get across the room without spilling a drop.

His point was not about being able to carry full bowls of oil. His point was that if you are motivated by urgency you will perform at a higher level and your ability will increase as you train. The urgency to succeed in the practice of ethical conduct and deep meditation and the insight that results comes from an understanding that you will be able to put an end to suffering for yourself and others. If you fail to achieve that in this life then, as you will learn, you will spend endless eons helpless in torment. If you are convinced of this then you will work very hard to be a spiritual hero.

In the ancient Indian Buddhist vow system that was taught at Nalanda in those days practitioners were advised, among many other things, not to destroy cities. That was included on the list of prohibited conduct, along with not killing, not stealing, not lying, etc. – conduct that was understood to cause misery for the person who does it as well as the victims of it – because many of the students of Buddhism in those days were high status people who had the power, if they wished to, to destroy cities. Or they were monks who were representatives and teachers of those powerful leaders.

Then, as now, there were many people who believed that it was good to destroy cities and kill all the inhabitants.

A contemporary example of this belief being the guy I was watching for at the side door of the office building.

And as I watched for him I saw so many people go by. Some were dull and some were beautiful. There were happy and sad ones, arrogant and humble, wealthy and broke, some were looking forward to a long and adventurous life, and some who looked like they’d had it.

And not one of those people deserved to be hurt for no reason. Not one of them, however you feel about their race or class or gender, deserves to be incinerated in thunder and heat, or torn from their family before they are ready, before they have made their peace, before they have said goodbye, before they have done what they needed to do in this world with the one short life they have, before they had their chance to go on their long mountain retreat and finally do go deep deep deep into their heart and mind and see the nature of reality for what it is and free themselves from suffering forever and maybe teach you and me how to do it too.

So I really watched for that guy. All day. I watched every face that came out of that door, hour after hour, long after it seemed fine, even when it was hard to do, and I made sure all the people in that city who never knew what they faced got the chance to go home, that day.

(Details in this police incident have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has been teaching Buddhism and martial arts for more than 20 years. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a police instructor of firearms, defensive tactics, anti-terrorism and use of force; and in criminal investigations.

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