Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reflections: All that Jazz

There was a time during high school when I discovered Billy Holiday and the edginess of jazz music. Musicians, the good ones anyway, understand the rules of music so well that they are able to venture beyond the rules of their form and create something even more true and beautiful and reflective of the true condition of human life. I learned this when learning about jazz, though I actually hardly listen to jazz anymore. And, of course, jazz, now that I know it, is just another form like rock, country, punk, ethnic, and electronic music. But if there's a common factor in the music I enjoy deeply these days its that the musician's soul is shining through and that, typically, the music isn't so overproduced that the raw, improvisational edges are missing.

Anyhow, I was remembering how when I first heard Billy Holiday I wanted to be just like her. What a romanticized notion of life that was! Her life was really tough, and, if only for the fact that I'm not stuck in a tour bus all day and singing in smoke-filled bars at night, I'm glad that dream didn't come true. But there was more suffering to her life than that and, no doubt, it contributed to her creative legacy in music.

We all have our disappointments, but on the whole, as an only child and a daughter to boot, I've led a pretty sheltered life. On the other hand, there is tragedy all around me, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world’s economic crisis, Aids, particularly in Africa, and the recent earthquake in Haiti. Cancer, other illnesses, deaths of friends and family. Many of my relatives were in Europe during World War II. Just to toss these examples out there really does their suffering a disservice. I'm sure the suffering was or is on a grander scale than anything I can imagine. On the other hand, the suffering is played out in individual lives, lives just like mine.

I think a normal response many of us have when not directly confronted by events like these is to push them into the backs of our minds, either out of avoidance or fear or some weird notion that we’ve worked hard enough or been ‘good’ enough in our lives so these things won't happen to us. Life isn’t fair though. Just because these things haven’t happened yet, doesn’t mean they won’t. Most of us go on with our lives and avoid thinking about the possibility. I am not saying that we should live our lives in fear and paranoia of the worst possible scenarios. I’m also not saying that we should purposefully put ourselves in harm’s way.

If there’s a point to what I’m saying, its that by avoiding the possibility that life may not be as good (or even there) tomorrow, we deprive ourselves of the ability to see the real beauty that is present all around us. And that’s a tragedy too. The ability to see and be compassionate towards the suffering around us hopefully allows us to not get quite so caught up in our own individual day-to-day dramas, but also allows us to be more appreciative of life.

On a personal level, what I’m feeling is that I can be there for or at least be with these tragedies and suffering a bit more than before, because just like in the music that I enjoy, recognition of this part of life makes me see and appreciate the overall beauty and textures of life all the more. The suffering and pain are a part of life’s song and it’s creation.

What does this have to do with Zen, Buddhism, or any religion for that matter? Maybe its in the realization that being too dogmatic, ritual, or ruled-based, can result in a sense of entitlement due to ‘following the rules’ that really isn’t something we can earn, if life is, at least in part, due to our luck of the draw. I think its best to put judgment aside and focus on the hearts and souls of the people we encounter, because those hearts and souls are just like ours, regardless of the particular circumstances. We need to learn the rules and rituals, and understand them well enough to go beyond them to the meaning behind them, a meaning that is central to all religions, namely that love and compassion should be our main operating principle. Acting out of love and compassion requires a certain amount of flexibility, an ability to improvise, which you can’t get by just memorizing the rules. The rules and rituals are just the beginning, they guide us to the right starting place.

Has somebody said this before? Sure. This is just one of my riffs. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reflections: Sesshin report and some basics

A few people, including family, have asked about my recent sesshin (retreat) experience. The experience is difficult to describe, but here’s a quick attempt.

Zazen: This sesshin was a zazen (sitting meditation) intensive experience. Beginning at 4 in the morning, we sat for 14 50 min stretches per day separated by 10 min stretches of kinhin (walking meditation). There also were short breaks for meals. Compared to other participants, I was a novice to this intensive type of practice. I was relieved to hear before coming that, in contrast to the Center where I meditate regularly, mindful changes in posture were allowed during the 50 min rounds. Still, sitting for this length of time was a physically trying experience. I made the mistake of stubbornly (pridefully?) not changing my posture at all during the first 15 or so periods, and I probably paid for that during later days of the sesshin. There was some discomfort. But there were positive aspects as well. First, I was surprised that my right leg never once fell asleep, because I’ve had trouble with that in the past. Second, much of my past meditation experience has been with Sanghas (groups) where the practice is to keep your eyes closed during meditation. The Sangha I practice with now stresses keeping your eyes open. Even after almost a year, keeping the eyes open seems to be less rewarding for me. As consequence of the physical discomfort I felt, I finally learned to appreciate keeping my eyes open and “making friends” with the white wall I was facing. (We sit facing the wall, not the interior of the room.) That extra sensory stimulus helped mute the discomfort I was feeling. Third, there were stretches of time when the discomfort went away. It either disappeared (for example, when your nose itches, if you don’t scratch it, the itch eventually disappears) or was distanced by a sense of equanimity. Note: equanimity* can be defined as “the ability to see without being caught by what we see” and “the ease that comes from seeing a bigger picture” adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, May 29th, 2004:

*Another description of equanimity I enjoyed reading:

The purpose of all this zazen?: One is just to sit. To empty one’s mind of thought and experience what still there: emptiness and a sense of pervading peacefulness. The other is to be able to take the lessons learned during this practice, if we’ve learned them well enough, into our day-to-day living. During the sesshin, I had times when I experienced emptiness and times when I was swamped with thoughts, even more than usual. I guess that might be expected from such an intense experience.

Kinhin: Kinhin is walking meditation, which can be described as mindfulness of each step and the changes in the body and environment that occur with each step. At the Zen Center where I practice regularly, kinhin occurs at a regular walking pace. The Soto style kinhin is much slower. As anticipated, it did not provide the same relief between sitting periods, but proved much more rewarding as a meditation practice, for me at least. I have to admit, though, that I had to fight to suppress the occasional giggle, at least until I was more used to the experience.

Meals: Wow. The food was amazing. And my thanks to the cooks that prepared it for us. But the main event for me (and perhaps the other steady participants) was that this was my first experience using oryoki bowls. I arrived later than expected for sesshin and because of a promised training session on using the bowls, I had not taken it upon myself to inform myself about their use. A bit of a lack of responsible behavior on my part I realized already a night before I left. My mother called and knew more about their use than I did! (That in itself was a lesson in awareness and responsibility.) Training was brief, I was tired from the drive, and so, during sesshin, the other participants (all ordained) had to patiently and/or with humor watch my face turn shades of red and deeper red as I acquired this skill. Then they had to suffer through my delight when a few meals in (3?) I mastered it. (A couple of the other participants mentioned they found the scenario humorous and actually so did I, so I guess its okay. Thank you again!)

Work Assignments: As is typical during a sesshin, other than the head teacher, every participant had an assigned bit of work to perform during sesshin to keep things running smoothly. I was happy to find that I had been assigned breakfast dishes and kitchen cleanup. Unfortunately, there really was hardly anything to wash other than the serving dishes because of the use of the oryoki bowls. So other than my own shortcomings in preparation and physical endurance, this was my only real disappointment during this sesshin. (I think I can get used to not doing so many dishes, so don’t change anything on my account!)

Sangha: It might amaze some people, since there is no speaking
during sesshin and we spend most of the time facing a wall that a feeling of closeness develops. It does! I am really grateful to have met new friends in the Dharma and to have had the opportunity to participate in this sesshin. It was a memorable experience, not only because it was my first sesshin of this nature, but also because of events surrounding it.

Would I do it again?: Definitely yes! The sesshin was what it was, but I learned a lot from it. No doubt these lessons will be helpful as I say yes to life in all its aspects. And especially helpful for those occasions when life says no, because our greatest learning often comes from when life says no, as painful as those experiences might be. Without doubt, I am extremely grateful to have the practice to guide me and, hopefully, help me live a life that is of benefit to myself and those around me.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reflections: What if 'Self' isn't Real?

We all have many teachers. I was asked the title question by one of mine recently. I am very grateful. And again, I must humbly acknowledge that my understanding is likely, as yet, still incomplete.

What if 'Self' isn't Real?:

Although I don't believe in the classical Christian God (to some folks dismay), what I do believe in these days is an all-pervading consciousness. 'Self' may very well be an artifact or epiphenomenon of the fact that our sensory processing and response mechanisms are housed in individual bodies. (This could explain why neuroscientists, while they can map perception of distinct features of the external world on to different areas of the brain, have failed to map comprehension/conscioousness.) What if this all-pervading consciousness is the sum or some mathematical factor of our individual consciousnesses?

More importantly, if we accept that the ‘self’ is not real how does this affect our view of the world and the rest of humanity? If 'self' is not real, I am not separate from the other 'selves' in the world. Past, present, and future merge with this unified 'being' into one shimmering pearl. Seen as the 'whole' we are no longer subject to the suffering of individual moments nor are we subject to suffering due to a perspective of isolation. The result is a sense of equanimity or, in other words, an inner monastery we can tap into during our daily living.

If we accept that the ‘self’ is not real how might that impact our daily lifestyle as well as any long term goals we might have? Does it matter if our bodies survive? Why should my individual contribution to consciousness matter in view of a greater consciousness?:
-- To add strength and positivity. To help aid and heal the whole.
-- In the effort to "liberate all beings" from the view of individualized 'self'.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Poem: On the Perpetual Motion of the Mind

In writing a form, lush in its recognized transience,
We try to sense the clarity forever falling past us
On a screen of life, love, and wanting. The act itself defies,
Is at once a holding and a release, born of all that is humanity,
Spinning itself out into the dust of the imagined Universe.

We were there once, now we were there again, we will be there,
But it slips into non-existence, a specter that haunts if we pause
To recognize the process of creation. We cup our lost stars briefly
And spill them out on tables, like a rolling of dice.

This is the reality where one of the dice rocks briefly
before it dips into its resting place:

Which is where the painter's hand forgets its motion
And becomes the painting and something previously unimagined is realized.

Which is where bodies rock together, for a moment outside of the realm
Of possibilities, disappearing the mind in shared sensation.

Which is the strangers that are us pausing outside a shop window,
Christmas lights sparkling and reflected back at every possible angle,
But they look past the reflection at emptiness. On either side there is form.

Which is that future where we have been and no longer are.

Which is that moment of dawn when the sky is still yellow around the edges
And the trees are thick black strokes propped on their elbows, blinking
In amazement at the beginning of another decade

in the middle of the clamor bringing in a New Year as it moved us
Into the past, circling the globe, which circles the sun, which circles
Something, like the mind circles, but never returns to quite the same place.

This is letting go of form, a place where words run out of any power
They ever had to describe, and the mind finally rests in the arms of what,
For lack of better words, is everything home has ever meant.