Thursday, December 23, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
- Maitri (or in Pali, Metta)--the mind of love
- Karuna--the mind of compassion
- Mudita--the mind of empathetic joy
- Upeksha (or in Pali, Upekkha)--the mind of equanimity.
Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) quotes Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher:
"Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extinguishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings."
Let's look at these four useful mind states in a bit more detail, trying to see beyond the connotative static that often accompanies words such as "love" and see, instead, how we can make them real in our everyday lives.
1. Maitri (Metta), often translated as "love" or "loving kindness" can be understood more colloquially, with less connotative baggage, as friendliness. An easy way to practice cultivating this state of habitual friendliness is to soften, deliberately, the muscles around your eyes, which often tighten up out of stress or defensiveness, and allow your mouth to relax into a gentle smile. Remarkably, when you deliberately take such simple physical actions, they have an immediate effect on your mental disposition toward the people you encounter. You feel friendlier toward them, and remarkably enough, they often smile back. It is important to practice this friendliness without any attachment whatsoever, without an agenda. It is easy, particularly for men, to smile at beautiful women, for example, but there is always, even unconsciously, an agenda attached: "Maybe she will take an interest in me!" Therefore try the same easy, relaxed smile when you see other men, homely old women, young children, or anyone else. Try it even with people you are inclined not to like, and you will find that your hostility toward them begins to dissolve--that you become more generally accepting of other people.
2. Karuna--"Compassion," the usual translation, literally means "suffering with" someone. But as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, Karuna involves, "the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows." Once you have developed a firm foundation--a good mental habit--of Maitri or genuine, unaffected friendliness toward others, it is quite easy, and very healing, to become aware of others' suffering, and to be ready, whenever possible, to be there for them in their need, whether literally, through donations, or in spirit.
The challenge here is to cultivate such awareness without giving rise to a corresponding resentment of those who cause the suffering, for such resentment leads all too quickly to the poison of hatred. This is why the Tibetans, for example, encourage us to cultivate compassion for both the perpetrators and the victims of the ongoing Chinese oppression of Tibet. The powerful Tibetan practice of Tonglen--breathing in your own and others' pain and suffering, and breathing out love and healing--can be a powerful way of developing compassion for victims and perpetrators alike, and thereby decoupling compassion for victims from resentment of perpetrators.
But it takes lots of practice, and I can't pretend that I am there yet. When I see pictures of oil-soaked sea birds, victims of our Iraq or Afghanistan invasions, sick people without health insurance, or displaced homeowners who have been evicted through foreclosure, it is still very difficult for me to resist the co-arising of compassion for these victims with bitter resentment for BP, the Bush regime, the insurance industry, or the financial services industry...I need to remember, in such instances, the wisdom of Alice Walker's mother when she asked her how she managed not to hate the KKK and other racists who afflicted her. Her response was classic: "If they knew better, they'd do better." So when we encounter greedy or hateful people or their victims, the practice, taking a cue from Alice's mother, is to practice Karuna for the ignorance that gives rise to the perpetrators' greed and hatred, as well as Karuna for those who suffer its consequences. Not an easy task, but I'm working on it.
3. Mudita refers to joy, not just for ourselves, but for others as well. It is a natural outgrowth of Maitri or a friendly disposition, and it arises naturally as well from learning to abide in the present moment. A good translation might be "the ability to enjoy"--that is, the ability to feel a shared sense of gratitude and well-being, an awareness of beauty, in whatever we perceive. I find that a good place to practice Mudita is at the periodic TCC graduation ceremonies that we attend each semester. Despite the tedium of the ceremony--all the citations and pontificating--I love to sit on the side of the arena where I can see the radiant faces of all the students who have just received their diplomas, and share their joy. It is a good, healthy thing to do.
4. Upeksha, or equanimity, comes from the roots upa meaning "over" (cognate, through Indo-European, with the Greek prefix hyper- and the Latin prefix super-) and iksh which means "to look." So the etymology points to the core meaning: the ability to overlook--to let go, particularly, of perceived insults or slights. Thay likens it to climbing a mountain and "looking over"all sides. It involves nondiscrimination and nonattachment--the ability to empathize with, and understand, both sides of any given dispute or conflict. And like Karuna, it is difficult to cultivate toward those people or ideas that you don't like. As with all these other healthy habits of mind, it is best cultivated through the "essential discipline," in all circumstances, of breathing, observing, and letting go.
Finally, these four healthy attitudes all reinforce and give rise to one another. Maitri and Mudita are easy to cultivate, because they bring immediate rewards, both to ourselves and to others. Karuna and Upeksha are more of a challenge, because they both involve overcoming our own habitual resentments and attachments. But both are easier to cultivate if we establish a firm foundation of Maitri--an open, gracious, friendly attitude toward all whom we encounter, and Mudita--the ability to enjoy, selflessly, the beauty of the present moment. In time, all four "abodes" become available for us for meeting any person or situation we encounter: Maitri as a baseline attitude toward everyone we encounter; Karuna whenever we encounter or hear of people who are hurting or suffering, Mudita whenever beauty manifests, and Upeksha whenever people get ugly.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
- The present is all there is. The past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet. So it is best to honor and learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the present.
- That that is, is. So it is best to avoid the Present Subjunctive as well, and accept what is--including, above all, our own weaknesses, and "play with the cards we are dealt" as the old saying goes. I tell my students that if they are religious, they should join their hands and say "Thy will be done" and if they are not religious, they can try the old Walter Cronkite sign-off--"That's the way it is."
- Nothing you've done, suffered, or failed to do in the past has any necessary effect on what you choose to do in the present moment. This is the heart of the matter. Our past behavior may influence, but never actually determines, our present choices. In the present moment, we are always free to choose to act wisely, diligently, or compassionately--no matter what we did or didn't do yesterday. In Christian terms, this insight was beautifully expressed by Meister Eckhart when he said "God is the god of the present." This was the heart of his luminous understanding of the Christian concept of redemption. Once again, same stuff--different cultural idiom.
- There are really only two states of mind: mindful or distracted. In tune or out of tune. Here now, or somewhere else, then. We have many different names for emotional states, but they really boil down into various forms of distractedness--of living somewhere other than the present moment--in the past, in the subjunctive, in the future, or in our own mental formations.
- Therefore, there are only two ways of doing anything: mindfully or distractedly. That is (as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it) doing it in order to do it, or doing it in order to get it done.
- Everyone gets distracted, most of the time. So if you are feeling distracted, you're not alone.
- Therefore, we all need find some good, reliable techniques for overcoming distraction and returning to mindfulness. There are many such techniques, from cultures and faith traditions throughout the world. Whichever techniques work best for you, work with them.
- Here is one such technique. This one--my Dharma Gaia mantra--works very well for me; try it if you wish, and feel free to improvise:
- Everyone you see, and everything you experience, is your teacher, so be ready at all times to LEARN;
- Everyone you see is potentially your student, and may need your instruction or guidance, so be ready at all times to TEACH (even if only by example);
- Everyone you see may be hurting in some way, so be ready at all times to HEAL;
- Everyone you see may need your special gift--the knowledge and skills that you uniquely possess--to help them solve problems or to inspire them. So be ready at all times to CREATE.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
- A simple guided meditation: Assuming your preferred formal meditation pose (lotus, kneeling, sitting, or whatever) and ringing a bell to quiet your mind, simply inhale slowly, focusing your attention on your breath, and on the exhalation say (aloud or to yourself in silence) "Breathe..." Do likewise, on each exhalation, with the other injunctions: Observe, Let Go, Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch, Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. Repeat as often as you wish.
- A shorter form: Here is another approach you can try. If your time is limited, and you don't have time for ten full, conscious breaths, you can condense the whole mantra into three breaths, as follows: On the inbreath, say "Breathe." In the pause before exhalation, say "Observe," and on the outbreath, say "Let Go." Do likewise for the next triad: (inbreath) Be well; (pause) Do good work; (outbreath) Keep in Touch." For the final tetrad, try "Learn" and "Teach" on the inbreath, and "Heal" and "Create" on the outbreath. Experiment, and see how different approaches feel!
- The long form: This is good for a deeper exploration of the mantra. The basic guided meditation is stretched out over 30 breaths, with an added injunction woven in, as follows: For each of the ten injunctions, you first contemplate the value and importance of the injunction on the first breath, reflecting, perhaps, on various teachings you have encountered relating to that injunction, or using your imagination to visualize it. For example, you could contemplate the importance of "Breathe" by visualizing the trees breathing oxygen out as you breath it in, and then breathing your CO2 in as you breathe it out; I call this "dancing with trees." Then on the second breath, you practice breathing in the present moment, focusing your full, undivided attention on the actual act and sensation of breathing in and out. Finally, on the third breath, you vow to make your breath your "home base" throughout the rest of your life, no matter what stresses and challenges you encounter. So that's it: First breath, contemplate; second breath, practice; third breath, vow. Do likewise for the remaining nine injunctions. In turn, on three separate breaths, contemplate, practice, and vow to observe, let go, be well, do good work, keep in touch, learn, teach, heal, and create. This takes 30 breaths, but you can stretch it out even longer by taking three silent breaths between each injunction. It is a good way of improving your concentration.
- Group Practices: Any of the above approaches can be practiced as a guided meditation within a Sangha, by having participants take turns vocalizing each injunction, and ringing the bell at appropriate intervals. The guided meditation can also be mixed in with periods of silent practice, or with walking meditation, or whatever.
- Mixing and Mingling: The mantra can also be readily blended with other techniques, such as Tonglen (i.e. the powerful Tibetan practice of "giving and taking"--breathing in your own and others' pain, and breathing out love and healing energy, first to yourself and then to everyone else). For each Tonglen breath, on the inhale, you breathe in the pain and anguish of yourself and others, observe it on the pause, and let it go on the outbreath, transforming it into radiant love and healing energy.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Thursday, April 29, 2010
In the midst of the steadily growing chaos and despair of “the great die-off,” a young man named Edgar Markham, laid off from his high school math-teaching job like so many million of others, and driven from his modest home by attacking marauders who burnt it down after cleaning out what was left of his worldly wealth, wandered the savage streets disconsolately, looking for someone—anyone—who would hire him to do odd jobs in return for a meal. But Edgar had devised a secret, which sustained him through the very harshest of times. No matter what happened, he would find an undisturbed place to sit in a lotus position, or kneel, or even stand—and put his palms together, and then recite the following mantra, one verb or verb phrase on each breath:
Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.
Depending on how much time he had, Edgar explored his mantra at various levels. For example, if something upsetting or devastating occurred nearby—if he was threatened, robbed, or beaten up, or faced any other stressful circumstance—he made do with the first three: “Breathe, Observe, Let Go.” With more time on his hand, he would explore the deeper implications of each of these injunctions, and they always brought him inner equanimity, no matter how harsh the external circumstances. From that equanimity, he gradually developed the ability to act with wisdom, compassion, and serene competence, no matter what the circumstances. When he was hungry, he would join his palms and politely ask people for food, and if rudely rebuffed, he smiled and moved on—no matter how hungry he felt.