Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Essential Discipline: Breathe, Observe, Let Go

In his Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, as rendered by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddha offers to his disciples a 16-step guided meditation sequence, on the breath, to help them train their minds. It begins with deceptive simplicity: "Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in; Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out." The subsequent instructions guide us through gradually expanding that basic awareness of breath to include, and calm, the body, feelings, mental formations, and mind. The last four instructions begin with awareness of impermanence, and this expands toward the steps to enlightenment--the disappearance of desire and cessation (of all attachments to self). But the final instruction sums it all up:

"Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go."

This is, as Thich Nhat Hanh frequently observes, the "essential discipline"--the seed of all practice, from which everything else grows. The rest--all the rest--is commentary.

Breathe. Observe. Let go.
Breathing in, observe letting go.
Breathing out, observe letting go.

We breathe in order to observe, we observe in order to let go, and we let go in order to breathe. And we repeat as often as necessary.

That is the essential discipline. So let's observe it a bit more deeply.

1. Breathe:

As Lao Tzu puts it,

"Empty yourself of everything; let the mind rest at peace.
The Ten Thousand Things rise and fall, while the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish, and then return to stillness, which is the way of nature..."

Our breath, that is, is our home base. The minute we directly observe our breath, we reconnect body and mind, and re-enter the present moment. This is deeply healing, no matter what is going on in our inner or outer world; this is why rescue workers, dealing with frazzled and hysterical accident victims, routinely tell them to "Take three deep breaths." They recognize instinctively that the simple act of breathing restores equanimity.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire body of Dharma teachings and insights grows directly out of this simple, testable fact: breathing restores equanimity when our minds are agitated.

2. Observe:

Breathing consciously--that is, "I am aware that I am breathing"--leads quite naturally and effortlessly to observing. What do we observe? First, the fact that we are breathing. Then, anything else, either in our minds or in our surroundings that happens to draw our attention. The strong foundation of our breath gives us a solid platform from which we can simply observe any sights, sounds, words, thoughts, perceptions, or feelings that draw our attention, rather than getting caught up in them--that is, obsessing about them, or wishing they were otherwise. With the equanimity that is the natural consequence of conscious breathing, we gain the ability, gradually, to observe whatever arises in our heads or in the world around us, without getting frazzled or hung up.

There are, in general, three things we can do with any afflictive emotion, such as anger, jealousy, despair, sloth, frustration, fear, resentment, or whatever.

The first is simply to indulge it--to let it control us. This generally makes everything worse.

The second is to repress it--to tell ourselves "you shouldn't think that (or feel that, or want to do that)" with our stern, parental inner voice. This can work for a short while, but repressed thoughts and feelings fester, and will re-emerge, often in unpredictable and highly unpleasant ways.

Most people believe that these are our only two options for dealing with afflictive emotions, but the Buddha (along with other enlightened beings throughout all space-time) offers us a third option:

Observe it. Just keep breathing, and acknowledge the existence of whatever bad stuff has just come up, whether within or outside of you. Take note of it and name it. Watch it, as if you were watching a movie. Investigate it with curiosity--"Where is this coming from?" "What might it lead to?" And then--but only when you are ready to do so--

3. Let Go. It is easy for us to dupe ourselves into thinking we have let go of something when we're still hanging on to it. That is another form of repression and self-deception. So how do we know when we have really let go?

Thich Nhat Hanh often alludes to the iconic half-smile of the Buddha in this regard. And it is true: when you have really let go of something, you can smile quite naturally. Not a big, toothy smile--that is just another form of self-deception. But rather, a relaxation of the lips and jaw, a softening of the muscles around the eyes, a smile that arises as naturally as a flowerbud opens in the Spring.

And here is the remarkable thing: it is reciprocal. We smile naturally as a consequence of actually letting go, but we can also deliberately smile (but only with authenticity--not deceptively) in order to let go. So we smile by letting go, and let go by smiling.

Here is a good exercise to try in this regard. Note how much your facial expressions and your emotional states give rise to each other reciprocally. When we are angry or threatened, we frown and tighten our eye muscles, which normally makes us even angrier and more frightened or inclined to violence. But conversely, when we deliberately soften the muscles around our eyes and relax into a half-smile, we feel calmer and gentler. One way of testing this is to imagine that you have just seen an adorable newborn child--your own, or someone else's. Quite naturally, a gentle, loving, sympathetic smile will bloom on your mouth and your eyes will soften.

Congratulations: you have just learned to let go.

The rest--ALL the rest--is practice. So to paraphrase that wonderful man in Hampton who posted the signs saying "No matter what, trust God" all over town, my closing advice is this:

No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go. It all--always--comes back to that. If you don't believe me, ask the Buddha. Or better still--just try it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Axioms for Clearing the Mind

Several years ago, I developed a set of axioms to help my students at TCC overcome their various hangups about undertaking college classes. These were based on my immersion in the writings of Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is still very much my heart teacher. They were, in effect, a digest of everything I had learned from Thay (which is the honorific title that Dharma teachers are given in Vietnam) thus far, rendered in a practical form accessible to students. I still use these today, and students have often expressed their appreciation of them. Moreover, occasionally I use these axioms as well as an antidote for my own neurotic episodes.

This evening, for example, while studying Italian vocabulary prior to our upcoming trip to Italy, I suddenly found myself wallowing in self-flagellatory remorse about not having used the free time I've had in abundance this summer to apply myself more systematically, and in a more disciplined way, to learning the Italian language, as I had earlier resolved to do. This is an old, familiar demon in my store consciousness that I'm sure most of us experience fairly routinely: the "Why am I so...?" demon--whether we call it remorse, self-flagellation, or simply neurotic self-loathing. It always involves living in the past subjunctive--wishing we were other than we are, and--more insidiously--wishing we had done what we didn't do when we could have done it.

Years ago, I was gifted with the insight that "Hell resides in the Past Subjunctive," the realm of "If only I had..." It is Hell because it involves preferring what never was to what was and is, and hence, in theological terms, it involves turning away from, and denying, God's will-- That that is. (I am sure Dante would agree; this is the central theme of the Inferno). In short, as long as we are caught up in self-flagellatory remorse--tormenting ourselves with questions like "Why am I so?" or "Why didn't I?" we are, in effect, denying God's will and roasting in our own private Hell, with no visible escape.

Based on Thay's teachings, I therefore developed these Axioms, in part, as a form of therapy, both for myself and others, to help overcome such episodes of neurotic remorse and return to the present moment. And I have found, as my students have, that they work quite well. So here they are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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."
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Everyone gets distracted, most of the time. So if you are feeling distracted, you're not alone.
  7. 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.
  8. 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:
Phase One: (Reclaiming the Present Moment): Breathe, Observe, Let Go. Repeat as often as necessary. This is what Thay calls the essential discipline--all the rest is elaboration and commentary.

Phase Two: (A generic daily agenda): Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch. This was coined by Garrison Keillor, to whom I express gratitude, as the sign-off to his radio program "Writer's Almanac." As a daily agenda, it is all we need--ever.

Phase Three: (A generic life agenda): Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. These are the only four things worth doing with our lives, and a job or profession is "right livelihood" to the exact extent that it involves one or more of these activities--preferably, all four. By repeating them on the breath, we remind ourselves of what is really important for our lives and for the lives of all others as well. Here is one way of unfolding these four injunctions:

  1. Everyone you see, and everything you experience, is your teacher, so be ready at all times to LEARN;
  2. 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);
  3. Everyone you see may be hurting in some way, so be ready at all times to HEAL;
  4. 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

Using the Mantra

Recently in Hampton, a man has been putting up signs all over the neighborhood saying "No matter what, trust God." This has created some bickering among the citizens, but I have no problem at all with it--it is a healthy, rather than toxic, Christian spiritual practice. Whenever I see one of his signs, however, I often translate it into my own Buddhist terms: "No matter what, breathe, observe, and let go." Two culture-bound metaphors for the same thing--a quick uplink to the Sacred, whenever you need it.

My own uplink to the Sacred, which I call the Dharma Gaia mantra, can be used in a variety of ways, and of course is open to improvisation by anyone; as the Buddha himself said at the end of his life, "Be a light unto yourself." So if you wish to experiment with the mantra, here are a few approaches I have tried:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Finally, whenever any of this becomes too complicated, just let it go, and return silently to your breath, resting in Alaya...

Once again, feel free to experiment and improvise, in accordance with your own traditions or practice.

The Practice in a Nutshell

What is Dharma Gaia?

If someone asks me, "What is Dharma Gaia?" my short answer is as follows:

DHARMA is the Sanskrit word, the core concept of all religions rooted in the Indian subcontinent, which is etymologically defined as "that to which we adhere." It has many shades of meaning, which have changed and broadened throughout its history, and of course no one definition will be adequate, but another way of understanding it is that it simply designates "that that is." Above all, it is universal--not restricted to any one tradition or ideology, but rather the truth principle reflected in all of them. And it cannot be grasped intellectually alone. For this reason, the Dalai Lama defines the Dharma as a principle, a precept, and a practice simultaneously.

GAIA is the living Earth, understood in ancient times as a Myth, a Greek name for the primordial Earth Mother Goddess; in modern scientific terms as a Model (developed in the 1970s and 80s by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), but more broadly, as a Metaphor for a new/old understanding of humanity as a part of, rather than apart from, the natural world, and as a worldwide Movement based on this new metaphor. Gaia is thus the outward manifestation of the Dharma, and hence the name Dharma Gaia, coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, is a bicultural pun on the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya--the Body of the Dharma.

So what is this Principle, Precept and Practice?

What follows is a digest of all the wisdom teachings I have ever encountered, boiled down to their essence. For these, I quote directly some of my heart teachers, or the Bodhisattvas who have inspired me the most:

PRINCIPLE: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRECEPT: "Take care of everyone and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing." --Lao Tzu.


"Breathe, Observe, Let Go." --The Buddha.
"Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch." --Garrison Keillor.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. --me.*

*Well--I can't take complete credit here either, except for the word "heal." The triad "Learn, Teach, and Create" is one that I learned from a would-be guru I met out in Oregon years ago, named John David Garcia, but I felt it was incomplete without another verb, so I added "heal."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Timely Octavia Butler Poem

Octavia Butler, who died a few years ago, was a very successful African American science fiction writer from California, who wrote many popular books. About 6 or 7 years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with her when she visited Hampton U to speak to the students, and prior to her arrival, I read her book "Parable of the Sower."

The book has stuck in my mind ever since, for it is one of the best, and I think most accurate, works of dystopic fiction I've come across. Set in 2025 or so, it depicts the young heroine, Lauren, growing up in a gated community in the LA area, as California, the nation, and the world steadily disintegrate into terminal chaos and violence, while maintaining the outward facade of our social infrastructure. Her community is trashed by a crazed gang of pyromaniac druggies, and she takes off with a few straggling survivors on a harrowing quest, on foot, along with a swarm of mutually hostile fellow refugees, up the increasingly empty highways (due to peak and decline of oil) toward Northern California, in a desperate quest for land on which to begin anew.

In the course of her quest, Lauren starts writing short verses which she collects as "Earthseed: the Book of the Living," in an attempt to create a new religion or sustaining ideology through the increasing chaos and corporate domination of the world around her, as she builds her community of refugees. Her "Earthseed" religion is a provocative combination of Gaian Buddhism and hard-headed Machiavellian realism. Its major premise, which is entirely compatible with the Dharma, is that "God is Change." And Butler develops the implications of this idea in some very imaginative and provocative ways.

These days, with the primordial catastrophe in the Gulf on one hand, and the poisoning of our public discourse by the scurrilous and paranoid corporate-funded hate-mongers of Fox News, Clear Channel Radio, and the Republikan party on the other, I am relating more and more to Butler's dark and scary vision of the immediate future. So here one interesting and unnerving poem from the "Earthseed" series that very much captures my current mood:

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must--
God is change--
People tend to give in
To fear and depression
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one
Group against group
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it,
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

(Chapter 10--p.91)

Rings true, doesn't it? A brief review of the recent century shows this pattern of social chaos, strife, and disintegration again and again. As China slid into chaos before, during, and after World War II, Mao emerged first as a "leader (whom) most followed" and then morphed into a fanatical "tyrant (whom) most feared." Many other nations, such as Vietnam, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and many African nations, saw and continue to see today this same descent into civil strife, chaos, and resulting tyranny, while a few, such as India or South Africa, were fortunate enough to have an inspired "leader most follow" such as Gandhi or Mandela.
Kenya has recently seen both--a "tyrant most feared" in Daniel Arap Moi, and a "leader most will follow" in Wangari Maathai. And after the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, deposing "tyrants (whom) most feared," the result has been horrific social strife and factional violence "until they are exhausted or destroyed," so that, of course, they can then be "conquered by outside forces"--namely, the US military and its installed puppet regimes.

If in fact America is now headed in this same direction toward a maelstrom of civil strife and breakdown of social order, as I strongly fear is the case, what can we each do, individually, to avoid "giving in to depression/to need and greed" so that we can at least strive to become, within our own sphere of influence, a "leader most will follow" and thereby resist the rise of a "tyrant most will fear"? In times of social collapse and the descent into chaos, it is essential, above all, to focus first on inner development and mental training, as Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers did in Vietnam, so that they developed the resiliency to become "a lotus in a sea of fire," practicing and promoting peace even at the daily risk of their lives and taking care of everyone, abandoning no one. The other Gaian bodhisattvas--such as King, Gandhi, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai, have likewise been able to achieve their sustained moral leadership in the midst of invasion, imprisonment, corruption, pervasive violence, and exile by likewise creating a strong foundation in spiritual practice, each within his or her own traditions. This is our task today as well--and for me, at least, the process always begins--whenever I feel myself overwhelmed with grief and despair at the encroaching vortex of global chaos, violence, and despair, by going back to my breath, my mantra:

Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.