Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What does Dharma mean today?

Dharma is a Sanskrit word, derived from the proto-Indo European root *dʰer- which means "to support" or "to hold."  Thus its basic meaning is "that to which we adhere," or "that which supports and upholds us." The term has evolved, throughout Hindu and Buddhist history, to carry a range of connotations (as listed in the Wiktionary from Wikipedia):

  1. (Hinduism, Buddhism) the principle that orders the universe; one's conduct in conformity with such a principle
  2. (Hinduism) one's obligation in respect to one's position in society
  3. (Buddhism) the teachings of the Buddha as one's personal path to enlightenment [quotations ▼]
    • "Dharma practice in the tradition of the Theravada Buddhist masters enabled me to quit smoking and improve my relationships, oh, and by the way, to achieve nirvana."
  4. (Buddhism) the teachings of the Buddha as a practice to be promulgated and taught.
For my own practical purposes, then, Dharma comprises these distinct but interrelated meanings for us today:

  1. Phenomenon or manifestation (usually used in the plural) as in "all dharmas are empty" (of separate existence)--a core teaching of Buddhism; by this definition, everything we see is a dharma. Or putting it more simply, a dharma is a thing.
  2. Calling or Vocation--an individual's Dharma refers to the specific role in life which is ideally suited to that person's temperament, talents, and aspirations. Hence my Dharma is to teach English and Humanities; my wife's Dharma is to paint pictures and create artworks. To cite a useful term from African-American dialect, then, a dharma is your "thang."
  3. The Sacred Truth, intuitively perceived--that which every sacred tradition on the planet has in common, understood (as the Dalai Lama has said) as a Principle, a Precept, and a Practice simultaneously. In short, the Dharma is "the thing itself," that which upholds us, that to which we adhere.  Here is my own favorite formulation of Dharma:
    • 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. This is a succinct formulation of the Dharma as the abiding truth of the universe--combining impermanence, interbeing, and Oneness in one choice quote.
    • Precept: "Take care of everyone, and abandon no one. Take care of everything, and abandon nothing."--Lao Tzu. This is the core ethical obligation--universal compassion--that follows directly from a clear understanding of the above Principle.
    • Practice: "Breathe, Observe, Let Go."--The Buddha. This is the core injunction of Dharma Practice--the essential discipline taught by the Buddha and all other spiritual teachers, for letting go of ego-fixation and awakening to our essential Oneness with all life, all existence.

Monday, October 29, 2012

High Water Everywhere

"It's bad out there...high water everywhere."  --Bob Dylan.

Today, we are in Day Two of Hurricane Sandy, a huge, slow-moving weather system crawling northwards offshore, about to interact with two cold fronts converging from northeast and northwest to create a monster storm, with the Halloween-appropriate nickname "Frankenstorm" by the ever-cute mass media.  It is due shortly to bend westward and slam into the Eastern Seaboard--Delaware, Jersey, New York, and New England, by tonight or tomorrow, complete with high tide storm surges in the full moon--they are predicting 11-foot storm swells washing over Lower Manhattan, possibly even inundating the New York Stock Exchange.  Everyone in the media is calling it "the perfect storm"--the worst possible combination of hurricane, nor'easter, and tidal swells aimed toward the most densely populated part of the country--with power outages, flooding--the works--affecting millions of people all at once.

Here, we are relatively lucky--our lights are still on (for now) and while we've had some local flooding and sporadic power outages, it's nothing like what is in store further to the north. There have been wind gusts, but so far (in our area, and as far as I know) not a lot of damage or fallen trees.  I have spent the storm time grading papers and reading Anthony Burgess's novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a juicy fictional imagining of the life and times of Christopher Marlowe. A symphony (or some orchestral work) by Alexander Borodin just came on the radio.

A massive storm like this, coming a scant week before Election Day, is one more reminder, in case we need it, of how utterly vulnerable we are to the vagaries of wind and weather.  It is also one more indication, should we need it, that rising sea temperatures due to carbon-induced climate change are causing more erratic, turbulent, and violent weather patterns throughout the world. I can only hope, of course, that enough voters see this connection that they might reconsider  Romney, who is, like most Republicans, in total denial about climate change, and would give carte blanche to coal, oil, and gas companies for a feeding frenzy on the planet that would push CO2 levels right up over the tipping point, into a cascade of self-accelerating climate catastrophes that might well spell the end of civilization as we know it, leaving only scattered tribes of survivors, fighting over the remnants. This massive storm could, in effect, be part of our collective karmic debt--Mother Gaia's revenge for our collective greed, ignorance, hatred, denial, and despair.

But whenever I find my thoughts traversing these dark pathways toward immanent, incremental apocalypse, I try to bring myself back to the present moment--breathe, observe, let go--and renew my vow to take care of everyone and everything, and abandon no one and nothing.  To be an agent, that is, of the Spontaneous Remission (if such is to be, as God wills) of the Cancer of the Earth.  And even if that cancer is terminal, to embrace impermanence, interbeing, and oneness, knowing that there is, at the ultimate level, no birth and no death, no time, and that Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Buddhist Nonsense?

The question mark after the title of this blog is intentional, since I am not so much claiming that an extensive body of Buddhist teachings is nonsense, as I am venturing this as a tentative hypothesis--since the truth or falsehood of any such claims about the afterlife can never be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

With that disclaimer, here we go.  Throughout the various traditions of Buddhism in Asia--from India to Tibet to the Mahayana traditions of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, one recurrent school, or branch, of Buddhist thought, belief, and practice has been the doctrine of the Pure Land--Sukhavati--the domain of the otherworldly Buddha Amitabha, a land of pure and infinite bliss, to which, with the right kind of focused meditation practice and or ritual such as phowa,  one can be catapulted after death, and thereby escape the orbit (as it were) of karmic rebirth through the Twelve Links of Codependent Origination in Samsara--the sixfold realm of suffering...

And so on.  With all due respect to esteemed Buddhist teachers, past and present, I can say only one thing:  Give me a break!  I have the same problem with any notion of a "Pure Land" to which the most advanced and virtuous practitioners go after death as I do with the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. My old buddy from the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno, put his finger on it when he noted that all joy or pleasure--or for that matter, grief and pain--resides not in any stasis, but rather in the transition from one state to another.  Or as Lao Tzu never tires of reminding us, happiness is rooted in misery--they codetermine one another.  So how could there possibly be a realm of infinite bliss, without suffering? Or for that matter, infinite suffering without relief? Very simply--if you found yourself  in a realm of unending bliss, sooner or later you would get bored. Likewise, if you were in a realm of infinite flames, torture, and suffering, sooner or later you would get used to it. Pain, like pleasure, results from the transition from one state to another.

This is why I have always liked Bob Marley's take on the question of the Afterlife, as a motivation for much of anything:  "If you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on Earth."  Indeed, since the present is all there is, it follows that, as Hamlet says, no man knows aught of what he leaves behind.  In short--I have no idea what will happen after I die--if anything.  I'll find out when I get there--if there is any "I" left to get there with. Without hardware (the body) how can there be software (the mind)? Who knows?  I don't.

And in fact, the real, living, magnificent, diverse world all around us--Gaia--has all of the above, in every moment, freely available to us: endless joy and endless misery. That is all we know, and all we need to know. The challenge, then, for the practitioner, is to maintain a kind of equipoise--to be compassionately aware of the vast suffering of sentient beings, starting with ourselves, while simultaneously sharing the vast, sympathetic joy of being alive, of participating in the uniquely magnificent, miraculous life of Gaia, with every flower that blooms, every bird that flies, every child that smiles.  As Sogyal Rinpoche puts it succinctly, "learning to live is learning to let go..."  And that includes, for me, letting go of nonsense, however comforting the illusions may be, or however revered the source of the nonsense may be.  The present is all there is.  The past has gone, and the future is only imagined.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Plan of Action?

A gorgeous, blue-sky day dawned this morning.   After I read some particularly grim news stories about the "law of retribution" in Libya, where the insurgents who overthrew Gaddafi are now hunting down former Gaddafi supporters, torturing, and killing them with ruthless abandon in the absence of anything resembling an actual system of justice or due process, and in Brazil, where ranchers are enslaving and brutalizing peasants and forcing them to chop down rainforests illegally, I stepped out on my back porch and caught sight of my magnificent daylilies opening up in the first light of the sun--red ochre, beige, bright yellow. These, like a fresh breeze, dispersed the vile and depressing thoughts induced by the morning's headlines and left me feeling light and bouyant, as I stepped out to water my squash patch, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, and peppers.

The world is a mess, but the Earth is magnificent still. We have not destroyed it yet.  All of these thoughts led, during my morning meditation, back to my sustaining fantasy.  What might happen if...

I created a "Dharma Gaia Circle"--an ecumenical, ecological Sangha or meditation group, based on the following:

  • Understanding " Dharma" as a Principle, Precept, and Practice, and as that which all the world's authentic religious traditions hold in common, despite their different (culturally influenced) ideologies.
  • Understanding "The Four Paths to the Sacred" as a schema for understanding and accepting every religious tradition on the planet as a legitimate Path to the Sacred. Seeing, that is, all religious traditions as as admixture of Dharma and identity politics, and on that basis, welcoming those of all faith traditions to our Circle.
  • Regular Meditation, based on the following basic injunction (on the breath): Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide. (Supplemented by various other Dharma Practices, at our own discretion).
  • Expansion of the above into the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra as a core daily practice:
    • Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)
    • Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)
    • Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.
  • Understanding and embracing "Gaia" as the Living Earth--a self-organizing, self-regulating Complex Adaptive System, unique in the solar system, and hence irreplaceable--as our first allegiance.
  • Committing ourselves to both Vertical (Body-Mind-Spirit) and Horizontal (Self-Community-Planet) healing by engaging in the Four Gaian Commitments:
    • Learning Gaia 
    • Teaching Gaia
    • Healing Gaia
    • Creating Gaia.
  • Studying and Practicing the discipline of Satyagraha as an an expression of our commitment to Heal Gaia:
    • Cultivating Self-reliance (Swaraj)--starting with our own gardens and communities.
    • Speaking Truth to Power (Satya)--starting in our own communities 
    • Engaging, when necessary, in Nonviolent Noncooperation with Evil (Ahimsa).
    • And doing all of the above mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly.
  • Once such a Dharma Gaia Circle is securely established, undertaking an effort to disseminate it elsewhere AND to reach out to any and all other religious traditions to encourage them to establish similar initiatives within the scope of their own governance and traditions (e.g. among Christians, a Mustardseed Project based on "The Parable of the Mustard Seed")
  • Establishing, when resources become available, one or more Dharma Gaia Practice Centers to provide opportunities for others in the community to Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.
This is how I hope to save the planet.  Who knows?  It might actually work--but as Gandhi ceaselessly reminded us, the important thing is to renounce the fruits of action and "just do it" with mindfulness and integrity--or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, to BE the change we hope to bring about in the world.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter 2012

Today is Easter Sunday, yet again. It is also Passover for the Jews, and in Japan, Hanamatsuri, or the Buddha's Birthday (always celebrated there on April 8, though correlated with the Lunar Calendar in other Buddhist nations). Astronomically, it is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon following the Vernal Equinox, thus aligning solar, lunar, and terrestrial holidays. A propitious time, by any reckoning--if indeed the word "propitious" has any other than fanciful significance. Garrison Keillor has, as always, a good take on this today on his Writer's Almanac, in which he describes the pre-Christian or "pagan" roots of the holiday as a celebration of fertility and renewal of life:

"The word "Easter" and most of the secular celebrations of the holiday come from pagan traditions. Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre, the goddess of springtime and the return of the sun after the long winter. According to legend, Eostre once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could still lay eggs, and that rabbit became our Easter Bunny. Eggs were a symbol of fertility in part because they used to be so scarce during the winter. There are records of people giving each other decorated eggs at Easter as far back as the 11th century."

Renewal of life. The common theme in all of these equinoctial holidays--Passover (the sparing of the Israelites from the wrath of Jahweh, inflicted on their Egyptian oppressors); the Resurrection of Jesus, the Birth of the Buddha, and of course the Rabbit laying eggs. In each case, stories of something miraculous, breaking the usual pattern of things--whether we believe it or not. And this recurrent theme, I think, hints at the miraculous nature of the life we all take for granted: the gradual unfolding of a tiny seed, fed by little more than sunlight, rainwater, minerals, and compost, into new life, familiar yet unique, pursuing its own path through the world as it staves off death and entropy for a time, as it grows to its own fruition. Here is an Easter Poem by May Sarton that I found this morning in my Earth Prayers anthology:

Easter Morning

The extreme delicacy of this Easter morning
Spoke to me as a prayer and as a warning.
It was light on the brink, spring light
After a rain that gentled my dark night.
I walked through landscapes I had never seen
Where the fresh grass had just begun to green,
And its roots, watered deep, sprung to my tread;
The maples wore a cloud of feathery red,
But flowering trees still showed their clear design
Against the pale blue brightness chilled like wine.
And I was praying all the time I walked,
While starlings flew about, and talked, and talked.
Somewhere and everywhere life spoke the word.
The dead trees woke; each bush held its bird.
I prayed for delicate love and difficult,
That all be gentle now and know no fault,
That all be patient—as a wild rabbit fled
Sudden before me. Dear love, I would have said
(And to each bird who flew up from the wood),
I would be gentler still if that I could,
For on this Easter morning it would seem
The softest football danger is, extreme. . .
And so I prayed to be less than the grass
And yet to feel the Presence that might pass.
I made a prayer. I heard the answer, "Wait,
When all is so in peril, so delicate!"

I love the way she emphasizes both the sheer beauty and splendor of life in this poem, but at the same time its fragility, its vulnerability--a miracle so easily snuffed out, even by a careless footfall. It reminded me of my own afternoon in the garden yesterday, delicately planting or transplanting starts of spinach, mixed greens, collards, kale, parsley, eggplant, and marigolds interspersed amongst them all, while stepping gingerly through the crumbly, newly prepared soil, hoping I would not inadvertently crush any of these tender seedlings.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"I don't exist."

Last week in Sangha, one of our newer members, a man named Tom (We don't do last names, so that's all I know), who had spent a considerable amount of time in Japan and was very conversant in Zen Buddhism, said something that has stuck with me ever since. While the other members, during our customary self-introductory go-around, were sharing (as usual) their ongoing challenges with their practice, focusing on either self-congratulatory insights or personal frustrations and setbacks, Tom, when his turn came, made (something like) the following remark:

"Whenever I find myself either castigating myself, or taking offense at something others say about me, or wishing I were better than I am, I often stop to remind myself, 'I don't exist.' That is, this notion we all carry around with us of a separate self is ultimately illusory...I am just one temporary manifestation of the universe, but 'I' don't actually exist...the universe exists through me and everyone and everything else."

This was a bracing insight, which is good to remember whenever we get caught up in any of the innumerable self-centered, afflictive emotions (which can be summed up quite conveniently by the classical Seven Deadly Sins of patristic Christianity):

  • Pride: "I am better than you!"

  • Envy: "I want what you have!"

  • Avarice: "I want more!"

  • Gluttony: "I'm still hungry!" (no matter how much you've eaten)

  • Wrath: "I hate you because you insulted or abused me!"

  • Sloth: "I'm too tired and depressed..."

  • Lust: "I crave your bod!"
The common denominator in all of these afflictions is the First Person Pronoun. But what if this "I" does not exist? Well--in fact, it doesn't. Our bodies are constantly replacing their cells at different rates, and they depend on the constant input of minerals, water, and solar energy, tranformed into the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe, as well as the output of CO2 from our lungs, perspiration, urine, and fecal wastes. If any of these crucial systems of input or output are disrupted, we die. Our brains, conversely, retain their neurons for life, though these are nourished by the same flux of energy and matter as our bodies, but this neural continuity accounts for our memories, which give us the impression of a continuous self. But it is only an impression, and will vanish, along with everything else, to its primordial source once we die, leaving our physical remains to be recycled into new organisms. This "I" is nothing more, then, than the universe looking at itself--I and I, or "eye and eye." Or as Meister Eckhart once said,

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

Wow! As the hippies might have said, "That's heavy!"

This basic insight--"I don't exist"--has many uses. Whether you are feeling full of yourself, embarrassed, offended, annoyed, or self-pitying, you can use it as a quick antidote--something to bring you from being caught up in your personal hang-ups or Klesha back quickly to compassionate awareness of yourself and others, all caught up in the "inescapable network of mutuality"--

  • Breathing (with benevolence and gratitude for all life),

  • Observing (with compassion, yourself and others),

  • Letting Go (with selfless joy and openness to all things)

  • and Abiding (in peace, with patience and a gentle smile)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Garden Practice

Yesterday was an unseasonably warm day, breaking yet another all-time temperature record for winter temperatures on that date (as we have come, lamentably, to expect in these times of runaway global warming). So after months of neglect, I decided to get a start on my garden, which is currently a shambles, full of dry brush, henbane, and onion-grass shoots, enlivened only by the early daffodils that have popped up here and there, thinking it was already spring.

Obviously, there is a lot to do, although my garden time was cut short by my stressed low-back, exacerbated by age and by the futile effort of pulling up vines along the fence.

I will readily confess that though I am an enthusiastic advocate of gardening, I am an incredibly lazy, often unwilling, frequently conflicted gardener. The laziness seems congenital--a lifelong pattern of avoidance and procrastination about any task that requires sustained physical exertion and decision-making. I much prefer predictable, formulaic tasks like washing dishes, or sedentary, equally formulaic tasks like grading papers or preparing classes.

And so, the minute I overcome initial avoidance and step out into the garden, my mind is beset with deeply rooted Klesha (the Buddhist word for afflictive emotions or neurotic patterns), including the following:
  • Guilt (at not having done so sooner)
  • Indecision (trying to choose among the innumerable tasks that are demanding my attention)
  • Distracting thoughts (that often make it hard to plan any given task, select the right tools, and plan and execute tasks efficiently).
And once I get going on something (usually fairly formulaic and predictable, like clearing dead brush, pulling weeds, or preparing seed beds with a hoe and harrow)--come a host of further afflictions:

  • More Distracting Thoughts
  • Ambivalence (e.g. is that a weed or a wildflower? I call this the Gardener/Contemplative Naturalist dilemma--since my natural inclination is toward the latter role)
  • Indecision and ignorance (What should I plant where? How much should I prune that shrub or tree? How can I possibly know?)
  • Fatigue and Pain (the inevitable consequence of aging)
All of which, to put it mildly, often make gardening feel more like a season in Hell than a pleasant afternoon communing with Gaia. All of which begs the question: Why bother? Why not hire a landscaper to bulldoze the whole thing, and--like the old lady who lived here before us--turn it all into a bland, monocultural, easy-to-mow lawn?

The latter is not an option, of course, for it goes against all of my basic convictions about the inestimable value of native plants, biological diversity, and fresh, home-grown vegetables--all of my frequent preaching about the three primary steps in overcoming our toxic addiction to Glomart and healing and creating Gaia:
  1. Plant and grow Gardens.
  2. Cultivate and grow Communities.
  3. Cultivate and grow Diversified, Sustainable Local Economies.
So--faced with this basic psychological conflict between theory and practice--between a passionate commitment to everything Gaian, starting with Gardening--and my habitual avoidance of hard manual labor, systematic planning, and complex learning and decision-making--what gives?

Yesterday, on my first foray into my chaotic, conflicted garden of the mind, I hit upon an idea, that is at least worth an effort: Incorporate gardening into my daily practice, whenever possible. And this means, perhaps after my formal meditation, doing perhaps an hour or so of Karma Yoga in the garden--staying in the present moment, and breathing, observing, and letting go of whatever kleshas arise, but practicing Right Effort in setting modest, achievable goals and staying with them. I feel that if my practice is authentic, then as Pema Chodron says, everything I do should become infused with Dharma. And as a kind of prop to acknowledging and letting go of all these Garden Kleshas, my Tingsha, my Tibetan Bells, will gain an honored place among my garden tools, such that, whenever necessary, I can invite them, and then--Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide...and resume gardening.

So be it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gaian Jesuits?

Even though I have never been a Roman Catholic, and have little use for the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, I have always had a grudging admiration for St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus. This Spanish-Basque soldier-turned-monk used the military discipline he had learned to create a highly disciplined monastic order, later known as the Jesuits, to undertake the enormous and challenging task of both reforming the corruption within the Church, and revitalizing it by reclaiming for the Catholic Church many of the areas of Europe that had been lost to the Protestant Reformation.

The Jesuits accomplished this task by means both fair and foul, ranging from political manipulation, infiltration of regimes, and conspiracies to the creation of a wide array of impressive educational establishments that undertook to "deprogram" new generations from (what he saw as) the Protestant "heresy" and bring them back into the fold of (what he saw as) the One True Faith. These educational institutions, in turn, trained their students with a rigorous regime of logic and rhetoric, which has created an array of very impressive and influential scholar-activists throughout the world down to this day. Yet his whole edifice of education, scholarship, global missionary outreach, and political influence was predicated on rigorous basic training in "spiritual exercises" which not only ensured their total and unquestioning loyalty to the Church, but also gave them the intellectual tools and the inner spiritual fortitude they needed to fundamentally transform and revitalize the Roman Catholic Church and give it a formidable global influence that it retains to this day, especially in the Southern Hemisphere--from all of Latin America to much of subsaharan Africa, and on as far as the Philippines.

So again, my admiration for St. Ignatius is based on his truly impressive influence and accomplishments, not on his totalitarian religious ideology ("My way or no way") nor on the ethically questionable, Machiavellian means that he and his followers frequently used in their religious warfare. This leads to my question: Could a Gaian order be established, broadly based on the model of the Jesuits, that would train its sworn adherents to undertake, with similar dedication and efficiency, the subversion of the dominant Glomart ideology, and the regeneration of both a hopelessly corrupt political culture and a dying planet? Lets imagine:

Like the Jesuits, the training for a Dharma Gaia Society would be predicated on "spiritual exercises"--not to engender total devotion to any one religious ideology, but rather to create a solid, reliable foundation for open-minded, generous, intellectually open and rigorous, but deeply rooted spirituality, accessible to anyone, and compatible with any authentic faith tradition or lack thereof. The mission of the Dharma Gaia Society would be to integrate both Vertical and Horizontal healing of our fragmented Selves, our distracted Communities, and our devastated Planet. The "spiritual exercises" at foundation of such training, therefore, would not be any question-begging ideological catechism, but rather meditation, based on the Tenfold Mantra:

  1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)
  2. Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)
  3. Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.
Total commitment to this Tenfold Mantra as a guide to living would be the only precondition to membership in the Dharma Gaia order--practicing it every day in formal meditation, and having it available, at all times, to deal with the vicissitudes they encounter with life. Once trained in this basic discipline, Gaians would go forth into the world to practice Doing Good Work by learning, teaching, healing, and creating Gaia--by pursuing lifelong education in green living (Learning), by finding occasion and establishing programs or institutions to instruct others in the contemplative arts (e.g. yoga, tai chi, etc.), community regeneration (from gardening to community organizing to political involvement), and ecological healing and regeneration (teaching, healing, and creating).

So this is the dream. Is the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra a powerful enough tool of basic mind training (as were Ignatius' spiritual exercises) to accomplish this huge, intergenerational task? Time will tell.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On One Breath

In recent weeks, I have developed a mantra on a single breath that has proven very effective at quickly inducing a state of meditative stability. It is so useful, in fact, that I have started introducing it to my students in all my classes, referring to it as an "inner tune-up" to complement my "outer tune-up" (which usually consists of a small selection of Qigong longevity exercises). Here is the way it works:

  1. On the inhale, say to yourself, "breathing."

  2. In the brief pause at the top of the inhalation, say, "observing."

  3. On the exhale, say, "letting go."

  4. In the brief pause between exhalation and inhalation, say "abiding."

The reason I use the participial form ("breathing") rather than the imperative form ("breathe") is that any imperative we say to ourselves immediately creates a familiar dichotomy within us: the authoritative Parent figure and thus, the recalcitrant Child figure. If, for example, a sugar addict attempts to deal with his or her addiction by saying "Don't eat that cookie," that addict immediately creates the temptation (the recalcitrant Child) to do the exact opposite.

This tendency is beautifully illustrated in Gregory Bateson's essay on alcoholism, "The Cybernetics of Self" in which he cites the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in subverting this internalized Parent-Child dichotomy by encouraging their members to surrender control (let go).

So by saying to oneself "breathing," one is simply acknowledging what one is actually doing--not giving and obeying a command to oneself. Ditto for the others: "observing," "letting go" and "abiding." As such, these words become transparent--they become windows, through which we look at ourselves doing what these words say. This is also why, in his Sutra on Breathing, the Buddha instructs us to say "Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out"--and why, in his Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, he speaks of "mindfulness of the breath IN the breath, of the body IN the body, and so on.

As we go deeper into meditation, the words gradually drop away as crutches, rather than distracting us as attachments. Soon we are simply and wordlessly breathing, observing, letting go, and abiding. This is the wordless, timeless, selfless state known as alaya.

But for most of us, this blissful state of non-thought, of emptiness and calm abiding, does not last long. Brain-chatter, like Nature herself, abhors a vaccuum, and will rush in to distract us again and again. This is where it is useful, I find, to displace this random brain-chatter (since the our minds can actually focus on only one thing at a time) with the mantra itself--focusing once and again on the four participial verbs--Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, and Abiding.

Another technique for displacing mental chatter--throwing a bone to our restless monkey-minds, as it were--is to map on to these four terms other related tetrads, that keep us focused on the Dharma, rather than on our own distractions. Here are a few examples that map on very nicely to these four stages:

  1. Empathy (Breathing in), Joy or curiosity (Observing), Benevolence (Letting Go) and Equanimity (Abiding). These are, of course, the Four Brahma-Viharas, slightly altered in order: Karuna, Mudita, Maitri, and Upeksha. This technique also fits very nicely with the practice of Tonglen (Taking in our own and others' suffering, and breathing out healing to ourselves and others).

  2. Birth and childhood (Breathing in); Adulthood (Observing) Age and Wisdom (Letting Go) and Death (Abiding.)

  3. Fire (Breathing in oxygen--a transform of solar energy) Air (Observing the oxygen as it is carried from our lungs through our blood to all parts of our bodies) Water (Letting go on the outbreath, as water flows downhill), and Earth (Merging with dust--with the ground of our being.

  4. Om (Breathe in) Mani (Observe) Padme (Let go) Hum (Abide)

And so on. I also can extend the tetrad to embrace the entire Tenfold Mantra, thus incorporating my vows into my practice in only three full breaths:

  1. Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)

  2. Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)

  3. Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Practicing this way regularly has definitely improved my concentration, making it less likely that in formal meditation, I will be carried away by distracting thoughts. And that, after all, is the point. That is why it is called "practice:" to increase, gradually, the likelihood that in the course of daily life, we are more likely to respond to vicissitudes, whether within ourselves or in the world, with empathy, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These four participial conscious reminders--Breathing, Observing, Letting Go, and Abiding--can be coordinated with the four phases of any breath we take, any time, anywhere, no matter what, and quickly restore us to the equipoise necessary to do what needs to be done.