Seeking Completion

“Humans are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.” -Huang Po

Recently I was taking an afternoon hike at a local state park when I came upon a hiker a few yards in front of me. Instead of trying to pass him, like I usually do, I saw a bench ahead and decided to sit down for a few minutes and simply enjoy the stillness. As I approached the bench, an image came to mind of all the benches that I pass with people sitting on them, seemingly waiting for something, occupying themselves with their smartphones or tablets. Even in nature.

I appreciate my iPhone and iPad. They serve me well and when used wisely, enhance communication and connection. But I never carry my phone on hikes, its one of the places I prefer to disconnect completely. As I sat down on the bench undistracted, I sank into the fullness of the moment, the song of the birds and the wind rustling through the leaves  emanating from my very heart, joyfully interconnected. I felt deep gratitude for the beauty of this moment, perfect and complete.

As I returned to my hike, I felt a moment of wistfulness for the dying art of just siting on a bench with nothing in hand. Humans seem to be loosing the capacity to simply enjoy the present moment, just as it is, without the need for constant stimulation. I believe that’s one reason why mindfulness meditation is becoming ever more popular. We instinctively know we are missing something essential, even as many of us grow increasingly dependent on our electronic devices and other distractions to fill the hours, to plug what appears to be empty.

Distractions aren’t new. Throughout history, humans have always found ways to divert their attention from the present moment.  Most of us recognize that our diversions aren’t simply external, but a reflection of our often restless and seeking minds. Now, however, it seems these external distractions are growing exponentially so that we never need spend a moment in stillness and silence. At some point, we need to reflect on this emptiness that calls to be filled. How often do we stop in the midst of our attempts to satiate the void, mindfully slowing down long enough to take a closer look? Could it be that the very feeling of emptiness we want to escape, when no longer resisted, is actually a source of fulfillment and joy?

Seeking completion is a key element of the human condition. From one perspective, we view our individual self as fixed and permanent, yet simultaneously we feel incomplete.  Something is missing. So we seek ways to make ourselves whole.  For most people, it’s a quest with no end. As soon as we achieve the imagined completion, such as finding a mate, career and financial success, or even spiritual achievement, the fullness dissipates and the self again seems incomplete. Our quest begins anew. The constant need for affirmation and recognition can’t really touch the deep emptiness inside; it only skims the surface with a shallow illusion of fulfillment. Even our journey on the Buddhist path will only go so far. As long as we continue to pursue completion of the self, we will feel an uneasy sense of emptiness at our core.

The way to fill the self is to release our attempts to complete it. This may sound easy, but in practice it requires a radical and courageous opening, again and again, in the midst of our myriad distractions as well as our deepest fears.  We need to come face to face with the fear that “I” don’t exist, the driving force that keeps us seeking fulfillment in every nook and cranny of our lives. In our willingness let this self go, to repeatedly face this fear, we at last have the chance for true fulfillment. When we realize that the self we are trying to complete is empty, we find completion in the joy and fullness of this moment.

– Lisa Ernst

A Late Summer Day of Mindfulness Retreat

A Day of Mindfulness Retreat: Awakening to Presence

Sunday, August 26, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.

12 South Dharma Center, Led by Lisa Ernst

Lotus Pads on Reelfoot Lake

Please join us for a late summer day of sitting and walking meditation at the 12 South Dharma Center. We will cultivate insight and lovingkindness through awakening our hearts to the present moment.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, this silent retreat will focus on mindfulness meditation. We will train our minds in present time awareness by bringing attention to the breath and sensations in the body, cultivating awareness of the pleasant and unpleasant states that arise. Through this practice we gradually understand the truth of the constantly changing nature of all things, and we learn to respond with compassion and friendliness to all that arises.

This retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, and a dharma talk. Please bring a sack lunch. Refreshments will be provided at the end of the retreat.

Cost: $35, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A deposit of $35 will reserve your space and is due by Monday, August 20. You may bring your deposit to the center during one of our meditation sessions, or mail a check made out to One Dharma Nashville to: 12South Dharma Center c/o One Dharma Nashville, 2301 12th Ave. South, Suite 202, Nashville, TN 37204. Please include your email address. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat. Please contact with any questions.

The Good Buddhist Trap

by Lisa Ernst

“Where you stumble and fall, there you will find gold” – Joseph Campbell

Many of us in the West grew up surrounded by well meaning family, teachers and friends who stressed the importance of adhering to society-based standards of achievement and success. There’s nothing inherently wrong with challenging ourselves and working toward goals such as a college degree, a stimulating career and a rewarding family life. Unfortunately, many of us also learned to interpret any unrealized goals as character deficits, inadequate talent, lack of motivation and worse. By the time we reach adulthood, our own internal voices may have developed into the harshest critics of all.

Numerous people bring this mindset into their Buddhist practice, often unconsciously. Eastern dharma teachers have observed in western students a strong tendency toward self-criticism and low self-esteem. The tougher practice methods these teachers may use with students in their own countries are often watered down or even eliminated, replaced with a kind and grandmotherly approach intended to counteract the severe inner voices of so many students.

When we begin to study Buddha’s teachings on sila (ethics), right speech, non-harming, compassion and equanimity, most of us are inspired to cultivate these qualities in ourselves. Perhaps we wish to speak more kindly to a loved one who gets on our nerves, cultivate patience during trying times and extend compassion to those less fortunate than us. All of these intentions are worthwhile and necessary for awakening our hearts, but if we’re not careful our Buddhist intentions can become yet another inner exhortation to do better, be wiser and try harder. We may trap ourselves in a tangle of the “correct” and “incorrect” way to think and act, which suppresses what is actually arising. This repression takes us further away from sincerely manifesting our good intentions.

For example, most people on the dharma path want to cultivate genuine compassion toward the homeless.  This is a popular topic among students when I lead group discussions on lovingkindness and compassion. Many students report that they  experience aversion around the homeless rather than compassion.  They feel guilty because they are not manifesting their ideal Buddhist response. Even many long term meditators struggle with this. They forget that aversion, when met openly, is a gateway into compassion rather than something to repress or feel ashamed of.

At a deep level, I believe humans inherently know that all beings are interconnected. When another being suffers, you and I can feel their pain. Often we aren’t even conscious of this and our immediate response to a homeless person may be aversion, judgment and even intense fear. We may simply look away as quickly as possible. He or she becomes “the other” and this shields our intuition that this homeless person is actually none other than you and me. In the midst of this response, yet another layer of separation arises if we reprimand ourselves for being a bad Buddhist, short on compassion. Soon we’re so caught in our reaction to our aversion that any awareness of present-moment experience is far, far away.

But the remedy is actually close at hand. The first step is to pause long enough to  hear those critical voices; simply notice them and refrain from following their stories. Next, begin to accept and investigate the aversion, actually feel the distaste just as it is. Don’t strive to change it into compassion. As you directly experience your aversion and fear, your heart begins to open. An open and aware heart is a compassionate heart.

Begin with yourself; feel compassion for your own fear and sense of separation. As you do this, slowly your heart can open further, to embrace the suffering of other beings, including the homeless person. You may feel genuine sadness or grief for the travails of this person, the unknown circumstances that led him or her to such a vulnerable place in life. Once your heart can accommodate these feelings, compassion naturally arises, a kind and loving embrace that recognizes that all beings, high or low, good or bad, clean or dirty, are all of the same true nature and not the distant other. Sometimes your compassion may translate into action, an engaged response to suffering. At other times you may recognize there is no immediate deed that will help. Either way, you’ve discovered genuine lovingkindness, the heart of a good Buddhist.




Joan Halifax on Mindful Photography

I found this blog post this morning and thought it was quite timely considering my last post about  mindful photography. This is Roshi Joan’s  own moving journey with a camera.

Seeing Inside by Joan Halifax

When I was a kid, I got really sick. For two years, I couldn’t see. It was then I discovered I had an inner world, and it was a visual one. Since I was born with two good eyes, I knew the visual experience. Then suddenly, one morning, I felt my way down the hall of our house in Coral Gables, Florida, my hand sliding along the wall, and told my parents that I couldn’t see.

A cascade of physical disabilities followed and after a while disappeared. During the time when I was in bed, recovering from an unidentified virus, another world opened up to me. I began to re-create the outer world inside of me; I began to see inside.

When I got better, my mother and father gave me a Kodak Brownie Box Camera. Just as my interior life had appeared to me when I was sick, here was a little box that would capture what I saw. It could see inside. I was fascinated, and I was hooked. And I began to photograph the world that caught my eye, beginning from the age of six on, and now I am 70.

Today, a collection of nearly a hundred thousand photographs exists, a thread of images that span time and the world. When I was a kid, I photographed my handsome father standing proudly beside his Lincoln Continental. Soon thereafter, I photographed Cologne Cathedral with my Brownie. The haunting black and white image captured a heavy sky hanging ominously over the bombed cathedral. Recent photographs portray the faces of Tibetans, riven with the elements, Burmese elders, incandescent with innocence, and the landscapes of Zen and the Himalayas.

I never cared about or studied f/stops and shutter and film speeds. I only cared about composition and connection. I never took a class in photography, though I had friends who were great photographers, including Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Julio Mitchell, and others. I thought Diane Arbus was nothing but courage, and met her several times when I lived in New York. I was a huge fan. I loved the work of Ansel Adams and traveled with his daughter. Dorothea Lange’s photographs always took my breath away, as did the work of Gordon Parks and Eugene Smith. In the 70’s, I stayed in Eliot Porter’s house on occasion in Tesuque, and studied his work. More recently, the photographs of Matthieu Ricard show a view of space and light that is resonant with my Buddhist practice. Yet, though the work of other photographers interested me, I had no interest in emulating anyone. I just did my own thing, privately and joyfully, capturing light, seeing inside

As I lived with the camera, the camera was not only my eyes but also my heart. It captured and held light, light that I was always seeking and finding, light that filled the world, even the world of suffering, when light shines through the darkness.

When I was in my twenties, I discovered meditation. What a surprise! It was not so different than the gift of my childhood blindness. I could, through meditation, see inside. I could also see the world in a different way, a way the camera had taught me. The camera had given me a view, a view that accepted everything into its lens. I had a viewfinder (meditation), and a way to develop the world or action. View, meditation, action are one way that Buddhism is described. It is a summary of the Eight-fold Path of the Buddha. And it was to become my way of life, and the life I have followed and noted through my friend, teacher, and constant companion, the camera.

June 13, 2012
Prajna Mountain Forest Refuge