Flip the Switch: How Not to Ignite the Engine of Self

Most times, what we think of as “self” is in foreground, the driver’s seat. Our identity, who we believe we are with our attendant desires, opinions, thoughts and feelings, is often running in a dream state. Usually this orientation operates unconsciously, with little or no awareness on our part. One reason many of us practice meditation and mindfulness to hone our lens of awareness to see through this dream of a separate self.

Through practice, the unconditioned mind, the unborn, as Buddha called it, is occasionally consciously accessed. With deeper practice, it comes forward, it advances on its own. As practice matures, the switch has been flipped for longer periods of time.

When we cultivate smadhi (meditative absorption) our awareness becomes established in the unconditioned mind for a time and “self” may try to come forward but doesn’t easily take hold.

When no-self is foreground, this is the mirror switch. From our mind’s perspective, they are two sides of a coin, front and back. Usually the unborn seems to be at the back, out of our conscious awareness and “self” in the driver’s seat. Of course it is only an illusion but our human perspective will give us a reference point that creates this appearance. So we practice and use tools as best we can to bring us to the unconditioned. This is as Buddha intended.

As a new Zen practitioner, when I had encounters with emptiness and no-self , the experience felt fragile and tentative, like something I needed to hold on to for as long as possible. But of course it always faded away. It took me a while to see the fluidity of this awareness and to realize it wasn’t a problem.

At a recent retreat I was enjoying an extended time of ease and equanimity. Self referential thoughts were not operating at all and the mind was spacious, responsive and awake. During meditation, I noticed subtle thoughts popping up about plans, ideas and self referencing but didn’t follow them. I saw the mind trying to engage, like an engine trying to start but without the fuel of desire and craving, it wouldn’t ignite. The mind of awareness kept the fuel from entering the engine of the self creating process.

During the retreat I happened to read this passage from Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and found his experience and description nearly identical to my experience of subtle thoughts and self referencing trying to ignite the engine of self:

“On a recent retreat I had a revealing experience of how easily we fall under the spell of ignorance and how, in a moment, we can wake up from that spell. You are probably familiar with the experience of waking up in the morning and then, perhaps, slipping back into a dream state for a few minutes before waking again. This might happen just once or maybe several times before we’re fully alert. On this particular retreat, I was noticing that phenomenon very clearly. Then, later in the day, in times of walking meditation, I began to notice more clearly how often there is a thin layer of background thoughts, images, fragments of stories, floating like a thin layer of clouds across the mind. This stream of thoughts is really the hardly noticed but ongoing creation of the world we inhabit. And almost always the thoughts were self referential in one way or another, memories, plans, likes and dislikes. What struck me forcibly at the at that time was that the experience of slipping into and out of these background thought worlds was the same experience of slipping back into a dream state after being awake. I realized that we are simply dreaming the self into existence. And I found that occasionally repeating the phrase during the day “dreaming myself into existence” reinforced the strong aspiration to stay awake and notice more carefully the dream.”

During retreats and any time we have time and capacity for deep Samadhi, the experience of no-self advances to the foreground of consciousness and we can more readily see the mind dreaming itself into existence – we can observe the “self” grasping at returning to the foreground. Awareness can occasionally catch it before this fabrication takes over our equanimity and spacious great nature. This is not an easy practice and is more likely to be accessible during extended retreat, when distractions and external stimulation are minimized.

So you may ask if there’s any value in this practice when we are engaged in our busy daily lives. Yes, because once the mind has settled for a time in the unconditioned we can return home with fewer hooks, see our lives with new eyes and act from a more skillful, responsive place. Equanimity allows us to see our habits and self referential behavior and not immediately fall back into old, familiar patterns, at least for a while.

Buddha taught that true liberation is the end of craving – unchecked thirst, desire, longing and greed. As humans, we will invariably be driven by forms of craving. To try an eliminate it completely is not a path most of us will take. But we can cultivate awareness when craving is the primary driver that brings us back to self absorption and self referential thoughts. Unconscious craving, when acted on, leads us to drink salt water when we’re thirsty. When our awareness opens to wisdom and we see the futility of this craving, the effort to relieve the suffering of self identity, we have more room for a compassionate response to life.

Compassion is the active form of wisdom, which takes root as we let go of unconscious craving and our usual self referencing perspective, and open the lens of awareness to the truth of our interconnectedness to all of life.

With practice we can put down our craving for “something else, somewhere else,” for a while and instead allow our thirst to be quenched with the clear water of our true mind that is always right here.

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Why Are Retreats a Vital Part of Practice?

Why Are Retreats a Vital Part of Practice?

Retreats are powerful. They give you a chance to reset, refresh, and de-clutter your mind. They offer time to resolve unfinished things in your heart, to learn to see yourself and the world with eyes of compassion and forgiveness.

Retreats help to attune to your inner rhythms and to the immense current of universal life flowing through you as you. On retreat you can let your guard down, let your heart open and your bodymind unwind. In the safety and refuge of community, you learn to relax and rest in the richness of life as it is. And at the end of the retreat the benefit is visible: whether it’s a day or a week or longer, everyone looks younger, more open, clear-eyed, and radiant.

Take a moment now and ask yourself: is it time for a retreat? Can a retreat serve you? What might be stopping you from taking time to support your being in this healthy way? Retreats can be healing, transformative and profound, so I encourage you to dip your toes in and explore. You’ll be glad you did!

Trudy Goodman
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I can certainly attest to the power of retreat in my own life. One week after my first time on a meditation cushion I attended a daylong meditation retreat. It was challenging and much of the time I had no idea what I was doing. But as I walked to my car at the end of the day, I felt a clarity and lightness that I had never known before. I knew right then that I would make retreats a priority in my life. They became an oasis of calm and lucidity during a turbulent time in my life. I continued to retreat regularly as my life settled down – they served as vital maintenance for my heart and mind. They still do.

For the committed practitioner, meditation retreats are not a luxury but an essential part of deepening their practice. Concentrated time spent away from daily distractions allows access to parts of our minds and hearts that are normally out of reach; retreats help us contact our deepest evaded realities.

Retreats of various duration are available year round, anywhere from half day or daylong retreats to 7 or 10 day retreats (or more). If your life situation prevents you from traveling afar or carving out chunks of time for retreats, take advantage of nearby half-day and daylong retreats as often as you can and shorter residential retreats that only last a weekend. But do make them a priority as you deepen and sustain your practice.

Lisa Ernst

Spring Renewal Residential Retreat

Thursday Evening, April 19 to Sunday Noon, April 22; Extended Option to April 26
Bethany Hills Retreat Center, Kingston Springs
Led by Lisa Ernst

Retreat full, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com to join waitlist

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“Enlightenment is Intimacy With All Things” – Dogen

Each spring the earth awakens from its winter slumber as the days grow warmer and longer. Surrounded by newly leafed trees and rolling hills, we will renew our minds and hearts in the simple yet profound practice of sitting and walking meditation. Gradually this practice will lead us to intimacy with all of life as we touch the present moment with a kind and open heart.

This silent retreat will include sitting and walking meditation, instruction, dharma talks and private meetings with the teacher. Retreat cost is $240 if paid by March 21; $265 after. The seven night option is $495 if paid by March 21; $525 after. A $100 deposit holds your spot. Please indicate if you will be attending the three or seven night option. Fee covers lodging and all meals. There will be a separate opportunity at the retreat to make a dana offering (donation) to the teacher. A scholarship spot is available if you need financial assistance. Paypal is available here. If paying by check, instructions are at this link. Please include your email address. For questions or to join the waitlist, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

Lisa Ernst is a meditation teacher in the Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman. She leads classes and retreats nationally and teaches meditation internationally. She is a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock meditation Center in Woodacre, CA.

*Dana: According to the Buddha, generosity, or sharing what we have, is one of the central pillars of a spiritual life. In the act of giving we develop our ability to let go, cultivate a spirit of caring, and acknowledge the inter-connectedness that we all share.

Delusion and Enlightenment Have a Conversation

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D: Hi Enlightenment, I’ve been waiting for you, where’ve you been?

E: I have been here all along, but you rarely recognize me. You look right at me, but you don’t see me.

D: I thought you were over the next hill or two and that I have to keep searching. I catch glimpses of you from time to time, but you always disappear.

E; That’s what everybody says

D: To tell the truth, I’m surprised you’re here. I’m not good enough for you. Probably never will be. I’m trying to be a better person but I feel like a failure.

E; Yeah, I hear that one a lot too. Go ahead and work on being kinder and more compassionate, but do it for others, not me. Do it for the world.

D: Thanks, but that might be hard. I seem to be stuck in a lot of, well, delusion.

E: That’s ok, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care how deluded you are.

D: Really? Is my practice a waste of time then? I’ve got a long to do list and I need to get on it.

E: If you don’t meditate, you won’t see me as much, you won’t recognize me. But now that we’ve met, if you think you know me, you’ll be mistaken. You’ll be stuck with only memories. That’s fine, its not my business, but it will make you miss me even more – its your nature to miss me.

D: Then how do we work together?

E: We are together, we’re not separate. I’m always here, even in your most deluded moments. You can’t get rid of me and I can’t get rid of you so let’s make peace.

D: Ok, that sounds good. But can I check my phone first?

Waking Up Through Anger and Love

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At times like this, you may be tempted to let the momentum of anger and outrage pull you away from meditation practice. In fact, sitting still with anger can be very uncomfortable. But don’t let that stop you. Keep sitting – not to get rid of anger, if that’s what you’re feeling, but to become intimate with it. Welcome the discomfort. In the stillness we can allow our awareness, our love, to embrace the anger. What is it telling us at the heart level? Perhaps as we sit, as the dust settles a bit, we become more aware of the fullness of the anger and what accompanies it. For me, right now I encounter sadness and fear for our country. I also encounter a love that can’t be vanquished by hate. Tears flow and I find room in my heart for it all. The beauty and the ugliness – they all serve to awaken my heart and remind me to remain steadfast in love while standing against hate, prejudice and separation, whether in my own heart or in the world.

I’m reminded of these verses from the Shambhala Warrior training:

“In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day into your own heart the treasury of compassion, wisdom and courage for which the world longs.

Sit with hatred until you feel the fear beneath it. Sit with fear until you feel the compassion beneath that.

Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake and rest confident that it will bear fruit.

When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth.

Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritor of the strengths of thousands of generations of life.

Staying open, staying grounded, recall that the thankful prayers of future generations are silently with you.

Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause.

Staying open, staying grounded, know that the deep forces of Nature will emerge to the aid of those who defend the Earth.

Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the higher forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of the world.

When you see weapons of hate, disarm them with love.
When you see armies of greed, meet them in the spirit of sharing.
When you see fortresses of narrow-mindedness, breach them with truth.
When you find yourself enshrouded in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with fearlessness.

When forces of power seek to isolate us from each other, reach out with joy.

In it all and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life. Dance!”

 

 

Michael Stone and The Dharma of Sudden Endings

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Michael Stone with Sylvia Boorstein and Teja Bell, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5/21/17

I met Michael Stone, a popular and beloved Buddhist meditation teacher, while teaching at Spirit Rock in May. We had a lovely dinner together and I got to know him just a bit. His death in July of a likely drug overdose resulting from bi-polar disorder was a shock to the international yoga and dharma community. Here I share my reflections on dharma, death and my brief but memorable encounter with Michael.

Notes: The photograph was taken by me at Michael’s request. The formal dharma talk ends at 19:05.

Delusion and Buddha Nature Are Not Separate

One recent morning while meditating, I was reflecting on the nature of delusion. 2017 started off as a difficult year for me, and having struggled with a multiplicity of challenges, I felt at times as if I were drowning in delusion. Then, a moment of remembering and I was at peace: the awakened mind is nowhere but here, right in the very midst of seemingly impenetrable delusion.

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This is my reflection:

Delusion and Buddha Nature are not separate. Our human nature includes delusion and clarity. When delusion is fully seen and known, this is enlightenment. What allows this alchemy? Letting go of identification with a fixed “self.” A simple shift in perspective and the seeming duality of delusion and enlightenment dissolve.

When we think we have a self that we need to endlessly polish, hone and improve, we get caught in the illusion that awakening is elsewhere. Yes, we need our practice to help us remove what clouds the clarity of mind. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice makes us accident prone.” Yet in the very midst of delusion, if we see it fully, we are free.

How does this happen? As the mind and heart become still, desire and grasping fall away and there is only this moment and no one needing to do anything, change anything or even see anything. Here there is no self to fix , no self to enlighten. Here is the place of peace. I’m reminded of a quote from Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”

Shortly after I wrote this reflection, I vaguely remembered this teaching from my very early years of practice in the Zen tradition. At that time, my understanding of this teaching was beneficial to me, but it only occasionally extended beyond my meditation practice into daily life. A google search brought me to Dogen’s Genjo Koan. Here’s a short piece:

“Delusion and enlightenment are originally inseparable. What is called delusion is as it is and what is called enlightenment is as it is. Delusion should not be detested and enlightenment should not be devoured. They are as they are and they do not get in the way at all. They are inseparable. This is what is reverberating beyond words and you should not overlook this.

If Buddhas recognize themselves as enlightened there is polarization of self and other. This is not enlightenment. You realize enlightenment through delusion and you are deluded through enlightenment. At the place of seeing, knowing perishes and the mind is stilled.”

Balancing the Three Legs of Practice

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I often think of dharma practice like a tripod, with three legs that create balance. On one leg there’s meditation, including daily seated practice and retreats; on another is mindfulness in daily life; the third is sangha practice.

Let’s start with meditation. For many, establishing a consistent daily seated meditation practice is quite challenging. It requires making a commitment to carving out time to disengage from the ingrained distractions and patterns that inevitably arise in daily life. When people say they don’t have time to meditate, I find in most cases that they aren’t prioritizing the time, which may otherwise be used to watch television or engage in social media and other such activities. Consider that in 24 hours there are 1440 minutes. If we can’t find 10 – 30 minutes a day to meditate, which comprises about .07 to 2% percent of that time, its worth examining how we are using our time and what our true priorities are.

Meditation requires that we face ourselves, including all of our imperfections, leaving nothing out. Sometimes our sitting may be lovely and restful, even transcendent, at other times challenging and wobbly. But the key to a consistent practice is the willingness to receive all that arises in our awareness with an open and compassionate heart. This isn’t always easy, but its how the fruits of practice begin to ripen and transform our lives.

For the committed practitioner, meditation retreats are not a luxury but a vital part of deepening their practice. Concentrated time spent away from daily distractions allows access parts of our minds and hearts that are otherwise out of reach; retreats help us contact our deepest evaded realities. If your life situation prevents you from traveling afar or carving out chunks of time for retreats, take advantage of daylong retreats as often as you can and shorter residential retreats that only last a weekend. But do make them a priority.

Practicing mindfulness in daily life is also vital to waking up. As the popularity of mindfulness has grown, some people have mistakenly concluded that seated meditation and mindfulness in daily life are interchangeable practices. This is simply not the case. For a truly balanced practice, both are essential; we need to align what we learn in our seated practice with activities in our daily lives. One of the best ways to bring mindfulness into daily life is practicing mindfulness of the body. This is a deceptively simple yet deep practice: Buddha said that mindfulness of the body leads to enlightenment. We’re so often caught up in our busyness, our activities and thoughts that we lose our connection with this moment. Our bodies are always right here, ready and available to serve as an anchor for our present moment awareness. Bringing mindfulness to your body is an uncomplicated yet powerful practice you can do throughout the day to root your awareness in this moment and disengage from reactive patterns and habitual thoughts. You can still plan, think and carry out your activities, but you can do it all from a foundation more firmly grounded in presence and awareness.

Sangha comprises the third leg of the tripod. Sangha helps us create a stable support in our lives as we derive strength in our practice through sharing it with others. There is a notable, almost mysterious vibrancy that arises from meditating in a group setting. The collective energy of our concentration bolsters the individual and group simultaneously, allowing us to go deeper into our practice than if we only do it alone. Sangha practice also provides ample opportunities to practice generosity by contributing what we can to support the community of practitioners. We begin to break through the illusion of separation and realize that our practice isn’t only for ourselves, but for all beings. We also have an opportunity to view our habits, biases and aversions in the context of a group. The renowned Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn likened sangha practice to cooking a pot of potatoes. He said that you could wash potatoes one by one or you could put numerous potatoes in a pot and stir them all together: they all rub up against each other, each getting clean in the process and rounding out the rough spots.

When our dharma practice is balanced it includes all three legs of this tripod. If we only focus on only one or two, we expend energy trying to maintain balance without a stable foundation. With our tripod in balance, however, we create the conditions for our practice to fully ripen and transform our lives.

Reflections on Michael Crowder

This is a lovely essay and reflection by Sharon Safer about longtime One Dharma sangha member Michael Crowder, who died on February 18. He was a fixture at our Monday night meditations and his dedication to practice along with the way he lived his life left a deep impression on many:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael since you let me know he had died.

I met Michael through One Dharma years ago.

My first impression was THAT … being impressed by Michael’s dedication to his practice. He was more serious than anyone I’d ever met about a sitting practice, sharing how he would sit for hours on end, and still thinking he needed to sit longer and more deeply. Sometimes, when I encounter folks who are “all that” in other areas of life, I will compare myself to whatever it is that they are “better” at … but not so with Michael. The way that he spoke about his practice, experiences while sitting, and his incredibly DEEP understanding of the dharma were delivered in such a quiet and humble manner that I became more curious than impressed! Not to say that he couldn’t be hard-headed and opinionated on occasion! But that he didn’t brag about his intellectual understanding or depth of practice … that it was just who he was and how he chose to live his life.

Michael enjoyed sharing his understanding of the dharma. I remember going home one Monday night to look up “Jhanas,” because Michael had spoken – at length! – about the Jhanas that night, and I’d never heard of them.

I heard bits and pieces of Michael’s life story, but never his entire story, and that’s ok. I just knew that he’d been through a lot and that he lived with significant physical limitations and discomfort that increased over the years.

Michael rarely asked for … or accepted … help that was offered, but as we got to know each other over time, he would let me drive him home after meditation sessions. Such a simple thing, but I felt honored that he allowed me to take him home – to serve him, who never asked for much.

In spite of Michael’s health and physical limitations and deterioration, I NEVER saw him pity himself or his situation, but rather the opposite. He was determined to live as “normally” as you and me. On retreat at Bethany Hills, he was absolutely determined to walk up and down the hill to the dining hall and to put in his kitchen time just like the rest of us. Towards the end of one of the retreats he pooped out and couldn’t make the trek. Several of us offered to bring him meals, which for the most part he graciously declined, but did let us take him cheese and fruit. One night at Bethany Hills, he had a very close medical emergency, but didn’t ask for help or let on to anyone that night … I’m not recalling whether Lisa and I found out during the retreat, or some time afterward.

Thinking about Michael, after hearing of his death, I see clearly how his wasn’t just an intellectual understanding of the dharma, but it was his way of life. Michael lived the dharma. I missed this about Michael when he was alive, and that makes me sad. I find myself thinking of him every day now, and recalling the way he lived with such grace, humility and dedication. I feel close to him now in a way that I didn’t when he walked with us, and for that I’m ever grateful.

– Sharon Safer

Join Me on a Buddhist Tour of India!

I’m excited to be offering this tour of India in November 2017, Ancient Roots, Living Branches: Discovering Buddhist India. Dates are November 5 – 19. Now is a good time to book as you’ll get good prices on airfare this far out.

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Combining a meditation retreat with a Buddhist pilgrimage, this tour is an exploration of both ancient Buddhist history and living Buddhist traditions. First we explore the ancient holy sites in the North and East of India, where the Buddha practiced and taught – including Bodhgaya and Sarnath – before moving on to the mountains of Sikkim to experience Buddhist village life in the Himalayas.

bon-gompa-300x203 The tour is guided by expert local guides in India, while I offer meditation and dharma discussions along the way in various locations, from hotel gardens to Tibetan monasteries.

We will be interacting with and learning from Buddhist communities and practitioners as we travel. It’s also a fun adventure off the beaten track, and this tour is open to everyone interested in Buddhism and meditation.

For information including the complete itinerary, pricing, etc., go here.