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

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New Dharma Talk: How to Hold Your Dharma Seat

This talk offers guidance on how to train the heart and mind to become steady and balanced even in the face of the most challenging circumstances.

Identity, Healing and Unconditional Love

Identity, Healing, and Unconditional Love

Lisa Ernst Retreat I attended a meditation retreat last weekend on the subject of identity. It offered immediate lessons I want to share, because I think they offer a very useful framework for looking at how we function in the world. Beyond that, though, the retreat gave me a lot to think about, some in the light of the recent post on “The Problem of Taking Yourself Too Seriously“, and more deeply on giving and receiving love. I think these lessons, if you are able to move towards them, have the power to change your world.

Examining Our Identity

Lisa Ernst, a Buddhist teacher from Nashville who led the retreat, delivered several talks on identity. She set up a framework of a two-layered identity which she described using the analogy of clothes:

  • Outer Identity: Like our everyday clothes, “business casual”, sportswear, monastic robes, or formal suits, this is the identity we wish to show the world. It is how we want people to think of us;
  • Inner Identity: This is our private identity. Like our underwear or sleeping attire, it is a personality we show only to a handful of intimate people. It is the person we think of as the “real” me.

We believe that the inner identity is our core and has some level of permanence to it, and that our outer constructed identity is one over which we exercise control, one which we can shift, if not quite at will, then pretty close to it. But actually, as we will see, the outer identity is far from under our control, and the inner identity is a lot less permanent than it might seem.

Tension in Identity

How do your inner and outer identity compare? Are they pretty similar or very different? Do you allow the world to see your strengths and weaknesses? To extend the clothing metaphor, do you allow people to see your dirty laundry?

The whole point of the inner/outer identity bifurcation in this analysis is to acknowledge that you don’t bare all your secrets to the world, that you reserve some for yourself. The outer identity is both a mask to protect parts of you that you don’t want to allow to be hurt, and also a practical persona that serves your external purposes in the world. For example a cheery, professional demeanor is an expected norm in a business meeting and will allow you to close the deal or wow your management with a presentation far better than allowing your sloppy, maybe somewhat crass or course inner persona to emerge.

It’s perfectly natural and even healthy for there to be differences between your inner and outer identities, but what happens as the difference between the two stretches? If your outer identity is vastly different from your inner, then it takes a great deal of effort to maintain it, and that effort creates stress. On top of that tension – which is palpable to those observing the outer persona – you will not be able to keep the two completely separate, and at times the inner identity will surface.

By way of example, I’d like to contrast my life today with that four or five years ago shortly before initiating divorce proceedings, ending an important business relationship, and severing the relationship with my spiritual teacher. You won’t be surprised to know that I was under a lot of stress back then! So while I think I manifest the same external identity today as I did then, the inner identity – the identity we think of as fixed – was very different in important ways. What today is peaceful and at ease, four or five years ago was swirling confusion and anxiety. So the gap between the external and internal identity back then was far greater. I thought I was pretty good at sustaining my outer identity when I was in a business meeting, but those with whom I interacted knew that something was wrong. For example there were far fewer “buy” decisions back then, largely, I am convinced, because the people I spoke to subconsciously registered the inter-identity tension in me.

The Arising Of Ego

When you take your inner identity to be permanent, you create an ego and you can become attached to it. But if you let yourself get attached to your identity, you can become stuck on it and create a problem. You move into the territory of taking yourself too seriously!

When we see someone with serious physical or mental condition who smiles and laughs, who delivers motivational speeches, who inspires and encourages others, we praise them and think them remarkable. They probably are remarkable, but beyond that they are people who have not allowed themselves to get stuck on their injury, their condition, the labels of their lives. They have not over-identified with such matters as their permanent self. Rather they have chosen to see possibility and opportunity. And in that they are a lesson to the rest of us. They are an inspiration that however tough it might be to look beyond what you see as your permanent inner self, it is possible to transcend it.

Don’t Completely Lose the Ego

A word of caution or acknowledgement before we move on: while it is important to hold the inner identity lightly and not to let it calcify into a fixed ego, equally it is important not to let it go completely. Just as functioning effectively in the world requires an outer identity that fits with the environment, so the outer identity must be founded on some inner core, some inner identity. And it is important, also, to examine the ego and see those elements that pop up from time to time. For example, you may occasionally express impatience or control tendencies that come from an inner anger, though without looking closely you may never have realized the source. And that anger itself could be a mask for some deeper identity which you don’t know.

The Importance of Falling Apart

If you take the long view, you can see the arc of your life from infancy through childhood, youth and adulthood into old-age and death. You can see that the outer identity you assumed as a teenager is very different from your outer identity as a lover, a business person, a parent – or whatever roles you move into through your life. And you can similarly see that your inner identity has shifted over time, perhaps as a result of being the victim of a horrible personal invasion, an illness or accident, or conversely as a result of a wonderfully intimate partnership which gave rise to children, grandchildren, and a vastly different world than you had ever imagined could be possible. You know that your identity shifts over time. But it is nonetheless all too easy to find yourself holding on to your inner identity and not wanting to let it shift.

But when you hold on to inner identity you allow do not allow your “real” self to shift with the shifting circumstances of your life and of your understanding. To hold on to your identity, your hold it down and wrap it up. You do not allow yourself to grow and open. You do not allow yourself to flower as a human being.

Healing and Love

We all want to receive unconditional love but most of us, in some way, have had this withheld from us. Most of us feel damaged in some way and want to be healed. And most of us look to relationships with others to heal us. Whether we had an abusive father or an alcoholic mother, whether it was parental expectation of academic or sports success or it was, we all carry forward scars that we want healed.

Identity is a practical tool in the world, but it is also a way of protecting our hurt, of hiding our damage, maybe even hiding it from ourselves.

Healing can be extraordinarily difficult, for the pain and suffering may be immense. It may be that you are not truly ready to deal with your suffering, and that is fine. But if you think you are, then know that it can never be truly healed from outside. The only way of healing your hurt is to allow yourself to be with it without judgment. And before you can do this, you must first see your suffering, which in turn requires allowing yourself, your ego, that scaffolding you have created to protect yourself, in a sense to fall apart.

We all want to receive unconditional love, but in doing so we misunderstand. What we need is to give unconditional love. We have been raised to believe that our love must be validated by another, but that is not true. Your love need only be validated by yourself. If you can allow your identity to soften, you can start to see this. And once you do so, all the rules change.

To visit Gareth’s informative and reflective blog go here.

Riding Free

Its like you’re throwing away your canoe and oars and are riding the waves of emptiness. Its scary at first, you’ve no control. You feel vulnerable and completely without knowledge of where you are going, or even where you are. So you have to surrender completely to the waves when they come. It may take a while. It may take weeks or months or years. You may ask, “what if I drown?” Then I ask you, “who and what drowns? What do you lose? And what might you gain?”

You may decide to climb back into your canoe if you can. But if you’re truly on this path, the water will draw you in again and again until finally you drown and then you’re riding the waves and those waves are you, and you are the waves, there’s really no difference any more, and you arrive exactly where you need to be, where you always have been, but just didn’t know it until now. You are home.

~Lisa Ernst

Morning Beams

Morning Beams

June Daylong Meditation Retreat

Stilling Mind and Heart with Mindfulness and Lovingkindness
Saturday, June 13, 2015
9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m., Nashville Friends House
Led by Lisa Ernst

frankieretreat414

During the busyness and activity that often accompany our daily lives, this meditation retreat will offer a quiet time to slow down, mindfully connect with our bodies and extend kindness and compassion to ourselves and others. Slowly, in the simplicity and silence of the day, we will learn to let go of distractions and touch our experience with a kind and open heart.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, this silent retreat is suitable for newer and more experienced meditators. It will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions and dharma talk.

Retreat fee is $50. A reduced fee spot is available, please inquire to the email below. Paypal is here. If paying by check, you can find instructions on where to send it at this link. Be sure to include your email address. There will be a separate opportunity at the retreat to make a dana offering (donation) to the teacher.

For questions, contact onedharmaretreat@gmail.com.

When Peace Will be Born

This is a beautiful guest post from Najmeh Jami, a student and practitioner at One Dharma and reflects the fruits of compassionate dharma practice.

“When Peace Will be Born”

I’d been waiting all my life for a moment, for a moment that shouts itself “Hey! Look at me! I am clear. Hey! Look at me, I am perfect.”

I missed a lot when I was waiting. I missed the pain behind my mom’s eyes when she was expecting me to do “nonsense” and I called that moment imperfect. I missed my dad’s suffering when he was angry, really angry and I called him an imperfect dad. And I missed a lot of beauties and joys when I was judging the imperfection of those moments waiting for that clear, perfect moment.

Some got clear, while I was still busy waiting for the perfections to happen.

Those moments happened again, my dad got angry, my mom expecting me to do “non-sense”. I wasn’t thinking about perfection or non-perfection. I was seeing that clarity; I was dissolved in my mom’s pain and my dad’s suffering; There’s no pain, no suffering, no me no dad, no me no mom. It was a pure clarity and it was perfect.

Some didn’t get clear. But I have already made my decision. I am not looking for clarity or perfection. I am just dying in the moment with love and the moment gets clear, the moment gets perfect. The moment IS clear, the moment IS perfect. We just need to die in the moment with love, and it gets clear and it gets perfect. And that’s when peace will born.”

– Najmeh Jami

A Three Way Stop of Awakening: Intersecting Dependent Arising, Equanimity and Emptiness

For many students of Buddhism, reaching an experiential understanding of equanimity and emptiness is quite challenging. Throw dependent origination into the mix and it may lead to all out confusion. But pulling the three together into an understanding of how we suffer and how we get out of suffering may simplify the matter.

Let’s start with dependent origination, also known as Buddhist psychology. Buddha taught that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, that nothing exists as a separate, independent object or entity, including ourselves. Because most humans perceive and react to circumstances as if there were an isolated, distinct cause, we easily become trapped in a chain reaction of suffering. We usually see a situation only through our personal viewpoint and conditioning, only a small part of what’s arising. If we then try to control, change or get rid of it, we create problems for ourselves and others. But when the illusion of a separate, independent self dissolves, we begin to see conditions more clearly. Our vision expands beyond our limited viewpoint, which leads to wise view, insight, and right action when necessary.

For example, when something arises, say, a twinge in your knee during a meditation retreat, you may initially tense against it, try to ignore it, or begin worrying that the pain will get worse. You may analyze where it came from, what you could have done differently, etc. Soon you are lost in and suffering. If you just return to the discomfort, see that it has already arisen, recognizing that many conditions led to that pain, and just let yourself experience it directly, you begin to dismantle the suffering. How? If you don’t nourish your reactivity through resistance and habitual thoughts, there’s nothing to feed your karma and ingrained patterns. The duality of you against the pain begins to dissolve. What’s left is an ever changing pattern of sensation. But you have to be willing to take down your protective veil of separation from the pain itself to reach this insight.

The protective veil arises from a sense of self against the external world. Our boundary of the skin, or somewhere just beyond that, creates a perception of separateness. Of course, that relative boundary is very important in many situations for protection and care of our health and well-being. But suffering occurs when we believe this boundary of self is fixed and unchanging. In reality our bodies and minds are constantly in flux and the concept of our identity is also subject to perpetual change. Just look back ten years and see if your identity, who you believe you are now and who you believed you were then, are exactly the same. There may be an underlying awareness or spark of life that feels unchanging, but is this something fixed to your self-identity?

Quite often, people who haven’t yet experienced no-self will call Buddha’s teaching on emptiness a concept. Yet how many of us refer to our sense of self as a concept? It’s easier for most of us to perceive the self as real and emptiness as an esoteric idea or concept. In reality, if we reverse the two we will be closer to a genuine understanding.

It helps when we can meet our experience, what arises in the moment, with equanimity. People often mistake equanimity for indifference or detached neutrality. But it’s actually the ability to stay present with our situation without reactivity, or if we do react, to see it and stop feeding it. If we experience a loss, for instance, meeting the pain of that loss with equanimity doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pain. Instead, we allow the arising of that pain without interference, and eventually it passes on its own.

To pull the three together, equanimity, dependent origination and no-self, I’ll share an example from my own experience. For many years I was in an unstable romantic relationship. I was sure he was “the one” and did everything I could to ensure his long term commitment. Yet, he kept pulling away. I would go through waves of pain and suffering whenever he left and rely on my therapist to help me find the root of the problem so I could get on with life.  She was quite helpful to me, yet each time I reached a point of acceptance, my boyfriend came back. Again and again I took him back into my life while ignoring the troublesome patterns inherent in our relationship. “This time things will be different,” I repeated like a mantra. Regardless of my hopeful attitude, our old patterns always reemerged along with his restlessness.

This pattern went on for a number of years.  Through therapy and meditation, I learned to work with my reactions, clinging and desires until significant space opened up. I felt more relaxed and less needy, I dated other men and felt relatively content. But just when I felt truly ready to get on with my life, he asked me to move in with him. Intuitively I knew it was a bad step. But the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that we had both changed enough to make it work. Soon, however, our new level of togetherness revealed our incompatibilities even more acutely. I stubbornly persevered until one night we had an irreconcilable disagreement. Suddenly all my years of effort and therapy, everything I did to make it work, came crashing down. I had been so focused on trying to control the situation, to make it right, to fix the “cause” of the problem, that I ignored the obvious and deeper conditions that prevented us from being compatible. In my limited view of the situation, I missed to the full spectrum of conditions that were beyond my control.

I had been blinded to dependent origination because I craved his attention so badly. I thought his love would complete my identity, my sense of self, even though living with him didn’t fulfill me at all. I finally saw the disconnect, the broader conditions that made our relationship incompatible. At last I had the courage to completely let go. I realized I had been holding on to a fixed idea of my identity as someone who needed to be in a relationship no matter how flimsy it was. And most of all, I was finally able to meet the situation with equanimity. The truth hurt but I didn’t push it away. I quit trying to cover it over with a worn out narrative about how one more step, one more effort at self improvement, would unlock the door to our love.

This awakening was one of the most liberating moments of my young adult life.  I realized that this “self” didn’t need someone outside of me to validate my very existence. There was nothing fixed about my identity; moment to moment my “self” was in flux, yet also worthy of kindness and compassion. This realization didn’t mean I quit longing for a loving relationship. But I realized that it wasn’t essential to my existence or happiness. Living this moment brought true fulfillment, with an open heart, in sadness and in joy. At last I could embrace my loneliness, my broken heart, something that had been with me long before I met and lost my “ideal” man. Through accepting that broken heart with equanimity I found for the first time in my life the joy I had been seeking for so long.

– Lisa Ernst