Freeing Our Minds and Hearts: Making Space Beyond the Physical Body

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“When your mind feels tight and constricted, you can make more space.” You’ve probably heard this before about meditation practice, but what specifically are we talking about here? The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of space, but the way our minds perceive space, which is related to our identity.

Most people think of the boundary of the body as a point of identity. That is, my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, heart, personality, all reside within my body. So the body is home and herein lies myself. This is who I am and where I exist. Everything I’m made of is inside is me, what’s outside is not me, or it may be related to me but still separate.

This boundary is useful and necessary living in the world. But it also has limitations when we only perceive ourselves through this narrow lens.

At times we may know that our hearts, our love, extend beyond the body. We may also feel compassion for the suffering of others and sense the boundary melting a bit. True lovingkindness and compassion function as a relative expression of emptiness or not-self. They are like a river that flows from a reservoir within our heart. But the reservoir doesn’t dry up – it has an infinite source because it isn’t limited to our body.

When we meditate we begin to see this perceived boundary of the body dissolve, we see that what we think of as “me” doesn’t have a distinct beginning and ending point. This is a liberating insight and is often an early aspect of understanding not-self. At times, we may feel less compelled to put so much energy into simply solving our own problems and “fixing myself.” This brings to mind Lenoard Cohen’s famous poem:

“Ring the bells that can still ring

Forget your perfect offering

There’s a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

If we only view difficult emotions and as existing inside “me” there is often a feeling of tightness, a lack of space and confusion about what we should do. When the focus is mainly on myself, other conditions seem to disappear. Yet, as we sit, as our concentration deepens, the mental focus on self loosens up. The sensations of anger, sadness and fear are seen as conditions that arise and pass away and are not “myself,” even though we experience them in our bodies. As this happens, gradually, or perhaps quickly, a feeling of space opens.

When we understand that our minds are not simply in our physical bodies, our mental boundaries open and our awareness feels less constricted. From this perspective, our challenges and pain may still exist, but now the great sky of mind has room to include them all. We have access to our wise heart that sees conditions for what they are, without the limits of “inside and outside,” and our path becomes clearer.

“If you attain your true self, then if you die in one hour, in one day, or in one month, it is no problem. If you only do “fixing-your-body” meditation, you will mostly be concerned with your body. But some day, when it’s time for your body to die, this meditation will not help, so you will not believe in it. This means it is not correct meditation. If you do correct meditation, being sick sometimes is OK; suffering sometimes is OK; dying someday is OK. The Buddha said, “If you keep a clear mind moment to moment, then you will get happiness everywhere.” ― Zen Master Seung Sahn

To open our awareness to this clear mind, try my guided “Mind Like Sky” meditation here.

 

 

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New Dharma Talk: Waking up to Our Spiritual Freedom

Our spiritual freedom is always available, even in the presence of difficulty, constriction and suffering. A moment of compassionate remembering and we can find release and freedom in this very moment.

Giving No Fucks and Equanimity

Excuse my language, but this attitude of “giving no fucks” is currently popular in guided meditations. For many, its easy to equate the outlook of not caring with equanimity. Sometimes our desire to avoid vulnerability and pain is so great that we may try to “give no fucks.” This talk explores how to reconcile this with true equanimity.

Bridging the Gap: When Compassion Starts Here

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By Lisa Ernst

As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating compassion as vital to a spiritual life. Most of us want to be compassionate at heart yet at times we may struggle to manifest it skillfully in daily life. What happens when we see a homeless person on an empty street and we recoil rather than feeling a warm yearning to reach out and help? Maybe a family member needs our support but we’ve had a long history of conflicts and misunderstandings and we struggle to extend a hand. Perhaps a co-worker who always seems aloof or combative has a tragic loss. Instead of feeling a sense of caring and interconnection with their suffering, we initially feel neutral, detached.

At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering may not align with our ideals and intentions. When we see this gap, we may feel even more separate. This can easily turn into self-judgment and criticism: “I’m not a very compassionate person;” “I don’t have the courage to help;” or even, “that person doesn’t deserve my kindness.”

When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that a compassionate response is unlikely to arise unless we acknowledge and explore our immediate reaction This is the gap—when our response and our ideals are out of sync. Instead of identifying only with our ideals, or judging ourselves for an unwanted response, we can drop down and learn to stay in the gap, the place beneath our thoughts where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. In these situations, this is where compassion begins. Returning to this place, our bodies, our hearts, what is truly arising at this moment?

If you’re walking down the street and encounter a homeless person, can you see the moment aversion arises and just experience it? It may not happen immediately, but once you’re aware of it, take a few breaths and stay in the midst of your experience. As you learn to do this, your conditioned response will begin to diminish. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also start to dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering more directly. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help beyond offering a few dollars. Sometimes the correct response is to distance ourselves if the situation seems unstable. But if there’s no immediate threat, perhaps simply a smile, an acknowledgement that we actually see this human being, is the kindest response. Longer term, we may feel motivated to seek out concrete ways to take action.

The roots of suffering run deep. As we learn to stay in the gap, not turning away from our fear or aversion, a skillful and compassionate response is closer at hand. As Ajahn Chah puts it, “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.”

Functional Identity and No-Self

Every morning we put on clothes that allow us to function within our daily activities and obligations. For early exercisers, workout attire is the first clothing of the day. Others begin the morning with work clothes or simply day wear. We all wear clothing that gives us a functional identity in the world, whether a standard uniform, jeans and t-shirt or more a more formal work outfit.

In the same way, we take on functional identities in our lives to fulfill needs, aspirations and obligations. We may be a parent, a friend, a spouse, a programmer and an artist, all in one day. We may also be a meditator and yoga practitioner. Take a look at what you do each day and see how fluid your identity is based on your activates and interactions. I call this functional identity because it serves a purpose but is not fixed; it is subject to change over hours, days, weeks, years and decades. If you cling to identity as concrete and unmoving, you will suffer through the inevitability of change and impermanence.

Most of us don’t cling to our clothes, at least not for long. We change them as needed and realize they aren’t who we are. We recognize the impermanence of any particular set of clothes. If only we could view our perception of self in the same way, our suffering would decrease significantly.

When you realize experientially that the identity you cling to is not fixed and is subject to change and impermanence, you will taste liberation. Your functional identity serves a purpose and doesn’t need to be denied or eliminated, but it is ultimately a kaleidoscope of change over the course of a lifetime. It’s no more permanent than your clothes.

What is your true nature, what is your mind? When you let go, you will find joy and equanimity in this very moment. You will begin to wake up from the illusion of a fixed self and know freedom within the endless flux of experience, of activity, of living and dying.

“I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”
~~ Eihei Dogen

Reflections on Skillful Effort

 

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We can view wise effort as taking a canoe to the water and making the effort to put it in. Once the canoe is in the water, it floats on its own – we don’t need to make it float. Our effort is to launch the canoe. Once in the water, we have paddles and can direct the canoe, but we don’t have to try and make it float. –
~ Lisa Ernst

Stay right at that point of balance where you’re not pushing it too hard and not being too lazy or lax — just the right amount of interest, the right amount of attention and intention to keep things going — so that the breath can have a chance to heal the wounds in the body, soothe the mind, and bring both the body and the mind to the stages of practice where the concentration gets stronger and your insights grow sharper, more subtle. It’s important that the groundwork be done. Just keep on doing the work. Things will develop.

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu

According to Stephen Batchelor, Enthusiasm is a better translation than Effort. He offers the 8th century poet Shantideva’s views on Wise Enthusiasm as finding joy in what is helpful and having a passion for living a mindful life, a moving force like wind that fills our sails and moves us.

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!”