Monday, December 12, 2016

Blog #10 Mindfulness in the Time of Hate: Part 1

A story, to begin with: I was at the computer, watching the host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah interview Tomi Lahgren, the millennial, conservative pundit. The interview was both painful and beautiful to watch. It was beautiful to watch Noah’s skill in communicating with someone who was his extreme opposite politically; and it was painful to watch the unnecessary suffering that the guest apparently needed to tie to her political opinions.

As I watched, I couldn’t help comparing it to a somewhat contentious exchange I was having  with a stranger on Facebook. Now, to be clear, I am an unabashed liberal/progressive, but as a teacher and one-time co-director of a meditation retreat center, I have learned to not wear my politics on my sleeve or anywhere else while I am working in such an environment where there should be no divisions based on politics, creed or class. It would be a mistaken notion to think that everyone at a soft-hearted meditation event is a bleeding heart liberal. It's true that the majority of retreat participants lean toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there are plenty of conservatives as well, yearning for wakefulness and a more open heart.

But as we know, Facebook can be a minefield. It's a faceless environment that invites the possibility for being a self-righteous ass and speaking to people in a way you would hesitate to do in someone's face. How can I be so sure? Because I have done it. I claim this expertise.

When I find myself in seeming combat with a political adversary, I usually write something, and then tone it down with an edit…or two…or many. I am beginning to see when I am not being helpful or open and I’m not allowing the other person the space to open up. How could they, if they first have to hear past my contentiousness?

So I am trying to do my best, but this FB intruder is well-armed with insults and weapons of mass verbal destruction. After a few exchanges I realize this is going nowhere; there's too much anger and there is no real communication, so I select the FB button that allows me to “See less of Jim.” Another internet mercy killing.

Then, as I mentioned, I watch The Daily Show interview, and I see that Trevor Noah exemplifies everything I am missing in terms of my patience, ability to listen, and having respectful speech. I see how easily my intelligence gets hijacked, and I wonder, how do I get from here to there?

I then move on to an online talk by Susan Piver, who is a brilliant, warm and fearless meditation teacher/blogger. I love how she readily admits her anger with the current political scene, but at the same time is humble and owns her own responsibility to overcome angry thoughts and to act with love and intelligence.

She talks about how we are often instructed to separate what we feel from what we do, but almost nobody can do this. To bridge this gap, she recommends the practice of meditation. It’s a great suggestion, but it’s also a very big package. It is deep with wisdom; it is broad and wide with skillful means. I call it the Buddhist sign of the cross – up-and-down wisdom; left-to-right skillful means…deep and wide…immense possibilities in all directions.

But when it comes to on-the-spot conflict, that’s precisely where I'd like to separate out the skill called mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness had already been successfully separated out from the Buddhist tradition by Jon Kabat-Zinn who extracted it for people with chronic pain. Fast-forward a few decades, and we see that mindfulness-extracted (if I may) has become a huge phenomenon in the world of self-help. I used to be wary of that because I thought, erroneously, that it was the sound-bite version of meditation proper, but now I think it is an amazing skillful means. Why? For two reasons: 1) because it has already been distinguished in centuries past as a separable component of mindfulness-awareness meditation practice; and 2) because I believe that mindfulness is going to be the leading edge in making meditation practice more familiar and, in our culture – not vice versa.

So I say, use mindfulness as the can opener. Mindfulness can be used anytime, even while driving. (Hopefully we all understand that driving and meditating don’t mix!) I truly believe that we need to take hold of this particular tool because there is such closed-mindedness and closed-heartedness right now in the U.S., and I believe that we are in the need of a humongous store of wisdom to penetrate this feeling of stalemate.

As I watched Noah connect and communicate, I saw a tremendous display of mindfulness. His patience was buoyed by mindfulness; his intelligence was sparked by mindfulness; his listening was rooted in mindfulness; and his speech was a vivid expression of mindfulness. It really didn’t matter who won the day politically; he won the day in terms of expressing our common humanity.

As challenging as it can be for us to communicate across the political divide – whether it be conservatives speaking to liberals, or liberals speaking to conservatives – it can be enhanced with mindfulness practice. It can be done with love.

I am reluctant to say this because it is so cliché, but love is the answer. Contentious arguments over Facebook do nothing but harm and polarize. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, hate begets hate…so we need to stop; we need to train. A quick anecdote: One of my teachers – a martial artist – invited his grandmaster to teach a seminar, and during the Q & A section, he was asked "What is the meaning of life?" Without skipping a beat, he answered, "training." It’s true; due to the power of our habitual behavior, we need training. Nothing is going to change overnight or by magic. Ain’t no miracle that’s gonna happen.

How might we train? For starters, we not only extract mindfulness from the mindfulness-awareness tradition, we extract the mindfulness of our own natural, inherent experience. We extract mindfulness from our palette of learning and listening skills, and apply it to all the words we say and hear.

To help convey this, let me offer my perspective on mindfulness. From one point of view, mindfulness is a large umbrella of practices that includes meditation but is not limited to that category, alone. Meditation, itself, has two different stages that we can refer to as mindfulness and awareness. The first has to do with attention, or peacefully abiding – which is the mindfulness component; and the second is the awareness component. That second component is sometimes called panoramic awareness, or it could be thought of in a larger sense as “discoveries that come from mindfulness.” There are other translations, but for our purposes, I will stick with these.

Mindfulness begins with applying attention to what is called the object of meditation. We make the intention to keep our mind on the object – oftentimes the breath – and our awareness lets us know when we have strayed from that, so we bring our attention back to the object. Our awareness also helps us understand why we strayed, how we strayed, and what all of it means to us as human beings, trying to get by on a day-to-day minute-by-minute existence that is too-often filled with distraction, chaos and self-loathing. So, in our communication with others, if we bring our full attention to what we are hearing (including tone of voice, as well as physical and facial expressions) we can stay more present. But…that’s the easier part; the more difficult part is keeping mindful of our own responses – our anger, our hurt pride, our arrogance, our lack of trust in others. There is much to be mindful of – a rich constellation, indeed.

There is so much to be discovered, and sometimes the depth and breadth of those discoveries are overwhelming and might be too much to take in. Nevertheless, I believe that at bare minimum, we can extract the mindfulness component. I believe that we can, at least, learn to pay closer attention; we can, at least, train that as our contribution to help the world with this tsunami of suffering that shows no sign of abatement.

What I saw in Trevor Noah’s interview, was a refined skill in paying attention. I haven’t the foggiest idea if he has even given a sidelong glance to the meditation tradition, but it doesn’t matter; I can see is that something in his life experience honed this skill, and I am inspired to look more deeply at my own practice to see if I can bring more mindful attention to bear on my life. In the same interview I saw young, conservative, self-righteous, Tomi Lahgren spewing hateful messages that I suspect she didn't even recognize as intended to inflict suffering. As she proclaimed, she was just "telling it like it is." She, like so many of us, seems to think that self-righteousness can win the day. We fail to notice that our need to tell it like it is, is so often coupled with a great deal of unnecessary aggression. We so regularly end up expressing the pain that we cannot hold – the pain that we cannot contain. For some strange reason, it seems OK in our self-indignation-culture, to hurt others. It is not that the true divide is liberal vs. conservative; it is love vs. hate. And we just don't know how to handle the implications.

At the root of the solution is our capacity to overcome ignorance. As we ignore the needs of others, we harm them just so we can wave our political flag. And now we are in a trap of own making: as we ignore our own needs, we fail to really know ourselves, and blame others for our own ignorance and self-loathing.

At the same time, it’s not simply a case of, "All You Need is Love." Sure, that's what we need lots of. Oodles of. Truckloads of. But there is no way around it: We need to train. Our habits are deeply ingrained, so we need to train. We can train our insight. We can train our reactivity. I think there is no way to wiggle around this.

Perhaps we could use some discussion. Please leave your comments.

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Friday, October 28, 2016

BLOG #9 The Little Trump Inside Us All

One oft-repeated comment said in support of Donald Trump in the early days of his campaign was, “I like him because he says what I think.” What does that imply now that his sexually demeaning and predatory history has surfaced for the whole world to hear?

Naturally, our immediate response is to distance our self from such reprehensible speech and behavior. But I want to specifically ask the men – how much of our outrage is about him? And how much of it is about us and our life in the world of men?

I would like to offer a quote from a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, Acharya Fleet Maull. He points out, "One of the greatest psychological insights that human beings have ever come up with is that the stuff that bothers us in other people is the most accurate and direct window into our own stuff that we can ever possibly want.” To that I would add, “So isn’t there at least a little Trump inside us all?”

From the point of view of our self-respect, dignity and virtue, this is difficult to swallow. The majority of men abhor the idea that they are anything like Trump, even if only to an infinitesimal degree. Yet I think it is to our benefit to consider it carefully. I don’t want to be jailed as a whistleblower on the male subculture, but whether it is by design or purely due to karma, most men have been swimming in this sea of female objectification for their entire lifetime. We’ve been lobbied to accept this purported natural order of things ever since we were little boys. We heard it from the mouths of society’s dissolute as well as from the big fish (the alpha-males and the sons of alpha-males.) We less-macho fish have been schooling in the shallows, trying to avoid hearing and repeating those odious messages, but very few of us come out unscathed.

I doubt that most women are shocked by this. Anyone who pays attention knows that most women have encountered this abuse and ill-conceived, ill-sanctioned, male privilege and violence throughout their lives. Yet, so many men – yes, even the good men who are your husbands, boyfriends, sons and brothers – are loathe to admit to such thoughts and acts that have been sanctioned and condoned by other males.

But it’s in us. It’s like bacteria that are deeply enfolded in our guts, and it’s going to take multiple rounds of antibiotics to get healthy. In other words, our problem is going to keep showing up. Somehow, this reminds me of all the home movies and photos I appear in as a child, in which I am endlessly calling out for attention. I no longer have a defense for being one of the earliest photo bombers in modern history – always making faces, wearing bizarre hats, clowning and moping about – but I don’t really don’t know what compelled me to act out and be so annoying.

When the family gathers around these photos (which is always embarrassing) I say, “I don’t know what made me that way. I am a victim of circumstances!” So was I not loved enough? Was it karma from a past life? It’s a joke, but it is also true; we all have an inheritance that we didn’t ask for.

Why do I bring up this anecdote? Because we are not always in control of our circumstances. For instance, my parents were gentle and kind; and so were my brother and sisters; and so was my best friend – everyone looked over me. But when I was a young, there were also children for whom a dark light was already burning within them. So, yes…I was there, watching, when WL fed a captured box turtle a lit firecracker; I was there when JT told his girlfriend to remove her shirt, and we all felt her breasts; I was there when my friend WM got beat up and kicked in the face with a heavy leather boot, and I didn’t do anything because I was afraid. These are the things that happen along the way, as we move from being a boy to a man. For the entire journey, we are challenged with what to do and what not to do; knowing what’s right, and what’s wrong. Hopefully, somewhere along the way, we figure out what is moral, and have enough good examples to guide us.

The three vignettes I just mentioned, still make me sad. I still feel shame that I did the wrong thing – even when I wasn’t a participant, but just watching from the shadows. Still, for many young men, my confessions appear rather tepid, for they might have grown up in a world where the power of misguided, destructive male energy had no limitations on horrifics.

Whether it is me, Father Anyname, or Donald Trump, we all started as guppies, swimming with piranhas in rivers of violence, misogyny and racism – the unholy Trinity. And boy, are we seeing the effects of that in our culture! The truth has arisen with a vengeance. It is all over the news, coming to us with a frequency we could have never imagined a few years ago: Blacks in America being killed for routine traffic violations – or for selling single cigarettes outside a store?  A presidential candidate, talking about grabbing ‘pussies’?

Which ring of Dante’s hell are we in?

I promise you that there are lots of men across America who are experiencing much fear and shame due to the national media exposure of Donald Trump’s sexual predation. Add to that, Billy Bush’s indefensible complicity, and you’ve got a snapshot of the culture of men that has been overtly and tacitly condoning objectification of women for centuries.

For men, this is a bone-chilling wake-up call because we don’t want this magnifying glass on us.Of course, since we didn’t want it and feared the truth of it, it came to us anyway. What we are all getting now is a dose of forced mindfulness. Due to ignorance and self-deception, we are now faced with the demand to pay attention. A lot more attention. We just can’t live in a world of Cosbys, Clintons, and Trumps—plus revelations of African-Americans being murdered by police every few days—and not take responsibility for our complicity, whether deserved or undeserved; whether huge or infinitesimal.

As music magnate, Russell Simmons posted on FB, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” As horrifying as it may be, what’s been on the news is one of the best things that has ever happened to us. Whether it is the detestable words and actions of Trump, or the body cameras and civilians’ cell phone videos of police killing unarmed black man, the world is demanding that we own up and wake up.

Taking responsibility means taking the vow to be more and more mindful; to have mindfulness without limit. It may seem like a mild and inadequate antidote, but being mindful and aware, not ignorant or oblivious, is critical. We can’t be whole and healthy without owning up to what is buried inside us.

Finally, with regard to misogyny, sexism and the sins of ourselves and our fathers, I would like to suggest that we confess. That may sound like a fabulously antiquated notion, but confession is a way for us to peel back and ventilate our camouflaged shame. I’m not talking about confessing to a priest…I’m suggesting we take heartfelt ownership of the world we have inherited by confessing, with great tenderness, to someone who truly loves us and who we feel safe with. Even if it’s about something that happened 40 years ago. We have to gain forgiveness. As Robert Bly says, “It’s all right if you grow your wings on the way down.”

Russell Simmons’s quote reminds us that so many sins of the world are finally becoming revealed, and there is more to come. If we can hold tight, with love, we can get ourselves free of the hidden shame that numbs us into fear and inaction. We all know what tough love is; this is tough mindfulness, and there is no way out.

Women and men: What are your thoughts about this? They are important. Please share.

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Blog #8 You Can't Save Yourself by Saving Your Self

A Slippery Contradiction

Everything is dissolving and falling apart. Our houses, the street outside our house, our body…let’s face it; our world is indelibly marked by change. We don’t like it because it’s unpredictable, and we want to always be assured of what’s happening now and what’s going to happen next.

Being comfortable with not knowing—though considered delightful by Buddhas far and near—is not our strong suit, so we seek security, solidity and steadiness from a world that will give us none of that. Despite our best efforts, the world remains out of our control. Still, we do our best; we replace worn-out tires, we refrigerate our food…we might even take public transportation in order to minimize global warming. It’s probably the best we can do during our 80 year stint.

The world continuously, effortlessly, falls apart and we spend our lifetime battling that. This struggle, although it makes sense in our physical world, has less-than stellar-results in our psychological world. Why? Because that unpredictability is even more problematic with to our quest to establish “Me”. There is nothing more slippery and evanescent than the thing we call “self”, or “I”…yet we live and die by it.

Although this world that is constantly changing, we nevertheless feel compelled to find something that is solid and steady—a bulwark against instability. We long so deeply for something that can give us a sense of security while everything else around us is continually morphing. We just want a rock that will stand still for us in the middle of this wild river’s turbulence.

The point is that you cannot stabilize self. Self is an arbitrary definition we give to ourselves, and as meditators, all evidence shows us there’s nothing at all we can hang on to. The holding on that we do happens in many ways. We give it the name ego if we are too arrogant. Then we take a snapshot of that and present it to everyone we encounter—even when our actions are nothing to be proud of. Ego can also be built from a snap-shot of how long-suffering we are—and even when blessings come our way, we pull out that snapshot to maintain our continuity of depression; because our need for security lords over whatever vacillates, every time.  Ego can also be built upon anger, blame, or low self-esteem…all of them become snapshots that we treasure because they make us feel secure and unwavering. We don’t want doubt; we want to be defined.


Our “Self” is a collection of observations that we cobble together for convenience’s sake. We could take an analytical approach to understanding this, but I like the traditional “monkeys in the house” analogy to understand how we build a solid self out of ever fleeting conscious moments.

Let’s imagine a house filled with monkeys…six monkeys to be exact. Each of these monkeys has a window to look out of, and each window represents a sense perception. Now, we know that there are five sense perceptions—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch; but in Buddhist psychology, there is a sixth, which is mind. Like the other five, perception is comprised of hardware (the organ) and software (the process of perceiving). So in the case of the sixth sense organ we have (roughly) the brain and its ability to sort through the activities of mind. The house is obviously our body (or it could even be the head.)

But back to our monkeys.

Let’s imagine that these five monkeys are sitting in front of five different ‘windows’, and the sixth monkey sits in the middle of the house and keeps communication flow with the five. Each monkey can only do one thing: monkey #1 reports on what can be seen; monkey #2 reports on what can be heard; monkey #3 reports on what can be smelled; monkey #4 reports on what is tasted; and monkey #5 reports on what is felt throughout the body.

So our five windows—or better, apertures—are our sense organs, or sense gates, and the sixth is the control room. Let’s imagine we are in a restaurant and the sixth monkey (the coordinator, mind) – asks the third monkey “What’s going on?” The third monkey says, “Man, something smells good. It’s kind of like coffee, but something else happening.” The first monkey says, “Hey, I see Jameson’s and they are putting whipped cream over it.”

The sixth monkey puts two and two together and says, “Oh yeah…Irish coffee.” He then calls out to #2—the sound perception monkey, “What’s going on over there?” “Someone dropped a tray of dishes. It’s so loud in here, I can hardly hear myself think.” #4—the taste perception monkey shouts, “Oh yummy, wine, Full bodied. A bit oaky!” Then #6—mind monkey says, “It’s a Chardonnay. California, Sonoma Coast, I suspect.”

Monkey #3 is back online: “Wow, where’s that nice perfume coming from?”  Monkey #5—“My nose itches.” Monkey #6, “Posture! Sit up!” Monkey #1— “Forget it, she’s wearing a ring.” Monkey #6, “Alright everybody. Let’s all calm down.”

When you meditate—when you sit down and calmly take notice of what’s happening—what phenomena arise; what phenomena disappears…it works in exactly the same manner; the messages from our sense perceptions continue unabated, but rather than being in a restaurant, we are in a meditation space and #1 says, rug; #2…siren; #3…incense; #4…a lingering coffee taste in my mouth; #5…my knees hurt; #6…”When is the damn gong going to ring?”

The Panoply of Thoughts

Brain research tells us that all of these perceptions are happening between 60 and 100 times per second; just like the frames on movie film…giving us the illusion of seamless motion.

And of course there is more: there are thoughts, opinions, judgments, memories—and all of them carry on the same way as perceptions—moment by moment, and in a constant cascade. Brain research also tells us that we can experience upwards of 50,000 thoughts per day. This means approximately 40 thoughts per minute per person. A lot is in play.

Let’s get back to “Self.” How many of the 50,000 thoughts are nice, and how many of them are mean? Which ones do we grasp to convince us that we are a nice person? How many of those thoughts make us think. “I am a depressed person?” Which thoughts do we select to cobble together to define “Me?” Which thoughts default to define “Self?”

This self, this thing we want to protect, is ever-changing; nevertheless, we take a sample of all those thoughts, emotions, feelings, judgments, and we decide we are like this or like that. But there is nothing solid there at all. We are simply trying to hold together what is always changing and falling apart. We try to freeze a fluid situation, but it won’t freeze. One day I’m depressed Alan; the next day I’m confident Alan; an hour later I am sad Alan. Who is Alan?

As much as I hold tightly to identify myself as ‘depressed’ on a particular day, I hold myself just as strongly to the idea of being ‘smart’ or ‘cheerful’ on the next. It doesn’t matter if I’m happy or depressed, really—our “Self” just wants to be sure. It wants to be uncontested. Ego, self, I—whatever we call it—it wants to be assured of something solid in an ever-changing world…which is basically impossible.

We’ve been trained for this since we were infants. We have heard, “Oh look isn’t she cute?; Oh naughty boy; You are bad. Stop that…that’s a good girl.” The die was cast decades ago.

Practice Brings Familiarity

When we practice mindfulness meditation, and we practice with humor and curiosity, we train ourselves to be interested in whatever arises. We learn to become comfortable with contradictions. Instead of being addicted to who we are, we get to be far more interested in what we do—and how we conjure up a reality that is no more solid than the cloud I am looking at outside my kitchen window.

The very sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts and feelings that you experience at this very moment, also occur on your meditation seat. The meditation seat is our laboratory; so can we give ourselves some time to see whether or not these monkeys, thoughts and opinions manifest the way that Buddhists have described for centuries?

In Tibetan terminology there’s something called jung, ne, dro sum. Arising, abiding and ceasing—all three. These terms are fully aligned with this idea of monkey mind. Thoughts and perceptions arise, stay, and then disappear. Then the next one arises and disappears, ad infinitum. Everything is in constant flux, and so are we. There is no solid and definite “I”. Instead of fighting to freeze what will not freeze, we could let go of our “Me” construction project, and trust our perceptions which are so good, and so accurate.

What do you think?

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Blog #7 Don't "Meditate"

Meditation. The word can be defined many ways. Inside the four walls of a Tibetan meditation center, it might mean one thing. If you are Christian, it means something else—the words “meditation” and “contemplation” are the reverse of the Buddhist definitions.

Or if you are a mindfulness teacher, you might say that mindfulness is the same as meditation, provided you take out the messy Buddhist parts.

Or if you call yourself a meditator and you have a mate--and if your mate thinks that as a meditator you are behaving badly--they might say “Why don’t you go and meditate on THAT!”

There’s no reason to argue about who is right or wrong, the important thing is to understand what you are doing, because, as Sakyong Mipham put it, If you don’t understand what you are doing with meditation, you will not do it for very long.

In the Tibetan tradition, the word meditation is shorthand for three interrelated disciplines: Hearing, Contemplating, and Meditating. I like the way Acharya Richard John describes it:

“’Hearing’ refers to taking in information in an accurate way. This was the method used at the time of the historical Buddha, when disciples would listen to teachings, remember them and pass along what they heard. When repeating the teaching, they would often preface it with, "Thus have I heard…”

Of course, things are somewhat different now; with current technology, it is possible to take in information from multiple sources: we can read books, attend talks, listen to CDs, watch DVDs, or go online. All of it falls under the category of ‘Hearing.’

“’Contemplating’ means taking what we have learned and making it personal, by chewing on it, questioning it, unpacking it, and restating it.”

Contemplation is perhaps the most creative of the three because it involves figuring out how we can make the teaching personal and pragmatic. It could be as simple as reading a paragraph before going to bed and then dropping the book to your chest in order to think about what you just read; or it could refer to a flash of insight or amazement that came from something you just heard on a recording – something that caused you to pause an audio file to jot down a few notes that resonated with you deeply…or painfully…or both.

You might even decide to re-read a quote 3 times so that you are confident that you got the subtleties of the message.  You might even read an interesting passage in a book and reach for your yellow highlighter so that you can easily re-visit that paragraph tomorrow. All of this is contemplation, which can be creative or formal­­ – as long as it is personal…that’s what matters most.

Meditating” refers to the practical discipline, in which one takes an upright posture and works with the breath, a mantra or another object of focus. It is the heart of the tradition; the actual training. On a deeper level, meditation means having a direct and personal experience of what has been learned and contemplated.

So, meditation can be thought of as the sum of these three, combined.

But let’s pretend we know nothing of these concepts. What if they never existed? What if there was no historical Buddha and we had to figure out by ourselves what it means to be more awake and present in our lives? What would motivate us to do so?

Well, we might note that our minds get continually hijacked. We might want to understand why that happens. I heard this description from an excellent teacher, Acharya Dan Hessey in New York City two weeks ago. He described the essence of human beings as “travelers – traveling all the time, always on our way to somewhere. There’s this constant quality of, someplace to go; something to do; what is the next thing?”

He added, “We don’t experience where we are coming from, because of the going to.”

So is that the essence of our difficulty…our constant involvement with the next thing coming our way? Is that the tendency we must counter with meditation--that we are always traveling; always moving to the next best thing? Does that strike a familiar note? Because if we are going to use this identical approach with our meditation, it’s going to blow up in our face. It is going to fail, and meditation will be just another way to make us feel more neurotic and inadequate. If we keep trying to spiritually maneuver ourselves to become something else, or improve this goofy mess called “me”…well, it’s going to be like trying to pull a rabbit out of our hat

Meditation is not going to magically transform us into a new, improved me. We cannot adopt the approach: “out with the old and in with the new.”

So…I suggest we don’t meditate…with quotation marks around it; with air quotes.

How do we do that?

Instead of “meditating”, we work with our attitude. We try to relax this “traveling.” Instead of trying to get to somewhere else, we "Stay" – as Pema Chodron says. It’s like saying, “There’s a lot happening today…deliveries coming, guests arriving, etc. so I’m just going to stick around and be there for whatever arrives. I'm going to just let it all just come in. The whole parade.

The idea with “Don’t Meditate” is that we’re going to feel everything that comes up. Like Trungpa Rinpoche says, we are going to try to avoid sweeping anything under the rug, because when we deflect, that is the enemy of meditation practice.

We could simply be there for the breath, and then when our mind shifts over to the itch on our back, or the siren we hear outside, we can be there for that. And if the next thing we notice is a thought, we can be there for that shift over to thought. And if we notice that we lost track of our breath, we can feel ourselves shifting back, and feeling the breath. And then….though this may be a little difficult to believe…when our mind plunges into deep and painful emotions, we can be there for that, too. Yes...that too.

All of these elements are part of our communication with our world; our sights, our sounds, our tastes, smells and touch. Even our thoughts and our emotions. All this makes up our beautiful and amazing contact with the world around us. Granted, we are not going to dispense with the tool of meditation, the object of our meditation—the breath—because the breath is a very powerful tool for communicating with nowness. But if we hope that meditation is going to help us avoid paying attention to things as they are; but instead, fixate on our hopes for a imaginary, perfected, new and improved ‘ME’...then we will have lost communication. We have lost our signal for Being. Here. Now.

Real meditation (without the air quotes) means being fully connected to the present, whether via body, mind, emotions, interactions, or even society. Society is sacred, our social interactions are sacred—no less sacred than our Buddha Mind or Buddha heart. 

So when you meditate, don’t “meditate”. Imbue your meditation with the attitudes that make it work: curiosity; a sense of humor when you find yourself being habitually critical and doubtful of your ability; openness to whatever presents itself. All while you sit on your throne.

To put it another way, we can sit with our thoughts and emotions, with this kind of attitude:

“Good day, co-worker I am irritated with. I see you’ve come around again.”

“Hello boss that I despise. Funny seeing you here again. Welcome to my meditation 

“Hello argument I am having with my spouse. Wow, we are quite busy today, aren’t we?

“Good morning self who pisses me off and can’t sit still…self that I sometimes loathe. Let me give you a hug.”

To meditate properly, we take the attitude that whatever arises in our mind is sacred. There is nothing we need to sweep away. Instead, we choose to feel it all--sense perceptions, ayatanas…we feel them. Our thoughts, our emotions--we can feel them. All of these experiences keep us right here, on the dot. Whether we are relating with our sacred wakeful self…or our nasty neurotic self...we feel, we communicate—there’s nothing more holy or more spiritual to search for.

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Blog #6 Meditation: Simple but Not Easy

While visiting MNDFL in New York City, I heard Lodro Rinzler describe meditation as “…simple but not easy.” It couldn’t be said better. It’s true: the instructions are simple and clear; but what meditation unearths tends to throw a wrench or two into the works.

In a talk I gave last night, I suggested one way we could work with this challenge is to consider some pre-meditation practice. Here are my remarks:

Let’s start off by simply paying attention – not to just one thing but to everything that is going on for us right now, at this very moment. But please, don’t meditate; don’t close your eyes; don’t follow your breath.

If you are paying attention, you can’t help but notice what’s coming through your sense perceptions, because our sense perceptions are ON, effortlessly. Our eyes let us know that we are playing in a field of visual perception; our ears let us know that we are playing in the field of audio perception; our nose and our tongue lie low but alert us to every change. Our skin and the nerve system throughout our body continually remind us that we play in a field of temperature, texture, pain and pleasure. When we pay attention we can’t help but notice these things. The sense gates remind us that we are alive. Awake. Woke.

Besides these miraculous characteristics related to body, we have miraculous characteristics related to speech. If we pay attention, we can’t help but notice that running along with our sense perceptions is constant communication through thought. We have words, sentences and paragraphs that are continually reminding us of what we are engaging with, moment by moment. If we are really paying attention we can’t help but notice the endless commentary that we produce – talking to ourselves about ourselves; talking to ourselves about others.

There is also a third category – paying attention to all the nuances and power of our attitudes and emotions.

All these elements are going on and are available to us if we are awake and paying attention. They might show up in feelings about the present, as in, “Man, am I hot.” (If you are younger, that could mean two different things; but if you are older it usually refers to something far less exciting.) Or, you might have attitudes and emotions with regard to the future, as in, “Oooo…look at that new iPhone 6! S! Plus! Me likey! Me want Apple Pay. Me want AirDrop and FaceTime!” There might even be emotions about past, present and future, all wrapped up in one: “I love her soooo much…..But I can’t believe what a jealous %#* she was last night…..That’s it! I’m through…..Arghhh! She’s driving me crazy. I need to STOP thinking about her. Stop. STOP. But, but I love her so much! I HATE this!”
  the endless wheel of passion, aggression, and ignorance.

If we pay attention we can’t help but notice all these things streaming through our consciousness. If we pay attention we can’t miss them.

Although my first instruction was to pay attention and not do formal meditation, the difference between them seems to be rather small. What is the difference? Meditation requires some attitude adjustment – like paying attention without bias. But if we’re truly being attentive, there’s lots of bias. A meditator is also supposed to notice thoughts and emotions without judgment or self-loathing. But if we’re paying close attention, we see lots of judgment and lots of self-loathing.

What’s Inevitable

I don’t mean to short-circuit everyone’s discovery, but there are two likely conclusions you will arrive at if you pay close attention to the mind. These are 1.) “I am good” and 2.) “I am bad.” If you meditate, if you are practicing being Awake, there’s a good chance that you will experience endless variations on the themes, “I am good” and “I am bad.”

Negative and worrisome thoughts are part of our genetic endowment – after all, our cave-dwelling ancestors' survival was probably not predicated on their happiness index; they survived due to fear of being a saber-toothed tiger’s dinner. Be that as it may, we are naturally (and nearly effortlessly) high-functioning beings. We can think things out and can have incredibly deep insights. We feel. We naturally connect with the world. It is basic to all of us. It is inherent. It is good. We call this Basic Goodness. In momentary gaps of consciousness, we notice that we are naturally plugged in. The world flows into us. We don’t have to search for this connection; nor do we need to improve ourselves in order to find it. We have basic workability; we are basically good. Nevertheless, this is all rather confusing for a practice that is purported to bring your mind peace. Yes, you will notice this basic, elemental goodness…but you are also going to notice your “terrible badness.” A contradiction?

Well, as I said, meditation is simple, but it’s not easy.

Confusion and Openness

Buddhist teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche once said:

You are good; fundamentally, you are healthy. Moreover, that particular health is capable of accommodating your badness as well as your goodness. When you're good, you're not particularly bashful about your goodness, and when you're bad, you're not particularly shocked by that either. These are simply your attributes. When you begin to accept both aspects of your being as energy, as part of the perspective of your view of yourself, then you are connecting with the fundamental goodness, which can accommodate all of these energies as part of one basic being. This is very solid and earthy. It is invincible in fact. (Work, Sex, Money p.35.)
His son and heir, Sakyong Mipham adds that we are bound to notice that meditation will reveal our self-loathing and struggle. We may be fundamentally good, but we feel bad. So there is an important question to ask ourselves – are we going to try to shut that awareness down, or are we going to nurture it? If we choose the former, our meditation practice will blind us, stupefy us, and slow us down as we wait for it to help us become something new or someone else. We think that meditation is going to help us get better, but we don’t realize we need to start with the stepping stone of knowing who-we-are.

We Are Innately Good, But…Let’s Get Some Feedback

We don’t have innate terrible badness; we have temporary terrible badness. And all of it is built on habit. The deep insight that is born of intensive meditation comes from noticing habit. We all have very well-established habitual patterns. How can we cultivate seeing those habits? Doing meditation? Sure, but I think we need more than that. I think we need feedback from others. And why not? Don’t they have the same measure of basic goodness and searing insight as you do? We might know someone who can be honest with us if we demonstrate that we are willing to own all that we are. There might be someone in our life that is willing to articulate truths about ourselves – truths that WE don’t wish to articulate to ourselves. If we hope to develop our attention and mindfulness, why not engage with others? Why not engage with a meditation instructor, a therapist – maybe your husband, wife, lover or friend? (Although, in such cases, I adhere to Brené Brown’s suggestion that you share your deeply personal conversations with someone who has earned your trust.)

There might be an argument against this, based on the ancient Buddhist slogan that says, “Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one.” What this means, basically, is that nobody knows you better than you. You know what’s going on with you. I think that’s true. But let’s consider something that Sakyong Mipham said, “…the tradition of meditation came from a culture that believed in the inherent health of mind; but when a culture does not believe that, it makes the situation tense.” Certainly, in our culture, there is much tension around accepting both positive and negative attributes. We are far too invested in our image which is often frail and prone to self-recrimination at best and self-hatred at worst. Sakyong Mipham has been telling us that our spiritual journey requires us to find a way to be who we are and relate with who we are. That means accepting ourselves in light of every mixed message that arises.


Trungpa Rinpoche, who seems to have endless resources of psychological jujitsu, says “…we accept at the same time the destructive qualities in our basic mechanism as well as the positive qualities in our mechanism, so we have no ground to have a battle at all.” (Glimpses of Shunyata, p. 14)

What does that mean?

If there is no ground for battle, that means there is no target. There is no fight between the so-called “good me” and the “bad me.” Instead, we learn to sit like a mountain. Regardless of storms and lighting that pass over it, we remain. If we are paying attention, we can’t help but notice all of this can go on without having to freak out. The difference between meditation and our experiment with attention is that we possess a few special ingredients that we can generously apply to our attention; and with these, we are able to hold all the positive and negative truths at once. What is foremost is kindness to our self; and what is deepest is sense of humor about how easily we can go astray. Along with humor and acceptance, honesty and fearlessness are our pre-meditation essentials. With these, we convert our meditation practice from a feel-good technique into a tsunami of appreciation for ourselves and our world.

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Blog #5 Mindfulness: The Skinny

Whether I enter my kitchen from the north or the south door, perched above each door-frame is a 4 x 6 note card, with the word CHANGE. Trying to understand change has been a persistent occupation ever since I was a child. I always wanted to change something, whether it was trying to be a better kickball player or a cooler guy altogether (Pointier black shoes? Longer hair?). I would also note changes in confidence and attitude, like when I slipped from being a 1st section trumpet player to being a denizen of the third. I was blessed with a stable family life, but schools and their concomitant circles of friends kept changing, which kept my radar highly attuned to “What is this now? Who am I now?”

As I look at those questions posed as a 10-year-old, I see that they aren’t really so different from my adult concerns. There are many things I still desperately want to change and things I don’t want to my conclusion is that I am obsessed with change. I’m not sure that this logic is true for everyone, but what is true is that most of us want more happiness, which, by and large, means that something has got to change.

While many of our thoughts about change tend to revolve around relationships and finances, our most secret thoughts are about change from within. With the popularization of self-help, meditation, and therapy, we’ve certainly become much more sophisticated and optimistic about our potential for change; after all, what was once the province of the weird has now become highly visible and well-substantiated through research. We may have previously intuited that yoga, meditation, qi gong, and eating whole foods would lead to positive changes, but now we have scientific proof! (Finally…the great meditation masters can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that science has now proven their favorite pastime isn’t pointless!)

One of the more popular vehicles for change in recent years is the practice of mindfulness. Since the practice of mindfulness was born from the meditative tradition, there have been a lot of questions about its value as a freestanding discipline versus its value as a practice to be embedded within a larger constellation of practice, study and motivation. There are still unanswered questions on both sides of the mindfulness debate, and more long-term studies are needed to raise it to “irrefutable” status in the scientific and educational community.

Because of the many points of view surrounding the mindfulness question, there are various ways it can be taught. It can be taught very simply – completely sanitized of all its Hindu and Buddhist trappings; it can also be taught very traditionally, as in Tibetan Buddhism where the word “meditation” is shorthand for the interwoven practices of learning, contemplating and meditating – a lengthy and multi-disciplined approach to personal and societal change.

Spokespersons from both sides of the debate can be critical of the approach of their colleagues on the opposite side, but in my teaching experience, I’ve seen both approaches taught skillfully, and I’ve seen the value and wisdom of both.

The only shortfall I see occurs when the more challenging and sometimes painful aspects of mindfulness practice are not addressed, because to be perfectly honest, change is directly coupled with mindfulness. Change runs parallel with increased mindfulness. Here’s the thing: the tricky part of mindfulness is that it makes you…well…mind-full. It sparks curiosity and awareness. Mindfulness practice is deep; it is not cosmetic. Yes it can make you look and feel better. Yes there are many positive benefits – reduced stress, reduced levels of cortisol, increased levels of serotonin, and greater appreciation, overall, of the world around you and your place in it. But when you practice mindfulness, you can’t help but be aware of that which undercuts your mindfulness. The more training we do, (spoiler alert!) the more mindful we become of our shortfalls – you know, the things that could use a little bit of change.

What we have here is the old Yin and Yang – two sides of a coin, each very powerful. On one side of the mind-full equation, we become mindful of our goodness and well-being. We might even notice that our mindfulness is inherent; it is already our gift, awaiting further exploration. On the other side, we can’t help but be mindful of what I refer to (with great empathy and humor) as our terrible badness. If we are truly mind-full, we can’t help but acknowledge both our positive and negative tendencies. Oddly enough, it is not just our negative attributes, shame or self-loathing that we avoid copping to; for many of us it is just as difficult to acknowledge our virtues, our gifts and our natural intelligence.

To see all of this – not just how we highlight the positive and downplay the negative – is our gift. When we are courageous enough to unwind our habits, by first seeing them and being mindful of their existence, these elements conspire to produce the very best, most curious questions. These questions are far more interesting and are far more fertile than any treasury of answers we hope to unearth.

The best questions turn out to be those we avoid looking at, and cover up with our most clever justifications – questions that can open up our self imposed limitations; questions about how we do what we do, and why we do them; questions about how we hold back or how we deflect mindfulness. These embryonic questions rate far higher and deeper than the simple shortcuts we call answers. These questions are the jeweled treasure of mindfulness – maybe a little rusty and covered with dust, but precious, once uncovered.

As we are awakened by these questions, we come upon the verge of change. These questions allow us to finally score with mindfulness practice. We’re not just trying to enjoy ourselves more; we’re trying to be more awake – the true expression of mindfulness.

It has been noted that, for centuries, in the Buddhist tradition, there might have been an over-emphasis on the suffering that change brings us. More recently, in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition there has been more emphasis on the good news, such as our own inherent wealth and goodness; but I think it’s okay to revisit to the darker side of human psychology that comes out of the mindfulness-meditation tradition. The darker side tells us that all the very best, most profound questions arise from our difficulties, our pain, and our cognitive dissonance that begs and hollers for an answer.

As a pre-requisite to the answer, we need to have good questions, high-quality questions that we can chew on. With mindfulness practice, we become aware of all that we have not been paying enough attention to. All our goodness and all our terrible badness has been crying out for change, or tugging at us gently, but we just haven’t given it our full attention.

For our own benefit and for the benefit of the world, we must be fully awake and ready to face our darker, more obscure side – our self-deception. We have to. We must. We look at Orlando, Sandy Hook, rapists on campus, child molesters on airplanes – and we can’t just wince and turn away. As they say, We Are Orlando: our inability to face ourselves, for good or for bad, is rooted in the same inability as any perpetrator, with the blackest heart, that we see in the evening news. When I look at the video on YouTube of the guy with 264 rounds of ammunition, an AR 15, and a Glock easily hidden behind his shirt pants and pocket, I know we need to look at that which we don’t want to look at – our fear, our pain, even our horror.

Change comes from fearlessly recognizing our innate, indestructible goodness; change comes from fearlessly recognizing our terrible badness. Hopefully, our pursuit of mindfulness will not lead us towards ignoring either of these.

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Blog #4 Every Name We Call, We Own

It is spring 2016, and here in America, we are deep into the season of passion and aggression. Earlier this week, close to 50 people were slaughtered at Pulse, the gay dance club in Orlando, Florida. That is certainly enough tragedy for one day…oh, except for the other 148 people that were killed by gunfire across America the very same day. Two hundred eighteen…that’s how many Americans were killed by gunfire that day.

And of course, it didn’t take long for the name-calling and finger-pointing to begin. But, that’s what we do, isn’t it? We assign blame. We want to identify who the enemy is, although the enemy is never “us,” it seems. Why is that? The vast majority of us are marked by passion; we are marked by aggression; we are marked by ignorance.

Our aggression may show up as nothing more than calling out “asshole” when someone cuts us off in traffic; it may show up as nothing more than pronouncing someone a “bigot” on Facebook; it may show up as nothing more than thinking, “Jerk!” when the guy across from us in the airport is talking way too loud on his cellphone while we are trying to read.

But wait...who are we directing our anger towards?

I didn't make up these examples. I have done all these things. I have that experience. I am an expert. I have been frustrated; I have been angry; I have been a bigot; I have been inconsiderate; I have been manipulative; I have been aggressive; I have been ignorant. And yes, I have much goodness in me also – I'm not just beating up on myself, but I am not blind to my own negative actions. I am unhappy with myself when I do thoughtless things.

When someone else does these same things, I get annoyed and think their actions are so much more unacceptable than mine. I dislike them with even more negative energy than I direct towards myself in similar circumstances. Why do I temper my own anger towards myself? Because I know that in the end, I have to take care of myself and minimize whatever damage I inflict. The question is, why am I not as aware of that need for self-care in others? I am not completely sure, and I need to remind myself to be more aware of my actions of body, speech and mind. What I am sure of, is that the reason I so clearly and precisely identify others' aggression, is because I have experienced that aggression in myself. It turns out that I am my own research model in my experiment to understand aggression.

A favorite saying from one of my favorite meditation teachers, Fleet Maull, goes like this:

"One of the greatest psychological insights that human beings have ever come up with is that the stuff that bothers us in other people is the most accurate and direct window into our own stuff that we can ever possibly want. So when somebody else is irritating us or doing something that we think is untoward, there's a good chance that if we turn the mirror and look at it the other way, that it's actually our stuff, or at least it's a strong correlate. Otherwise it probably wouldn't bug us very much. At any rate, that's where the juice is, that's where the learning is."

His and my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, tells us that when we are brave enough to look at our own foibles, we won't find answers, but what is far better is that we allow ourselves to meet the questions we need to understand ourselves and to better interact with the world around us. What are those questions? Who am I? What are these strange things that I do? Why do I do them, and what compels me to keep doing them?

These questions soften us up so that wisdom can enter our beings. As my friend, Melissa, suggested, they break up our addiction to certainty, because if there is one thing that drives our aggression, it is certainty. Extreme religious zealots are overflowing with certainty. I wish Omar Mateen could have lived with less certainty.

If we follow Fleet's lead, we might notice the parallel world of aggression: We might recognize that Rush Limbaugh’s vitriol undoubtedly starts with himself. We might recognize that Omar Mateen didn’t just hate gays, he hated himself for being gay-curious and then cranked that up into horrific violence. And then of course, there are are the Christian pastors who condone the killing of gays while citing scripture…and we all know what is in their hearts – yes; aggression and self-hatred. We know that because we know our aggression and self-hatred – hopefully not as extreme – but we know what it’s like, because none of us are wholly free from aggression.

We know quite well that we can’t fix others’ aggression; we can only work on our own. That is not terrible news, because it means that we are fully capable of opening up our own intelligence. We can allow the necessary questions to arise. We can see who we are. With the help of friends, acquaintances, therapists and/or meditation instructors, we can learn to absorb genuine feedback and take ownership of our own thoughts, words and actions.

We can grow the seed of our intelligence. According to Trungpa, we can take that seed of aggression and all the intelligence required to maintain it, and expand it outwards. That small dot of intelligence that labors so diligently at self-protection, can expand like a nuclear chain reaction.

A quick story.

A week ago, I was in a school gymnasium trying to exert some measure of control over the class I was about to perform with, and a huge, nonstop-talking, ninth-grader started to imitate me and make fun of me. As much as I wanted to make a wisecrack to put him in his place, I acted with decorum (even though I was rattled emotionally). I thought, “Well done!”

But that's simply not enough. As I thought about Trungpa and Fleet, I thought about the amazing intelligence that young ninth-grader possessed. He was extremely skillful at being noncompliant, as well as putting me down. One could say that he was masterful at what he sought to achieve. (And I should add that I have seen that same mastery in a third grader!) None of us welcomes or appreciates that kind of disrespect, but man! – it is crafty and it is intelligent!

My take away on that occasion? Instead of adding aggression to aggression, I need to recognize and acknowledge the fertile soil of intelligence in each individual, regardless of how it shows out. Rather than expressing anger, I could help others recognize the energetic brilliance that fuels their self-protection—even when it shows up as dullness or passive-aggressiveness. The bottom line is that aggression and ignorance is misspent intelligence. It is trapped intelligence, but it can be freed if we can learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Truly dynamic intelligence is rooted in goodness, and self-acceptance. When not recognized and nurtured, it can cause us to die inside – and can potentially cost many innocent lives, as we saw in Orlando and across the USA last Sunday. When we, as a society, are unable to own up to our own aggression, we foment further aggression. And when that aggression is extreme and goes out of control, we need the resources to treat it professionally lest we create further suffering. Sadly, it's not likely to change, here, in this unending season of passion and aggression.

I am so sad for the victims and families in Orlando. I am so sad for us when our ignorance and aggression won’t allow us an opening to see ourselves, and we do and say mean things towards each other. Every name I call, I own. To remind me, I listen to Stevie Wonder sing Sting’s tune, How Fragile We Are.

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson