Grains of sand

7
Apr
2008

“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it is the grain of sand in your shoe”

It is funny what sticks with you. The above quote I actually heard from a world civilization teacher in 7th or 8th grade. I could swear that he told us it was an old saying from Confucius, but a quick look on the web appears to verify its author as Robert W. Service. Whatever. It is a great quote, and one which has come back to haunt or instruct me on so very many occasions in life. We humans are like that, really. We let the most petty annoyances turn into giant stumbling blocks. And the really big things, the really big questions in life, glide by with such little weight and such little notice.

These thoughts were occupying me this afternoon after my Monday meditation group. It seemed that the entire environment was conspiring to pull me out of “the zone”. Random honking from the street below, the floors being resurfaced in the next room, the giggling group in the hallway, the guy in the room who shifted his place three times, while loudly sorting his pile of keys and change.

There is a mostly unspoken tension that exists among meditators that revolves around environment. What is a suitable space in which to meditate? Almost without fail, the goal is to pick a tranquil environment that involves a simple room that is mostly cutoff from outside sound, with a low light level and comfortable temperature. The idea is to have the fewest distractions possible, thus allowing participants to concentrate and focus more deeply on the meditation at hand. Whenever there is an extra stimulus (which is very often), the individual or group is confronted with a small dilemma. A major goal of Buddhism after all is to accept all things with equanimity and not to cling to cravings (such as for an “ideal” space) or run from aversions (such as a chaotic environment). Therefore, it is ideal to simply “deal with it” and find a way to notice and accept without judgement. Ultimately, we all live in the imperfect world (even Buddhists) and the goal is too see clearly and find peace in the present moment, and the present being. This of course includes the chaos that is life.

The great lesson I keep coming back to is that these little things are not only the grains of sand in my shoe. These grains of sand in some ways ARE the mountain ahead, in that they are as much a part of the totality of existence as the mountain. And neither the mountain nor the grains of sand are much without our acquiescense to their power. All things hinge on our attitude towards them, and our willingness to reach out and accept them, to touch them and let them touch us without craving or aversion. To appreciate and experience them, and then let them go.

Prayer as meditation

31
Mar
2008

I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.

Over it

18
Feb
2008

Really.  Feeling much better today. Let’s face it, it is part and parcel of being human to experience these moods from time to time.  I have had way fewer of them in the past couple of years than at previous times in my life and they have been much more short-lived and mild when I do have them.  And to put it bluntly, they are bullshit, aroused by things that do not matter.  And no matter the variety of the situation, they are always caused by the same damn thing.  Being out of phase with the present.  Projecting into the future or the past, neither of which exist.  It is a human tendency I know, but if I have learned anything in the past year and a half it is that now is all we have in a very real sense.  It is not that we do not plan for the future, but obsessing about a state that one can do nothing about in the present is a recipe for unhappiness.  And there are techniques to combat these feelings when they arise that seem to work pretty well (for me at least).

Try the following the next time you are experiencing an unspecified feeling of anxiety, of being down or blue or whatever you want to call it.  Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and focus on the physical manifestation of your feeling.  Really search your body for the physical feelings, not the emotional ones.  As you hone in on whatever sensations your body has (perhaps a shortness of breath, perhaps a tightness in the chest or stomach) and really observe these sensations, you will find that they disappear.  They are elusive, created by our emotional states and worth nothing at all.  They are anxiety about things we have no control over.  They are anxiety about the states of our ego. They are outside the realm of being and the present, and they are obstacles to our happiness. Chalk one up to lessons in meditation.

Metta Bhavana en Español

14
Feb
2008

Today I went to my first drop-in meditation at the Buddhist Center here in Mexico City.  Although not understanding all of the words our guide was using, I did get that today’s meditation was a Metta Bhavana, which I was pretty familiar with from my time at Igatpuri. With all the noise from the street and construction going on in the building, it wasn’t the most focused meditation I ever had, but I still left feeling pretty at peace. The center itself is really lovely and just a short walk from my place.


From Random DF

Morning Bliss

28
Jul
2007

I’m not kidding. I took the 25 minute walk uphill towards the Tushita center for their drop-in meditation at 8:30 this morning. The walk there was lovely, a meditation in itself. We were fortunate to have Hedwig leading the group in meditation again.

For the first time in a while I was really able to get deep into the meditation and see blue light in my head. That is usually how I know (along with the feeling of course) that I have gotten to the zone or head space that is deeply meditative for me.

Afterwards, I posed a few questions to Hedwig about Tibetan Buddhism. Did the Dali Lama and or his followers believe him to be enlightened, a Buddha? If Tibetan Buddhists believe in not killing anything (even mosquitoes) where did that reverence for life end? Everyday we kill bacteria by brushing our teeth, so to what point do they take this reverence for life? And finally, I asked her if most Tibetan Buddhists believe in their deities as real beings or as representations of qualities (like compassion)?

Her answer to my first question was satisfying to me. Of course no enlightened being would ever refer to himself as enlightened (and the Dalai Lama does not say that he is) as this would represent a lack of enlightenment and manifestation of human vanity or pride. Ultimately, whether his followers believe he is or is not is irrelevant if it helps them in their journey. Essentially, does the tree really fall in the forest if no one is there to witness it?

The second and third answers were a little vague, but life can be a little vague that way, with no clear cut answers to some things. One good point that did come out however was about our intention. If we are careful to never wantonly kill, even though we accidentally kill just by being alive and walking (think of the bacteria and bugs), we are not suffering unnecessary bad karma. But we must constantly weigh the good and the bad when making choices that will affect other lives, even the smallest ones.

As for the deities bit, how important are they to the Tibetan tradition? Very, according to Hedwig. But how one sees them (as real or representations) is again a matter of use and meaning to the individual.

Interesting stuff.