What Will I Get Out of Meditation Practice?
The popular media these days seems to promise meditation as a cure to all that ails you, from stress to illness to low productivity. And indeed, many people are motivated to take up meditation in response to suffering of one sort or another. But the truth is, real practice won't give you anything you don't already have. We want to make meditation into a self-improvement project. We want to become calmer, wiser, more compassionate, more focused. Over time, we do tend to stumble into these qualities. But we can't just focus on what we want to gain from meditation.
The word "meditation" sounds very spiritual, but really all we are doing is sitting still and attending to our breathing. Lots of thoughts and feelings come and go, but at the core we are just sitting there. In this sense, practice is very physical, and very simple. We are just being with things as they are.
Often we set out with an understandable wish to gain something from our practice. But meditation is much more about stripping away the workings of our minds that get in the way of seeing things as they are. In the course of this work, we find that we relinquish our opinions, judgments, stories about ourselves and the world, even the self-improvement project. We have to give up all our ideas about how we should be and how other people should be. We even give up our much cherished identity. This can be frightening, but it's also incredibly liberating.
What Meditation Won't Help With
Much of our suffering comes from difficult relationships and attachments formed in early childhood. We become indelibly shaped in our relationship with ourselves and others by these patterns, many of which are out of our awareness. Meditation alone does not heal early psychological wounds. For this level of suffering, psychotherapy or psychoanalysis are necessary. As a psychologist for 20 years, and as a Zen teacher, I find that a combination of psychotherapy and meditation together is very powerful for many people
What Meditation Can Help With
What might we hope for as spiritual practice ripens and matures?
After a year of regular practice, you will probably find that you are more compassionate toward yourself and others. You will be less emotionally reactive. And you will be more tolerant of all kinds of difficulty, in yourself and in the world.
After five years of practice, you will likely be experiencing more clarity about who you are and what's important in life. You should have less angst about yourself, and more inclination to see how you can realistically be of help in the world.
After a decade or two of practice, you won't struggle much with life. Your main orientation will be how to best respond to any situation you are in. Not that you will be a perfect person, personality and rough spots endure, but you will be clear and resolved enough about yourself to work with internal and external suffering skillfully.
Practice Beyond Meditation: Stepping into Tradition
While meditation is central to Zen, it is only one part of its method of transformation. In order to mature in our practice, we must take up other aspects of the tradition. When we enter the path of Zen, we become a part of a very old path that has many ways of teaching and supporting us. By becoming a part of a sangha (spiritual community), we find that we support each others' practice, and vividly experience the truth of interdependence. And when we take a spiritual teacher, we are able to form an intimate relationship devoted to cultivating our realization, finding our blind spots, and working with difficulties along the way. And by studying the teachings of Zen, we learn from the wisdom of our ancestors.
In my experience, over years of practice I have been indelibly shaped by taking the precepts and putting them at the center of my life. I've also been fortunate to enlarge the view of practice in the midst of life by immersion in the koan tradition. These are more advanced aspects of practice for those who commit to the Way. But my experience is that the precepts and the koans are a powerful technology for challenging our habits of mind and body, and for waking us up. In order to truly reach mature stages of practice, we are best served by taking on the wisdom of the whole lineage and tradition, and allowing it to work on us.
The coin lost in the river is found in the river.
"Tis a delight to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found."
"You gotta be lost to be found."
-The Wood Brothers
I've been practicing the last couple of weeks, in different settings, the lovely and friendly koan, "The coin lost in the river is found in the river." This koan, from the always amazing Yunmen, often evokes emotion, imagery, and somatic experiences. Try dropping the koan into your meditation and see what happens. Here are some reflections on the koan, your experience may vary.
What does the image of a river evoke? Perhaps it's a specific river. Maybe it's a body feeling of flow. Or other feelings, images, memories.
How do you experience this coin? Is it just an object, perhaps something of value? A particular kind of coin? Something in your body? Or maybe you didn't even notice the coin.
What do you feel you have lost? Can you feel desperate to fill a void, to find something missing, or to fix what's wrong with you? Or perhaps there is a welcome loss, like shedding a skin.
What's it like to find, to be found? What do you most want to find? Did you really lose it? What's it like to feel found by a person or group? Indeed, it is a disaster not to be found.
Crimson Gate Meditation Community is dedicated to offering Zen meditation and inquiry, classes, workshops, retreats and depth psychotherapy that integrates contemporary relational meditation practice with the wisdom of psychology.
Our community meditations are every Sunday evening from 7:30-9pm. This is a drop in group that is free of charge (donations welcomed) and open all. If you are new to us, please come by 7:15 to get meditation guidance and orientation.
Our emphasis is on contemporary practice for modern lives. In our practice we draw on Zen teachings and traditions, as well as contemporary work in psychology, the sciences of complexity and ecosystems, the arts, poetry, philosophy, and social engagement.
Zazen—meditation in silence and stillness—study, and shared inquiry are at the heart of everything we do. Through your participation and sincere practice you help create this community for deep inquiry into our lives and the timeless wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist tradition. This realization permeates the world through our everyday actions, words, and thoughts. Our community is connected not by ritual, dogma, or obligation, but by our aspiration and mutual care. Together we cultivate this dynamic process of waking up and growing up. This is our offering to a troubled world.
This year has SUCKED!! Our insane political situation has preoccupied and terrified many of us. Add to that fires, floods, hurricanes, and other disasters that have rocked us to our core. 2017, don't let the door hit you on the way out.
As we reach the darkest season, the winter solstice, it feels especially important to slow down and connect with the deep source that is especially available to us now. It's the best antidote I know of to living in these challenging times.
In the Zen tradition, the Dark Mysterious is the womb of life, a darkness that is not frightening but rather consoling. It is a place where we can rest and find sustenance.
Here are some thoughts on how to focus your home practice in these dark days and nights.
-Light a candle in your practice space, and bring in items that bring you comfort. You might wrap yourself in a blanket.
-Let yourself settle into body and breath, counting your exhales from one to ten to help yourself focus.
-Allow yourself to be aware of this time of greatest darkness...the darkness of vast space between galaxies...the dark of the deep sea...the dark of the womb...the dark of the black earth.
-Sink into this darkness, feel its spaciousness, its nourishing quality.
-Feel that this darkness is your connection to the Great Source of life. It is not empty but, like the womb, full of radical potential.
-As your comfort and connection grows, notice if it gives birth to a small spark, the return of light, a flame that is like a pilot light.
-Feel how the balance between the fecund dark and the return of the light organically and dynamically inform each other.
Blessings of the season to you!
Starting in January 2018, Crimson Gate is offering a class on the fundamental texts on Buddhist psychology, the Abhidharma. We want to bring some old, beautiful, and practical teachings to life, and make them usable for 21st century mental health clinicians.
The Abhidharma give us a comprehensive model of how the mind works, then shows us how to engage in a life devoted to cultivating compassion and wisdom for the benefit of all beings. It embraces a radical vision of non-duality and interdependence.
There are a number of versions of the Abhidharma in Buddhist literature; we will focus on the poetic rendering of the text by Vasubandhu, a fourth-century Indian teacher who helped pave the way for the Mahayana traditions of China and Tibet.
Vasubandhu's verses present a model of first understanding how the mind works, then helps us see how to put this understanding into practice. One aspect of this teaching that is especially intriguing is that it offers us a rough parallel to the unconscious, an aspect of mind the Abhidharma calls "storehouse consciousness." According to the Abhidharma the storehouse consciousness is the place where all the seeds of karma, from our own lives and also of our family, culture, and history gather and ripen. A goal of practice according to the Abhidharma is to become more aware of our karmas so that their weight gets lighter and eventually our karma can be exhausted.
In this class we will work our way through Vasubandhu's Abhidharma to understand its implications for our understanding of our minds, our practice, and our clinical work. There is a limit of ten participants, so early registration is essential. Join us!
Some new and well-done research is out showing the impact of meditation on dedicated practitioners in the Buddhist tradition. You can see the whole study here.
This study interviewed 60 practitioners in Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada traditions over time. (Note: this isn't about "mindfulness" or occasional meditators.)
Part of what's interesting about this research is that it focuses not only on benefits but also on challenges for those of us on the Way.
For example, many people at some point in their practice experience MORE anxiety, shame, self-doubt, fatigue, and apathy. People with a history of trauma often found themselves having a trauma response, especially in retreats.
This is where many people lose their wish to keep practicing. It's also where the help of a teacher and a supportive community are critical
However, these dedicated practitioners also reported greater focus, clarity, joy, motivation, and care for others over the longer term. They also spoke of a shift in their sense of self as being more connected to others and the universe, and less focused on personal shortcomings. Many reported an overall sense of well-being that they attributed to their practice, and an ability to respond skillfully in the midst of difficult situations.
That sounds pretty good, eh?
Now, I'm glad this research is being done. I suppose it's important to "prove" this stuff scientifically. Though I have to say I have some resentment that science is the most privileged way of knowing in our culture. These are things dharma teachers and practitioners have known for centuries! Not exactly "breaking news" for many of us.
If you'd like to do your own "research" on the impacts of meditation, we have a day-long retreat coming up on September 17 in Oakland, please join us!
And of course, there is always our super sweet Sunday evening sangha. It's two periods of meditation, plus a community conversation. All health care practitioners are welcome!
We need all the steadiness, focus, and compassion we can get to live in these difficult times.
I'm thinking a lot about suffering today. As a nation, we are suffering as much as we have in my memory, with our racist, hateful bully of a president. The combination of hatred and ignorance we have seen this week in Charlottesville and Washington are staggering. And I notice my own fear and hate in response, which is another layer of personal suffering. However I need to stay in contact with that pain in order to speak, act, and resist.
In my psychotherapy work, watching the news, in personal conversations, at moments of 2 am angst, the Buddha's words echo in my mind...
There are three causes of suffering.
1. Aversion (hate, fear, dislike, division).
2. Clinging (greed, insatiability, narcissism).
3. Ignorance (avoiding reality, checking out, "phone time," dissociation, not seeing truth)
And what I'm thinking is, this is Truth. We see it all around us. We are all suffering, as citizens, as members of marginalized communities, as families, as individuals.
We seem to get stuck in patterns of suffering. Our current national version is a toxic stew of hate, fear, and deliberate ignorance. Of course, there is greed in there too. Gotta protect my piece of the pie! And, the kicker is, we've seen it all before.
What I notice is that personal AND political patterns of suffering get stuck and repeat, like a skip on a record (remember those?) It takes a lot of attention, skillful action, love, curiosity, intentionality, and clarity to start to make changes.
This is where practice comes in for me (and many others). When we sit quietly together, we find a still point in this whirling world. We find that there could be a moment not totally dominated by "the three poisons" (aversion, greed, ignorance). And in that moment there is hope. And compassion!
It is from that moment that we can set an intention to nurture truth and love in ourselves and, as best we can, with those we come into contact with. In that moment we gather strength to speak the Truth and to stand up to lies. We have a strong center from which to speak and act.
As psychotherapists, we are healers, protectors, lovers of truth, lovers of love. But damn, this is hard work, especially these days! We talk a lot about "self-care" but how? When?
I want Crimson Gate to be a place where healers can come to heal. To find that quiet place that nurtures us so much. To be together in our rawness and suffering and joy and questions in a way that feeds us.
I'm working on ways to offer this more. More meditation, sitting, community, teaching. Whatever we need to hang in there and show up for all this suffering.
What do you need?
Meditation practice eventually brings us face to face with a profound question about our own identity. As we practice, we notice more and more the repeating loops of habit that form our lives. But is that who we really are? Buddhism teaches us over and over we are not who we think we are. But does that mean there is no self? What about all that work we have done to get to know ourselves? What about ego strength, the true self, individuation? It's confusing!
Traditional Buddhist texts describe how consciousness itself creates the world like a dream: something comes into existence that doesn't have inherent form. Contemporary psychology sometimes describes the self as a "soft assembly" or as "multiple self-states." At the same time, we know that it is indeed important to be "born" as a self, to gain self-knowledge, and to feel good about ourselves.
When we look into the question of self and identity in contemporary psychology and in spiritual practice, we find it requires us to understand two distinct dimensions of self and no-self. Here at Crimson Gate, we will be taking this up in more detail in our upcoming class, "True Self, False Self, No-Self" starting in September--if you are intrigued, join us!
When the Buddha looked into the question of human identity on the night of his awakening, he came to the radical discovery that we do not exist as separate beings. He saw that the human tendency to identify with a separate sense of existence is a root illusion. It causes suffering and removes us from the freedom and mystery of life.
In the Buddhist view, we are not separate and fixed beings, but rather a collection of five ever-changing processes: the experience of the physical body, of feelings of like and dislike, of perceptions, of responses, and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all. Our sense of self arises when we grasp onto or identify with these patterns. The process of identification, of selecting patterns to call “I,” “me,” “myself,” is subtle and usually hidden from our awareness.
Thus, in our culture, we might fixate on and identify with the role of being a woman or a man, a good person or a bad person. We might take our childhood history, our narrative of our lives, our heritage as determining who we are.
As mental health professionals, we are in an interesting place with these identifications. On the one hand, we know how important it is, for ourselves and for our clients to know "who we are." On the other hand, we see how rigidly people can see themselves, and how limiting this can be.
How can we think and experience something fresh about the experience of the self? How can we conceive of a freedom beyond the limitations of the small self while still honoring the importance of identity? We will take up these questions starting in September in our class especially for mental health practitioners on issues related to the self. Join us!
In honor of the millions of women and men who marched this weekend in support of equality, truth and compassion, I offer a subversive koan. One of our female ancestors addressed issues of gender, the body, taboo, power and patriarchy--issues with which we are grappling today.
Yoshihime was a very strong nun; her nickname was "Demon-girl." She wanted to meet with the teacher at the (all-male) monastary, but the gatekeeper was skeptical of a woman, and challenged her with a question: "What is it, the gate through which all Buddhas enter the world?"
Demon-girl grabbed his head and forced it between her legs, saying "Look! Look!"
The monk said, "In the middle there is a fragrance of wind and dew." (He's stuck in emptiness, he can't handle the Real.)
Demon -girl said, "This monk! He's not fit to keep the gate."
The gatekeeper ran into the temple and reported this to the teacher's attendand (a high position) who said, let me test her.
The attendant went to the gate and again asked her, What is it, the gate through which all Buddhas enter the world?"
Demon-girl grabbed his head and forced it between her legs, saying "Look! Look!"
The attendant said, "The Buddhas of the three worlds come, giving light."
Demon-girl said, "This monk is the one with the eye, he saw the eighty-four thousand gates all thrown open."
What a delightful and powerful koan! We are fortunate to have Demon-girl as an ancestor who can point the way to claim our bodies and our power in the face of attempts by a patriarchal regime to shut us down.
Following the inauguration of the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, we are coming together in the spirit of Demon-Girl. Our Zen women ancestors fought with fierce wisdom and compassion for our place in Dharma practice. We are fortunate to live in a time and place where there are more and more women's voices heard as teachers of the Way. We can let the ancestors know how grateful we are by continuing the fight to protect safety and equality for the next generation of women, and for those yet to come.
When we march with our pussy hats, we let Trump know that we have not forgotten his violent and demeaning words and actions. When we knit pussy hats with our own hands we remind ourselves that with our own two hands, we can change the world. We contact Demon-girl, and she marches with us, in solidarity.
My teacher, Joan Sutherland Roshi, sent out some important words in the wake of our recent election. I'm offering them here to get them out more widely.
November 9, 2016
Dear Ones, this is the first in a series of responses to the election on November 8. It begins with a quote from Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who lived under Soviet occupation :
Above all though, I detect the exceptionally patient and persistent work of goodness, which could not be completely extinguished, even in this rather cruel century. Goodness does exist, not just evil, stupidity, Satan. Evil has more energy and can act with the speed of lightning like a blitzkrieg, whereas goodness likes to dawdle in a most peculiar fashion. This fatal disproportion leads to irreparable losses in many cases. ... But goodness returns, calm, unhurried, like those phlegmatic, elegantly dressed, pipe smoking gentlemen detectives in old fashioned mysteries, who appear upon the scene of the crime the day after it has been committed. It comes back slowly as if it alone had no access to modern modes of transportation, no train, car, plane, rocket, or even bicycle at its disposal. It returns though, deliberately as a pilgrim, inevitably as the dawn. Unfortunately it comes back too slowly, as if it doesn't want to recall that we are tragically caught up in time, we have so little time. Goodness treats us as though we were immortal. It is itself immortal. In a certain light, dry way, and it apparently ascribes the same quality to us, dismissing time and the body, our aging, our extinction. Goodness is better than we are.
While we wait for goodness to wend its way back towards us, we cannot ignore time and the body, our aging, our extinction -- or the effects this election might have on the bodies and extinctions of our fellow humans, animals, plants, air, and oceans. But since many of us are feeling stunned and ripped apart right now, and since we've been presented with something of a black box -- no one really knows what's about to occur - it's important to pause a moment. We've just seen what happens when passions take over, and the antidote is probably not going to be more of the same, even if we think our passions are different.
So for right now : A man will become president who thrives on chaos and so creates it all around him. He also craves attention so that, moment by moment, he can find out who he is. My advice to myself : Don't give him the attention. Don't get sucked into the chaos. Take a little time to get unstunned, to grieve, to start to stitch up the rips. Mr. Obama is president for two more months. Take the time to sink roots, deeply, into what sustains : love, the natural world, art -- whatever it is for you. Let us begin to protect everything that's been put in harm's way by healing back to each other. Let us refuse to bring chaos into our homes and our hearts. Let us turn our gaze, these days and nights, to what we care for, not what we dread.
If we do that, as the lineaments of our catastrophe become clearer we'll be ready to lay the groundwork for the return of goodness, deliberate as a pilgrim.
With my love,
November 10, 2016
Dear Ones, many of us feel that we've entered a new dream we don't yet understand. Yesterday I spoke of the first task at such a time, calling yr soul back and providing it a good home. Today we turn to sending out filaments of soul stuff to others. After a campaign and an election that were themselves traumatizing (not a word I use lightly), there are so many people in our country, in the world, who are terrified at what might happen - in fact is already happening - to them and those they love.
These days, please, every chance you get, send a simple message : We're in this together. If it's a conversation, a meditation, a donation, bearing public witness - let the frightened know, let the frightened parts of yrself know - that kindness can be stubborn, and brave.
When I was old enough to vote, I vowed that I would always cast my ballot on behalf of those who had no vote : the trees and rocks, hummingbirds and killer whales. Tuesday's election has passed, but every day we have a new choice about what ballot we cast, upon the waters, into the air, to wrap around the shoulders of our sisters and brothers.
On election night some of those likely to be part of the new administration were saying that they had long memories and were going to take revenge on those who opposed them. It got me wondering, what is the revenge of kindness? Would it rise from an ancient steadiness, be made of standing with and sheltering, of refusing to go along with what is cruel and declining to be divided one from another? Kindness too has a long memory, and it lives in us.
With my love,
November 11, 2016
Leonard Cohen died. A true person of Zen, wild and wry and honest about the things it's hardest to be honest about. He was the Bodhisattva of That Voice, and he's the one who said that in times like these, we ought to be balancing monsters of love. Thank you so very much, Jikan of the roaring silence, please travel well.
The ground is going to be unsteady for awhile now. There will be comings and goings, things that slam shut and some that break open. Ghosts and tremors and tears that surprise. Strange dreams and unexpected resolve. Know this and take good care of yrselves. It will not serve to claw for certainty, because certainty is not of this time. But uncertainty can be balanced with love, which holds steady on unsteady ground, remains loyal to the vulnerable, and remembers the through-line beneath any upheaval. And uncertainty is balanced by courage, which moves step by step in the dark, slipping between the sentries of the heart.
At the winter solstice we always did a meditation in which you let the winds of the vastness strip you clean, taking skin and flesh and muscle and sinew, until only yr skeleton remains. Then, after awhile of resting in that state, a radiant jewel appears in yr ribcage, out of which grows a new, softly glowing body around the bones of the old. Perhaps this is a meditation you'd like to take up between now and the solstice. Perhaps it feels like a pretty good fit for the time. Just be sure to inhabit each part of the journey - being stripped, being empty and resting there, being home to a new jewel giving birth to a new life. And always, always, offer up the new life's glow to all our companions making their own way across unsteady ground.
Here it is.
With my love,
November 14, 2016
When the initial numbness starts to wear off, it's so very human to cast about for ways to cope. As understandable as that is, here's a counter-suggestion : Don't cope. Don't try to normalize the dangerous or manage the inherently unmanageable. What if, instead, we let our tactics and strategies fall away and take place, as much as we are able to, with what is actually happening?
And so sorrow, rage, hope, fear, empathy, and the rest will rise and fall with each new development. Let them be part of each new development. In a time when so much and so many are being rejected before our eyes, what if we attend to our emotions rather than turn them away? What if we offer, in our own heart-minds, the very welcome under threat in our country?
Instead of searching for the perfect response or the perfect defense, we're choosing the humble work of remaining aware as we move from state to state. And emotions that are attended to are more likely to rise and fall rather than rise and stay, sometimes transforming in surprising ways when given the chance to have a life cycle.
This is delicate work in an undelicate time. How does the balance between engagement and self-protection shift from day to day? Where's the frontier between engagement and obsession, or self-protection and denial? Is there ever really a balance, or is it about momentary returns through center, on the way to off-balance in some other direction? Can we welcome those off-balance but potentially creative states? How much will we let ourselves be pierced, by the suffering of others and by sunlight glinting on leaves? Above all, are we willing to carry these questions around, so they can hold us in their reverie?
Each of us has the capacity to hold the through-line that runs from before this time to after it. To sink deep enough to pick that thread up, we have to let go of strategies like coping, which keep us bobbing at the surface. We travel through the zones of our distress to the still place at the bottom. And then we feel how ancient and fierce and unconditioned that thread is, and how we are made of it - in our own deep minds ancient and fierce and unconditioned, too.
With my love,
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..