Wilderness

by Paul Bloom

I recently returned from a backpacking trip to the Wind River Range, and as in previous trips the experience was all consuming. Wilderness inevitably points back to original self, and this article explores that relationship.

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Spider and spider web doing their job in a windy treeless valley of Wind River, elevation 10,000 ft.

Wilderness is our precious mother, the high mountains our brothers and sisters to whom we must return.

In the Zen tradition, we say Don’t Know Mind is our original self. The activities of wilderness are no different. The everyday activities of wilderness demonstrate the wisdom of a before thinking mind in unmistakable ways.

We can see this same wisdom dancing on Main Street or at the dinner table with family, but it is often harder to access. Wilderness points us unmistakably to who we are and where we come from.

An ancient forest reveals the generosity of the life cycle. Living trees transform carbon dioxide into oxygen effortlessly, and give this oxygen back to living creatures across the planet. In death, the rotting tree trunks provide nutrition and habitat for forest animals. Even the cougar, when it eats the deer, participates in the dance of host and guest (ref. Gary Snyder), the natural process that comes into play without cognitive thought. Wilderness acts with mindless generosity, and it is only human beings that get in its way.

The root of Buddhist meditation practice goes back to yoga, which means “yoking” or engaging fully with our spiritual practice. In the Zen tradition, we engage this yoking to alleviate suffering and discomfort through a deep immersion in the task at hand (ref. Heart Sutra). Some version of this yoking to practice is present throughout all lineages in the Buddhist tradition, including the Zen and Tibetan lineages, and in most other religious traditions, if less central.

Then how did we human beings come to a place where to do what is useful and necessary most often requires the yoking to purely achievement-based objectives and the abandonment of an intuitive wisdom — the opposite of discovering our true selves?

Shakyamuni Buddha realized that the discomfort of consciousness was a natural and necessary part of the human condition. He also realized that this discomfort did not need to control our lives, that we are capable of stepping past an absorption with our own suffering. A habit of meditating or of yoking to the activity at hand allows us to engage the great questions of life and death in many ways. Meditation helps us to abandon an absorption with our own discomforts and our tilt towards mean-spirited actions.

The wilderness can also be a great teacher, one of the windows into understanding original self and great love. Wilderness never cares about just for me. The mindless generosity of wilderness is always intuitive, without aggression and points the way back to our original selves.

Paul Bloom is a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. He will be offering the half-day retreat, Introduction to Zen Practice, at Copper Beech Institute on Saturday, September 23, 2017.

Discovering Mindfulness

by Brooke Van Allen

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

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Brooke Van Allen

This quote started a cleansing whirlwind within my mind and soul from which I would never return. Mindfulness had been sitting outside my window staring at me, inviting me in for years. I had to open the window to mindfulness myself, because no matter how many times people in your life tell you that you need to wake up and open your eyes, only you can choose to embark on this journey for yourself.

Coming home to my own breath and my own light brought me to a place of safety and wholeness that I had never felt before. Mindfulness is not some foreign trait or concept that only certain, special people can attain; it is simply the ability to sit with myself. It is almost humorous to me how little there really is to it. I used to view meditation and the concept of mindfulness as one more thing on my to-do list, one more thing I could never perfect. What I soon came to realize, is that every single person has the beautiful capability to sit, breathe, and know that just that is enough.

The small lessons I’ve learned in each meditation practice apply to my daily life entirely. As I sit and breathe and focus on nothing but the smooth inhale and exhale of life, it is absolutely inevitable to notice my human-ness shine through in the form of scattered thoughts.

When a teacher acknowledged this, telling us that it is normal and the entire purpose is to sit with yourself through it all, I had a small but quite life-changing breakthrough. I have always struggled with accepting how I feel instead of shaming myself and pushing my thoughts and feelings away (which had the undesirable effect of blowing up the entire situation 1000 times). When I was told to watch my thoughts pass by in non-judgmental way, breathing with where I was at in that exact moment instead of pretending that I was in a state that I was not, I felt self-acceptance on a level I never had before.

Self-acceptance and self-awareness go hand in hand. I do not think that one is truly possible without the other. The more that I sat with my breath, my mind, and my raw soul, the more I became aware of who I truly am. For me, this required some time in isolation with no company except my own thoughts. I came to know the person that has been reaching out to me for years — my genuine self. I noticed the relationships in my life start to flourish in the gentlest of ways. When we spend time sitting with ourselves in silence and hearing our own voices clearly, we bring out true selves to the table and tend to be more accepting of everyone else as well. This is self-love and wholeness at their purest. Without self-compassion, the world knows no compassion at all.

Everyone has their own light inside themselves and the ability to quiet outside noise and listen from within. When I found this within myself I began to see it in everyone, and I felt a deep connection to and love for every being on earth. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I am always with my mind and in the moment. I am finding it much easier to peacefully and joyously cherish the beautiful moments in my life while I am in them instead of letting the inevitable fact that they will end spoil it for me. When living mindfully and fully in this way, I am not sad when the moment is over because I know I was all there, soaking it up in its entirety.

I now have a daily gratitude journal in which I write down everything in the past 12 hours that I am grateful for. This keeps me mindful throughout the day of each and every moment and all it has to offer. The quiet moments of life such as sitting outside in the morning and listening to the birds open my mind to the richness of life to be grateful for. Full compassion, acceptance, and love in every raw moment of life.

When we are mindful, we naturally practice gratitude and that alone is enough to rewire a chaotic mind. Each moment is a gift of which we are each fully deserving, and there is always space to quiet the mind, notice the breath, and feel at peace. Now that I am here, I am really here.

When I walked the labyrinth at Copper Beech on my first retreat, I placed a stone at the center on which I wrote, “I am whole, I am love.” Each and every being is completely whole and embodies love; it is only a matter of bathing in the light that has been trying to pour down on us for a lifetime.

Brooke Van Allen was a summer intern at Copper Beech Institute. 

 

Three Teachers Weigh In: How do I know if my meditation practice is working (especially when nothing seems to be happening)?

By Paul Bloom, Miranda Chapman and Anne Dutton

Paul Bloom: Exactly! Every meditation practioner has confronted this question.

In the Zen tradition there is a kung-an (koan) that unwraps the conundrum:

A monk approached the Master.
Master, I have been practicing hard for many years but can’t see the results of my practice. Please help me.
Master: Have you had your breakfast?
Monk: Yes.
Master: Then wash your bowls.
At this the monk had an awakening.

This teaching presents a clear direction: perceive the ordinary activities of your life and so discover your true self, nothing fancier. Like practicing the piano — chords, scales, Beethoven. When we unwrap the clutter of cognitive thinking compassion appears by itself. Zen calls this Don’t Know Mind.

Shakyamuni Buddha looked up to see the morning star and had a great awakening.

This approach to meditation requires faith — faith that we are not fools to pursue the great question, “What am I?”

But pursuing this question is the most important thing we can do. Awakened mind is our birthright. When we practice with this attitude then the practical possibilities of lessening the violence and suffering of this world appear by themselves.

So when the clouds of doubt about practice fill your mind, you must trust yourself 100 percent! Some days are cloudy, some bright. This is as it should be. When we have the courage to trust our daily practice through both clouds and sun, then one clear day and the morning star appears.

Miranda Chapman: I often like to think of my meditation practice as the cultivation of a deep, intimate, long-haul friendship. Sometimes, when I engage with that friendship, I see the fruits of it and feel so nourished; sometimes it’s just incredibly quiet, no exciting discovery or transformation.

For me, all of that is part of trusting in any great friendship — being open to the rich and textured spaces of insight and resonance, and the subtler spaces of silent abiding. In the quiet times, if I am not careful, I can extrapolate disconnection or stagnation but, if I am willing to look more closely, things are always moving, shifting, coming together and falling apart.

So, if trust in my practice is present, I don’t need the grand gestures of revolution, instead there is a profound knowing that something is always happening; it’s my work not to force the scale. And, when I am able to settle into that patience, a natural sense of restfulness arrives so I am ready when the great sea changes do come.

Anne Dutton: One approach to this question is to inquire into what we think “should” be happening.

In the eight-week MBSR course, we talk about the “attitudinal foundations” of mindfulness practice in class one. These include taking an attitude of acceptance toward what we notice, as best we can, from moment to moment, and letting go of striving, goals, and outcomes.

Why is letting go of goals so critical? Because meditation is the practice of bringing our attention to the present moment as it is. It is the profoundly radical and courageous practice of easing up on our resistance to a reality that is rarely completely satisfactory — and often downright painful. We deeply investigate the moment instead, cultivating our capacity to become intimate with it.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the most direct path to deriving benefit from meditation is to let go of the demand, or even the idea, that your meditation result in an outcome.

Paul Bloom was authorized as a senior dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1991 and has taught at the New Haven Zen Center for more than two decades. He will be offering the afternoon workshop, Introduction to Zen Practice, on September 23, 2017.

Miranda Chapman regularly teaches mindfulness and movement programs at Copper Beech Institute and leads the weekly Candlelight Meditation sitting group. Learn more about her upcoming programs.

Anne Dutton is an MBSR instructor, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, published Buddhist scholar, public speaker and translator. She will be teaching the eight-week MBSR program at Copper Beech Institute beginning September 24, 2017.

Are You Happy Now?

By Brandon Nappi

Have you noticed the incredible pressure in American culture to be constantly happy? Life has become one giant happiness project that is as haphazard as it is fruitless. Luxury cars, hair conditioner, and faster cell phone service all promise to increase our happiness in some vital way.

Underlying these messages is the implicit assumption that we should be striving to maintain elevated states of delight and happiness at all times. This artificial elevation is simply an invention of a marketing culture that locates the cause of happiness outside ourselves. Our society puts incredible pressure on us to be happy. Shelves at bookstores are spilling over with self-help books. Happiness is a billion-dollar industry which peddles everything from wrinkle-free skin to slim waist lines and the perfect sex life. I don’t know about you, but this pressure to be happy is making me unhappy. Think of the messages that we invite into our homes by way of television: you’re fat, ugly, too old, too wrinkled, too stupid, too busy, and too tired. Billions of dollars a year are spent to entice us to measure our happiness by externals.

While we all wish to be happy, I find it incredibly freeing to remember that we are not created to feel constant pleasure. Conditions constantly change. Sadness, anger, and fear are equally part of the rich tapestry of human experience. Living a full life does not demand the elimination of all negative emotions. Indeed, we actually need a rich diversity of emotions to live deeply. The degree to which you know sadness is the degree to which you know joy.

By joy, I mean something deeper and more lasting than happiness. While happiness naturally ebbs and flows daily according to mood, life experience, and external conditions, true joy is like the current deep below the river where I bring my young daughters to play. Depending upon which point of the river we visit, we might notice calm pools of peace, crashing whitewater, or places where the water almost seems to be running backwards as it encounters giant boulders and tree trunks. The surface of the river knows the great variety of activity, but deep beneath the surface, the water knows only one direction.

Your sorrow, anger, frustration, and worry along with your happiness, gratitude, and elation are all valuable parts of what it means to be human. If those emotions make up the ever-changing surface in the river of our humanity, then joy is the steady current deep beneath. So you can have joy even in your sorrow. You can have joy beneath your anger. An abiding joy unfolds in the depths of our soul when we welcome whatever is arising on the surface with a spirit of acceptance. In an age of chronic pressure to look happy on the outside, we easily forget that joy comes from deep within.

So how do you cultivate this abiding joy? First, remember that being joyful is not about becoming something you’re not; it’s not about getting something you don’t have. Being joyful is about accessing something you already have. It is gained through awareness, not acquisition. This is the gift of mindfulness. Mindfulness opens our eyes to the richness and sacredness of what is already there. Within any awareness practice is the stunning surprise that joy is always available amid the full range of human emotion. Joy is provoked by the thing you walk past everyday — a dog’s wagging tail, a dandelion, the worn eighty-year path of footsteps on a colonial staircase.

What is remarkable about joy is precisely that it is not remarkable. The potential for joy has been generously scattered all over the earth like my daughter scattering sprinkles on her birthday cupcakes. This boundless joy has often been missing in organized religion. For too long, we’ve made the contemplative life a rather gloomy and somber endeavor in which spiritual practice has been defined by how aloof, disconnected, and how other-worldly we can seem. Joylessness is the surest sign of an impoverished and sick spirituality. If your spiritual path isn’t nourishing a palpable sense of quiet and ordinary joy, it may be time to evaluate the path itself.