Monday, July 28, 2014

What language is that?

In many Buddhist circles, the English used to talk about practice and Buddhist concepts has evolved in some strange ways, different in different traditions, but sufficiently widespread that one can now call it Bunglish, for Buddhist Hybrid English.

There is no doubt that Buddhism changes languages as it becomes part of a new culture. It affected the evolution of Sanskrit, leading modern scholars to coin the term Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Paul Griffiths, as far back as 1981, used the term Buddhist Hybrid English to refer to the "often incomprehensible result of attempts to faithfully translate Buddhist texts into English."

Over the next few months, I will post examples of Bunglish from various translations and suggest alternative ways of expressing the same ideas in more natural English. I invite you to send in your own examples, too.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Forget happiness


Forget happiness!

This is the title of an article in the current issue of Tricycle magazine. It consists of two verses and their commentaries from my book Reflections on Silver River. In publishing these excerpts, Tricycle is calling into question the current obsession with happiness that pervades American (Western?) society and much of what is written about Buddhism today (e.g., The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg). 

These are all solid books. However, even if you discount the commercial pressures that lead to such titles, they are still selling happiness as a goal of spiritual practice. 

This is nothing new. The Tibetan tradition has long sought to persuade people to practice with the promise of great bliss. Other religious traditions seek to attract followers with the promise of bliss, universal selfhood (Atman, Brahma, cosmic consciousness, etc.), eternal life (heaven or paradise) or total purity. As I discussed in Chapter 7 of Wake Up to Your Life and in An Arrow to the Heart, all four of these goals are reactive patterns that seek to escape the messiness of life for an idealized life.

However, you cannot experience the fullness of life without experiencing the messiness of life. Mess is part of life, not something extra that can be done away with if you just manage to live the right way. (The mistaken belief behind the pursuit of happiness as a goal is that you can actually control your life and your experience of life.)

Because control is an illusion, the only question is how to meet what happens in your life. Tokmé Zongpo, in verses 12-19 of Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, provides frighteningly cogent instruction on just this point, relying on the practice of Mahayana mind training in general and taking and sending in particular. He isn’t talking about how to be happy, at least not in any normal sense of that word, but how to be free and at peace in whatever life throws at you.

As I wrote in an earlier newsletter, when you start to practice, you don’t necessarily start with this motivation:

You may begin to practice with the idea that it will help you in your life, but as time goes on, you realize that you have become more interested in what you can accomplish through the practice (awakening, presence, whatever you want to call it). But as still more time goes by, you come to appreciate that any kind of goal, any kind of objective, prevents you from being present in your experience and, increasingly, the only thing to do is experience whatever is arising as completely as possible.

From this perspective, you might think of spiritual practice as akin to artistic expression, be it dance, poetry, painting, or music. You can take up art because you enjoy it, because it helps you in some way, but when it is your life, it requires a different level of commitment.

Take renunciation, for instance. Many artists endure years of poverty, hardship, obscurity, disdain before their work is recognized or appreciated. What is important to them is the art. Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues masters of the mid 20th century, only began to win Grammy awards very late in his career. Other artists are recognized or appreciated only after their death. Many artists (and we don’t know how many) are never recognized, but pursue their art against all odds and challenges because that is their life.

Like artists, spiritual practitioners have to put in years of study and training to develop the needed skills and abilities. Like artists, spiritual practitioners search for teachers or guides who can help them give expression to the small stammering voice that is asking questions or seeking a relationship with life that can be experienced but not described. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are questioned for leading unconventional lives that make no sense to most people or behaving in ways that call into question  the norms of society. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are denounced for not following the established orthodoxies as they follow the directions that their questions take them.

Thus, when you consider your own path of practice, forget about happiness. Take to heart the teachings on letting go of conventional notions of success and failure. Even if you are tremendously talented spiritually (and there is spiritual talent just as there is artistic, athletic or business talent), find a teacher. Expect to put in many hours on the cushion and just as many hours in other ways to develop the skills and abilities you need to recognize and follow your path. And don’t be concerned about whether anyone else recognizes or appreciates what you are doing. Again, like art, spiritual practice doesn’t produce anything that is tangibly useful, yet it is one of the most important, the most meaningful, aspects of life.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Five Elements at Work

The practice question today is about the practical application of the five elements.

Recently, one of my business clients asked me for advice about their HR department as they are rapidly expanding and need to build new capabilities. Being a creative company, the well-being of their staff is crucial to their success.  

An effective HR department has five functions in a company:
  • administration of compensation and benefits
  • addressing employee issues
  • training and coaching resources
  • strategy and organizational development
  • change agent, when change is needed.
It struck me that these five functions correspond precisely with the five elements:
  • administration corresponds to earth as it provides structure
  • addressing employee issues corresponds to water, as it addresses feelings and tacit understandings
  • training and coaching corresponds with fire, as these areas are about energy and expertise
  • strategy corresponds to air, as it is about ideas and vision
  • and change corresponds to void, doing what is necessary when new situations arise.  
As an exercise, look at your own work and break it down into the five elements:
  • what provides structure and support?
  • what flows and how is that flow managed?
  • where is the energy and what happens with it?
  • what are the underlying values and/or strategy?
  • how do you meet changes in circumstances?
Then look at possible weaknesses or imbalances among the elements. Is the structure too weak and doesn't provide enough support, or is it too strong and stifles you? What provides the fire and energy? Do you have a plan for the future or do you jump from crisis to crisis? 

Please post your thoughts, reflections or observations below in the comment section.

For more on the five elements, see Wake Up to Your Life (pg. 154-5 and 226-232).  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

where practice takes you

Many of the responses in my previous post reflect a perspective that pervades how people generally think about practice these days, namely, that the point of practice is to help you in your life or, in this case, help you to find a way through a difficult situation.

While many practices can help you in difficult situations, the help usually takes the form of seeing and not being trapped by the reactive mechanisms operating, both yours and others.

However, when you take the aim of practice to be able to meet difficult situations, you are close to adopting a transactional relationship with practice. In transactional relationships, you are primarily interested in what you get out of the relationship. If you find something that is more helpful, you take up that. The focus on what you get out of the practice inevitably reinforces the sense of self that keeps you from experiencing life without that sense of separation.

Perhaps there is a progression here. You may begin to practice with the idea that it will help you in your life, but as time goes on, you realize that you have become more interested in what you can accomplish through the practice (awakening, presence, whatever you want to call it). But as still more time goes by, you come to appreciate that any kind of goal, any kind of objective, prevents you from being present in your experience and, increasingly, the only thing to do is experience whatever is arising as completely as possible.

That kind of effort is often extremely challenging. In the case of being falsely accused of cheating, your effort requires you to experience the emotional pain of social humiliation and approbation, the pain of the loss of friends and human connection and/or the pain that comes with the recognition that, despite your best efforts, you may never be respected or appreciated the way you would like to be. On the other hand, there are joys, too, the joy of freedom from conventional notions of success and failure, the joy of the peace that comes when you know you can experience whatever life throws at you because you know, experientially, that there is no "you" as such, and the joy that arises naturally when there is no separation between you and what you experience. But these joys are not the same as the joys that arise from human connection and affection.

Yes, mind training and other practices may help you in difficult situations, but the aim of the mind-training instructions is not simple utilitarianism. They give you a way of being in your experience, whatever it is. Not everyone wants to live this way, but if you are taking up mind-training, taking and sending, mahamudra or any of many other practices. that is where you are headed.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Responses to Mind Training in Difficult Situations

Many people responded by email with their responses to the questions I posed in Mind Training in Difficult Situations. Excerpts from the responses are posted below in no particular order and with permission of the person writing. 

Gerhard writes:
When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird,” I like that quote. In the circumstances you describe, it can apply to all the people involved. Everything is illusion or like writings and illustrations in a book, reputation is just another chapter. The problem is we tend to  "live by the book" and get rather inflexible about it. When I get caught up in the drama, it seems the only way i can cut through the illusions, the fears and anxiety, is to allow compassion to rise and turn my awareness to how generation upon generation of beings have struggled the way I am struggling and how we all suffer for it. If there is a bird, compassion will find it.

Paul writes:
I've had a very similar situation happen to me in my life. There was a point that a number of people in my sangha thought I had done something wrong and no longer treated me as a friend. It was very similar to the scenario you outlined in that, at the time, the sangha was almost my entire life.  When this happened I thought "wow, this is very painful.  Why is it so painful?". It became clear I felt the pain of separation from those that I cared about. I had to take responsibility for these feelings somehow.  I looked and realized that I had based my entire life and support network on the sangha, and that I had no other support in my life. I was somewhat dependent on the sangha. And most relationships were not friendship based, but more mentor/mentee based, so I was wanting something from those relationships that they could not provide. This is what led to the rift in the first place.

I realized had no other support because I was so afraid to go make friends elsewhere. I was afraid of other people and social situations and rejection. My response was to work to mend the relationships in the sangha. But more importantly I threw myself into practising with those feelings, fears, and situations. Meeting new people in highly chaotic environments, meeting many different personalities with vastly different viewpoints, understanding what drives people's behavior. I did this for a couple of years and developed social abilities that I never knew existed. Eventually I even came to understand how I could have upset people in the sangha with my behaviour. And because of the changes within myself, I knew I would never do that again because those actions were based on the dependency I had had with the sangha. My life has become infinitely better as a result of that practice.

Kathleen writes:
Ken - This was just posted today and was a great response to this email.

When facing any demanding situation, it is important to stay cool! Here are three ways to calmly deal with occasional life hiccups, beginning with keeping calm yourself.
1. Breathe
It can be difficult to address any problem, minor or major, unless you are feeling relaxed (or at least, a little less tense). Before diving into pressing situations, give yourself a few moments to breathe and re-center. Remember– “Man cannot conquer, before conquering the self.”
2. Adopt Optimism
Most of us look at personal problems or upcoming professional challenges and ask – what’s the worst possible outcome, and how can I avoid that? Simply try changing your vocabulary, and look at each new situation like this – what’s the best possible outcome, and how can I make that happen? You may not be able to change the circumstances, but you can always change your attitude.
3. Use Logic
Now that you’re calm and you’ve eliminated (or taken the edge off) negative thinking, you can begin addressing this particular challenge. Break down the problem, step by step, using paper and pen if you have to. Once your difficulties appear in black and white, you can begin to formulate specific steps to address your immediate needs and long-term goals for solution.
After all is said and done, what is a problem? It is the chance to grow stronger and improve ourselves through challenge.
- See more at: http://www.mindfueldaily.com/livewell/3-ways-to-bring-calm-during-a-difficult-time#sthash.A4AuamHP.dpuf

Pat writes:
What to do about what other people think about me is a problem contained wholly within my mind. What others think is completely beyond my control, as your example shows. Even when I am completely innocent of any wrongdoing, others are free to think and believe anything they wish based on their conditioning...

One of the phrases in the “37 Practices of a Bodhisattva” is “May I experience the world knowing me just as I am.” The practice of training with these verses allows equanimity, loving kindness, compassion, and joy to arise spontaneously in my heart, along with a deep knowing that this is the nature of everything.

I can’t imagine a better resting place when falsely accused of anything.

(The line Pat refers to here, “May I experience the world knowing me just as I am.” can be found in some verses I wrote for the practice of the four immeasurables.)

Miheala writes:
The way others think, speak, act, etc. is their Karma. The way I feel, think, respond when I am engaged in a situation is my Karma. I view the mind as a field, in which every thought, feeling, act leaves a seed. So when faced with adversity, like you described, my aspiration is to act, feel or speak in such a way, that I would leave the most wholesome seeds in my mind-field and in the mind-fields of others.

Louise writes:
The enterprise of developing and maintaining a reputation resonates with the Titan Realm in which we always fail in our efforts to become gods.  Mind training subverts this delusion by reminding us to drive all blames into one, the recognition that what creates our own defending is our sense of self.

Dave writes:
The taking in of pain/slander and sending out of love and compassion frees us of the need to defend ourselves and the need to respond/react in a vengeful manner. Sitting with the emotion of slander when we have done nothing wrong enables us to experience the physical manifestations of hurt and anxiety and the dissipation of those manifestations during each practice and over time we free ourselves.  It enables us to let go of reactive patterns that will not help the situation.  It is hard work and takes a lot of time and is a step on the path to understanding that experience and awareness are the same. 

A different Pat writes:
In this situation mind training might help me feel the experience without believing any of the defensive/angry reactive thoughts.  Thus I would hurt less than otherwise...
This doesn't sit well with me in practice because I am addicted to acceptance….mostly.  Hence the experience would be crushing to me.

Flo writes:
Taking in the pain and giving away what I would like to hold onto serves several aspects. Allowing me to feel the pain deeply, letting the pain take me over and being the pain allows me to own my projections. Thus I don´t have the need to act in ways to better the situation, to make the pain go away. There is pain, I feel it. That´s O.K. That allows me to see the situation less distorted and clearer. It allows me to come back to the present.
For me, trying to restore my reputation would be clinging to what is no more and the only thing I can do is to open to the situation as it is now and to do what I feel as appropriate in the current situation.
I also feel considerably softened and humbled by the pain.

Nancy writes:
This resonates with me. In my profession( I am a veterinarian) I have learned to be as unattached as possible, to what others think of me. I do my best, and I cannot control what others think of me.  Mind training helps separate out your sense of self from who you really are. You see they are 2 things. It feels lonely. It makes social situations, for me, an adventure into the unknown.

Dona writes:
I had a similar experience this year to the “poker example” you offer. I could not get the selected others to hear my view point; they were committed to their view of me, and that view was not a pleasing one. It was a very painful time. I came to face a sober reality. I had spent my life trying to present and perfect an image of me in the other’s mind.  I had failed miserably.
        Because of this experience, I came to see that my own experience of my life was what truly mattered . I began to be in a ruthless relationship with myself: cutting through beliefs, patterns of clinging, avoiding and ignoring. Moment by moment more or less, I paid attention to my mind, my behavior, my conduct, my experience. I began to feel compassion, respect and acceptance of myself, and from that arose compassion, respect and consideration for the other.

Sharon writes:
What does doing mind training accomplish for me, for the social situation?  The practice is a ready reminder of where I am in my own attachments - how much do I have invested in being respected, approved of, liked, etc?

Gregg writes:
I find that taking and sending tells me how I'd wish to be, if I found myself in that situation. The subject loses his way at the moment he "starts to protest." Taking and sending might, if sufficiently embodied, enable one to avoid being triggered. The requirement is steep -- after having been in a mindset of winning, and then being unfairly accused, and so wanting to win in another way -- "winning" has to be immediately and gracefully replaced with taking/sending. 


Monday, October 7, 2013

Mind Training in Difficult Situations

Imagine that you are an avid poker player. You hang out with a circle of people who enjoy playing poker, a circle that extends not only through your home town but to other towns within easy driving distance. One night you are playing with a group of friends and the dealer drops the cards. Everyone helps pick them up and the dealer deals the next hand. You end up with really good cards. The betting begins, and it's quite exciting. The stakes rise. It's by far the biggest pot of the night, but you are confident in your cards. When the dust settles, you are the winner. Big winnings! And then someone at the table says, "You cheated. When the cards were dropped, you picked up a couple of good cards and that's why you had such a good hand."

The silence around the table is deafening. You start to protest, but before you can do so, another person says, "Let's check the deck." The deck is found to be two cards short, and then two cards are found on floor near your chair.

Nobody says anything. They just look at you and quietly leave. You know you didn't cheat, but what can you do?

The next day, your Twitter account and Facebook page are filled with postings about the card game and what happened. Your friends won't speak with you and your colleagues keep their distance. Your relationship with your circle of friends has changed dramatically. Yet moving away isn't an option for you.

What does mahayana mind training have to say about this situation?

In Mind Training in Seven Points, it says, "Make adversity the path of awakening" and "Don't make practice a sham."

In Mind Training in Eight Verses:

When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.


In The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva:

Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe
Slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart,
Praise his or her abilities -- this is the practice of a bodhisattva.


In all these instructions, you are encouraged to work with taking and sending, taking in the pain of being falsely accused from others and sending your own good fortune, happiness and well being to them.

Obviously, the practice of taking and sending is not going to help restore your reputation among the poker players or how your friends and colleagues see you. There may be a way to change all that, but that is not the purpose of taking and sending practice.

Reputations and how you are regarded by others are strange beasts. You don't own your reputation. Most people think they do, but the reality is different. Your reputation is the accumulation of what other people think about what they think you have done or said. In other words, your reputation consists of other people's projections. You don't own that and you don't control it. You can influence it, but only up to a point. We see this clearly in the lives of politicians.

The questions I would like you to consider are:

What is the purpose of the practice of mind training in such situations? It doesn't help directly with the situation of your relationship with your friends and colleagues. What does it do? What does it do for your social relationships? How does that sit with you?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How to develop capacity in meditation


Meditation practice is largely about building capacity in attention, but what is capacity?
  • Is it how long you can rest in attention?
  • Is it how strong, or deep, or clear your attention is?
  • Is it well you can be in attention in different situations?
  • Is it how quickly you can bounce back from a problem or disturbance?
And the correct answer is? All of the above. Staying power, depth, versatility and resilience, these are the four dimension of capacity.

Staying Power, stamina
The first is stability, or staying power. You develop this dimension by resting in attention. In the context of meditation on the breath, you rest in the experience of breathing. Whenever you recognize that you've been distracted, you come back to the breath and rest. Many people try to develop stability by holding their attention on the breath. This works in the short term, but creates problems in the long term because it always involves a certain about of suppression, of body sensations, emotional material, etc. It's better to rest and let stuff bubble up and resolve itself, than try to hold attention steady. Return and rest. Return and rest.

Depth, clarity
The second is clarity or depth. You develop this dimension by sharpening your attention. As you rest, bring energy into your attention. When you do, everything your experience becomes clearer and more vivid. Some people bring more attention by focusing the attention on a particular sensation or other object of attention, concentrating the attention in a way. Again, this works in the short term. Over time, however, the narrowing of attention ballet couplecan also result in suppression. You can use focusing to learn how to being energy into attention, to generate that clarity and vividness, but it's better then to let that clarity and vividness soak into every cell of your body. In other words, combine it with resting. 

Versatility, flexibility
Once you have experienced stable and clear attention, you can start to develop versatility. If you are used to practicing inside, practice outside. Even on a still day, you experience subtle breezes on your face and it's a new sensation. Practice attention as you look over a field. Practice looking at a garden. Practice looking at buildings, at a street scene. Practice with noise. Start with the sounds of nature, the rustle of the wind in the trees, the bubbling melody of a small creek, the chirping of birds or crickets. Practice with the sounds of machines and of people. Learn how to rest in clear stable attention in different settings. Then practice while you are walking. At first, practice attention while you move and do things slowly. Then practice while you do the same things quickly. Practice until you can drop into attention at will wherever you are, whatever you are doing.

Resilience, recovery
To develop resilience, make a point of alternating, pushing hard and then easing off. Bring as much energy as you can into your attention and then rest in the vivid clarity. Do this for just a few moments, 10-15 seconds. Then do it again. And again. At some point, you will run out of juice, that is, you won't be able to generate the clarity. Then just rest, or go and do something else. Learn also to recognize the rhythms of practice, work deeply when conditions are right, and take a break when you feel dull, brittle, or tired. You develop resilience by making a strong effort and then taking a break before the effort creates imbalance. 

Balance is crucial here. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. If you just develop staying power, you are likely to fall into trance states. If you just develop depth or clarity, it's like trying to read a book by flashes of lightening. If you try to develop versatility and resilience before you have developed stability and clarity, your attention will be weak and unstable.

When you have all four dimensions, many problems just disappear. Teachings and practices that you struggled to understand are now straightforward and clear. You understand them now because you have the capacity to do them.