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Posts tagged ‘Tricycle’

Keep It Simple

Keep It Simple: The gift of awareness.
by Andrew Olendzki
Tricycle Summer 2014

The human mind has a tendency to make everything it takes up more complicated and elaborate than it needs to be. You may have noticed this. The Buddhists even have a word for it, papanca, which means something like mental proliferation.

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Meditation moves us in the other direction. It is an attempt to remove, piece by piece, layer by layer, all of the baroque ornamentation with which we embellish our world of constructed experience. Underneath all the drama, the restlessness, the hopes and fears, behind the narratives we weave about ourselves, and even before we’ve thought of ourselves as ourselves, lies a simple, unadorned awareness. It’s not even a thing—just an event that happens, a little burst of knowing, deep in the center of it all.

Experiencing this awareness has more to do with subtraction than with addition or multiplication. René Descartes was on its trail in his Meditations when he imagined all the complexities of our world to be an illusion. Take away everything with which we populate the story, and what is left? Just me, thinking. The Buddha got two steps further than Descartes, beyond the “me,” and beyond the thinking: awareness occurs. Knowing as an event does not belong to anyone, nor need it be constrained by the thinking of thoughts.

This is an alien idea for many in the modern world. Because so much of our mental activity consists of thoughts, images, concepts, and words, it seems inconceivable that the mind might manifest in powerful ways devoid of thought. Yet you can feel this for yourself (so to speak), here and now. It might take some practice, and 20 minutes of letting go of one thing after another, but the simple event that is consciousness, that unadorned episode of awareness, is accessible to direct experience. Like the dimmest of stars in the night sky, it slips away if you try to pin it down. But if you learn to release hold of the clutter and pry the mind out of the grooves and channels in which it is accustomed to run, you can feel it spilling out and spreading formlessly in other directions.

One of the most basic structures of the mind taught by the Buddha is that consciousness manifests in six modes, flows through six channels, or passes through six doors (choose your preferred metaphor). Consciousness is always aware of something, and it accesses six kinds of objects by means of six different organs. The sensory organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body) and the mental organ (mind/ brain) compose an apparatus that is capable of processing information, each being sensitive to a particular type of data. The objects of experience consist of the information processed by the organs, and since there are six of them, there are six kinds of things of which we can be aware (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and thoughts).

Notice that thoughts are only one of these six strands of experience. Do we spend one-sixth of our time thinking about things and the rest of the time immersed in sensory experience? Hardly. We tend to operate in thinking mode almost exclusively, cycling through the other senses just briefly enough to provide information for the weaving of our conceptual narratives. Don’t believe me? Try practicing mindfulness of the body.

The first step in establishing mindfulness is to switch over to channel five, the stream of tactile bodily sensations, which serves to disrupt the tyranny of the thinking organ. That the attention wanders so easily and continually off the breath and into the story line demonstrates its habitual dominance. With patient and diligent practice, however, one can train oneself to be intensively aware of bodily sensations for many mind moments in a row. One “knows” the breath directly and intuitively, unmediated by concept, narration, or word.

The mind is now operating just as intensively as when we are thinking, but we are not thinking. We are being aware: not of the cognitive content of our thoughts but of the universe of microsensations that are exploding within the body every moment. Or perhaps we are intently aware of the nuances in the sound of a bird’s call, the rush of a passing car, or the cough of a person behind us in the meditation hall. Once just a data point to embellish our story, these sounds, when attended to without commentary, expand to become a vast territory encountered directly with awareness. The information provided by the senses is no longer of great interest, and serves merely as a support for something far more captivating: the quality of knowing.

Awareness itself becomes the most compelling object of awareness. This simple knowing, so peaceful, so clear, so open, seems diminished by and even wasted upon the narrow confines of mere thoughts. As the thinking about things is gradually squeezed out of the mind by filling the senses with awareness, and as each experience is allowed to flow through the point of focus without obstruction, we begin to get a glimpse of a profound simplicity. Everything is changing, everything is interdependent—and there is no one to whom any of it belongs.

Read complete article and more at TRICYCLE.

Bearing Witness at Auschwitz

The limitations of bearing witness at Auschwitz
Only Fiction

by Hawa Allan
Tricycle
Review of In Paradise: A Novel
088ReviewsOnlyFictionby Peter Matthissen
Riverhead Books, 2014

What are you doing here? is the refrain of the novel In Paradise, the last word of prolific author Peter Matthiessen, who passed away at age 86 in April, three days before the book’s release. In its pages, we meet a few of the 140 pilgrims from 12 countries who have traveled to Auschwitz for “homage, prayer, and silent meditation in memory of [the] camp’s million and more victims” and observe their awkward attempts at “bearing witness” to the suffering that occurred there.

The book is based on real annual Bearing Witness Retreats held at Auschwitz and led by Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. The intent of these retreats, according to Glassman, is to dissolve the ego so that practitioners become the elements of the atrocity: “the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys.” After attending three of these meditation retreats, Matthiessen, who had long wanted to write about the Holocaust, was inspired. “Only fiction,” he said, “would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.”

The book’s protagonist, the poet and academic D. Clements Olin (né Olinski), attends the retreat at Auschwitz for the sole purpose, he insists, of conducting research. But Olin’s ostensible intention to deepen his scholarship on survival literature is complicated by the slowly uncovered backstory of his aristocratic family, who fled Poland for the United States at the onset of German occupation. While Olin’s underlying reasons for attending the retreat are often elusive, even to his own probing mind, he eagerly subjects the aims of his fellow participants to critical dissection.

Among them is “the retreat’s unofficial ‘spiritual leader,’” Ben Lama, a “near-bald psychologist left over from the flower-power days of a psychedelic California youth.” To call Lama a leader is to use the word very loosely, as the participants are like a herd of cats: a dispatch of nuns (one of whom, “Olin suspects, has had less difficulty than she might have wished obeying her vow of chastity”); the Germans, “the neediest, most eager” sharers; and the American Jews, who, Olin supposes, “have come to assuage a secret guilt.” There is even a Palestinian who emerges from his “well-wrought isolation” to make a vague, equanimous retort to having been called a “raghead,” and then disappears for the rest of the novel.

Who are they? What are they doing there? These questions are most often posed to a retreatant named G. Earwig, a bellicose New Yorker who, unlike Olin, does not take passive-aggressive swipes at his peers—he simply berates them to their faces. This character, Earwig, also happens to be a mouthpiece for every fathomable objection one might have to hosting a meditation retreat in a death camp, like the risks of fostering sentimentalism instead of self-reflection, and that the retreat could devolve over time into a mere commercial enterprise complete with “package tours and jumbo buses, youth hostels, snack bars, kosher fast food,” and so on.

Earwig is also quick to detect any whiff of self-righteousness (a common accomplice of sentimentalism), swiftly rebuking a woman who claims “that movie about the kind German enamel manufacturer in Cracow who saved his whole list of productive employees” made her want to“ run right out…and do something for those people!” “Do something, lady?” he responds. “Like what? Take a Jew to lunch?”

According to the fictional retreat’s official literature, what the participants are supposed to be doing is “bearing witness.” Indeed, as Olin reflects in exposition, the term is a stale phrase, one that implies a kind of moral decency but—with overuse and underexamination—has become devoid of meaning. So, in effect, one can attend a meditation retreat at Auschwitz and be satisfied that she is “bearing witness” while imagining the torture and mass killing as whatever scenes she can recall from Schindler’s List.

Therein lies the challenge of “bearing witness”: it is far too easy—as Olin and Earwig demonstrate—to point out the wrong way of doing so. What about the right way?

The author and essayist James Baldwin said the root of his vocation as a writer was to “bear witness to the truth.” Although Baldwin was rather fuzzy on what he considered a witness to be, he remarked that he himself was a witness to where he came from and what he had seen. For Baldwin, there is something about being a witness that is personal, experiential—something unlike the authoritative, and perhaps removed, temperament of a spokesperson.

Baldwin’s insight helps illuminate the inherent conundrum of In Paradise’s meditators, insofar as a witness arrives at truth through the immediacy of his or her own perception. Though a scholar of survival literature, Olin himself “tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.”

Read entire essay and more at TRICYCLE.

Let’s Dance

Let’s Dance: Transforming our lives through meditation.
by Lawrence Levy
Tricycle

At a group meditation I led recently, I was discussing the importance of properly preparing for meditation by paying attention to the elements of time, place, and posture. Segyu Rinpoche, Juniper’s founding teacher, was present. At one moment, with a playful look on his face, Rinpoche asked me a question. He wanted to know what I had meant when I mentioned the possibility of placing a flower or a candle in one’s meditation space.

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I understood what he was asking. I was reluctant to share details about my meditation practice, and I knew that Rinpoche believed it was important for me to break that resistance. As he smiled in the background, I took a leap. I described the care I put into my own meditation space—the way I look for just the right flower in my garden, or the perfect orchid at the local market, the attention I pay to making sure the area is clean, and the feeling I experience when I light a candle and imagine it radiating to my family, friends, and others.

I had confessed to my ritual. Later, at the end of the meditation, I said to the group: “You see how Rinpoche was playing with me earlier. It’s like a dance. He prompted, I followed. That’s the dance of meditation, the dance of moving ourselves inwardly.”

Dancing is a beautiful metaphor for the richness of meditation. More than an exercise to focus the mind, it is a transformational journey inward, a means to know ourselves and refine our way of being. It is an art, full of rhythm and beauty, crescendo and quiet. It can be moving, light and joyous. Like removing kinks from a hose, it propels us to overcome our resistances so the best in us can flow.

Sometimes the step onto this dance floor seems like a large one. We don’t want to learn the moves; we’d rather have something quick. We don’t want a relationship with a dance partner; we’d prefer to go it alone. We don’t want to look inside; we want to stay as we are, only freer, happier, and wiser. But freedom, happiness, and wisdom may not arise from merely staying as we are.

The genius of the Buddha—the Indian prince Siddhartha—and many who followed him was the realization that the mind is not static. It is living, breathing, evolving. Because it is the medium through which we experience our lives, there are immeasurable benefits from refining it, sharpening it, and discovering its potential. Therefore, sometimes we have to push ourselves; we have to learn some steps that might at first feel awkward but soon become second nature.

To do this dance takes two sides. On the one is our own effort to grow and refine our way of being and experience. On the other is a partner—a teacher or guide to show us the steps and keep us moving. This requires teachers who know how to transmit wisdom not as ancient knowledge but as living tradition. It calls for a community of individuals, born out of local culture and united by the idea that the inner journey—the dance through which we learn to live fully and freely—is a deep and beautiful way to engage life.

At stake here is not just our own well-being. We live in a time when our narratives are increasingly about what is broken in our world: how the institutions charged with running it are brokers of self-interest and power; how modern governments work for corporations and the wealthy; how media is in an ever-increasing arms race for control of our preferences.

Look for the root of these problems and we end up at the mind—its greed, fear, and craving. If the mind is the root of the problem, then solving the problem—crafting a humanity in which our leaders are stewards of a peaceful, noble, and just world; in which individuals give full expression to their talents and creativity; and in which each person feels relevant and important to the whole—will only come from a change in mind. For this, we have to do the dance that will move us inwardly.

These ideas are not new. A long time ago the Buddha realized the immeasurable benefits to be gained from refining the mind. He also implored his followers not to turn his teachings into dogma but to have the courage to examine the reality we are in right now and to become the best we can be in it.

Read entire article and more at TRICYCLE.

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