Monday, December 5, 2016

Mindfulness of the elements

These are notes from Joseph Goldstein’s book “mindfulness.”
The second half of Chapter 9, Mindfulness of activities.

The elements

“Again, monks, one reviews this same body, however it is placed, however disposed, as consisting of elements thus: ‘in this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.’”

The four basic qualities of matter – earth, water, fire and air
In modern science we might use the more familiar terms of:
·      Solid
·      Liquid
·      Plasma
·      Gas

In our ordinary way of perceiving things, the four material states are a useful way of describing our subjective felt sense of the body and the physical world.

It is also possible through the attainment of a jhana, a high degree of concentrated absorption, to experience the body on extremely subtle levels far beyond our usual level of perceptions.   The four elements can be used in this subtle perception.
It would be interesting if a modern scientist were able to compare our contemporary way of describing the smallest particles of matter with these meditative perceptions.

Earth element
·      Stiffness, hardness or softness
Water element
The qualities of cohesion and fluidity
Like water turns flour into dough
It is what holds all the other elements together
Its not seen separately
Fire element
Temperature – hot and cold
Or lightness in the body
Fire functions in different ways
·      It is how something is warmed.
·      It is how things age
·      In excessive heat, it burns things up
·      Digestive heat,  the heat of the “stomach fire”
·      In Asian medicine there are three fires in the body
o   Ancestral fire, reproduction and heredity
o   Digestive fire – heating and using food
o   Heart fire – the warmth of our emotions
The air element
Causes movement in the body
The feeling of extension, expanding, distending.
Also the feeling of pressure
For example, in meditation, regarding the rise and fall of the abdomen is contemplating the movement of the air element.

Contemplation of the Elements
There are many exercises in different traditions to contemplate the elements.
Joseph Goldstein suggests to be mindful of them generally

We can undertake the contemplation of the elements in different ways,
Each one leading us to direct insight into the three characteristics
·      Dukkha, dissatisfaction
·      Impermanence, constant change
·      No centralized self, no-self
Understanding the three characteristics in turn leads to freeing the mind from clinging.

In meditation, we move from the concept of body as a solid thing to the awareness of the body as a changing energy field.  We are moving through the elements. On this level, the sense of the body as being something solid and substantial disappears.

When we lift the foot, the lightness that we feel in the foot and leg is the fire element.
When we’re pushing the foot forward and feeling movement and pressure, we are feeling the air element.
When placing the foot on the ground and feel the hardness or softness, we are feeling the earth element.

In our everyday notion of the body, we might say, “I feel my leg”.  But there is no sensation called “leg”.  Rather what we feel are certain sensations, like pressure, heaviness, and lightness, and then we create an image or concept: “leg”.

In mindful precision, we illuminate the body as the interplay of these four elements.

As we free ourselves from the concept of “body” and increasingly experience the direct felt sense of it, the mind becomes less prone to attachment and to the desire, aversion, and conceit that come from it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Mindfulness of Physical Characteristics

These are notes taken from Joseph Goldstein’s book “Mindfulness”.  These are the first section from Chapter 10, Mindfulness of physical Characteristics.

We study the body to take us beyond the concept of “body” as “self”.
This chapter studies the body in
·      Anatomical parts
·      The elements
·      And the body’s nature of impermanence, to decay and then die.

What is the body, through contemplation of its anatomical parts.

“Again, monks, one reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, enclosed by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus:
‘in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’”

Why would the Buddha want to contemplate the parts of the body that are called in Pali, the asubha or the non-beautiful or unattractive aspects of the body?

This will diminish the strong conditioning of the mind towards lust and attachment to the body.
The body is just a collection of interrelated parts.
That which we often associate with the self – the body- is just an interdependent system of components.
So scientifically, we can allow for entropy of the different parts and systems – the thermodynamic law which says that all systems tend to disorder or to decline.
We are reminded of the impersonal and unreliable nature of the body.
Seeing clearly what the body really is:
·      Helps free us from pride and lust
·      Disparagement and fear

Personal Note:  When I was a dancer in my twenties and thirties, I studied experiential anatomy for dance and then I noticed how much it helped me with meditation, connecting through the felt sense of the body, all the different systems of the body.  This deeply increased my ability to stay with and feel my body, whether the sensations were aversive or blissful.  At first, I didn’t associate this body study with Buddhism and sometimes felt it was actually solidifying my attachment to the self.  So I was so happy when I actually found the anatomical studies in the sutras.  This Body/Mind Centering work I had been doing as a dancer required that I often spend months on feeling each system – bones, muscles, organs, breathing, nerves, etc. which I now had found in the classical teaching of Buddhism.  As I have matured as a practitioner, this subtle understanding of the systems of the body has increased my ability to enter the subtle energy body and to learn a deeper level of concentration on following the body sensations until the point where the body disappears.

At the same time, this section of the mindfulness sutra has also come under deep scrutiny because some of it implies a disgust with the body and what seems like, unintentionally strengthening an unwholesome disgust or aversion to our bodies.  Especially as a feminist, I found this hard to agree with.  It seems like the patriarchal religions of history had a need to put so-called earthly things down, like bodies, earth, women, children etc. so that they could “transcend” the very strong attachment all people have to our bodies as our “Self”.  We are strongly attached to life’s activities and often have an aversion to death.  These attachments and aversions need to be opened up before we can feel liberation.  Sometimes the contemplation of the non-beautiful qualities of the body can help liberate us from our lust and attachment to the body and its extension to the “self”.  I have learned to be less critical of this section as I contemplate the goal of freeing myself from attachment to the body and also to put this section in its historical context of ancient India and China.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mindfulness of Activities

This is a continuation of notes from Joseph Goldstein’s book “Mindfulness”
On Chapter 9, Mindfulness of activities:

“Again, monks, when going forward and returning one acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking away one acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending one’s limbs one acts clearly knowing. . . when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting one acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating one acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking and keeping silent one acts clearly knowing.”

'Clearly knowing' often translated 'clear comprehension'
It means:
Seeing precisely or seeing thoroughly with all of the
Five spiritual faculties:
·      Confidence
·      Energy
·      Mindfulness
·      Concentration
·      Wisdom
All five spiritual faculties in balance.

Training in clear comprehension

Recognize the motivation behind an action
What is the purpose of what we are doing
Is it of benefit to myself and others?
This is takes our mindfulness more than simply knowing what we are doing.
Is what I’m doing skillful?  Is it unskillful?
Practicing discernment.
Our motivation are often complex or made of conflicting motivations

This is the ethical dimension of mindfulness

Encountering Mara- the embodiment of delusion
But unlike western religions, mara is not the devil or Satan
Mara is seen to be the kind of the highest heaven realm.
His mission is to keep us all ensnared in his realm of samsaric attachments
Using seductive and confusing ploys to accomplish this.

“Mara, I see you” is a phrase that we can use when we are interrupting our patterns.

Know the suitability of an action
Even if something is suitable and wholesome
Is it the appropriate time and place for this action.

Particularly in speech
            Is it true?
                        Something might be true but is it the right time to express it?
            Is it useful?
                        What is the effect of our action on others?
What is appropriate for this time and place?

Know the fields of practice
The four fields of practice are the four foundations
Body, feelings, mind, and different categories of dharma
These are the proper domain of practice
Knowing which field we are in helps us to practice restraint of the senses
Restraint or renunciation
            Not allowing are minds to roam around in sense attachments
Renunciation is a kind of non-addiction

Understand non-delusion
Seeing clearly the three universal characteristics clearly
·      Dukkha- unreliability, dissatisfaction, suffering
·      No centralized self
·      Impermanence
Nondelusion understands that with all of the bodily actions mentioned, there’s no one there doing anything.
There’s doing without a doer

This sections shows the importance Buddha placed on monks and nuns deporting themselves in a quiet and dignified manner.
            Not stiff and contrived
            But a “carefree dignity”
Respect and grace in the way people hold themselves and care for others.

Ending with the repeat of the refrain
·      Contemplate all these activities internally and externally
·      Seeing their nature to arise and pass away
·      Establishing mindfulness to the extent necessary for bare noting and continuous mindfulness
·      Abiding independently
·      Not clinging to anything in the world

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mindfulness of body postures #2 - selflessness

Continuing the study and notes from Joseph Goldstein’s book, “Mindfulness”, chapter 8 the second half.

Mindfulness of postures can support the understanding of the three characteristics.
·      Impermanence, anicca
·      Dukkha, suffering
·      Selflessness, anatta

Under selflessness
            Who is walking?  Who is lying down?
            We can begin to explore the impersonal nature of existence

An important stage of insight called Purification of View:
The deep realization of the selfless nature of all phenomena
This is called namarupa
            Mind and matter or mentality and materiality.
At this stage of meditation, we see that whatever is happening is simply the process of knowing and its object
The sensations of the body sitting and the knowing of them
The sensations of the body standing and the knowing of them
We see that there’s no one behind this process to whom it is all happening
Only the pairwise progression of knowing and object rolling along.

We see that the mind and body condition each other.  Sometimes the body moves because of an intention in the mind, sometimes a bodily experience conditions a mind state of enjoyment or aversion.  This is the body conditioning the mind.

Continuity of mindfulness of changing postures ensures the continuity of our awareness of impermanence, which in turns helps free us from identifying with the body as being a permanent self.

Buddha taught Rahula:
This not mine, this is not I, this is not myself”

Even though we often privilege the sitting posture in our meditation, the path of awakening is clearly not limited to any one posture.
            For example, Ananda, Buddha’s cousin and attendant
            Got full enlightenment as he went from walking to lying down.

Mindfulness of postures is one way to bring the intensive practice of retreats into our daily life.

And then comes the refrain:
·      Contemplate the postures internally, externally, and both
·      Contemplate the arising and passing away
·      Contemplate the posture’s impermanence
·      Stay mindful of the postures to the extent necessary for bare knowing and continuous mindfulness

·      Abide independently, not clinging to anything in the world.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mindfulness of body postures - Working with fear and dread

These are notes taken from Joseph Goldstein's book "Mindfulness
Chapter 8 mindfulness of postures

Again, monks, when walking, one knows “I am walking”; when standing, one knows “I am standing”; when sitting, one knows “I am sitting.”; when lying down, one knows “I am lying down”; or one knows accordingly however one’s body is disposed.

Simple and grounding
Especially if you are carried away with thoughts and ideas.

It strengthens continuity of awareness
No need for heightened states of concentration
We can do this practice outside of retreats
Anyone, no matter their education or sophistication, can do this practice

It reveals our state of mind
Do we notice a rushing mind which indicates anticipation, wanting, energetically toppling forward rather than being settled in the moment that is here.
            When walking, just walk.
            Settling back into the simplicity of the moment
Are we restless or impatient?

Working with fear and dread:
Before the buddha’s enlightenment, when he was still a bodhisattva, this is how he would confront his fear by going into the forest and sitting:

“And while I dwelt there, a wild animal would come up to me, or a peacock would knock off a branch, or the wind would rustle the leaves.
I thought: “What now is this fear and dread coming?”
I thought:  “Why do I dwell always expecting fear and dread?
What if I subdue that fear and dread while keeping the same posture that I am in when it comes upon me?

“While I walked, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither stood nor sat nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread.
While I stood, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor sat nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread.
While I sat, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor lay down till I had subdued that fear and dread.
While I lay down, the fear and dread came upon me; I neither walked nor stood nor sat down till I had subdued the fear and dread.

It’s clear from his description that purification of mind is not limited to sitting practice.  We can face and see through these unwholesome states whenever and wherever they arise.

It supports our understanding of the three characteristics.
·      Impermanence – anicca
o   Notice how much change of sensation there is, even in a simple movement
o   Moving from one posture to another demonstrates change
·      Dukkha – unsatisfactoriness
o   Why do we move from one posture to another?  We are motivated to alleviate some kind of pain or discomfort.
·      Selflessness – anatta - what we call the "self" is a series of sensations and moments.

Post Election Practices

Someone from the sangha asked me how to I do tonglen in the circumstances that we are presently facing.  To practice tonglen in a crisis is quite radical and hard to do. But who said Buddhist practice was easy?  How can we react without pouring more kerosene on the huge bonfire of hatred and aversion that already exists?  Nevertheless, we also cannot be simply complacent, without action.

One of my sons who studies philosophy at a University talked to me about an “epistemological crisis.”  He explained it to me as the moment when your story about something gets blown open.  What we conceived as happening, suddenly, appears not the truth of what’s actually is happening.  This is an example of understanding ignorance.  Very similar in Buddhism is the moment you actually realize that you are not a solid self.  This revelation is an existential crisis that, when digested, changes your entire approach to life.  Being stripped away of delusion is not an easy practice!  For half of America, that happened last week during the election of Trump.  In my tribe, the read on the pulse of the nation was not accurate.  Even still, I have to say, the margin of winning was very, very small.  Many of the elections in the past couple decades have shown a society that is split in half politically. 

I had the good fortune of teaching at the prison on election day and the good fortune to be studying the three refuges.  What we talked about that afternoon kept me going this whole week.  The information on Buddhist Faith was mostly taken from the chapter, Buddhist Faith, in Katagiri Roshi’s book “Returning to Silence.”  How do we practice with faith when the world seems to be falling down around us and not going our way. 

Katagiri Roshi called Buddhist Faith – imperturbability.  Or zazen.  Or tranquility.  Or serenity.  Where in ourselves do we find a place that is imperturbable?  This place is not based on reactions to conditions and finds the equanimity from which practice can originate.  May I be at peace with the ups and downs of life.  How can we be at peace when the Worldly Winds are blowing at hurricane force?  We really have to deepen our selves in imperturbability and find that inner strength that can face anything.  This is what Katagiri Roshi called spiritual stability.  We cultivate this practice of imperturbability in zazen and we actualize it when we face the very strong ups and downs of living a human life.

What do we trust in when things don’t go our way?  Trust is such an essential point in a spiritual life.  We have to trust in the underlying structure of the universe.  We have to trust in the vital force and what Dogen calls “The Whole Works” or “Total Dynamic Functioning”.  Even when the appearance on the surface of life, (our reactions and stories,) don’t seem just or right,  the underlying force of the world is still moving in peace and harmony, as Katagiri Roshi would say.  At times of crisis, we have to dig deeper in our understanding and stay even more connected to the underlying workings of the world.   Samsaric life is ALWAYS dissatisfying and producing suffering continuously.  Meeting each moment with understanding is the release we need into a much larger perspective.  It is a very radical notion, especially when you demonize the enemy, that all human beings are exactly Buddha and that I am exactly Buddha.  How can we understand this below the story line?

Katagiri Roshi also wrote that we can trust a “step by step” practice.  Each step we take must be stable and connected.  He writes, “All we have to do is just live.  Take one step, and that one step must be stable.  This means, after using your consciousness with your best effort, then act, wholeheartedly.  All things are completely melted into this one step.  One step after another step is called Right Faith or Imperturbability.”

I live near farmers (most of them are from a different political tribe then me).  I don’t want to hate my neighbors.  I don’t want to live a life of fear and hatred.  To me that is not a Buddhist life.  But what I want to say about my farmer neighbors is that they often show me how to have faith.  Some years, if the conditions aren’t good;  too much rain, an early snowstorm, too much wind etc, they lose their whole crop.  But that doesn’t stop them in the next season, doing it all over again - tilling the soil and planting the seed. They have a continuing hope, that this year there will be a harvest.

Tonglen is not an easy practice even in the best of times.  It asks you to be willing to hold the uncomfortable truth of suffering on the inhale and to demonstrate your faith on the exhale.   It is particularly difficult when you may be paralyzed by your own fears and angers.  Can I face what that fear or anger feels like within my own body and mind? 

What helps is to think about the two kinds of Bodhicitta:  aspiring bodhicitta and entering bodhicitta.  If I don’t have the strength and inner stability to really receive the suffering that is occurring, I can aspire to receive it.  Which for me is strengthening my loving-kindness practice, strengthening my ability to see my neighbor as myself, strengthening my ability to be stable in the middle of a lot of discomfort.  With an aspiring practice we might work on this within formal sitting times, or we may start with smaller areas of difficulty and pain.  We can work up to doing the “hardest, most painful condition”. 

With Entering bodhicitta, our practice is strong enough to take it into action.  Which might look like doing tonglen for my enemies, or taking a political action without hatred and rage.  From my point of view, this is definitely what the world needs, political action that comes from clarity, strength, and kindness.

Work on your loving-kindness practices or tonglen with the “Line of Opening up the Practice”:
            The less difficult practices in the progression:
·      Begin with yourself (which perhaps is not easy)
·      Benefactor, a person for whom you feel uncomplicated sincere gratitude
·      Good friends, intimate friends, and family
·      Neutral person

Then, when you feel stronger, enter into these practices
·      An enemy or difficult person
·      Groups of people, this is called “dissolving the Barrier”
o   Republicans and Democrates
o   Groups of different races or ethnicities
o   Perpetrators, victims
o   Find different groups and notice mindfully how you react when you try to send them kind, healing energy or do tonglen for them.
Finally you can close with
·      Doing the practice towards all beings throughout the universe.

As I have already said, this is not an easy practice and perhaps you have to build up to it.  I think these aspiring bodhicitta actions will help when we want to make entering actions.  What is the next “step by step” action we can do that comes from love or wholesomeness?  Our political actions can become clear, straightforward and strong, if we are not blinded by our own hatred, aversion and fear.