Roots of Mindfulness: Foundational Attitudes - Talk 5

Talk 5 - October 20, 2017 - Nature, Devotion, and Patience  - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2017

Talk 5 recording


Talk 5 notes 

I'm feeling a good bit better from the cold that clobbered me on Wednesday night, thank you for your concern and good wishes. I hope everyone's health is okay. I know there are some migraines and other challenges going on among us.

I'm appreciating anew how we can notice more when we've practiced more. Notice more in the body, in the heart, notice more in the environment.

And what a rich environment this is for the practice of noticing. Noticing the sky and the beautiful clouds. Each cloud unique and never to come again.

Noticing the feeling and sound of the rain coming down. I've been so moved by those of us who are devoted to walking meditation outside in all weathers - what a wonderful opportunity to really notice and meet the rain. Usually we just try to get through the rain - rushing along from buildings to vehicles, taking shelter as if rain was dangerous to us. And of course it can be dangerous, just like anything else can be dangerous, but are we acting out of habit like even a light rain is a threat? We we hunch our shoulders and drop our head and try to outrun the raindrops? How wonderful to stand upright and really meet the rain (although nice we all seem to have the good fortune of owning good gear)?

On the way out of breakfast I noticed a mixed flock of small birds in the bushes and trees between the pond and our main path. How wonderful to stop and really look. I saw chickadees and juncos and ruby-crowned kinglets, and a little sparrow I didn't recognize (but I was happy I didn't feel too bad about that - as a half-decent birder, emphasis on the half, sometimes I beat myself up for not knowing a common bird), and I think I saw a nuthatch working it's way up a Douglas Fir. In the distance a flicker on a tree, various ducks in the pond. And the snoberries and blackberries and roses glistening in the sun. I just felt surrounded by life in the golden light this morning as the sky cleared for a while. What an incredible show - astounding really I was so grateful that it was happening and that I was actually available to take it in.

And then the clouds dropped back down which made me thing of our Holly Hughes poem:

Only a beige slat of sun above the horizon, like a shade pulled not quite down.  Otherwise, clouds.  

But for the moment I didn't agree with her analysis of the mind: at least for a moment the mind wasn't wanting more. The mind always wants more than it has, except when it doesn't.

Maybe you're noticing more too. Maybe you're experiencing moments of contentment. And if not you know what we're going to say: that's okay, too. We negotiators of the way each have our own journey to take here.

 A few odds and ends.

 One is about the story I read from Richie Davidson and the Hour of Stillness - remember how he was in a situation that required him to sit very still and watch the pain in his body and it all dissolved into sensation? I told a similar story from my experience too.

 Well I didn't mean we should be superheros of not moving in hopes of some huge shift in our perception. Be gentle with yourself please. Dramatic situations like a stern Indian teacher telling you "This is the Hour of Stillness!" can lead to dramatic results...sometimes. Other times they lead to injuries. Our way here is more gentle. Easing ourselves into stillness and a turning-towards-it orientation even to strong sensations and powerful emotions. But it's better not to force anything. To notice when there's some agression arising and back off a bit. Be curious, stay with it for a while, and then with a sigh and a half-smile change your posture. And this isn't giving up, it's being skillful and kind. The kind of dramatic chances I was talking about also happen slowly and gradually and that's usually better for tender people and plants.

 Also a few of us are having to leave early for various reasons that were arranged ahead of time. Karen Schwisow who was sitting in the back over there left to go back to Tacoma. She is a teacher of new yoga teachers and they have a long weekend of training ahead. They are working on inversions she told me which makes the trainees super pumped up and chatty - energize. I think she was feeling a little resistance in going from this to that.

 Oh and I think we'll continue with interviews right after the talk and then again in the afternoon. To see everyone we may have to focus a little on time efficiency so if whomever ends up with the shell at lunch thinks of it you could come straight to the blue-door classroom at 2:30pm. If you get down here having forgotten about that that's fine I hate to burden you with tracking something in the future. Maybe you've noticed that this is a feature of our week. There is actually no reason whatever for you to be thinking ahead, ever.

 And that brings me to retreat survival strategies. I was remembering my first long retreat - very difficult - I was very tense. Anyway my strategy didn't help me any. When I arrived there I studied the schedule carefully and counted up how many peroids of seated meditation there were - I think there were 11 or 12 each day - and calculated that all out to get the total. Then I started a count down. The bell would ring to end a period of meditation - there were all 40 minutes long there - and I would say "ok, 74 to go" or something. Why i thought this would help me I don't know because of course usually the inner dialog is like you'd imagine: oh shit, 63 more of these to go, I don't know if I can handle that.

 So just a gentle encouragement if you find  yourself investing in a strategy for survival to forget about it as best you can. Just do one thing at a time and somehow it works out. Somehow you negotiate your way and it's helpful to your life even if there are some seriously challenging moments. Luckily they are in fact just moments, and then there's a new moment.

 Returning to the foundational attitude of trust. We were musing about what it is that we trust. Do we trust people? institutions? philosophies and ideas? a process? Or does trust even need a what that we trust? Might it be that we can just practice trusting without so much concern about what we're trusting? Or is that risky - making us too vulnerable? Do we need some armor just in case the situation or the person or indeed the world proves untrustworthy after all.

 And lately the slices of the world that we receive in the news are quite challenging for most of us - and how we do weave those little slices of world together into our conception called "the world." Somehow it's easier for the mind to weave in the outrages and confusions and violence and disasters of the world and leave out the quiet beauty of a morning with a flock of birds, leave out the billions of people who are getting up, making breakfast on their stove or their fire, feeding their children and setting about the business of the day in fellowship with their community. It's easy for the mind to leave out the many billions of simple kindnesses and smiles and moments of gratitude that grace this planet every day. How hard it is for our mind to hold that the world could be both a disaster and a loving community. How hard it is for our mind to hold that we ourselves are both okay - excellent in fact: privledged, supported people with food, shelter, physical safety and even a mindfulness retreat we get to attend - that we are both okay and also a mess. Also a disaster.

 So here's a little more on Suzuki Roshi on trust and a good example of the Mahayana spirit around all of this. This is from the sequel to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (did you know there was a sequel? how did someone long dead write another book? well his students went through the archives and transcribed and edited more of this talks is how).

[Not Always So, p. 144-145 and note that when he says "zazen" he's talking about meditation]

 What does he mean by Buddha here? I was saying that the earlier Buddhist schools which we're calling Theravada as a short hand emphasized Buddha as a human being - although a very special one who trained for many lifetimes in order to become a Buddha, an awakened one. But still for the most part as a kind of being that looks like a person that people talked to and lived with for 60 years until he died - well Buddhist don't say died which has a particular meaning in the cycle of rebirth but he passed away into parinirvana. Gone at any rate.

 The later Mahayana movement saw Buddha in a broader, more cosmic light, and I don't think from our post-modern, western, scientific perspective we can totally understand the view. Buddha as a kind of essence of awakened vision that permeates everything. And everything is made of this Buddha-ness really. They would say that all beings have Buddha nature. The nature of Buddha. Not that we are all Buddha's in the same way the main Buddha we think of is, there can only in this comological system be one Buddha in the universe at a time. But actually the Mahayana Buddhists emphasized, and the Theravada Buddhists wouldn't argue, there have been many many Buddhas over the endless reaches of time and will be many more Buddhas. Each Buddha appearing the world in the form that people most need.

 You see statues of Buddhas and there are also related beings in Mahayana called Bodhisattvas which exemplify different qualities of practice. Bodhisttavas of compassion, Bodhisattvas of wisdom, Bodhisattvas of healing and so on.

And in fact these bells I've been ringing have a prayer on them: Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ which is a mantra that calls to the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This bodhisattva is often depicted as female and one of her names means "she who hears the cries of the world" - hears them and doesn't turn away. Sometimes she's depicted as having a thousand arms and in each hand a different gift or tool or something that she can use to be of help. And so a devoted Mahayana Buddhist isn't just ringing some bells because they sound nice, handy way to let you know the meditation is ending, when we ring these bells we are sending out a prayer - Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ - to a Buddha-filled universe. We are sending a humble call for the protection and help of the Bodhisattva of Compassion - maybe you're heard some of her names: Avalokitsevara, Guan Yin, Kannon, Chenrezig. And we could study each sound in the mantra which has deep significance and invokes all kinds of teachings and deep feelings. Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. One could easily spend a week studying the teachings in this one mantra.

 So this is a practical non-religious mindfulness retreat of course and i'm a practical 21 century American with a degree in science so...what are we going on about here? Well I don't know whether I "believe in" spirits and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as existant things exactly but I've certainly had experiences that I can't explain if I limit the explanation to scientifically agreed upon phenomena - and actually among the most powerful of those experiences was right here at Samish. I'll restrain myself from going into it because it requires a long story but this seems to be a powerful place in many ways. And I hesitate to even say such a phrase as this is a powerful place. But, it is.

 So Mahayana has more of a feeling of the mystery and unknowability of things to it perhaps than the practical and wise teachings of the Theravada school. Jon Kabat-Zinn ended up translating this part of the tradition with the phrase "non-instrumental"  That there are the practical step-by-step practices and things to learn and do - albeit with this non-striving attitude - these are instrumental aspects of the practice. But there are other factors at play here, mysterious to our conscious awareness, that he called non-instrumental. Stuff like Buddha-nature and another big Mahayana teaching called emptiness (which is more positive than it sounds) are in the non-instrumental camp. Jon even wrote a published paper about this it turns out.

 And without trying to parse all of this out or get too involved in sense-making let's say that there is always more going on that we can quite see or think or understand and our practice includes a connection to, and a curiosity about, this something-beyond. Which sounds quite mystical, and maybe it is, but is also quite sensible if you think about it. Our conceptual life is formed from language and culture and education all of which is built of the sense impressions that consciousness picks out from a vast field of awareness. Since our culture has selected and built a world from all of this it makes sense that we inevitably left something out. In fact it makes sense that inevitably left a LOT out.

 We can use worlds like "the subconscious" or something to try to put the beyond-what-we-can-know into a kind of conceptual box, that's okay. But even that is just a concept mascarading for someting beyond knowing. Or the mystery. Or emptiness. Or Buddha. Or maybe for some of us it's Christ or God or spirit. There's a reason why every culture even has ideas of spirituality and mysticism although just like the many Buddhisms the ideas and forms are so different we don't want to be crude and suggest they are all pointing to the same thing. Who knows? And that's the point of what I'm trying, crudely, to say is there is a lot going on that we don't know here.

 That would be frightening or it could be wonderful. Or it could be both. Here's a famous Zen story. A student named Fayan had been at the monastery of his teacher Dizang for many years and had reached a point in his training where it was time to leave and deepen his understanding by meeting the world in various ways.  So he's at the gate getting ready to go and this traditional Zen story was recorded about that moment:

 Fayan was going on pilgrimage.

 Dizang said, “Where are you going?”

 Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”

 Dizang said, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”

 Fayan said: “I don’t know.”

 Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

 If we're only on the Instrumental side of thing - only focussed on what we can see and think and hear and understand - we like knowing, we don't like not-knowing. Not knowing is lack to be corrected. And that's just fine. But maybe that alone is not so good for us. That is our usual frame of endless improvement and a life of to-do's.

 The suggestion in these teachings, emphasized by the Mahayana side of things but certainly found in all of Buddhism and I think all of the world's deep spiritual traditions, is when we are open and receptive to the deeper and broader feeling of life we touch the mystery with appreciation for it's unknowability also. And when we accept that and open to it we don't feel inadquate or lacking we feel a kind of intimacy. A kind of openness.

 So I wanted to flesh out a little this very crude sketch of the value Mahayana Buddhism has offered to our mindfulness training because it's mostly under the covers as it were. It's easier to write articles and give lectures on the instrumental step-by-step practical aspects of this way. And sometimes the mystery fades into the background. Touched at times in the MBSR classroom with a poem or a feeling emerging in the meditation and a silent knowing glance exchanged between a participant and teacher (or perhaps it's a not-knowing glance). And I myself wouldn't talk about any of this in MBSR class either. Our forum here on the Roots of Mindfulness opens that door.

 So it seems we're been not quite getting around to one of Jon's 7 fundamental attitudes of mindfulness....patience.

 I looked up the English word patient. To be patient. The first definition of patience as an adjective is "bearing provocation, annoyance, misfortune, delay, hardship, pain, etc., with fortitude and calm and without complaint, anger, or the like." So a sense of bearing things with good grace. With fortitude and calm. That's pretty good.

 The second definition of patience as a noun is "an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay" - so here we've kind of lost our good grace. We're wiling and able to supress our restlessness and annoyance.

 Patience also shows up in a famous Buddhist list of highly recommended practices called the 6 parimis or the 6 paramitas - usually rendered in English as the "6 Perfect Practices" - a high recommendation indeed. And there is has a bit of a different spin than surpression. The perfection of patience is more of a radical acceptance of things as they are. A feeling for the "is-ness" of things. Things are just as they are, it is just as it is.

 That the situation I find myself in - a long line at the post office say - is just as it is. If we feel like it we can unpack this logically. It's a combination of many factors beyond my control and I can study my somewhat crazy assumption that the world should be organized for my convenience and also the total unknowability of how many other people in my town happened to need to go to the post office at that particular time and how the Post Office managers had to make their best guess on how many people to assign to the counter and all of this happening in the midst of the constancy of change with the Post Office losing money as fewer and fewer people mail things while they still have to maintain this incredibly vast network of post offices and employees and sorting centers and trucks and planes. We can reflect on how what we are experiencing is just the tiny tip of all kinds of vast icebergs which we have no real visibility into. And we arrive: we see, we practice standing and breathing and being with our species in line at the post office. Renouncing any idea that there should have been less wait, seeing that just as an idea that comes up in a self-centered kind of way. But an idea it is.

 And as we practice patience we find that this kind of analysis isn't really necessary either. As we practice a deeper patience than surpression of annoyance we are embracing life and our world just as it is. Ah other beings, just like me, need to mail things. Hello everybody. Welcome!

 Jon wrote about patience, "To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it in it's fulness, knowing that, like a butterfly [emerging from a crysalis], things can only unfold in their own time."

 Sounds nice doesn't it?

 Or the idea takes hold the minute we come around the corner and the see the parking lot is full and there are many dark shapes through the windows. Oh no! Aversion is arising. Tension in the jaw and cheeks is here. We begin a kind of incessant checking of the time and worrying about whether we'll be late for our next appointment. Darn it. I should have known not to come at this time. And like Robin was saying yesterday in her wonderful exploration of non-striving and letting go when we're caught we're caught.

 Returning to our old friend the breath in the body is a great response. Actually opening our senses to the people around us can help a lot - can we see them not as impediments to our progress, dehumanized by our impatience, and see them anew as actual human beings interestingly diverse, each with his, her or their own story and situation. And through vast numbers of decisions and circumstanes we all ended up at the Post Office at the same time.

 But really the ultimate practice with impatience is meeting it. Just  meeting it: hello impatience, I see you, I feel you, I know you, welcome into the guest house, would you like some tea? No, well the exit's over there, thanks for stopping by. Meeting impatience with kindness and clarity and really we don't have to let it run the show either.

 So we aren't at the post office this week and really things are pretty darn easy in our material world. We even tend to string out a bit on our way to the food line so that we hardly have to wait for anyone ever. And yet, any yet I would be shocked if impatience didn't arise sometimes.

 Maybe you're impatient with some quirk in your own mind. Or impatient with the body. Or impatient with me or Robin for not saying things quite the way you wanted. Oh: you could certainly have had impatience arise around the loud crackling of the mic which we FINALLY solved last night I think.

Can impatience be not a problem so much as a call to practice. Can the tensions-thought complex we call impatience be like a bell calling out to your version of the Bodhisattva of Compassion? Calling on you to wake up our limited views, our self-centeredness, and somewhat silly expectations of ourselves and others. And merge again with the reality we find before us.

 Even as we don't really know what that reality fully is. And that's actually a wonderful thing, not a big problem. Not knowing is most intimate.

 This whole people in our way idea at the Post Office made me think of a favorite poem - I'll close with that:

 Alison Luterman - Because Even the Word

Try to love everything that gets in your way:

the Chinese women in flowered bathing caps

murmuring together in Mandarin, doing leg exercises in your lane

while you execute thirty-six furious laps,

one for every item on your to-do list.j

The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water

like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side,

whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.

Teachers all.  Learn to be small

and swim through obstacles like a minnow

without grudges or memory.  Dart

toward your goal, sperm to egg.  Thinking Obstacle

is another obstacle.  Try to love the teenage girl

idly lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:

Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,

in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.

Be glad she’ll have that to look at all her life,

and keep going, keep going.  Swim by an uncle

in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew

how to hold his breath underwater,

even though kids aren’t allowed at this hour.  Someday,

years from now, this boy

who is kicking and flailing in the exact place

you want to touch and turn

will be a young man, at a wedding on a boat

raising his champagne glass in a toast

when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.

He'll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,

but he'll come up like a cork,

alive.  So your moment

of impatience must bow in service to a larger story,

because if something is in your way it is

going your way, the way

of all beings; towards darkness, towards light.


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