At my high school reunion this weekend (link requires Facebook login), I heard many life stories and was impressed with the variety of issues and difficulties people have overcome or are still facing. It’s easy to forget when we surround ourselves with folks with whom we have a lot in common, but we really are so very uniquely individual. The same is true when we meditate. The tensions and obstacles that we hold in daily life have to be released, resolved, or temporarily set aside in order to settle into a deeper experience of alert tranquility. I often talk about how many people think too much and it’s hard to get our of our head and just sit. But others are quite the opposite and are so very sensitive to the conditions of their body and senses that they can’t just ignore them and be present. In finer detail, each person has a unique path from their daily life state of mind to the heavenly content and vibrantly aware state of mind called of jhana. Traditionally in Zen centers, those things can be discussed in private one-on-one discussions with the teacher where both can be very specific. But there are always lectures, books, dharma talks, etc where the audience is wide. In those cases we have to be selective in the advice we listen to by knowing what our difficulties are.
Retreats these days are kind of a vacation from daily life. We hear in ancient times, stories of persons going off to the wilderness, a monastery, ashram, temple, etc for years to totally transform their sense of self. Buddha’s 7years ascetic life in the wilderness, The missing years when Jesus may have trained with mystics in the Dead Sea. Even my teacher, Shibuya Sensei lived about 4 years in the wilderness of Hokkaido. These are drastic life-changing turns, that we rarely do while we seek to be more enlightened, succeed at work, maybe raise a family, stay healthy and beautiful, and have fun all the while. That’s ok, no matter how driven or lazy we are, eventually we will get there; there’s no deadline and no rush. But when we suffer and realize we can’t fix the circumstances, we are motivated to hurry up and get free of it. So typically we could use a retreat as a time to make that extra effort, and even if we don’t reach enlightenment we will be more settled physically, emotionally, mentally, and have a clearer sense of who we are and what we stand for. Returning to our daily efforts with that clarity and wholeness is quite valuable in the short as well as the long term. Retreats differ of course. Corporate retreats, yoga retreats, physics conferences, Chapel retreats, Zen retreats, and the retreat we did last year. They differ in cost, duration, amount of time spent in practice vs socially, as well as venue and purpose. This year’s retreat will center on three two-hour meditation periods with an hour after for solo contemplation. We’ll reserve the meditation hall for greater silence and continue being social at mealtimes. This seems like the right amount of challenge and rest for us for a 2-day retreat.
Going back to another story in ancient times for inspiration, Hokyoji temple in Japan is the #2 Zen headquarters and was founded by Hokyo Jaquen back in the 13th century. He emigrated from China when Dogen returned to Japan with Zen, but after Dogen passed, he was disillusioned with the level of practice at Eiheiji monastery (#1) and went into the deep wilderness on his own. Meditating on a large rock, he lived with a dog and a cow there for 18 years before a local samurai lord discovered him and asked him to teach. This led to Hokyoji. When Shibuya Sensei was young and seeking, he went to Eiheiji and Hokyoji and studied under Hashimoto Roshi. He too was disillusioned with the level of discipline when he saw how no one really practiced when the master was away, and left for Hokkaido. Are you seeing a pattern? When a person is really driven to find the solution to themselves, eventually they have to be alone with themselves. Meditation is the method, and jhana is the depth of the meditation which is the message that really matters, but each of us has to get the message by experiencing it and apply the method to use that depth of contentment to transform our personal suffering into a new sense of self. In my own life, I spent 10 years (off and on) living in a small town in Washington state, working in a remote underground former missile bunker with a couple other scientists. This was like a life retreat for me, physically apart from all the efforts I was involved with in Southern California. I was definitely a different person as a result, more settled on what mattered to me, more content about who I was, more relaxed about everything else.
A couple questions came up at the workshop on Saturday that made me think: how long do you meditate for? and what psychic abilities do you have? After some thought I realized these are excellent questions to ask of someone who’s teaching how to develop psychic abilities or to have good regular meditation practice. But I am doing neither here. My message is simply jhana. Yes, a good regular meditation practice will be good for almost anyone. But it is not required nor perhaps even helpful for you to discover jhana. I’ve often found a break from practice leads to a clearer, harmonious and enthusiastic practice when I return to it. Each of us is different and regular practice may help you get jhana or may not. The obstacles we bring to meditation are overcome by our own effort when we are ready and willing to overcome them. How long does it take to be ready and willing to overcome your fear, trauma, desire, etc. When you do experience jhana, and after some time practicing it you recognize it clearly and experience it regularly, then everything else will get simpler and I trust you will figure everything out. I’m sure you are thinking…”jhana may be there in my distant future but meditating now helps me feel more centered and I need a regular practice to support my challenging life.” As you face the obstacles in your life, why start with the small ones when they will all become irrelevant when you solve the big one? When you discover how to be settled to the degree of jhana, it’s the same; the smaller challenges fall off you like water. Spending your time overcoming the small things is really just biding your time until you are ready to be truly content. You CAN do it.
What does Buddhism say about psychic and medium abilities? Well, first of all there’s the terminology; Siddhi or Rddhi is the Sanskrit term used. There are many lists of these supernatural powers, and many examples of them being demonstrated by Buddha and others back in 500BC. There’s also a text of the biographies of the 84 Mahasiddhis (Buddhist psychics) available now with the title “Masters of Mahamudra” from about 1000AD. But later, for instance in a Zen monastery of the 1700’s, you would be kicked out for practicing these abilities. Why? Well, if you go back to what Buddha taught, he said basically that practicing psychic abilities was not as valuable as as learning to care for yourself and others. Zen monasteries grew to become very focused and determined to reach that goal and don’t allow tempting distractions like these abilities. You can see that if the reason you strive to develop such a skill is because it makes you feel good about yourself, then maybe you can’t afford to fail. That leads to delusion, which is the #1 danger of developing those skills according to Rev. Larr who founded the Chapel in 1972. There’s also the pitfall of the consumer of psychic advice, which Hollywood and our culture encourage. Here you could become addicted to finding out what you “should” do; from your life’s goals to what you should buy at the grocery store. So what’s the good side? Rev. Larr’s #1 reason to learn medium skills was to avoid accidentally crossing over by being sensitive to warnings about accidents and such. His #2 reason was that the experience of being a medium removes the fear of death. But it’s tricky to avoid the ego attachment, and I’ve seen many fall into it over the years, and almost none recover from it. The bottom line as I see it is that as you get more settled with yourself and the world, everything gets simpler and easier, and some things that appear supernatural become natural for you to experience. We’re just a part of an evolving Nature, and suffer when we get stuck on specifics whether it’s psychic abilities or more money.
Like a doctor, Buddha diagnosed life as dukkha (pain, suffering, dissatisfaction). What’s your solution? How can you be not-dukkha? I recently watched the movie based on the book Eat Pray Love which seemed to me to be a random collection of aphorisms. The main character learns the joy of doing nothing in Italy; to eat and indulge without worrying too much. Then in India she learns to express devotion and surrender control and forgive herself. Then in Bali it seems she gets her divine reward for growing in those ways by falling in love and letting go a little more. It reminded me of the world’s largest collection of ancient aphorisms, which you can find at the ruins of the temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece. Here between the 8th century BC and the 4th century AD, priestesses gave inspired advice to emissaries from around the world. The aphorisms and maxims are inscribed in ancient Greek on the pillars all around the ruins ; here are about 150 of them, though the most famous is “Σαυτον ισθι” (Be/Know Yourself), because Socrates often quoted it. The trouble is, there are too many instructions, right? What is YOUR answer to Buddha’s diagnosis? As an example, “forgive yourself” from the movie is great if that’s what you need. But for a narcissist, forgiving themself is the wrong direction — they probably need to feel even more responsible. Even the advice I share about meditating can only apply to some of you. ‘Pay more attention’ may be the right direction if you tend to drift off, but may be the wrong direction if you are overthinking things. So, where are you now? What is your right direction to be not-dukkha? We have the Ashtanga yoga opening chant that venerates the “jungle physician” to cure the delusion of samsara. You might think sukkha (happiness), being the opposite of dukkha is the solution, but facing life’s challenges with a joyful lighthearted ever-positive attitude is still only good specific advice to where some of us are. Sometimes we need to face things with a serious and determined mind and admit that the situation is truly tragic. Being happy is not always the cure for being unhappy, but being content is the middle path. How can you be content? Let’s find and create that now as we meditate.
As your practice develops, here are some common steps people go through. First take responsibility and control. Take responsibility means that you realize that the answers are not out there; you stop searching so much and start looking more at your own mind. Take control is a deeper step where you stop sitting alone with yourself just waiting for answers to come to you; instead you might seek to understand why you do, say, and think the things that you do. Be careful here not to get too analytical; understanding requires observation but does not require analysis. Second, be mindful and be still in your meditation. This is the same thing I’ve been saying “pay attention and let go”. We do these things every day, but typically not at the same time. Here’s a handy chart:
|holding tight||letting go|
|not looking at yourself||hurt yourself?||to sleep?|
Third, consider what you are clinging to: life purpose/goals, personality drives, or biological needs. Here’s my own list of biological needs: a) to be social, perhaps with romance, b) wealth, which supports eating and sleeping, c) health and moreover comfort, d) safety and freedom to roam. For this audience, I’m guessing that unless you are facing a recent change you can probably let go of a) and b) pretty easily, and you probably don’t really worry about d) so much. But health and comfort are probably quite a challenge. When you meditate it’s not a matter of being so perfectly comfortable that you attain jhana, it that you let go of the ongoing discomfort, get jhana and then everything is exquisite even pain. So you have to decide that you are comfortable ENOUGH for now, then let it go. Here it’s important to make the distinction between good pain (that is letting you know somethings going on and maybe keeps you from falling asleep) and bad pain (that heralds a possible injury due to too much full lotus or something). Common sense: don’t injure yourself. So once everything is good ENOUGH, you let it all go and then jhana is simple: just breath with your whole body and mind.
As we grow in our meditation practice, I find we learn a few pivotal things. One is that we stop searching for the perfect cure or miracle or teacher and accept that we have to change ourselves in order to be happy. We’ve read enough books, listened to enough podcasts, attended enough workshops, and now we have to face ourselves and actually do the work. After we realize that, when we meditate we focus our attention inside ourself, because we know easy answers are not out there. We can’t just give up control to something or someone else. But this realization has a deeper layer that we eventually get. Initially we turn inward and exert our control over ourself while we meditate by controlling our breathing, insisting we don’t move at all, maybe even forcing our mind to avoid thinking things. This is kind of a strain. After 30, 40, 60 minutes we’re exhausted, sweating, but feel great because we’ve overcome a challenge. Our mind feels clearer too, so we ‘know’ we’re doing the right thing. That’s great but the deeper layer is that having control but refraining from exerting it feels even more amazing. When we allow ourself to be, but remain vigilant and capable of enforcing restraint, we stop the effort part of effort and conserve energy. Imagine you are a young adult in your first car. It feels so great to drive and be able to go anywhere and the roadside passing by as you speed down the road is quite a thrill. I think it has to do with sensing many things changing per second. Would a slow roller coaster be as exciting? Well, in meditation, when you sit vigilant but allowing, the multitude of details in each moment become more apparent. The same powerful thrill (without the adrenaline) of perceiving with great lucidity yet remaining steady transforms a moment from boring to bliss.
Thinking about what I might teach at the half day workshop we’re planning in Encinitas, I considered my expertise which is 4-fold: Physics, Yoga, Spiritualism, and Meditation. I always felt one should not rely on one part of their life for confidence alone and ended up relying largely on these 4. That way if there were a crisis in one school or with one relationship, I could continue confidently with a sense of self from the others. Anyway, thinking about how to combine these 4 into one workshop reminded me of the crazy names you come across these days and I came up with my own humorous twist as a joke: ‘the quantum yoga of enlightened ghosts: is yoga quantized? can a ghost reach enlightenment? do ghosts practice yoga? is enlightenment quantized?’. You know, the word quantum gets a lot of misuse because people don’t know what it means. It means that things come inn specific sizes or quantities: like apples. Generally trees produce integer numbers of apples, and rarely 3.183 apples on a branch. So you could say apples are quantized. The big breakthrough last century was when we considered maybe electrons can only be in specific energy levels around atoms and when they go between them they emit specific frequencies of light. This dramatically explained the color spectrum that ionized gasses produce such as the Aurora Borealis or a fluorescent light. Well, when we think about our mind, consciousness and meditation it turns out that we are not quantized. Typically we say I, you, them and count the number of persons present as integers. But inside your mind are competing processes for a sense of self, so we are more than 1. Plus we overlap with each other in a number of ways. It’s really quite complicated and no one can do the math yet for a fully non-local field theory of identity. But we can experience it even if we don’t understand it. When we experience jhana we are being the whole instead of being the part we normally identify with. Let’s do it!
Meditation is a specific practice and practice is a part of your life, just as jhana is temporary enlightenment and enlightenment precedes pari-nirvana (merging with the Universe in final cessation). So just as we explore ourselves and learn how we are holding ourselves back from jhana in meditation, we discover how we are creating our suffering in our life. There will always be pain, imperfection, and disharmony in life because life is in motion and these are symptoms of motion. But our personal experience of life can be very different depending on our perspective and motivation. To that end it’s good to see yourself clearly and find your balance. Personally I work full time analyzing data, which is heavy on the concentration and weak on the emotions. So after work I can easily find myself weeping at the silliest telenovela video. My body-mind seeks balance and learns toward emoting. It’s nothing personal, just cause and effect. Here on Mondays I’ve been pretty serious so tonight in the spirit of balance, I’ll share my collected meditation jokes for fun. Here are a couple of my favorites:
I was surprised when I learned that Yoga philosophy came after Buddhism, since I thought it was part of the Vedas from <1000BC. In fact Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras around 200AD which was 700 years after Buddha. He knew Buddhism and Hinduism and combined them into yoga philosophy. I was also surprised that the Bhagavad Gita was written up through 400AD as well. So it makes sense that we talk about meditation within Yoga practice as well as within Buddhist practice. I shared some short excerpts from Kino MacGregor’s 30-day Yogi program (p120, p63, p104, p118), each relating to a different Kosha (sheath of your being). Remember Patanjali talked about quelling the fluctuations in your mind… in your koshas: which would be 1) disharmonious and illness in your physical body, 2) emotional upset in your energy kosha, 3) disturbed thinking in your mental kosha, 4) questioning your values and beliefs in your kosha of knowing, and 5) doubting your identity and contentedness in your bliss kosha.