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February 12, 2018
To learn meditation
These days, meditation is sometimes thought of by non-practitioners as sitting in an excruciating position that keeps one from falling to sleep. Actually, there are several meditation methods. We are each different. For a beginner, it's good to know that over time there will be a method especially helpful to the individual.
If it is possible, the most important action that should be taken to initiate meditation practice is to seek the guidance of a recognized master of that meditational path. Also, to occasionally reconnect with that teacher, or another of the same training, can be of great help, especially to have a wise one's answers for questions that arise. Even more significant, there can be empowerment transmitted from teacher to student.
As an introduction, there are two books offering clear and practical instruction. Each gives the reader an advanced sense of participating in meditation.
One centers on a method highly recommended for beginners and adepts alike -- The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein. This book relates in print a course in Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, given by Joseph, whose background comes from many years in India as student and teacher. He is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Vipassana, or Vipashyana, is also described in the other book, Mind Beyond Death, though Dzogchen Ponlop gives more instruction for Shamatha, or Calm Abiding. These two methods are those of the Buddhist path, and due to available instruction from books, offer a helpful starting place. For some, these methods may become a lifelong meditational support. For others, there may be alternative methods better suited to individuality.
Resting in stillness with patience
In developing one's personal meditation practice, it is of prime importance to recognize what we want to achieve: a method of stillness that promotes familiarizing ourselves with the nature of mind; to rest in that stillness, unaffected by restlessness, by past or future, by concepts and emotions.
As patience is one of the greatest lessons of lifetime, so Joseph Goldstein advocates patience to help keep the mind in balance. As in any phase of life, there will be ups and downs. To quote from him, "Milarepa, the famous Tibetan yogi, advised his disciples to 'hasten slowly.' Hasten in the sense of being continuous and unrelenting in your effort, but do so with poise and equanimity. Persistent and full of effort, yet very relaxed and balanced." The Experience of Insight, p. 2.
Before desciptions of beginning Shamatha and Vipassana, it helps to understand posture. If you have already tried meditation, you can continue with that posture or with the most helpful posture for you. It is fine to sit in a chair. What is crucial is that the central channel of your upper body be straight. This facilitates the pranas, or winds, the fundamental elements of the subtle Vajra body to function properly. Straight without tension. This is why the lotus or half-lotus position is favored, since it is a natural way to sit on the floor and have a straight spine without giving it undue thought.
It also helps to understand vision. Advice varies about eyes being open or closed. If you find that keeping your eyes closed tends toward drowsiness, eyes slightly open and then forgotten about is compatible with Vipassana.
Dzogchen Ponlop, the renowned meditation master, calligrapher, visual artist and poet, tells us this: "According to Milarepa, meditation is not meditating on anything; rather, it is simply a process of familiarization -- familiarizing ourselves with the nature of our mind. The actual practice of meditation is to go beyond concept and simply rest in the state of nondual experience....Milarepa said that true realization is like a clear, open sky, or like vast space that is unchanging." Mind Beyond Death, p. 44
For a very basic summary of Shamatha, the method of Shamatha with external object is selected to describe here. This practice is one of fine balance. Either an ordinary object like a flower or pebble, or perhaps a statue or picture that is spiritually significant, will fulfill the need for a reference point. It must be placed so that it is centered in your vision as your gaze is slightly downward along the nose. Allow your focus to rest there, without stress, yet one-pointedly. The mind at rest gradually experiences clarity.
Short sessions can be employed and are even recommended. This doesn't mean to practice for five minutes and then get up and then sit again. Rather, the session is the period when a specific technique is closely followed. Then a break means letting go of the technique and allowing the mind to just rest, breathing freely; then follow with a short session using the same technique again. This can be done several times during a sitting, and helps to avoid restlessness, drowsiness, or any negative distraction.
A brief description of Vipassana is as mindfulness of breathing, with awareness of breath going in and out of the nostrils; not forcing or regulating breath, just breathe. Joseph Goldstein says, "Remember, it is not a breathing exercise; it is the beginning exercise in mindfulness." After a few minutes, settle with either the inbreath or the outbreath, and keep attention there regardless of fluctuations in breath.
Occurrence of thoughts
Even this short overview of meditation needs to include occurrence of thoughts. Teachers vary somewhat on their perspectives of thoughts entering the meditative state. So here is an overview. Joseph Goldstein says, "You will see that when there is a strong detachment from the thought process, thoughts don't last long. As soon as you are mindful of a thought, it disappears and the attention returns to the breath....When they are noticed with precision and balance they have no power to disturb the mind." pp. 27, 28
He points to the words of another great meditation teacher, Suzuki Roshi. "When you are practicing Zazen meditation do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in and let it go out. It will not stay long."
For further investigation, here are details about the two books referenced in this article. Many more books have been written by adepts from numerous cultures. I have chosen citations from these two for their brevity and availability.
The Experience of Insight, by Joseph Goldstein, 1976, Shambhala Publications, Inc. (I have found that new and used copies are readily available at Amazon.com.)
Mind Beyond Death, by Dzogchen Ponlop, 2006, Snowlion Publications
Those interested in exploring Insight Meditation further may go to www.dharma.org
Lily G. Stephen
November 14, 2017
Touching Our Hearts ...
A friend of a friend has written about her experience as a volunteer with Friends of Orange County Detainees. With her permission, we are sharing the writing with you here:
"Today I did my first official visit with an immigration detainee as a part of Friends of OC Detainees. In the time that I was waiting for him to be brought into the visiting room, I spoke to the guy next to me who was waiting to visit his brother. The brothers are from Palestine and are both seeking asylum in our country, as Christians fleeing ISIS and Hamas. The one brother has been held in detention for the past year, with no end in sight. The visiting brother fears what will happen if asylum is not granted, as they are stateless; thus with nowhere to go if they are deported. He was obviously in distress. A lady on my other side cried as her detained family member was returned to his cell - she looked at me, tears streaming down her face, and just said "it makes me so sad." I wanted to hug her.
"I didn't know what to expect from the man that I was visiting, as all you know beforehand is the person's name, gender, country of origin, and languages spoken. You can't be sure how proficient their English speaking is, so you can't be sure of how well you're going to be able to communicate. I was a little nervous about it, but it turns out I need not have been concerned at all. He was articulate and engaging, intelligent and well-read. We had a great conversation about his life in his home country, his decision to leave based on the political climate there and his road to seeking asylum here. As he has only been detained for four months, he is still hopeful, positive and full of optimism. I will be visiting him again.
"Every one of these people has a different story and has had a different path to where they are now - waiting for their asylum statuses to be determined. Some wait years - often years of isolation, as many have no family members or friends near enough to visit. It's difficult, and something I can't imagine having to go through. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to do something to make someone's time in detention a little less lonely and difficult, to learn a lot about their world and hopefully forge a friendship for life."
January 25, 2017
It was while traveling throughout America in the early 1970s when I came across a book that enlivened my entire spiritual development at that time, and rendered it utterly inspired. The book that remains my continuing inspiration is The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, by John Blofeld.
This book is timeless travel through the realms of mysticism, particularly via the school of Vajrayana -- as Blofeld terms, "the ultimate flowering of Mahayana doctrine." (P. 35)
Drastically short-cutting here, I am including excerpts having to do with the characteristic tantric method of Vajrayana meditation: visualization, involving the three faculties of body, speech and mind. (P. 83)
Even if all this terminology is foreign, no matter. Each of us contains within us vast cosmologies that, once experienced, take us out of our egoistic attachments and disclose unbounded understanding. Think Carl Jung.
Preceding the excerpts, it is essential to include Mr. Blofeld's caution: "The victory entails a shattering revolution of consciousness, progressive diminusion of cherished egos and, ultimately, the burning up of the last vestiges of self. It would be folly to embark upon so perilous a quest without the guidance of a teacher who, having progressed far along the path, speaks from an illumined mind, though he need not actually have attained Liberation." (P. 32)
Excerpt from PP. 84, 85: "The purpose of visualization is to gain control of the mind, become skilled in creating mental constructions, make contact with powerful forces (themselves the products of mind) and achieve higher states of consciousness in which the non-existence of own-being and the non-dual nature of reality are transformed from intellectual concepts into experiential consciousness -- non-duality is no longer just believed but felt. In short, visualization is a yoga of the mind. It produces quick results by utilizing forces familiar to man only at the deeper levels of consciousness, of which ordinary people rarely become aware except in dreams. These are the forces wherewith mind creates and animates the whole universe; ordinarily they are not ours to command for, until the false ego is negated or unless we employ yogic means to transcend its bounds, our individual minds function, as it were, like small pebbles isolated from the great ocean.
"How visualization achieves its results is hard to convey because it is based on assumptions foreign to Western thought (although not quite unfamiliar to the Jungian school of psychology). The methods bear a more than superficial resemblance to magic arts generally dismissed as hocus pocus. By Vajrayana adepts, however, the fundamental identity and interpretation of all things in the universe is accepted as self-evident and the mandala (great circle of peaceful and wrathful deities) on which visualization is often based is recognized as a valid diagram of the interlocking forces which in their extended form comprise the entire universe and in the contracted form fill the mind and body of every individual being. Each of the deities with whom union is achieved has a vital correspondence with one of these forces; therefore the mind-created beings can be used to overcome all obstacles to our progress."
Because of the earlier reference to the false ego, here is the next excerpt I have chosen from P. 54 on "The Concept of No-Self": "It is held that absence of self is the true nature of every sort of entity -- abstract or material, animate or inanimate -- without exception. When Buddhists speak of finding one's true self, they mean finding the no-self, which is a universal possession sometimes called in English the Self.
"Yet this does not imply that a sentient being is a lump of flesh animated by a life-force that is snuffed out at death; it points to the profound truth that lies between the erroneous concepts of eternal existence and annihilation. Just as there is no part of a teapot, for example, which can be described as the real self of that pot, no essence of teapot independent of its substance, shape, color, age, condition and function, so do gods, men and animals have nothing which can be divorced from the constantly shifting physical and mental characteristics of their beings.
"The seeming individuality of each is a bundle of transient qualities, all ephemeral and unstable, all dependent for their fleeting existence on innumerable interlocking factors to which billions of causes, prior and concurrent, have contributed. Take away all these qualities and what remains is indivisible from the own-nature (or own-non-nature) of all other entities. There can be no individual soul for, when the transient qualities are removed, what is left is the immaculate non-substance that neither exists nor is non-existent, in which there is no duality, let alone plurality. What science teaches about the constitution of matter provides some sort of a rough analogy; it is seen that 'entities' consist of atoms of varied formation which are in fact no more than temporary manifestations of a single force -- energy."
For readers whose interest has been piqued by these excerpts, I have found that The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, by John Blofeld is available through Amazon.com. In fact, at this time there are four reviews, each one giving the book five stars.
My copy is held together with tape and much worn from those early travels. It was published in 1970 by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., U.S.A.
Lily G. Stephen
December 11, 2016
Words to pay attention to: During this highly unusual time when many are concerned and sometimes hopeless about the current state of affairs, the words of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes can help to clarify and embolden. What follows is her open letter. Let our spirits rise.
"Mis estimados: My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of
almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest
degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
"You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired
to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday
people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge
you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing
these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly
because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we
have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to
meet on this exact plain of engagement.
"I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see
one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able vessels in
the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully
provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of
"Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on
the waters with you. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in
this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and
rudder come from a greater forest. That long-grained lumber is known to
withstand storms, to hold together, to hold its own, and to advance,
"In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much
is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a
tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside
your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the
wind without raising the sails.
"We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we
more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we
will know them when they appear. Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't
you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace?
Don't you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?
"Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of
stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any
small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some
portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given
to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip
toward an enduring good.
"What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding,
adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone
on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who
will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
"One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a
stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like
gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares,
builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the
lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy
toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
"Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing
to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the
strongest things you can do. There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
"The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is
that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who
you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds
we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us
here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great
ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is
not what great ships are built for."
By Clarissa Pinkola Estes
American poet, post-trauma specialist and Jungian psychoanalyst,
author of Women Who Run With the Wolves
September 25, 2016
Lady of the Lotus is a book I've had for so long that I only recall being impressed by my first reading, but few details came back to mind when I took it from the case of my personal books in Bob's huge library.
While passing some quiet days of healing from severe neck pain, this book by William E. Barrett (1900-1986) was an old friend as soon as I reconnected with Mr. Barrett's engrossing tale. This book fits the description of spiritual fiction at its best. Though he dreamed of writing it, beginning as a young man, he was to research and travel in connection with this story throughout a writing career that included three of his books made into films: The Left Hand of God, Lilies of the Field, and Pieces of Dreams, based on The Wine and the Music. Lady of the Lotus was the last book written by Mr. Barrett.
He chose to write, based on painstaking research, about the life of Yasodhara, Princess of Koli, who was the historical wife of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Forward, the author wrote: "In doing the research, I have built a personal library of Buddhism-Hinduism-India-Nepal that totals 430 volumes. I have talked to many Buddhist scholars, Buddhist Monks, missionaries of other faiths in Buddhist countries. I have walked where Siddharta and Yasodara walked, in Nepal and in India...It is, in the telling, a story that I know well in lands that I know. I have had to build many intuitive bridges but I believe that the bridges are sound, that this is the story as it was."
I made note of many passages in this book that inspired in that profound, heart-soaring way which comes from inner knowledge of the way things really are. It has been difficult to choose just one to share with you. At last, the simplicity of this one won out; in Yasodhara's voice: "Life is a series of becomings. We try to make the right decisions, move to the right motivations. The results that seem to us as miserable failures are often our greatest triumphs." [Lady of the Lotus, by William E. Barrett, 1975, published by arrangement with Doubleday & Company, Inc., first Avon printing April, 1976, p. 318.]
What I have found to be an interesting side note is that William E. Barrett was a Roman Catholic.This book constitutes a voice from the past that has so enriched these days for me at the beginning of autumn. I recommend it to you.