Monthly Archives: January 2015

Building Up to Break Down

The concept of self is so important to Buddhism because it is considered to be the root cause of suffering. Suffering is so important in Buddhism because that is the condition that Buddha spent his lifetime overcoming. This is where everybody can relate to Buddhism, because everybody wants to overcome suffering. Not everybody can relate to Buddhism around the concept of self. The concept of self in Buddhism is that there is no self. That is a strange concept.

You don’t need to believe that there is no self in order to address your suffering. When you are trying to work through difficult emotions and circumstances, then you can work with your suffering self. You have to be able to look at yourself. You have to be able to live with yourself. You have to try to get to know yourself and accept yourself. You should figure out how to like yourself and eventually how to love yourself. All of that working with yourself will go a long way toward relieving your suffering. That is building yourself up.

Once yourself is acceptable to you, then you can afford to try to break it down by exploring your no-self. To explore no-self it is helpful to simply offload your self onto your ego. Your ego is your mental construct that has been acting like you all along. Your ego can go on being you by taking pride in accomplishments and feeling shame in embarrassments. The ego can continue to suffer those ups and downs. It is easy to continue to feel connected to the ego’s trials because it is still you, but you can also feel separate from it. That separation is another idea. It is identifying with something beyond the ego. It is identifying with the world in a direct way. Your ego still goes to the grocery store and smiles at the checkout person, but you are aware that there is something else going on in that exchange. You and the checkout person are part of the same thing. Two egos, some groceries, and something else.

To work with your suffering you must work with yourself and challenge yourself to work through the difficulties. To work with your peace, step out of your self. Taste your food. Smell the tea. Hear the music playing in the background. See the moon. Feel peace.

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Not Existing

If an elephant is really a giraffe, does the elephant exist? If you are not what you think you are, do you exist? If you consider for a moment that you do not exist, then what is it that is considering? If you poke yourself in the eye, you feel pain. In that scenario you exist on many different levels. You are a poker, a self, a poked, pain, and a feeler of pain. Somewhere in there you surely exist. Please do not try this to prove your existence, it proves nothing and hurts.

You don’t need to poke yourself in the eye to feel pain. If you exist, you already feel some pain. If you don’t currently feel any physical pain, you can poke around in your mind and find some mental pain. It may be easy to find, because it is pestering you constantly, or you may have to think of something sad from the past, or imagine something scary in the future. Imagine not existing.

What we tend to think of as us only exists for a tiny blip in the far reaches of time and space. Before we were born, nothing. After we die, nothing. The not-existing before we were born is not too scary, because everything  back then was leading up to our unlikely birth. Once we are born, then we exist on a direct path toward certain death. After that, we won’t exist again for the rest of forever.

Here we are now, in that improbable moment were we actually exist (maybe). From our point of view, our birth seems like a long time ago. Our death is in an unimaginable future. Now, we have lots of time to grapple with existence. If existence is painful, the prospect of non-existence may seem pleasant. If existence is pleasant then the prospect of non-existence may seem painful. Somewhere between pleasure and pain, existence and non-existence, time and space, we are aware. Whether we are a giraffe or an elephant, it is hard to tell. We shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly on what we think we are. We need to keep looking. We might be something wonderful. We might not be anything at all.

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Why Me?

If you ever get the feeling that you are particularly cursed, that your life circumstances are uniquely and exceptionally challenging, you may cry out to the universe, Why me? That is a good question. It is a good place to start looking into how the world relates to you and how you relate to the world.

The reason that everything in your life happens to you is because it is your life. If it’s not happening to you, it may be happening for you, or with you. Asking the universe to explain itself is a great way to start making sense of things. You don’t need to be in a place of despair to wonder, why me, but if you are feeling desperate, that question can help you get a handle on your difficult feelings.

In that circumstance, why me, is a bold question, because it acknowledges the magnitude of suffering that you are experiencing. Asking the question implies a sense of humility that comes with being utterly bewildered. There is also a sense of compassion and self-worth in the underlying assumption that you deserve something better. Finally, asking, why me, demonstrates bravery as it invites the only answer that the universe can give to such a question, because you.

Because you perceive the situation as you do, it feels as it does. Because you can ask the question, you can handle the answer. Because you are aware, brave, humble, compassionate and worthy, you are able to look at yourself and recognize your basic goodness.

Difficult feelings and circumstances can inspire you to see what you are. When you have weathered the hard times and grown through them, you can better appreciate all the love and light in your life. When great things happen to you, you can still keep yourself grounded by asking, why me?

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The Basics of Meditation

Meditation is fairly simple. It is the practice of building your focus. Start by sitting either on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed, or, if that is uncomfortable, sit on a chair. The important thing is to keep your back straight. So, if you sit on a chair, don’t lean against the back. Keeping your back straight makes you more alert. Tilt your head slightly down and look out a few feet in front of you. Keep your eyes open with a soft focus. Rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth above your front teeth. Put your hands in your lap with one hand resting in the other and the tips of your thumbs touching each other.

Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes for the first few times. If 10 minutes is fairly easy, do 15 or 20 minutes. Begin your meditation by setting your posture and then breathe out all of the air in your lungs. Take three slow, deep breaths. Count slowly to six as you breathe in. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds and then slowly breathe out for another slow count of six. You can do this as many times as you like and then let your breathing go back to normal.

When you breath in, feel the air come in through your nose and travel through your lungs into your belly. As you breathe in, mentally check your posture. When you breathe out, let the breath begin from your belly, go through the back of your throat and out your nose. Count your breath on its way out. Your first breath is one, second two and so on. Check your posture as you breathe in again. Continue breathing, counting your out-breaths up to ten, then starting over at one. If you notice your thinking interfering with your counting, just breathe out and start counting again at one. When your timer rings give a small bow and get up. If you feel like sitting more, reset the timer and do it again.

When you are sitting meditation you are not trying to get anywhere. You are absolutely perfect just as you are. You are full of dignity. You are bringing peace to the world. That’s all there is to it. Try it and enjoy.

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Light Hearted

To make a balloon light, fill it with hot air. To make your heart light, fill it with joy. Your heart is naturally filled with joy, but the joy gets squeezed out as you pile stress and worry on top of it. In order to connect with the basic joy of your heart, you have to practice checking in with it. You can check in with your basic joy by filling your heart with hot air, like a baloon.  When you are feeling disconnected from your joy, take in a long breath for your heart. Breath out all the new air and the old air that was in your lungs. Whenever you remember to do that, you will feel a sense of relief. That feeling of relief is a touch of joy.

Creating joy is a serious business, but it cannot be done overly seriously. There has to be room for levity in your practice. If you are carrying the weight of an unchangeable past and the fear of an unknowable future, the present will seem very serious. That seriousness can justify almost any action. That seriousness can be an excuse for explosive anger. It can pin you down in depression. It can give you a trigger to relapse, or it can just chip away at you with steady stress. Just recognizing that feeling of seriousness and reminding yourself about how serious you are taking yourself creates a little joy and opens a channel to practice light heartedness.

By practicing light heartedness and breathing joy into your seriousness you gain a sense of control over your situation. When you recognize that you can handle your stress, depression, anger or addiction habits, an attitude of light heartedness becomes easier to maintain. When you maintain an attitude of light heartedness it becomes easier to manage your stress, depression, anger, or addiction habits.

When you take in a mindful breath to help you address the seriousness of your situation, remember that it is a completely ridiculous thing to do. How could you imagine that a few deep breaths could change your life. Then watch it work. It’s funny how that happens. Ha, ha, ha.

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A Light Touch

As you look around you, everything you see is light. Light flows from whatever you see into your eyes. It touches everything, and as it touches things, it changes them, little by little. Over time, curtains fade. Plants grow. Our moods respond to quantities and qualities of light.

Mostly, when we look at things, we don’t look at the light, we use the light to illuminate the things that we want to see. When we find ourselves just looking at light, we are in the moment, appreciating the beauty around us. Yet all the time, whenever we open our eyes, all we see is light. Sometimes we appreciate it, sometimes we don’t. Light doesn’t mind how we feel about it. It keeps touching us, lightly.

Our awareness is similar to light. When we are awake it is shining. It is watching, hearing, smelling, tasting, thinking and touching. As we focus our awareness on things we change them. If we concentrate on your school work it gets done. As we focus on the road, we get to where we’re going. As we give our attention to children, they grow. When we give our attention to our moods, they improve.

In order to elevate your moods, you need to practice using the light touch of your awareness. Like light, you shine your awareness on your feelings, you don’t expect them to change, you don’t will them to change, you just pay attention to them and observe the change. When you look at the feelings, you see the thoughts that come with them. It doesn’t matter to your awareness what the thoughts are, but it matters to the feelings.

As you observe the interplay between your awareness, thoughts, and feelings from the perspective of light, you find that you do care what the feelings are. You have a preference for pleasant feelings. That caring and preference is the basis of compassion. When your awareness holds compassion for your thoughts and feelings it touches them lightly and moves them along. Pausing to see the light in the light or your awareness in your awareness creates space for compassion, which opens the gates for love. Love is the ultimate light touch that heals as it shines.

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Address Your Stress

Living with anxiety can be exhausting, especially if it is your own. If you find yourself stressed out there are some simple things you can do regain control of your life. Anytime you feel anxiety or stress, the first thing you can do is address your stress. Give it a wink or a nod to let it know that you’re onto it. You could even put your palms together and bow to your stress, giving it both acknowledgement and respect. Addressing your stress is important because it gives you the opportunity to redefine your relationship to it.

Your anxiety can become anything for you. You get to decide what it is by how you work with it. It could be your teacher, your student, your friend, your parent, your therapist, an annoying kid you have to babysit for, your own child, your dog, your boss, or your kidnapper. Some of these relationships put you in charge, some put your anxiety in charge. As you address your stress, your aim is not to drive or be driven, your aim is to assess the relationship. In the long term you are in charge of your stress. In the moment, sometimes it feels like the stress is in charge. As you begin to deal with stress it will often feel more like a boss or captor who pushes you around, largely against your will. As you make dealing with your stress a priority in your life, it will take on the characteristics of a teacher who challenges you, but gives you insight into your self. With practice it could become like a trained dog who will sit and stay on command.

The act of recognizing your stress and categorizing it, sets you apart from your anxiety. It gives you some breathing space. Breathing space is key to working with stress. A conscious breath is a message to your stress that you can handle it. As you address your stress, take in a deep breath, relax your throat and breathe out from the back of your throat.  If your stress is so great that you can’t even breathe, then you wait until you can breathe again to demonstrate your control and to celebrate your ability to survive.

Stress can be a great teacher or a horrible boss, how much you learn from it determines what kind of teacher it is. If it feels like a boss, get help in addressing it. Find another boss for the boss. You are in charge. It’s your head. You live there. The anxiety is only visiting.

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Lazy Zen

A serious Zen practice takes effort and discipline. You have to sit in meditation. You have to bow. You have to give yourself over to practice. The aim of practice is to train yourself to see the world as it is, without the confusion of your mind getting in the way. A byproduct of a serious Zen practice is profound peace of mind. If you want to experience peace of mind without all the rigors and rituals of a serious Zen practice, you could try the lazy Zen route.

The lazy Zen route to peace is mindfulness. You don’t have to sit in meditation to practice mindfulness, but it helps. Meditation is a time to focus your attention and turn off the judging habits of an active mind. The lazy way to meditate is to meditate instead of doing something much more difficult. You can procrastinate anything with 20 minutes of meditation. You can procrastinate more with 40 minutes of meditation. All you do is sit there and do nothing but bat your thoughts away like flies. Thinking takes a lot of effort. To be lazy, you must not think so much.

Meditation does take effort, so if you want to be even lazier than sitting and doing nothing, without thinking much, you can just watch your mind while you do whatever you are doing anyway. Difficult emotions take a lot of energy so to be lazy you can’t allow yourself to waste all that energy being miserable. Keep an eye out for misery, stress and anxiety. Whenever you notice those difficult feelings coming up, breathe into them and look to some peaceful objects within your immediate line of vision. If you are feeling ambitious you can turn your head left or right and look for something peaceful in a slightly wider range.

The fundamental belief you need to practice lazy Zen is that you are always within reach of profound peace and the only thing separating it from you is your overactive mind. Since you’re breathing anyway, just use that breath to help your mind stop working so hard. When you stop wasting so much energy on such difficult emotions, you will have energy to spare. You can do anything effortlessly.

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Counter Culture

Ours is a culture of counting. We like to measure things. We like to keep score. Even when we find ourselves apart from the dominant culture, we still fall into the habit of counting and rating ourselves and others. There is no end to the categories that we can use to measure ourselves. We measure physical characteristics, like height and weight, skin color or gender. We love to measure ourselves by our sexual preference or orientation. We measure ourselves by our IQ, by our level of education, or by our emotional intelligence. We measure ourselves by our possessions, by our wealth. We measure ourselves by our religions or spirituality, by which god we believe in, or don’t, and how we express that belief. We measure ourselves by our health, both physical and mental. We measure ourselves by our appearance. We are endlessly creative in the ways we measure and define ourselves. We create and belong to cultures related to our measurements. If a lot of people are in our group, we are a dominant culture, if we are in opposition to a dominant culture we are a counter culture. As long as we count and measure who we are, we belong to a culture of counters. If we don’t, we are in the counter culture.

All this measuring and keeping score is fine as long as we understand that we’re doing it. If we start to feel like we don’t measure up, then we are keeping score in a way that makes us feel lousy. Who and what we are is not really the problem, the question is how we count ourselves. We can also have problems with the way other people count us, and measure us. That can affect the way people treat us and we might count ourselves by their standards. When we notice that happening, either to ourselves or others, we can simply stop counting. We can join the counter culture to the counter culture. We are perfect just as we are. You can count on it.

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Ego, Mind, Circumstance, and Self

The key to happiness is found in your mind, not in your circumstance. Happiness is being your Self, not your ego. It can be difficult to differentiate your Self from your ego or your mind from your circumstances. Differentiation becomes even more difficult if you are unhappy. Unhappy is your mind. The reason you are unhappy is your circumstance. Your ego interprets your circumstance for your mind by relating everything that happens to itself. Your Self contains all of these things and ultimately experiences it all. Your Self can deal with everything.

To your Self, unhappiness is only a feeling. To your ego, unhappiness is awful. It is difficult for the ego to deal with unhappiness because it hurts. The mind is where it hurts. The circumstances are why it hurts. The ego’s habit is to address unhappiness by blaming circumstances. The ego can imagine a different set of circumstances that would make the unhappiness go away such as: I would be happy if somebody loved me, if I had more money, if I were smarter, if I were different, if I had more time, If I had a sandwich. However, the main circumstance that causes unhappiness is the mind’s habit of believing unhappy thoughts. The mind can see circumstances from many angles. Only certain interpretations of those circumstances lead to unhappiness.

Bringing the ego, circumstances, and mind into line begins with the Self. The Self is the seat of confidence that experiences the world through the mind. The Self can see the struggles of the ego with a larger perspective. The Self knows that things are not actually bad, but that they feel bad to the mind. That perspective exposes the ego. When the ego is exposed as something other than the Self, the mind is free to look at circumstances from other perspectives. As judgements come up, this is good, that is bad, the mind can see the ego at work. When unhappiness comes up, the mind looks through the ego, sees the thoughts related to unhappiness and can generate counter thoughts or compassion. As circumstances change, feelings change, the ego changes, the mind changes. The Self remains steady, letting it all be. Happiness sneaks in through the cracks.

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