for the love of honesty – Martin Aylward wins the debate

radiatorPerhaps the deepest teaching in Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese is the line:

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile every thing we hold dear, think is important, see as a life-and-death issue, a catastrophe, a boring inconvenience, an opportunity for self-righteous blathering remains ineffectual in the face of the world going on.

In the beginning of January, I left for a series of retreats over a three-week period at the Insight Meditation Center and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. The teachers at IMS were Christina Feldman and Chris Cullen with two rather amazing up-and-coming teachers. The next week Winnie Nazarko lead the bhavana retreat at at BCBS, which I followed up with a personal retreat, scouring the books in the BCBS library. The days were spent in meditation, reading texts I wouldn’t find anywhere else, and filling my notebook with codes of sutras that I hope I’ll be able to decode four months later.

Through all the talks and conversations, the thread of contemporary mindfulness’ impact on Buddhist practice was very evident. Feldman and Cullen slid past it but what was left unspoken or re-framed spoke loudly to the ambivalence towards the topic. Participants in their retreat (which was advertised as a prerequisite to training as a mindfulness-based instructor/teacher/facilitator) shared that they realized they didn’t have to be a Buddhist teacher to be a (secular?) mindfulness teacher. I can see how they came to that conclusion, encouraged by Feldman’s continuous insistence that she is neither Buddhist nor does she teach Buddhism – fact that caused me some consternation given the theme of her books and the content of her talks, not to mention the very venue in which she was teaching. But let’s leave that to someone else’s article on 10 Mysterious Things in the Buddhist Universe You Will Never Believe! Click here!

I get confused these days. I get confused a lot these in my mind moments. Sometimes it feels like just when I can tell the players with my scorecard, they change the game. So I gave up. In those three weeks of sitting-walking-eating-reading-talking-thinking, I gave up. I decided that the protectors of Buddhist mindfulness and those of secular (where we can now include the new field of “critical mindfulness” propagated by Ed Ng & Ron Purser) live in vastly different worlds with no bridge possible between them.

In a leave-taking conversation with Mu Soeng at the end of my retreats, I shared my grapplings with the sutta on generosity (SN 3.24). The Buddha responds to King Pasenadi Kosala’s question about giving, saying that one should give “where the mind feels confidence” and that is different from giving “where it bears great fruit.” Where what is given can bear great fruit, the Buddha goes on to say, is in the hands of one who has abandoned the five hindrances and is endowed with the five virtues. So I asked, “How can we determine such a person? How can we do that without getting into the judgemental mind state or the preferential mind state, given we are ourselves so clouded?” The answer was simple: We give; and we know the virtuous by the fruit of their actions.

When I bring this advice to bear on the current debates, arguments, sniping, and otherwise skillful and unskillful exchanges, I have to say I see little of good fruit. In some pockets of discussion, there is much to learn and it is supportive. But it’s not enough and the resistance and defensiveness on both sides (are there only two sides to this?) is overwhelming.

But then, this is why we have practiced. And it is for these moments of despair that we practiced deeply. Mary Oliver again in Wild Geese:

Tell me about despair, yours
And I will tell you mine.

There’s despair on both sides, I imagine. And yes, “meanwhile the world goes on.” Meanwhile, Buddhist teachers teach, mindfulness instructors/facilitators/therapists instruct/facilitate/therap. And meanwhile on both sides of the divide they do good, commit atrocities, create loving communities, and foster elite cults.

So the question from a Buddhist perspective might be what can we salvage from this? The answer is that salvaging is not what is called for because nothing has been destroyed. The Dharma is not so vulnerable and thus far has withstood 2600 years of assault. The question from a secular/clinical perspective might be what can derive from all this? The answer is that we need to find our own roots. Ruth Baer has written a wonderful article that points to what we’re missing in the debate.

But more than all that, the question is whether we can or should continue to have (to paraphrase David Whyte from Crossing the Unknown Sea) “a disciplined daily conversation” with each other and ourselves around the value of Buddhist psychology to Western psychology and vice versa. I know the answer for myself. However, I worry that the leading teachers in Buddhism have yet to be less than alarmists and the teachers in contemporary mindfulness shy away from the discussion all together.

So, I’m thrilled when I sit down (with trepidation) to listen to Martin Aylward and hear his very strong, direct, and honest appraisal of what we really should be giving to each other. The gift in this debate – as rancorous and belligerent and self-focused as it gets – is that it calls for us to investigate how we “hang that (doctrinal) purity on Buddhism” and to use these moments to see that when we lock into a “contemptuous” stance to the shift in mindfulness practice towards the secular, it is also our own contempt towards our own practice.

Watch Martin’s amazing talk “For the Love of Mindfulness” and please donate generously to Worldwide Insight that offers such terrific teachings.

worry & flurry

Sangha now meets on Sundays at a luxurious hour and we’re exploring the Heart Sutra for as long as it takes to comprehend one of the most incomprehensible texts in spiritual history.  And yet, it is one of the most prescriptive texts if we take our time to hold each word gently in the palm of our hand.  With time, the tangle it seems to be does unravel.

In time.

I’m learning that I have what David Whyte calls “an adulterous relationship with time.”  It’s not enough, fulfilling, generous, kind, eternal or protective.  It betrays promises that wounds will heal and dogs get their day.  It is capricious in its affections giving to others what it swore would be mine exclusively.  That, of course, gives me license to adulterate our marriage; and, like all bad marriages, I seize the right to lay blame at time’s feet for disappointing me.

The time demanded of me by the the tangle of the Heart Sutra requires that I step back into this awkward, narcissistic relationship I have with time itself, long before I can dive into the twists and turns of paradox and paradigm shifts.  I have to be willing to sit with a word, to sift it, to let the silt and the muck stir and settle.  That willingness is mediated by having a good marriage with time.

Instead, I find myself promiscuous with my attention.  As I sit in zazen, my mind wanders into worry about the kitten whom I haven’t seen this morning.  The evidence of a now-empty food bowl is insufficient.  I turn on time and accuse it of not having me at the window to coincide with the kitten at his food.  In the spaciousness of zazen which is synonymous with the spaciousness of time, I feel the tension in my legs and my back.  They are priming to rise and check outside the window in the kitchen.  Time says, zazen is marital therapy between you and me; if we’re ever going to better ourselves in the other’s presence, we must agree to hold this discourse of stillness.  So I sit and we have this gentle probing conversation about how worry energizes me into action, how that action is not discerning of what is possible, and the ways in which it renders the power of time impotent.

I relapse during walking meditation as I reach that pivotal point in the room where I could continue forward into the kitchen (and the window) or I can turn to the right and go to my cushion.    Just one quick minute.  Give me just a moment to go and check.  It doesn’t mean anything.  I’ll come back!  But we had that conversation already.  I turn right and face the brilliant sunshine pouring down on my cushion and Midas-like turning the pine floor gold.

These gossamer threads of worry and flurry are a symptom of a failing marriage with time.  They are probably the most seductive of the five hindrances because they create the illusion that we are actually accomplishing something.  In fact, they are the thieves of our intimacy with time.  Transforming that marriage, regenerating  intimacy, requires an act of courage.  It means saying no so we can say yes; saying yes so we can say no.  It means reaching into the heart of who we are and honouring our practice of fearlessness.

career: shaken not stirred

Now that Chaplaincy study is coming to a close, people often ask how this will change what I do. Usually they mean will I be earning my money a different way.  Let’s be honest, very few people ask if or expect an answer that your training is going to lead to a career in which you likely will not get paid much or have no prospects of advancement.  I loved the section in David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, in which he contemplates telling the world of his decision to live in alignment with his true self.

If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are going full time as a poet.  Who would give me a word of encouragement if I did?  It has never been easy to go full-time as a poet in any recorded portion of human history.  When we announce to the world that we are about to go full-time as a poet, people do not come up to us, slapping us on the back, saying, “Great career move, David,” or “I hear they are taking them on at Lockheed right now,” or “Marvelous.  I hear there’s a decent dental plan comes with the verse.” (p. 123)

I remember telling my parents I had left my job as a Chemist in the Federal Government to become a free-lance writer.  After the ear-piercing silence, they shook their heads, mystified that I would walk away from a good pension plan (health care!) for a life of… of … of what? my father demanded.  Even worse was my defensive attempt to explain that Frank had a good job as a self-employed consultant.  They could not grasp the link between how he “did” his job and how the money came in; there wasn’t a bi-weekly pay cheque.  This was crucial.  That flow from production to recompense was what made their world feel safe and secure.  Of course, their perplex mystified me equally because they had both endured losses of their treasured careers through the capriciousness of political upheavals.

I amuse myself these days having conversations with the (likely aggravated) spirit of my dear Dad.

“Well, Dad, I’ve decided to close my private practice to become a Chaplain,” I announce to his portrait on the ancestor’s altar.

“A Chaplain?  Does that have a better salary than a psychologist?”  His right eyebrow would begin a syncopating twitch. It makes the little mole on his eyelid a bouncing ball I follow to sing along with the “career catastrophe” song.

“Um.  Well.  No.  I don’t know.  I mean, I don’t know if Chaplains get paid.  Not in private practice anyway.  In hospitals, they get about $32 an hour.”

“And what do you get paid now?”  I can feel the rabbit hole opening up because he’s never understood how self-employed professionals pay themselves.  “Draw?” he would ask.  “That’s what you do with crayons!  How much is your cheque made out for each week!”

“Well, it doesn’t matter what I get now, Dad.  I’d be following my heart – you know, doing what’s important to me… for the world… to ..er..um… save all beings… creations… numberless… vow…”  I’m floundering and the other ancestors on the altar are now looking very interested in how this is going to end.

He seems to be silent long enough for a few ashes to topple from the incense stick.  “Saving all beings, eh?”  He glances over at his mother who in her portrait is about to walk over to him and plead my case.  “Like a Bodhisattva.  Well, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it.”

I’ve never really considered that Bodhisattva-hood is a career choice.  It seems to just arise for most people I know whom I think of as compassionate beings committed to easing suffering in the world.  Perhaps they just make it all look simple.  Or perhaps it is really just that simple; choose the path.

The Heart Sutra is emphatic that seeing through the illusion of separateness and an abiding self is the step to being unhindered to be of service to the world.  Grounded in this understanding that separation and interconnection are the figure and ground of our life, we break free of the things that hinder us, that hold us back from being who we are, which cloud our vision, our dreams, our intimate truth.   “Without hindrance, the mind has no fear.”  Anger, desire, sloth (my favourite), restlessness/rumination, and doubt cannot shake or stir us from our career choice – poet, writer, Chaplain, Bodhisattvas all.   Without these blockades in our path, we enter fully into that pilgrimage of discovering who we already are.

Over the next few months, I took the time (to speak) with person after person (in the organization)….  I began to see that in an extraordinary way the conversations themselves were doing all the work.  It forced me to ask the next question: “If this kind of conversation will bring you the work you want for yourself within an organization, what kind of work do you really want to do in the wider world?  What are your elemental waters?  What courageous conversations will bring you to your poetry?”  Each of us has an equivalent core in our work, whether it is the path of the artist or the explorations of the engineer.  Even if we already possess the work of our dreams, there is a way of doing that work that will deepen and enliven it, a way that begs for a daily disciplined conversation. (p.135)

Thank you for the daily disciplined (if somewhat raucous) conversation.

blind spot & a pilgrimage

The tricky thing about a blind spot is that we’re blind to it.  Tautology perhaps but true nevertheless.  In fact, there’s no way to actually see our own blind spot.  And – sometimes dangerously so – we need to rely on other people who have the privilege of a different vantage to point them out to us.  It occurred to me the other day that this raises all kind of questions about trust.  Not just trust in myself to believe there is a blind spot but also trust in the person I’m asking to point out my blind spot.  Goodness knows, we all have our agenda and that includes my Blind Spot Spotter.

The other thing that occurred to me is that we often ask for a sketch of the blind spot when in fact we really want confirmation that we don’t have a blind spot.

That’s what I mean about trust.  In myself and in my BSS.  No BS has to be the rule and that takes work.  It takes what William Blake calls a firm persuasion that can remove mountains.

I’ve been diving into a book by David Whyte.  If Rilke gets ladies to take off their bras, Whyte can well have us pole dancing.  But I digress.  The book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, was recommended as a source of inspiration for those of us who never relent in our seeking to bring that firm persuasion into our work – life, spiritual, career.  Whyte writes:

There is no hiding from work in one form or another.  Under the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective.  Any perspective is dearly won.  Maturity and energy in our work is not granted freely to human beings but must be adventured and discovered, cultivated and earned.  It is … a never-ending courageous conversation with ourselves, those with whom we work, and those whom we serve….  It is achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage.

Further on:

It is very hard to say no to work.  We may courageously resign, take a sabbatical, or retire to a simpler, more rustic existence, but then we are engaged in inner work, or working on ourselves, or just chopping wood.  Work means application, explication, expectation.  There is almost no life a human being can construct for themselves where they are not wrestling with something difficult, something that takes a modicum of work.  The only possibility seems to be the ability of human beings to choose good work.

And finally,

To view work as pilgrimage is to put our hearts’ desire to hazard, because by merely setting out, we have told ourselves that there is something bigger and better, or even smaller and better – above all, something more life giving – that awaits us in our work, and we are going to seek it.

So, we set out on that pilgrimage with firm persuasion that we have all we need and that, even if lacking in courage, our feet know exactly how to navigate the journey.  And our practice is that little dustless mirror in the corner showing us the blind spots.

what brings you alive

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was meant to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

Sweet Darkness by David Whyte

loving fiercely

There is faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

The True Love
by
David Whyte

shadow 5

All the true vows
are secret vows,
the ones we speak out loud
are the ones we break.

There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.

Hold to the truth you make
everyday with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.

Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.

Those who do not understand
their destiny will never understand
the friends they have made
nor the work they have chosen

nor the one life that waits
beyond all the others.

from All the True Vows by David Whyte