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.