taking off the filters

Which do you follow: the teacher or the teachings?  We all have a quick answer and I’m sure one popped up for you as you read the question.  I’m beginning to understand that the question is premature rendering as misdirected any answer we give.  Long before we consider the question in its either/or form, we need to ask ourselves if there is anything standing between our heart and our vision.  Years of longing and striving can do that, dust gathers on the window panes and obscures the real question.  And sometimes, there is nothing for it but to take out the whole structure and insert one that better serves the purpose.

In the field of teaching/facilitating mindfulness-based courses debates rage on (yes, rage on) about many issues.  Is it secularized Buddhism?  Is it a misappropriation of religious concepts, a convenient excision of techniques from the heart of spiritual practice?  Is it simply a fancy name for what your grandmother told you but you forgot in the swirl of scrambling to adulthood?  I don’t tend to agitate over these questions because, in my experience, the truth, like the dharma, will out.  In other words, it doesn’t much matter what you call it; just practice.  (There is a caveat to this I will get to later this week.  Or not.)

Last week we spent time at the mecca of mindfulness, what Saki Santorelli once called the Mother Ship, the Center for Mindfulness.  It was the 10th Annual conference.  I wasn’t looking forward to it, being averse to the typical strutting and bellowing that signals territorial marking in close spaces.  But I figured this being a gathering of mindfulness teachers and practitioners (scientific and practical), surely… well surely…

Besides, I had a sweet deal in being part of a superhero trio presenting a pre-conference all-day workshop on Holding the Heart of MBSR.  Now that was a delight!  And a practice.  In its essence, it was a foray into seeing clearly, opening to what motivates us as teachers of MBSR to shift away from prescribed form and content, being transparent about our intentions and the likely impact on the integrity of what we claim to practice.  In a nutshell, how do we honour the teachings and not let the teacher or her unexamined intentions become an obstacle?  Fascinating questions, the answers to which will likely unfold over the years.

Done with the workshop, I was free to wander the rest of the week, connecting with old friends and greeting new ones.  And in various encounters, the rumble of territorial markings became audible.  Well surely I couldn’t have filtered out the human tendency to want, to crave, to feel unsafe and therefore to bare fangs, set boundaries, and draw lines.  Apparently, I did.  I do.  This is where the practice of simply noting is a good one; it helps negotiate through the conversations that circle the marketing of the self and poorly masked rhetorical questions.  I mean noting that in myself as well because certainly there were many, many times when I caught myself falling into being the product rather than the person.

And that brings us back to the question: The teacher or the teachings?  My practice in the moment is to choose neither because they are inseparable.  Teachings manifest through the teacher and the true teacher is an emergent property of the teachings.  But like the windows in my house, before any of that is put in motion, we have to take down the desire-caked, delusion-riddled old panes and stand exposed to the elements which we have kept at bay.

(Kate Crisp, of the Prison Mindfulness Institute, posted this great article on dealing with conferences.)

chaplaincy – part deux

The tempo is ramping up.  On Saturday I leave for Upaya again.  Chaplaincy, Part Deux: ordinations and milestone check-ins.  First, I get to bear witness to the ordination of the next flight of Chaplains and another dharma friend’s aspiration manifesting. Heart-filling stuff and I’m packing extra tissues!  Then, there will be the various milestone check-ins. How this all serves to illustrate Right Concentration may not be immediately (or ever) apparent.

I’ve been poring over my Chaplaincy handbook which is meticulously organized with dividers keeping general information, forms, and records in their little intellectual ghettos.  Do you ever wonder how we can be so particular about separating some things from others but not really care if others mash together?  Intellectual property, for me, demands an intricate system of organization but vegetables do not.  A glop of turnips, carrots, sweet and red potatoes served with gallons of vegetarian gravy can transport me to the fourth jhana.  Put a piece of paper in the wrong end of my folder and it’s blaspheming the Dewey Decimal System.

I have attended with diligence (effort) to Chaplaincy which looms, however, as a mash of readings, writings, project development, and hands-on work.  My attention is fragmented and my concentration is firm.  This distinction is often lost when we talk about the wandering mind.  I describe it as allowing the background programs to do their work without interfering with them while I get the foreground work done without (too much) intrusion.  On the cushion, it takes the form of establishing steadiness of presence.  Off the cushion, it is a dance with the Five Hindrances – restlessness when things aren’t congealing in my brain, sloth & torpor (my favourite twins!) when I think I’ve got it wired but really am just avoiding the deeper work,  and desire for more and more (books).

These entanglements wove through 7 reflection papers, 4 field trips, 4 book reports and an Individual Learning Plan.  I had a hard time with doing a book report  – on one book.  Who reads just one book?  How do you comment on its impact and relevance if you take a book off the shelf and treat it like a unique organism with no history or family?  So I developed an approach of  “Consolidated Books Reported Upon.”  It required a lot more work but it was more fun to do; and, it was a practice of allowing attention to roam while concentration stood its ground.

The Individual Learning Plan was an example of fixed attention and concentration rampant.  Did we get a little hyper-focused on consuming all things Buddhist?  On the other hand, it was well-intended.  Goal 4 was to “develop a regular writing program” and included daily 108ZB blog entries that explored Buddhist teachings, developing the Ox-Herding pictures as a framework for therapy, and completing the Mindfulness Clinic Guidebook.  I think I’ve managed the blog piece and the Ox-Herding-as-treatment-framework has been lots of fun.  It’s on stand-by as a potential project along with the Clinic Guidebook.  Or maybe I can integrate the two and then I can…  Oops…  Breathing in…

Goal 2 was an aspiration to work with a dukkha magnet organization, offering in-house training both as part of an internship and in assessing the impact of increased mindfulness in preventing burn out.  After a year of negotiations, it was clear that we had mis-matched concepts of well-being.  This was less a loss of relationship than a letting go of my assumptions of being mutually invested: I tend to think everyone has the same view and thinking when it comes to wanting what’s best for each other.  Lesson learned, and learned well.  The nice thing is that the Burn Out Resiliency course is taxiing onto the runway for a May take-off in the clinic and there is a never-ending line-up of organizations where the impact of dukkha exposure can be met and assessed.  I kept a teacher’s log here on the course we delivered at the hospital where I’m doing my internship.  This clinic blogging evolved into an awesome exchange with the folks down at UCSD who had put up a similar teacher’s log of their course.  Actually, Steven Hickman had inspired the idea in the first place so all credit goes to him.  In conversations with each other, we explored our growth edge and a potential of mutually nourishing each other in our practice.  When you meet the Buddha on the road to Upaya, know it.

Thank you for practising,