Category Archives: Personal Development

Yoga, Stress, and Learning to Drop It.

I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. But, do to my body’s longstanding inflexibility, I have avoided practicing yoga as a compliment to my meditation and overall spiritual practice. I recently decided to give yoga the old college try.

Rather than flipping through the local Yellow Pages for nearby yoga studios, I did what any other late-twenties, moderately tech-savvy, do-it-yourselfer would do: search for a decent YouTube channel. It didn’t take long to find a few videos that appeared to match my skill-level (aka, complete beginner). So, for the last four weeks or so, I’ve been fumbling my way through 10-20 minute sequences 2-4 times per week. (Hey, I had to start somewhere.)

Each of the videos I’ve learned from end with a relaxation exercise in the savasana (“corpse”) pose. It’s basically a form of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing the muscles in some area of the body for a few seconds and then relaxing them. It goes something like this:

“Lift up your right leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your left leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your hips, contract your buttocks… drop.”

“Lift up your arms, make fists… drop.”

“Lift up your chest, contract your upper-back… drop.”

… and so on, and so forth.

I assume that – as is the case with PMR – the purpose of contracting the muscles prior to relaxing them is to become aware of their location in the body, and also how they feel when contracted or relaxed. With awareness comes the potential for greater influence over these muscles, which means that one can learn to contract or relax muscles that they never knew they had. The result of this training in everyday life becomes quite clear when situations arise which we’ve learned to react with muscle tension rather than relaxation. In other words, it teaches us a lot about stress.

For example, during my commute home from work a few days ago, I looked into my rear-view mirror and noticed that the man driving behind me was driving close enough to my car to count the dust particles on my trunk. Being that this is a particularly dangerous situation to encounter, due to the risk of physical injury or property damage, I immediately tensed up. However, as soon as I noticed the tension in my body  – and thus, my mind – I was able to respond with a mental note to simply, “Drop it.” You know what? It worked.

A similar situation arose while I was entering my office building one morning last week. In the reflection of the glass doors ahead of me, I saw a woman walking toward the building fairly close behind me. Reflexively, I stopped as I opened the door in order to hold it for the oncoming pedestrian out of common courtesy. However, the woman slowed her pace as she neared the stairs, coming almost to a dead halt. Feeling kind of silly for stopping, I thought, “Whatever,” and allowed the door to close as I walked into the building. Yet again, along with the thought, “Whatever,” I felt my body tense up at the shoulders and in my gut. To my surprise, without any prior intentional planning for this particular scenario, the thought came – “Drop it.” And so, I dropped it. What a relief!

How often do we carry our stress around unnecessarily?  It reminds me of this story told in the tradition of Zen Buddhism:

“Two zen monks were travelling. They came to a ford of a stream that was running high, and the current was strong and frightening looking. An attractive young lady was standing at the ford, looking nervous. She clearly was afraid to cross, but had an important reason to go. Without a word, the older of the two monks lifted her in his arms and waded across the stream, and placed her safely on the far bank. The younger monk looked shocked at this action, but kept his silence for quite some number of miles as they continued their journey. Finally, he blurted out “You know that it is against the rules of our order to have any contact with women. How could you do that?”.

The older monk replied “I put her down when I reached the other side of the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her this whole way.”[1]

Driving home last week, even after the man in the red truck turned down a different street, I could have carried him all the way home, into my living room, or to my dining room table during dinner. Or, this I could have carried the woman at the door into my office building and to my desk, where she would stand motionless in my mind’s eye, making me wonder, “Why didn’t she just keep walking? Didn’t she see me holding the door?” I could be working with this frustrating woman all day! Of course, the man driving the red truck and the woman outside my office building were not the cause of my stress. The stress was a reaction produced by this very body and mind (aka, “Jackson”). From this perspective, guided by the insights arising from a very simple yoga practice, stress is quite simply, and most fundamentally, a bad habit. We carry stress around not because we have to, but because we’ve learned to.

That said, I think it’s true that there are innate human reflex-responses to stimuli perceived as threatening. This is built into the earliest, most basic structures of our brains.  We can’t help but react with fear in certain situations, and this is actually VERY helpful for us as a species. The sympathetic nervous system is a blessing when there is an actual threat.[2] But, how useful is this kind of response to, say, being stuck in traffic on the way to work, or when someone cuts in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Probably not that useful.

When it comes to learning how to release stress and the reactive emotions that come along with it, it pays to pay attention to your body. Pay attention not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re relaxed. Try alternating between the two within a few minutes, and notice the way the qualities of your mind (thinking, perception) in both states. This simple exercise can bring a rather unfortunate habitual pattern into light. This first step is crucial, for you can’t release something you don’t know is happening. In other words, you must know before you can let go.

[1] “Carrying the Woman” story borrowed from Taoist & Zen stories and Ramblings.

[2] One of my professors describes threats as, “lions, tigers, bears, muggers, buses, etc.” – situations that can actually harm you or someone you care about, but that we don’t run into everyday… save for buses, perhaps.

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Thoughts on Being Here Now.

As meditation practitioners, we often hear about the importance of present moment awareness. I want to offer a brief perspective that elaborates on one particular reason why present moment awareness is crucial to the process of awakening.

For anyone who is doing meditation for the purpose of gaining insight into the nature of reality, there tends to be a natural progression through certain stages. In the Vissudhimagga, and also in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition of Theravada Buddhism, these stages are referred to as ñanas (or Knowledges). As each ñana is experienced, the meditator is accessing levels of mind that have not yet been penetrated (i.e. fully understood in light of the Three Characteristics of impermanence, emptiness, and unsatisfactoriness).

This means that at any given moment, a vipassana practitioner is experiencing precisely what needs to be worked with in order to make progress. Once the current experience is penetrated (or, “seen through”), new subtlties of experience are brought into awareness, and another ñana/stage is revealed.

My advice to any one who is reading this is to not ignore a single moment of phenomenal experience while meditating. Whatever is arising is likely to be a direct result of the one’s level of insight. Insight will continue to mature as the vipassana method is applied directly to the bare experience of the present moment.

“Be Here Now” does not have to refer to some peaceful, zoned out, super relaxed state of mind. True present moment awareness means becoming intimately aware of the characteristics of one’s experience to the point of gaining real insight. The result is freedom.

[This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on my Tricycle Community blog, March 4, 2009.]

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Being open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

– Alan Watts On FAITH

This simple passage meant the world to me when I first read it nearly five years ago. Defining faith as trust was not a new idea for me, as that is how it is often conveyed within the Christian communities I took part in for most of my life. The difference between the faith I learned from the Church and the faith Alan Watts describes is not a matter of definition so much as it is about the object of one’s faith. In what (or in Whom) are we to place our trust?

In the Christian communities I was a part of, one’s faith was placed primarily in the Bible as Truth. Sure, it is God or Christ to which one is to have faith, but the Bible is the “word of God.” The Bible was that which all else is to be measured; the final authority. But this is inherently problematic, as it causes one to place their faith in a set of ideas. If one’s experience differs from that of the object of one’s faith, the object must be grasped against all adversity in order for faith to remain intact. When this happens, faith no longer feels like trust. In fact, it ends up feeling more like a burden (somebody say “Amen!”). I should say that Christianity is in no way the only religion of which dogmatic adherence to faith in ideas is commonplace.  Truth be told, all religious traditions have some type of dogmatic sect.

The kind of faith of which Watts endorsed – the faith of letting go – resonates strongly with the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to discover truth – however paradoxical it may turn out to be. Anyone who holds tightly to a set of beliefs long enough is sure to notice when they no longer stand up to serious reality testing. It is for this reason, I believe, that many young would-be-Bible scholars and ministers go off to Bible college only to lose their faith (i.e. apostatize) as soon as a year or two later. One is forced to take one of three routes: adhere, adapt, or abandon. Unfortunately for some, many religious communities are not all that flexible, making choice #2 (adapt) as equally damning as making choice #3 (abandon).*

To make choice #2 or #3 is to venture out in to the unknown. This isn’t all bad. For what was known is found via one’s experience to be untrue, which means the truth has yet to be discovered and lies within the unknown.  One casts off the security that is felt within the confines of dogmatism and legalism, trading bondage and safety for freedom and risk (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?). By casting one’s self in to the Void, they come to realize that they have everything to lose, with only the Truth to gain (you might recognize this as Stage Four of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). From that point on, progress on the journey toward the discovery of Truth will occur only if one is willing to fully, completely let go. You must, as Watts says, “trust yourself to the water.”

And that’s the paradox of it all – if you hold on to anything, you will sink and drown. If you surrender, you will float and live. For me, surrendering started in the form of studying the world’s great spiritual traditions from their own perspective. In doing so, I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and of Lao Tzu and took up the practice of meditation. This path is the opposite of blind faith. In blind faith, one clings tightly to their sacred ideas and shuts their eyes tightly closed, so as not to see anything that might discredit the object of their clinging. The path of surrender, of giving one’s self to the Void, is one of letting go and keeping their eyes wide open – seeing everything, clinging to nothing.

Speaking of this process as a journey or quest for Truth is a useful metaphor, but it can also be misleading. Jack Kornfield writes, “We need to remember that where we are going is here – that any practice is simply a means to open our hearts to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path an the goal.”** By opening our eyes and letting go we come to discover not some distant or hidden truth, but rather that which is ever already the case.

In conclusion, I encourage (or even challenge) each and every person who reads this to trust yourself to the water. “[B]ecome open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

*(This certainly isn’t the case for ALL communities of faith. Marylhurst University, my alma mater, is a fine example of a truly ecumenical/inter-religious communion of enquiring minds and hearts.)

** from After the Ecstacy, The Laundry.

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The Ego Revisited

The ego receives a bad reputation within many spiritual scenes. The truth is interdependence, they say, and the ego insists on its separateness. Ergo, the ego must die. Kill it! Annihilate every last trace of the ego and realize complete liberation!

Actually, this hardline stance against the ego isn’t as prevalent as it once was – thank goodness. With the help of communities like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a healthy personal psychology is encouraged alongside the transpersonal and spiritual lines of development.

That’s not to say that this ego-hating tendency has been extinguished. As recent as a few months ago I had a conversation with a friend who had been teaching mindfulness at a University alongside a Zen teacher in the community. My friend told me that the teacher taught egolessness, in the literal sense, and that he thought it was achievable, and perhaps even healthy. This is, in my opinion, a wrong view.

Look what can happen when communities take this KILL THE EGO thing seriously. I recently read Andre van der Braak’s book Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, where he recounts his years as a senior student of the megalomaniacal Andrew Cohen (founder of EnlightenNext.org). “Impersonal enlightenment has to transform our lives;” writes van der Braak, recounting the teaching her received under Cohen; “we should banish any trace of a personal life. Our very reason for living should be dedicated to what Andrew calls ‘living for the sake of the whole’.” (van der Braak later concludes that ‘for the sake of the whole’ really meant ‘according to Andrew’s wishes.’)

Is this what the spiritual path is all about? Should we banish any trace of a personal life? Not at all. This teaching comes from a rather immature understanding of the role of ego in human development and the evolutionary process.

Take Ken Wilber, for example. His Integral paradigm involves moving through ever higher stages of development. Though rather than suggest that we are to banish the lower levels upon reaching a higher one, he adamantly affirms the idea that true developmental progress includes the process of transcending and including the lower levels. Otherwise, one’s identity becomes fractured, causing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors to arise. So if we are to move our identity beyond ego in a way conducive to true, healthy development, the ego has to be included.

Regarding the positive role of the ego in spiritual practice, the spiritual teacher and meditation instructor Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) has this to say:

“The traditional concept that the ego represents only ignorance and should be eliminated as such, [sic] has truly damaged a number of seekers. This misconception has created a real guild complex in the minds and hearts of all those who, for centuries, tried to eliminate the ego which they were. How can one annihilate who one is? The ego, in truth, represents itself a highly evolved state of consciousness, where the mind is able to create a self-referral. This is essential for further evolution as well as for spiritual awakening. […] It is ego which allows us to evolve and survive in the reality of time.” –The Human Buddha: Enlightenment for the New Millennium

According to Anadi, what truly separates man from other animals is the development of a self-referral (ego). Without the ego the journey toward higher consciousness would be impossible. In light of this, how can anyone think that the ego is like a wart or a boil that needs to be burned off before liberation is realized? In truth, the ego is re-contextualized when one awakens to their true nature – not abandoned. We learn that our identity may reach far beyond the small, constricted self in to a vast, open space of awareness which includes all things – yes, even the ego.

The next time you come across teachings about how evil the ego is, and how it ought to be annihilated, just remember one thing: the ego is just as real as anything else – that is, any-thing else. All things arise based on conditions. In order to awaken, you don’t need to annihilate your ego any more than you need to annihilate your left foot.

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Overcoming “Fight or Flight” in Meditation

We humans, over the span of millions of years, have evolved partly due to our ability to recognize harmful situations and either flee from them or eliminate them. Psychologists call this our “Fight or Flight” response. And while this is quite useful for staying alive and propagating our species, it has an adverse effect on making progress in meditation.

Running away from less than pleasurable experiences is precisely what NOT to do in meditation. Responding in such a way to feelings of aversion is part of what got us in to this mess of suffering in the first place*. It’s not that we should be like some unbalanced ascetic who goes looking for pain in order to purify our karma. That’s just as unskillful as running away from unsatisfactory experiences or chasing after pleasure. Rather, what we should learn to do is allow such experiences to come into our awareness and pay attention to what happens. In my experience, when an unsatisfactory thought or sensation arises there are three outcomes that may follow:

  1. It could go away. 
  2. It could persist.
  3. It could change.

Now, these three outcomes are true regardless of what I desire to occur. That is, unless I decide to change positions, or get up and stop meditating altogether. But then I’m right back where I started, running away from suffering as if in a game of cat and mouse (and of course, I’m the unlucky mouse). But if I resolve to infuse each and every unsatisfactory experience with mindfulness, I will make progress.

After coming to know this simple truth for myself, I made note of it in the form of a “rule” of meditation. The rule is: whatever is presenting itself in the present is exactly what needs my attention in order to make progress. If I ignore the discomfort and try to dwell on something else (e.g. what enlightenment will be like, or what stage comes next, what I want for lunch tomorrow, etc.), progress gets stunted.

My advice to you, oh reader, is to commit yourself to diving in to whatever experience arises in the moment. If you feel edgy, or tired, or angry, or painful, or anxious, or depressed, or lusty, or whatever else, you must continue to pay close attention to the experience in order to make progress. I know it seems counterintuitive to most every other situation you’ve ever found yourself in. Nonetheless, I sincerely encourage you to give it a try. Do not fight. Do not take flight. Stay right where you are give your fullest attention to what is actually occurring in the present and you will surely make progress.

*According to Buddhism, the three primary causes of suffering are greed, aversion, and delusion.

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Meditative Progress is Within Reach

I am providing the follow excerpt as encouragement for those of us who meditate not as ordained monks, but as householders…

Though a monastic lifestyle might be more conducive to enlightenment than a busy life within the world, when it comes to individuals rather than models all fixed preconceptions collapse. Some lay people with heavy family and social commitments manage to make such rapid progress that they can give guidance in meditation to earnest monks, and it is not rare at all to find sincere monks deeply committed to the practice who advance slowly and with difficulty. While the monastic life, lived according to the original ideal, may provide the optimal outer conditions for spiritual progress, the actual rate of progress depends on personal effort and on the store of qualities one brings over from previous lives, and often it seems individuals deeply enmeshed in the world are better endowed in both respects than those who enter the Sangha.

 Lifestyles and Spiritual Progress, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

This is not to suggest that the monastic training is irrelevant to the practice of meditation. The monastic setting may provide an optimal setting for progress on the spiritual path. However, as the familiar disclaimer states, individual results may vary. The particular setting of spiritual practice matters less than the traits of the individual, just as with music, or dance, or any other discipline worth developing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: don’t think you are unable to make progress in your meditation practice simply because you are unable to devote yourself to extended periods of monastic style training. If you wait to begin a practice until the optimal setting becomes available, you will more than likely never begin at all. So, learn to make the most of what you have, and know that real progress is within reach.

 

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Authenticity: Get Out of Your Head!

I’ve been doing some light research on authenticity lately. I’ve been listening to podcasts, reading articles, and practicing what they suggest. What I have discovered is that an organic sense of authenticity flows naturally from an individual as they learn to develop an awareness of their emotions and how they relate to their present bodily sensations.

It’s seems almost contradictory, doesn’t it? We usually evaluate truth claims esoterically in our minds, leaving emotion and bodily sensations out of the picture. But when it comes to expressing the truth of each moment as experienced by any individual, a strong awareness of one’s emotions and how they relate to present bodily sensations gives one the ability to speak and act from a place that resonates deeply with others, and also their own being. From this grounded place, one more naturally conveys what ‘is’ rather than what ‘should be’.

This is yet another reason why certain types of meditation can be transformative for all kinds of people. By simply making the time to be mindful, we can learn to become more embodied, and thus, live more authentically.

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