Friday, December 21, 2012

Living in a World of Violence

Violence is troubling. It is pervasive. It is everywhere. It is part of life. That makes it even more troubling. It is kind of like an upsetting riddle with no answer.

When I was young and I first became aware of violence and the many ways to hurt, torture and kill people I was so upset I couldn't really deal with it. There was a kids' movie that I loved called Bugsy Malone. It was a gangster movie with kids. Instead of killing each other with bullets, they used cream pies (or something like that). Oh, how I wanted to live in that world. I used to ask my dad why they couldn't fight wars with whipped cream. This is one of those things that drove me into Buddhism as I was stuck trying to make sense of things that make no sense.

One of the best answers I heard was a story of someone asking a religious master about how he could live in a world of such suffering. The religious man allegedly responded, in the world there is also much overcoming of suffering.

The killings of the kids at Sandy Hook is really the reason for this post. Of course, it stirred up many feelings in all of us. Very strong feelings. How do we deal with those feelings? How will those close to the victims deal with this tragedy? As much as the previous paragraph gives us hope, there are those who will never overcome their suffering. We do what we can with our feelings. Maybe we put these folks in our thoughts, hopes, prayers. We hope they deal with their grief. Yet we know they will never be the same again.

As Zen practitioners, we return to this moment and pay attention. When sad, we are sad. When grieving, we grieve. If we can be helpful to those in need, we help them without a second thought. We also pay attention to our own thoughts. Do we have any violence within us? Do we wish others injury or pain? Has someone wronged us and we want revenge? How do we meet those thoughts with understanding, compassion and love? Love. How do we bring love into our hearts and minds even for the evil people in the world?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Brute Force Meditation

Starting and maintaining a seated meditation practice is difficult*. If it was easy for you, congratulations! For the rest of us it takes significant effort. First, we need to find the time to sit. Next, we need to actually sit. When we are sitting, then what do we do?

In the book, there is a lot of discussion on how to meditate. This post is targeted on the idea of brute force meditation, mainly: Should we be able to control our thoughts? When seated in meditation, should we be able to stop thinking and have a clear, empty mind?

That is not the way the mind works. That big mass of energy is constantly going. Generating millions of thoughts per second – ok, there are no statistics on that, but it sure can seem that way. So, if meditation is not about not-thinking, what is it about?

As Zen students, we are trying to cut through the delusion that keeps us from seeing our true nature. If we can’t stop thinking, how do we do that? The practice is continuing to return to this present moment. So with each breath, we return to what is. When sitting, it is just sitting, looking at a wall, or the floor, or the inside of the eyelids, etc. It is just this breath, paying attention to each breath. Maybe it is a mantra, breathe in “What am I?”, breathe out “Don’t know.” Maybe it is counting or any one of a plethora of ways to meditate people have come up with over the centuries. Of course, no matter what method we are using, thoughts come with varying degrees of impact. Sometimes as hard as we are trying to focus, we find ourselves lost in thought for seconds or minutes. When we realize this, we simply return to the moment – without judgment.

Many people use a mala when they meditate. A mala is basically a string of beads. It is simply another method to help us meditate. We can move a bead with each inhale, or each exhale, or both. It may help us to stay in the moment. When a thought comes, we still have to move a bead. Even the Zen Master Seung Sahn used the mala. As a friend of mine told me, Seung Sahn was constantly using his mala. What about brute force? Shouldn’t I be able to force my mind into a clear state? Good luck with that. The practice is returning to this moment. It is not about eliminating the thoughts. Maybe at some point we will see their true nature.

*All mediation is not seated. Seated meditation generally provides the calmest situation for practice - try bringing meditation into all of your activities.