Tag Archives: meditation

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

by Andy Karr and Michael Wood

Shambhala Publications

As some of you may know, I am a bit of an amateur photographer. I came acrossed this book a year or two ago when I was browsing the Shambhala website, looking at what books they had upcoming. I was sent a digital copy of this book for review, but decided right away to buy it. This is huge. Other than my school books, I haven’t bought a brand new book in years. But this was extraordinary from the first images I saw. Plus, it’s a photography book. You need to hold this thing in your hand.

But it would be wrong to call this just a photography book, or just a book aimed at photographers. All students of Buddhism could appreciate this book. And that’s because contemplative photography isn’t about photography, it’s about seeing. It is a practice that directs our awareness away from conceptual thinking, and focuses it into an art form. From the book:

The practice of contemplative photography connects us with this nonconceptual awareness and strengthens that connection through training. The practice itself has three parts, or states. First we learn to recognize naturally occurring glimpses of seeing and the contemplative state of mind. Next we stabilize that connection through looking further. Finally we take photographs from within that state of mind.

The pictures alone in this book are worthy of any coffee table, certainly. But when a closer look is taken, the images inspire and help you to focus on the ordinary in extraordinary ways. I can’t reccomend this book enough. Again, this book is not just for photographers, but for everyone who wishes to see clearly.

But for the photographers out there, the book offers five different “assignments” to help in this art form. I’ve included some of the photos I’ve taken below for each different assignment.

Light

Color

Texture

Space

Simplicity

If you’re looking for more on contemplative photography, please visit the following sites:

Seeing Fresh – a website set up as sort of an extension of the book. There are discussions happening there, as well as a place where you can upload your own photos for the different assignments. I have a few photos up there too.

Shambhala Archives – Chögyam Trungpa’s photography – a collection of the late master’s work

Measart – a great photographer that has some very vivid contemplative photography

Dharma/Arte – A Brazillian (site is in both Portuguese and English) site that blends art, creativity, and dharma. A wonderful project.

108 Zen Books Tumblr blog – another dharma practitioner’s artful tumblr blog

Video of an Interview with author Andy Karr on Shambhala Sunspace

Seer Seeing Seen – my friend Shane’s tumblr blog with some great photography

Of course, there’s my tumblr blog where I post my photos and other dharma tidbits as well.

And on October 15th, there will be a live broadcast on the web with author Andy Karr. Click here for more information on that. 

Cheers.

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Raising spiritual children

A few posts have gone up recently regarding raising your children in a spiritual tradition, and all the samsara that goes with it. Check out Nathan’s post, John’s post, Mumon’s post, and Karen’s post for some interesting perspectives. (I would say that my post here is inspired by, rather than a response to these posts).

Interesting perspectives. That’s what they are. Perspectives. Of the 4 mentioned above, all are parents save Nathan, who speaks from experience of working with children and running a successful children’s program in his Zen sangha to which he is very much involved. When I read these posts I see a deep sense of caring. Really caring about the children, their lives, their minds, their future selfs.

And something else is there as well. Parents and caregivers projecting what they wish the desired outcome to be. Parents that want their children to be Buddhist or Christian or Atheist or open-minded or skeptical or whatever; they all want something for their children, all to take on a specific role or mindset. And that is part of parenting. You have to want something for your children, and most of us want what is best for them. We all have our different flavors of “best” peppered by the experiences and luggage we bring with us to the table of life.

Personally, I think telling a child what to believe, or “hey Johnny, you’re a Christian, so you believe in ‘x'” is wrong, and does them a disservice. It takes away the process of discovery and replaces it with dogma, at a time in their lives where fostering an attitude of discovery and imagination is most crucial. Spirituality is a very wonderous, malleable thing. To force it into a shape before a child has had the time to poke and prod at it robs them of an experience that is very special, something that will take a terrible amount of work to get back later in life, if at all.

Currently developing the "Rocks and Sticks" Sutra...

But what of raising a child Buddhist, or in a Buddhist community? Is there a difference? I tend to think so, at least to some degree. Buddhism has less to do with belief, and more to do with results. For instance, take the five precepts. This is a teaching I could explain to my children that will lead to examination, and more questions. There is no “because ‘x’ holy book says so answer; there are only questions of “why” and “how” to be met with their own experiences and guidance from father and mother. In Buddhism we seek noble qualities, not adherence to doctrine.

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking life?

To affirm and honor life, because it is precious. Why else do think we should not take life?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking what isn’t given?

To develop generosity, and to accept ourselves wholly. Why else do you think we shouldn’t take what belongs to us?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from wrong speech?

To develop compassion, live our truth, and honor others. Why else should we tell the truth, and not speak unkindly of others?

One day my son and daughter will ask me about Buddha and meditation and being a Buddhist. The questions they ask will come from a genuine place of wonder and curiosity, and my answers should foster that state of mind.

What’s a Buddhist?

Someone that follows the teachings of the Buddha.

What did he teach?

He taught many things. First he taught us that life isn’t always what it seems or what we want it to be. At times this can cause us to be sad, or even angry. So he taught us to use compassion, wisdom, and have the right frame of mind so that we don’t have to live that way.

Oh. So why do you sit on that pillow in the living room?

That’s one way to help me develop the right frame of mind.

 

That is a nice pretend scenario of a conversation that might take place. But given my son’s nature I can only imagine the questions that will soon follow. It will be awhile until the questions begin to emerge, but in time they will. And when that time comes I have no qualms with asking him if he wants to practice with me. And if he says no, he says no and he will enjoy racing matchbox cars around the Kitchen 500.

Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.

Presently we have no formal sangha or spiritual community to raise our children in. Our religious practice revolves around our attempt to manifest spirituality in our daily lives and activity. So there is no temple to “drag” them to. And there isn’t much in the way of belief to indoctrinate them in. There are our daily successes and failures that will guide and shape them. For those with access to a sangha or dharma center, their perspective will be different; I cannot speak to the experience of others.

Or maybe they’ll never really take an interest in Dad’s Buddhism. Maybe they’d rather play with the Tarot cards on our shelves, mesmerized by the dozens of different artist’s depictions of the journey of The Fool. Maybe they’d rather read The Lord of the Rings and get lost in The Shire. Maybe they’d rather spend the day in the woods taking in deep breaths of dead leaves and cedar, running from whatever forest creature they might imagine is in pursuit.

It really is up to them. I’ll be steering them in a direction that keeps them on the road. But that is my perspective, and that is where I feel my children would benefit most. For now I’m focusing on raising compassionate, spiritual children. We can worry about the framework later.

Cheers.

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On and off the shelf

It’s about 1am on Thursday night, and we’ve just got our 1 month old daughter, Zoa, to sleep. It’s been and on-and-off (mostly on) struggle to get her down at night. And then my son Corbin wakes up. I go in, try to comfort him, but nothing works. I’m not able to get him back to sleep until nearly 5am, and then have to wake up at 6:45 to head to work.

In this 4 hour period I go from rage to depression to fear to calm to half-asleep to happy. No where do I find my Buddhism. Why? Because it is in its usual resting place, the shelf.

The Literal Shelf:

I haven’t meditated since before my daughter was born, which was a month ago. My son has been sleeping less at night, sometimes waking up for 4-5 hours, sometimes 30 minutes at a time 3-4 times a night. Or sometimes he sleeps right through. My daughter hasn’t been going to sleep well either. I used to do my meditation routine at night, right after everyone was in bed. Meditate, or sleep… meditate, or sleep…. not really a hard choice on my part now. Setting up the altar and meditating in the morning isn’t really an option, as I wake up with my son (anywhere from 4:30am-7am) and there is no chance in hell I can sit staring at the floor with him running around loose.

So right now, my Buddhism sits on the shelf, in the form of a book usually. I’ve decided that for now, study shall suffice, at least until we can get some kind of regular night-time and sleep routine going. I realize that meditation is only a tiny part of Buddhist and Zen practice, I do. I realize that really living the path means bringing the teachings with you into the mud of life. But I’m having enough difficulty just remembering to take out the damn trash, let alone to do it “mindfully”. I have no teacher, no formal sangha. My knowledge is a lacking, and my insights are few and rare. Right now study isn’t just a way to practice while being convienent, but is a necessary and important part of my practice for today and tomorrow. I simply wish I had the time, capacity, and patience to bring “it” off the shelf more often. Which brings me to-

The Figurative Shelf:

I notice more and more that the times when I’m “being a Buddhist”, come short and fast, and they are gone. I can remember to breathe from the hara, but then it’s gone as soon as my breath leaves. And when I remember again a few minutes later, I kick myself when I look at all the crap I filled my head up with in between.

But much of my life is no different from this. Those feelings I had late the other night, they came and went faster than I would have admitted at the time. I’m finding most of my life resides on the shelf. Little stories I have of “me” to be taken down and checked out when convenient. Some of them barely get out of their usual space before they come right back, while others are near impossible to put back once taken.

 

Anger in its many forms is one of these. Stress, rage, loneliness, burden. This story I call “Only my self and the fire” is an old and familiar one. One too familiar, and not old enough. I know how harmful it can be, yet its pages suck me in and keep me there longer than I’d like. But eventually a chapter or two in, and I realize how many times I have read this one, and how it always ends the same. As time passes I’m finding that it goes back on the shelf a little easier each time, and that it takes me a page or two less each time to get it there. Progress.

There is another, one titled “Riding on Cloud 9 in Fantasy Land”. This story sits on my shelf more often than not, but when I pick it up, I am transported. Taken away to a place where nothing can harm me. No bill collectors are allowed here and everyone has a perfect credit score. People don’t fight. Kids sleep through the night. Cats scoop their own litter box. Cars repair themselves for free. Everything works out in the end here. This book isn’t just hard to put back on the shelf, it’s impossible. The only way to get it back on the shelf is if another one of my stories knocks it out of my hand. I don’t like it when that happens. I really enjoy that story.

And this goes on and on and on. These novels and short stories that I’ve created for me and about me, are constantly going from hand to shelf, hand to shelf. The speed at which must be quite dizzying to onlookers, as I know it wears me out. And to top it off, there are times at which the books and stories I’m grabbing seem to have no real rhyme or reason, other than to grab them and hold on.

I’ve done this for years and my shelf is in disarray. Unfortunately, I’ve been viewing Buddhism and spirituality as just another story, to take on and off the shelf. If I had the presence of mind, I’d open up the pages, and realize that they aren’t things to be taken off the shelf and put back on at a whim. No, these are much more powerful. They are a Dewey Decimal system to keep these books organized. Help me clean them up and put them where they go. Separate the fiction from non-fiction. Buddhism and spirituality are there for when it’s time to let some of these books go, and reduce some of my inventory.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do this type research needed into these very special ‘books’. They are there at home now, sitting on that damned shelf. Too often I leave them on that shelf, ignored until they are to be picked up when convienent.

In a flurry, on and off they go.

But they are an empty shelf!

Just hear without the noise.

Unite heart and mind.

Cheers.

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A practice I can call my own

The Backside of Mt. Baker as seen from Highway 9 near Van Zandt, WA

So I’m currently shaping a daily routine for practice. As you may or may not know, I used to do the whole SGI thing, but left that behind. Now, I am attempting to set up something meaningful and unique that also fits within the scope of the rest of my life. I’ve been trying this out for the past few days (I missed a couple due to time issues coupled with exhaustion) and here is what I have so far:

First, a little stretch. I am probably the least flexible human being on this planet. Even thinking about sitting in full-lotus caused my groin to scream. My hips, legs, back are all in need of a good workout. I found this little routine on Tricycle blog that is supposed to help work/stretch the muscles needed to sit full-lotus. So I start with this. I try to hold each posture (an extremely modified version of each one) for 1 minute, then move on to the next. Next week, i’ll up it to 2 minutes, the week after that, 3 minutes. I’ll try to hold each one for 3 minutes for a while, and see where that takes me.

I’m thinking about adding in a bit of exercise here. Sit-ups, push-ups, yoga, getting on my elliptical. Something, but I don’t know what yet. I just know that my body is out of shape, and I need to do something about it. Sitting for 8+ hours a day at work is taking a toll on my body, and it needs to end.

Next, I chant. I still have all my materials from SGI, so I just chant a couple of chapters of the Lotus Sutra, and then dive into some diamoku. Now, when genuine Nichiren practitioners chant, there is meaning and purpose behind it. For me, I’m trying to use it as simply a meditative tool. Also I still struggle with the Japanese, so that adds a little humility to my practice. Maybe in the future I’ll try chanting something else. We’ll see.

At the end of chanting diamoku, SGI members typically offer 3 prayers that have been written down. Not one of them ever really spoke to me. They all have to deal with the organization and beliefs held within Nichiren Buddhism. Usually I would just try to clear my mind, or offer a prayer for the well-being of my family during that time. I decided that this needed a more personal approach, and so the other night I wrote out the following two “prayers” that I think I will use from now on:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

All evil karma ever created by me since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my conduct, speech and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

The first one is the Five Remembrances. They are a reminder that life is short, it is not to be wasted. They are a reminder that life is temporary and frail. They are a reminder that we must love and love now, for there may not be a tomorrow. They are a reminder that our destructive acts in this life have profound consequences in this life. They are a reminder that compassionate acts in this life have profound consequences in this life.

The second one is The Gatha of Atonement, something the Zennies apparently recite frequently. I first saw it on John’s blog, and thought then how I would like to use this in some way. It kind of speaks for itself I think. It is a way to reflect on how much strife I’ve caused in my life. Upon examination, I can come to see how unskillful that behavior was, and in the future abandon such behavior. And sometimes it helps to say I’m sorry, even if no one is listening.

If anyone has a suggestion for a third one, I’m all ears.

Next, I meditate. I’ve just been doing 10 minutes at a time. Nothing too grandiose. Just spending some time connecting with my breath, which proves to be quite a challenge. I can usually make it until 3 breaths before my mind kicks in with all kinds of nonsense.

At some point in the day, I study. Even if it is just 15 minutes. Right now I’m working my way through The Wings to Awakening (check the footer).

This is how my practice looks right here, right now.

It is not perfect. It doesn’t include a real life sangha. It doesn’t include a real life teacher. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll live closer to a dharma center, and those will be both possible and practical.

This is my practice. I think it will work for me for now. It is organic, home-grown, and provides me with goals and challenges. I know I will fail and stumble along the way, but I believe that if I can stick to a routine like this, I can keep picking myself up when I fall down.

Cheers.

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Article Swap #3 – Buddhist Ethics in Political Dialogue (guest post by Justin Whitaker)

The following is a guest post from Justin of the wonderful blog, American Buddhist Perspective. This is part of the great “Buddhoblogosphere Blog Swap” that was set up by Nate over at Precious Metal. Check out this post for a list of all the other articles being swapped and hosted today. The article I wrote hasn’t been posted yet, but as soon as it is, I’ll post the link up here. I was in charge of assigning Justin a topic, and knowing that he is a Buddhist Ethicist, I asked the following questions:

“How do we apply Buddhist ethics in a secular way to the political dialogue/discourse we currently have in this country? Right now it is dominated by the fringe extremists with the loudest microphones and it is getting us nowhere. How do we combat (without combating) this extremism using Buddhist ethics? How do we make it part of the dialogue?”

Adam has posed some great questions here. I hope they elicit as much thought in you as they did me and that you will join the conversation. First off, we need to identify what “Buddhist ethics” is or are. From there we should be able to launch into engagement with our current political situation. 
 
Let’s orient ourselves. Where are we? If we call ourselves “Buddhist” (and often even if not) we no doubt see ourselves as on a path to awakening. We can think of this as our vertical or “Developmental” Dimension:  our own ignorance and suffering at the bottom, and perfected wisdom and compassion at the top. And we are also living in the year 2010, mostly (for readers here) in America. This is the horizontal or “Relational” Dimension, the world around us right now and on each stage of the path (see Firgure 1*).   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        In this picture, Buddhist ethics can be seen as our conduct as Buddhists and the reasons we have for that conduct. How do we move “up”? How do we cultivate the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion in a world so dominated by extreme voices and ideas?
 

The Buddha’s own advice to people again and again was to relax their attention on the Relational Dimension and focus on their own development. One of the curious facts about this way of seeing things is that as we advance (upward) toward awakening, we open up more fully (relationally) to the world. Meanwhile, the more caught up in personal delusions, greed, and hatred we are, the more isolated we are from the world. This is what Alan Sponberg has coined as the Hierarchy of Compassion.
 
So this is our starting point. Right here. Not with the politicians or the pundits, but with our own mind and mental states. As laypeople we can begin with the five precepts:
1.   I undertake the training to abstain from harming living beings
2.   I undertake the training to abstain from taking the not-given.
3.   I undertake the training to abstain from harmful conduct in sensuality.
4.   I undertake the training to abstain from false speech.
5.   I undertake the training to abstain from drinking liquor or taking intoxicants.
Each day we can take a moment to evaluate our relationship with these training principles. Our first step in remedying the often contentious political sphere is to ensure that we ourselves are contributing as little as possible to it. Recall Mahatma Gandhi’s teaching, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
 
For some, “ethics” ends there. But I think we can see that the whole of the path is interconnected and that meditation and wisdom are not distinct categories of practice. It is in our meditation that our deepest mental convictions and afflictions become transparent to us, rising to the surface of consciousness where we can make the changes necessary to move closer to harmony with the Dharma. In terms of the political world, in meditation we can let go of divisive labels and self-other duality. In particular, in the cultivation of loving-kindness meditation, we invite to our mind an ‘enemy’ to imaginatively sit with us, seeing this individual as no different from a neutral person, themselves no different from a close friend. We see that all beings “fear the stick and tremble at punishment.”
 
The cultivation of wisdom, too, serves our ethical purposes. While notions such as non-self, impermanence, and interconnectedness can serve as mere intellectual concepts, they can also be applied on the cognitive level to challenge and overcome prejudices. The noble 8-fold path begins with right understanding, and I believe this is not accidental. If we believe in permanent separate souls or that moral actions hold no consequences, it is unlikely that we will follow the next seven steps on the path. While the complete understanding of reality as it is marks the culmination of the path, we cannot even begin if we are clinging to radically false notions.
 
But we are still at a very individual level. How do we ‘reach out’ to others? We begin with those nearest us, friends and family. If you’re anything like me, this group alone contains a very wide spectrum of political views. Generally it’s easiest to talk politics with those who agree with you and at times downright painful to talk with those who appear to be in the extremes. I’ve had conversations with relatives who say they’re “just waiting for him [President Obama] to start taking our guns away” and friends on the other end of the spectrum who lamented how horrible a nation America has become (under President G.W. Bush).
 
Sometimes the best we can do is listen, try to understand where they are coming from. At our best though we can ‘mirror’ the extreme position of a comment to the other person in a way that gets him or her to its extremism clearly. We might remark that Obama is having a hard enough time accomplishing his stated goals, so it might be a bit tough for him to do something that would be so widely unpopular.  Or we might note that America wasn’t exactly Eden before G.W. Bush – or mention a few of the dozens of countries that would be much more ‘horrible’ for our friend. What we see is that extreme positions are often very narrow, both historically and in terms of contemporary realities around the world. 
 
As our own thought and understanding deepens, we are less affected by extreme and misplaced views and opinions; much like H.H. the Dalai Lama as he responded to Chinese claims that he was a devil:

If he were to bitterly argue against such claims, they would only gain strength. But by laughing at them, and making us laugh in turn, we see the absurdity of the Chinese government’s position. The more often this happens, the weaker this extreme voice becomes. Similarly, teaching the history of Tibet, and showing the reality of people there today are other ways to cut through extremist claims.
 
But what the Dalai Lama’s story also shows us is that in the end, enlightened conduct might not win in the political sphere. This is a fact of the deluded state that most of us dwell in. Even the Buddha had enemies, including an angry cousin who tried on several occasions to kill him. The extremists have always been there and likely always will be. Through our own practice, though, we can develop the wisdom of seeing the context of our political lives and compassion through realizing the similarities we have even with our worst enemies. Bringing this ‘home’ in our own daily conduct and meditation frees us from merely reacting to the latest extremism in the world, allowing us to be creative agents of that wisdom and compassion. The greatest contribution, and indeed the most authentic one, that Buddhist ethics can give to contemporary political dialogue is in its tools of spiritual development.
 
* This schematization and the figures are taken from Sponberg, Alan. (1994). “Green Buddhism and the Hierarchy of Compassion,” in Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds. Tucker and Williams eds. (1997). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, pp. 351-376.

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Buddha takes no Prisoners!

Buddha Takes No Prisoners

Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Guide

Author: Patrick Ophuls

North Atlantic Books

Once again, I’ve been tricked by the title. “A meditator’s survival guide” led me to believe this book would have to do with meditation practice of some sort, but alas, it really doesn’t. It doesn’t cover meditation in and of itself. It’s more of an “okay, I can meditate, now what do I do with that” book. Okay, no big deal.

Although reading is one of my favorite hobbies/pastimes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spend a dedicated amount of time reading the books I want to read. I have a small “to read” stack that is growing faster than I can keep up. What was nice about this book, is that it fit right into that lifestyle. It is split up into 24 small chapters, that each read like a well written blog post. The chapters are short enough and self-sufficient enough that you can read one, and come back to the book a few days later without having to back track to regain the train of thought. When I say well written, I mean it. Patrick Ophuls’ style is straight-forward and engaging. He doesn’t cut any corners, and he doesn’t fluff up his writing with too much… “wordiness”. And you can tell this guy has studied the Buddhist texts quite a bit, as he includes more metaphors than you can handle (really, it does get a little bit old).

I really enjoyed this book. It was Buddhism without beliefs without Buddhism without beliefs. He makes his point to an obviously Western audience, but he doesn’t advocate stripping the Dharma of anything. His approach is practical but not anti-establishment. He’s targeting the average Western lay practitioner, and really hits the mark. It’s approachable yet elevating. Some of the parts that I found to be of great interest:

About choosing a Buddhist path:

It’s not true that all roads lead to Rome; quite a few lead to hell instead. But of the many paths that go to the holy city, we need to choose one in particular for our journey.

On a new definition of metta:

So perhaps the single best word to convey the essential spirit of metta is not….kindness. Rather, it is kindheartedness, because the latter more strongly suggests an inner predisposition or habitual tendency to be friendly and kind no matter what, which is precisely what metta is.

On Buddhist practice as a means for “healing”:

…if healing becomes the goal of practice, then a watered-down, feel-good, lowest-common-denominator Buddhism reflecting the cultural values of a secularized, politically correct, therapeutic society may take root and become the norm. To put it another way, the danger is that Freud’s heroic resignation will replace Gautama’s heroic affirmation so that students learn how to live with their suffering instead of how to overcome it.

Ophuls covers many topics in his blog-like chapters; fixing problems that arise with your meditation practice, choosing a path, choosing a teacher, emphasizing that we need worldly wisdom while living in a worldly world (go figure, hu?). The book is like a FAQ for your Buddhist practice. I definitely recommend it, especially for any Dharma-noob out there. There are some great essays in the appendix as well that I think I’ll save for a future blog post.

Cheers.

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Shhhh……

 The dim blue of the white noise machine that is currently rolling ocean waves through its speakers is the only light piercing the darkness in my son Corbin’s room. Sponge Bob is there staring at me from the corner, in front of the rest of his toys that are frozen, poised ready to leap to life from their respective bins the moment he wakes up. It’s 8:30 or so, and this is the first time he’s woken up tonight. Right now I’m practicing shushing meditation.

He wakes up 6-8 times a night, and my wife Alex and I have decided to try the “cry it out” method to break him of this habit that he’s formed. 11+ months of no sleep has turned us into bitter, angry night people. I’ve let him cry for 5 minutes, and now I hover over his crib, shushing in sync with the ocean waves. I rock back and forth, backing away from the crib inch by literal inch. It is a process that is laborious, boring, and mentally demanding. After 10 minutes or so, I’ve backpedaled to the door and make my exit; silent except for my continued, rhythmic shushing. The door closes and I head to the fridge to grab some juice as all the shushing has severely dried my mouth and depleted my saliva reserves. It’s then that I realize that I’m still shushing. Hmmm.

A couple of hours later I’m swimming in the ocean again, rocking side to side and shushing. Now I’m thinking of earlier and my trip to the fridge. The shushing had focused my attention on my movements. No commentary from my mind. Just shushing, and movement. Now I begin to wonder why all this seems like such a chore. Why is it that I would rather go out in the living room and finish watching Weeds with Alex? Isn’t this moment just as special? Then the switch just flips. It becomes easy. With the effort of a passing thought I made a determination that this subtle moving and shushing alone in the dark with my son was the better of the two options. And it became easy. Now I felt the comfort of my own shushing. My son stops stirring. Time to start sneaking backwards. Slowly. Carefully. Purposefully.

When I return to the couch I un-pause Weeds and the noise and light from the TV assault my senses. This is no longer the desired escape from reality it was a few hours ago. I’d rather go back in and sit down in front of Corbin’s crib and just sush. But then Alex leans over on my chest and I wrap my arm around her, and the calm and comfort return.

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My punishment became my path?

Reminiscing the other day, I remembered that one of my Father’s punishments for me was to ground me. Basically, the idea was that I when I came home from school, I couldn’t watch TV, play outside, talk on the phone or do anything other than chores, homework, eat dinner, and stay in my room. Sweeping the dust and pushing the dirt for punishment? WTF?

Upon remembering this, a few things came to mind.

1) Our society has gotten to the point where unplugging one’s self from the stresses, distractions and attachments of the world is punishment. The reward is a life full of suffering, delusion, and distraction from the true nature of reality. How can we expect to advance as a society when this is the way we encourage each other to live?

2) What would I be like today, if being alone with my thoughts (cultivating mindfulness), and playing outside, adoring nature were my rewards, and plugging into the TV and video games had been my punishment?

3) How truly attached to my “things” I was to get so upset over not being able to use them for a couple of hours! This life of attachment and distance from one’s self is addicting, more powerful than any drug that grows in the ground or is made in a lab.

Okay, enough of that. Time to go play Call of Duty.

Cheers.

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“The Importance of Ritual (and Irritation)”: Guest Post by Maia Duerr

 A shout out to Adam and to all his blog audience as we commence this big Buddhist blog swap. This is the first time I’ve participated in the blog swap. It’s a lot of fun to dip into someone else’s pool, and to have Shane Hennesey of Zenfant post on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles.

The way this works, all of us who volunteered for this endeavor were matched up with another blogger, and we were to write something for his or her blog. We each suggested a topic to write on, and then Nate Montigny  put these into a hat (was it a real hat or a digital hat? I wonder…) and assigned a topic to each of us. The topic I suggested was “how do you practice with irritation?” The one I was assigned was “the importance of ritual in your Buddhist practice.” I didn’t understand that we weren’t going to write on the topic we suggested… and so I have to tell you, I am irritated that I have to write on a topic other than irritation. I guess that is perfect. I may end up writing about both topics here. 

First, ritual. I grew up Catholic, and I mean really Catholic. Twelve years of Catholic grammar school and high school at St. Andrew’s, in Pasadena, California. This was in the 1960s and 70s, so if you can imagine the scenes in the Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour Hoffman movie “Doubt,” you’re not far off. Okay, maybe not quite that bad, but we were definitely steeped in ritual and nuns and priests. I can remember being herded from our classrooms across the street to the big church every Friday for Mass. When I was growing up, the post-Vatican II Church was just on the cusp of “modernizing,” so I have some faint memory of the mass being said in Latin when I was very young. But most of what I remember is that awkward transition to guitar masses and the priests trying to act very hip. 

Even so, there was still a great deal of ritual. During big masses like Christmas and other holidays, the altar boys, dressed in black robes with a splash of red and white garments, would carry large bronze urns filled with incense and swing them around on their way up to the altar. The most ritual-intensive part of the liturgy was around the consecration of the ‘host,’ when the priest held up the golden chalice and whispered some kind of secret incantation as the bread and wine allegedly turned into the body and blood of Christ. It was wild. So when I encountered Buddhism later in my life, I was already pretty comfortable with ritual. I started practice in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition where there was actually less of it. But by the time I hit Soto Zen, I was happy to see the black robes come out again and hear all the chanting in morning service. I know this can be a turnoff to some people, but I felt right at home. Maybe that’s why there are so many ex-Catholics who seem to turn up in the ranks of Zen Buddhism.

 Over the years, something really valuable I’ve discovered is that it’s important for me to personalize those rituals a bit more, otherwise they can end up feeling kind of dead after a while. In the past couple of years, I’ve created a morning ritual for myself that has really helped me to feel much closer to my practice. When I sit on my own at home, I end the sitting period by lighting incense and then chanting a set of three vows that are close to my own heart – not something that someone else has come up with. This seems to go to the core meaning of ritual for me – it’s a remembrance of things that are close to my soul, that vitalize me for the day ahead. 

Finally, a few thoughts about irritation. After my irritated moment about not getting the topic I wanted for this blog, I realized how much irritation has permeated my practice. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Really, irritation has permeated my life and I would guess that is true for you as well.  I remember one of the first things that my root teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, said to me: “We spend most of our lives circling around the drain of resistance.” I thought that was fabulous and I’d never heard it before. It’s so true, only the problem is we usually don’t realize how resistant we are to “things as they are.” Irritation really seems to get at the heart of the First and Second Noble Truths, that there is suffering in life and that suffering arises when we resist what’s going on. I’m not sure I can say I’ve experienced any less irritation in my life since I’ve been practicing meditation. In fact, maybe even more. Or maybe it’s just that I am more aware of it (damn awareness!). Sometimes it seems that just about anything can trigger the irritation: the loud breathing of someone else in the zendo (and it’s always someone else, not me!), the co-worker who drives me crazy with his stupid questions, the method for choosing the blog topic that I didn’t have a say in… If it’s not one thing, it’s another, as Gilda Radner would have said. 

One saying that’s made the rounds in many Buddhist settings is that when we practice and live together as a sangha, we are like a bunch of hairy potatoes being washed in the same bucket of water together, continually rubbing each other clean through the process of bumping up against each other in our irritation. If that’s the case, I am getting to be a very clean potato. 

Thank you so much Maia! Wonderful!

For a list of all of the other blogs participating in the swap, head over to Precious Metal. My post is up at Peace Ground Zero, so check it out! Cheers. -Adam

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A new year, a new diet, and some thank you’s.

First, let me look back on 2009. No top ten lists here, (though I feel it’s worth mentioning that Full Sail’s Session Black was the best new beer I had this year) just some quick reflection. My son was born on Christmas Eve 2008, so this year has been all about not sleeping and the baby. My home brewing was a wash this year (2 great batches, and 2 that became infected). I took a vacation and just stayed home to spend time with my family. I helped raise some money for charity in November. I started a blog in March, and….. oh yeah, became a Buddhist. I can’t complain about 2009, and even if I did, what’s the point? It’s all in the past now. While nothing monumental happened, my son hit so many milestones and kept surprising me and challenging me that to call this past year boring would be a flat-out lie. I’ve had a great year, it’s been mostly focused around my family, sharing in our love, and for that I am thankful.

So what’s next in 2010? Normally I’m of the “New Year’s resolutions are retarded” crowd. This year however, I find that it’s a great time to make some commitments, goals, and life changes.

1st: No more meat. Yup, after today I’m going “veg”. A few people have asked me why, and I haven’t come up with a great reason for them. I suppose it’s simply that I don’t want to kill animals anymore. I like them. There are plenty of healthy alternatives, and it’s better for the enviroment to eat a diet that doesn’t involve meat. James from The Buddhist Blog posted this video awhile back that I think has a great message (without being one of those gross PETA videos).

So I have many personal reasons (moral, ethical, enviromental) to not eat meat, and the only reason I can find to continue to eat it is that “bacon is tasty” (which it is. I’v previously stated that I would walk across broken glass like Bruce Willis in Die Hard for bacon). So, I will miss steak, and beef jerky, and bacon, and burgers, but I think I will be getting much more in return. Also, I’m not going to push my vegetarianism on anyone else. Really, I’m not here to judge your diet. Eat what you want, but please do think about where it came from.

2nd: A more committed practice. The idea is to chant twice a day, though I’ve been failing at this miserably. I seem to always find some sort of excuse to not chant. So with the New Year, I’m going to make a stronger mental effort to chant twice daily. The only crappy part about this is the fact that I will sleep/rest less. My son currently wakes up about 5 times a night, and finally gets up around 6:30am. I try and just sit with him for a half hour or so to let my wife gain a little bit of sleep, but now I’ll just have to take him into the living room with me so we can chant together. I suppose I can sleep when I’m dead.

3rd: Add meditation to my practice. This isn’t going to be something that I will start Jan 1. This is something that may not happen for a few months, but it is something I feel the need to add. I’m reading up on different approaches and techniques now, and will try to figure out what works best for me.

That’s it. Those are my concrete goals and affirmations for 2010. Am I a perfect father/husband/employee/friend? Hell no! But I’m already working on those things all the time, and I don’t feel the need to make a new resolution to just make myself feel good. The three things I listed are things I want to do, feel I can accomplish, and I feel like the time is right to make them all happen.

I’d like to take just a moment to thank all of my readers that have stuck with me from some of my first posts on Blogger all the way to now. Likewise, thanks to those of you that have joined as of late, have commented, and have supported and challenged me. Also, thank you to my fellow bloggers that I’ve met and have been willing to discuss everything from the 5th precept to squirrel nuts to the culture and politics of Buddhism in the West and beyond (including Buddhist Purgatory). And last, thank you to my beautiful wife for putting up with my sometimes excessive interweb use. I love you.

Have a happy (and safe) New Year’s everyone.

Cheers.

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The Eightfold Path: Right Concentration

Finally, we’ve reached the end. I’m actually quite happy about this. I have lots of other ideas and thoughts and such that I’d love to blog about, and after this post I’ll be a little bit more liberated and able to do so. I’d also just like to say to the new readers and followers a few things.

First, I’m not really a Buddhist. Well, not yet anyway. I’m trying to learn all there is to know, and figure out if it’s right for me, and if I want to apply it to my life. So far, I’m heading in that direction. That being said, I’m in no way any sort of authority on anything Buddha. If that is what you’re looking for, try some of the blogs on my blog roll, or Urban Dharma, or go find a friggin monk! I’m just blogging about my beginning experience and journey into Buddhism. This is my perspective, and there’s a good chance that I’m wrong. Now, I do believe I have something interesting to say on the subject, or I wouldn’t be blogging at all.

Second, the main purpose of this blog is to provide me with a creative outlet. So sometimes (like with my first few posts) you’ll see stuff that doesn’t have much to do with Buddhsim. And yes, I do plan on posting more recipes.

 Third, I don’t post daily. I don’t have the time to. I work full time, I’m married, and I have an 8 month old son to attend to. I’m making on honest effort to post at least once a week, but my goal is twice a week.

 Okay, all that house cleaning business has been taken care of. Let’s get right into Right Concentration. This one is very important. But I personally don’t have much experience with it. Right concentration is all about meditation, and I don’t meditate. It’s not that I don’t want to, or don’t agree with it. It’s just a matter of finding the time (remember me mentioning the 8 month old?) and motivation, and putting forth the effort. That being said, here’s my take on it. 

Right concentration is mainly about meditation. It stresses the need to practice insight meditation to achieve a specific state of mind. The goal is to get to the point where you are now in control of your mind/ego, and not the other way around. Rather than thoughts taking over, you’re taking over. You allow thoughts to arise, and then just as quickly dismiss them, and move on. No dwelling. This is truly inner peace, especially for someone like me with ADHD. The goal is complete equanimity, and the Buddha said the way to get there was through meditation.

 Through enough practice, you’ll eventually be able to reach this state of mind. But it doesn’t stop there. I mean, what the hell good would it do you to have that sense of equanimity only during meditation? Not much. So after you get real good at meditating, and can reach that state of clarity of mind, the next step is to keep yourself in that state in the rest of your daily life. You aren’t a Buddhist only while you’re meditating people.

 Personally, I’ve reached this state of mind a few times unknowingly, and I’m guessing that plenty of people out there have as well. One time that sticks out is when I was about 17 or 18. It was summer, and I was a bored youth in Michigan. Gas was only about 95 cents a gallon back then, so I decided to drive over to the other side of the state.

Muskegeon was a few hours drive along a two lane highway that cut through some small towns along the way. I was in my ’86 Regal, listening to some A.M. radio (it was all that worked) and just driving. It was liberating, peaceful. I now realize that while driving, I was in a sort of meditative state. I finally reached my destination, and found some beach. It was dusk and the sun was setting. I parked myself down, and just watched the sunset. No real thoughts crept into my head. If a thought did creep in, it left just as fast. It was the first time in a long time that my mind wasn’t racing. This was the closest I have ever been to that state of equanimity. So that my friends, is Right Concentration, according to me. If you want to know some more on meditation or the eightfold path, ask a monk! Or go out there, and sit down, and shut up! There are some great resources for meditation in my blogroll. Use them. I will be soon. Hell, even wiki has a damn article on it.

And that’s it for the Noble Eightfold Path. That’s all I want to cover on it right now. For those unfamiliar with Buddhism, this was like my shortened version of the Cliff’s Notes version of the Eightfold Path. There is way more involved with all of this. But this is all I care to write about it at this point. I’ll surely revisit all of these at some point. I probably won’t be posting again this weekend, as I’ll be busy brewing up an Amber Ale, and hitting the Evergreen State Fair. Cheers.

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