Good deeds

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About Prayer

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The Paradox of Wisdom

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When Squares and Circles Meet: What to Expect of Your Meditation

circlesandsquares1Meditation and expectations don’t seem like two terms that usually go hand in hand. Yet, borrowing a saying from elsewhere, I can state that the population of meditation practitioners is divided into two groups: those who sit to meditate with expectations, and those who lie about it.
For many years I have been told that meditation is composed of sitting quietly, clearing your mind and expecting…. nothing.
How noble. This idea goes so well with never passing judgment on other people, never hurting a fly, and, all in all, being utterly a saint. Though no doubt a wonderful and worthy aspiration, maybe a handful of people throughout human history were of such nature. For the bulk of us, real humans, when aspiration becomes a set of rules, the best of intention turns into an obstacle.
Think about it: even the mere idea of sitting to meditate without having any expectation, is already, by itself, an expectation… It is a setup for failure.

So let’s be a little more realistic. We are human, we expect. It’s in our nature. When the sun is shining bright, we expect it to be warm outside, even in winter when the large outdoor thermometer shows it’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit (zero Celsius.) When we see a good looking pastry at the bakery store window, we expect it to taste delicious, even if it’s all coating and there’s no substance underneath; and when we sit to meditate, we have expectations. Some of us expect to feel relaxed, relieved of our daily stress, find a balance; others expect to get enlightened or, at least, see the “light”. Expectations are many and vary individually. Some may expect to see how all things in nature are connected, yet others hope a good meditation session may resolve some personal issues from their past.
“Meditate on this I will,” said Yoda of Star Wars; “this” is a subject matter, and Yoda’s meditation had a purpose. Don’t argue with Yoda.

In the following post I am going to briefly present three different, unrelated, ideas and concepts, and then tie them together.
You can expect to have a better understating of meditation and expectations by the time we are all done.

1. Circles and Squares: Imagine that since childhood you were told that love is a square. This idea had been implanted in your mind through everything you read, watch and discuss. Love is when A, B, C, and D happen; it is a square. You spend the rest of your adult life searching for your matching square. On occasion you think you have found it but, alas, it’s not a real square. It’s a triangle. Little do you know that meanwhile, passing you by, are dozens of circles, and that your true love is actually not a square but a circle. Yet you never even glance in their direction; after all, you are highly focused on looking for squares, and not just any square, your square, whatever that is you don’t even know.
2. Force and Resistance: An integral part of the art and philosophy of Tai Chi is the idea that rather than fight force with force, one learns to divert an opposing force and turn it to his advantage. You can imagine this as a ball being punched dead-center. As a result, the ball is likely to fly a distance from the offensive force. Us being the ball, is how we usually respond to force inflicted upon us – resist and being pushed back. Now imagine that as the offensive force strikes, you, the ball quickly moves a little off center. The force hits the side of the ball and rather than push it, causes the ball to rotate around its center in a circular movement. Thus, rather than resist the incoming strike, suffer pain or else need to use a lot of force to counter it, you move off center, causing the offensive force to get off-balance, and find a way to use their energy to strike back utilizing the opposite arm. (If all this sounds too complicated, just let it be for now. The essence of this is that rather than resist, there are other ways of tackling a force, and this is the concept we will use in a little while.)
3. Observation: what all meditation schools agree, is that observation is central to any sort of meditation technique. It is the art of being watchful and attentive, preferably without commentary, of what happens.

Let’s inspect how these three ideas can be applied onto meditation with respect to expectations:
1. Circles and Squares: If you acknowledge that each person has their own very individual experience, it means you are free from pre-conceptions and most rules, and can break the mold. You no longer look for squares, you don’t even look for circles as you don’t yet know you shape you are; you simply search, by trial and error, you search. They told you that in order to meditate you need to sit down? Try to meditate standing up or walking; try swimming. They instructed you to meditate in silence? Try music: soft music, loud, obnoxious music. And don’t rush to judgment. Try it for a little while – sometimes revelations happen over time, sometimes through some struggle. They told you to clear your mind of expectations? Try acknowledging you are expecting, don’t fight it – acknowledge it. Let’s use an example: say you are expecting to feel more relaxed after you meditate. That brings us to the next point:
2. Using that idea from Tai Chi, that when one encounters force, rather than resist try to go with it; rather than fight having expectations, we are going to go with it and explore. Back to the example: if I expect to be relaxed, let me explore what relax mean to me. A little more about this in a moment:
3. Use observation. That remains a principle we want to use. It is a key.

So back to our example: we felt tense, we sat down to meditate and in the back of our mind there is a hope that we will feel a little more relaxed after we meditate. Usually we will write that off and feel bad for having that expectation to start with. Writing it off does not mean it goes away, on the contrary – it’s still there, we just ignore it. And ignoring it we get distracted in our meditation. But since we are being brave, we break formulas and molds, we try new things; we acknowledge that we expect to feel relaxed. We don’t fight it. We let that expectation be. And we observe. What does relaxation mean to me? Well, I know that when I am relaxed, tension leaves my face. Let me smile a tiny bit as I know that when I smile my face relaxes. I know that being relaxed means that my breathing becomes deeper and fuller. Let me focus on that for a moment. I know that when I relax, I can more easily keep my closed eyes focused between my eyebrows, and so forth. I acknowledge my expectations and observe, and as I do, it’s possible that my expectations will come true. And when that happens, maybe some other things will happen as well – some things I may have expected, some things I did not expect, and some things I didn’t even know exist. But because I am relaxed and didn’t fight my expectations, because I am in an observer set of mind, I start to note things I could not have noticed before.

But watch out. If you do this and you are successful, you have now created a new expectation… We tend to constantly create rules and formulas for success. That is okay – it’s part of the way we learn. Yet, our experiences changes from day to day, from moment to moment; whatever worked for us today may not work for us tomorrow. Keep on trying, changing. If you find something that worked well for you and are content with it, you may never discover the next experience. After all, there is much more out there than just circles and squares.

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That Other Cheek

Occasionally one gains an insight. It can come through much turmoil, as an earth shaking event; it can also sprout via a small, yet significant observation. Some such visions leave a temporary impression, some forever change our perspective. In the following post I am going to share with you an insight. It is one of those rare understandings which happen quietly, internally, without much fanfare. On the surface it seems like nothing had changed; there are neither loud trumpets nor visions of light. Yet through a seemingly simple change in perception, nothing is ever the same.

For a long while now I have been debating a spiritual concept which I found wonderful in theory, yet difficult in practice. It is the idea of non-dualism, of non-separation, of seeing everything and everyone as one interconnected being. The notion behind this, for those not familiar, is that we are all merely individual parts of one greater existence; an entity with many diverse faces, each a different expression of that same core energy. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson expressed it in a simple scientific statement: “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” This I accepted intellectually, but my quest was for internalizing this connection, and furthermore, for finding ways I can apply it in my daily life.

A good starting point, I thought, would be religion. Many of the Eastern religions and traditions were founded on the idea of non-dualism. These include branches of Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta,) Taoism, Sikhism, as well as several schools within Buddhism. In Judo-Christianity this concept was primarily explored through mysticism while being ignored, or even denounced, by the more official institutions. In reading various scriptures and teachings, I focused primarily on what outstanding individuals of the ages had to say about our interactions with each other as humans, as well as our connection with the world we inhabit and the universe at large. As mentioned, my interest lied with practical applications. My axiom was that if we are indeed all connected, wouldn’t it mean that when one person hurts another, that person actually hurts oneself? If this is the case, even thinking poorly of another person is an insult to oneself. How come then we are still acting so undeservedly towards each other? If we are truly one entity, wouldn’t I feel pain if I hurt another? Or maybe I do feel agony, but I have learned to ignore it? If so, how do I come back to a place where I can feel the universal interconnection and be guided by it?

The rishis of ancient India, who followed this school of thought, interpreted the Bhagavad-gītā, a sacred Hindu scripture which includes direct divine instructions, with this same understanding:

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Bhagavad-gītā 2.12)

Chapter two, Verses 2.23 and 2.24 go on to add: “The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”

“This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, present everywhere, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same.”

Though subjected to both dualistic and non-dualistic interpretations, the non-dualistic explanation is that we all come from the same single source. When our physical body perishes, we all go back to that one entity, only to manifest again in a different form, a different body. One can compare this to drops of water in an ocean, individual yet part of a whole. But mind you, I was less interested in philosophical and theological discussions — of whether our souls remain distinct past our death, and more in the connection we all share while still alive. I turned to Christianity, and who better to consult with than Jesus.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses human relationships by giving specific examples, examples one can take as a form of non-separation:

38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.

41. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

42. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

—Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV

This is more than a form of non-violence, of compassion; it is, in my mind, the end result of understanding the connection: that if I hurt another it is as if I hurt myself. Jesus got it. But I still didn’t find the practical path for experiencing this understanding, one that goes beyond the intellect.

Mahatma Ghandi also got it. Acknowledged by people all over the world as a great soul, Ghandi implemented this doctrine in practice. He nicely summed it up as “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Much like with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Ghandi’s statement is more than just a call for non-violence; it is seeing the connection, it is experiencing it.

My explorations brought me to learn about the ‘butterfly effect’. The idea behind this is that if, for example, a butterfly flaps its wings in the rain forests of Brazil, the effect of this seemingly insignificant action may result in the form of a tornado in Texas. Filmmaker Tom Shadyac concludes his 2011 documentary I Am with: “There is no such thing as a tiny act. The way you greet someone, the joy you experience in nature with family, friends and strangers, it all matter.” There is interconnectivity between all things, but how, remains a mystery. Lao Tzu, the ancient sage of Taoism said in the Tao Te Ching (#13): “Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things.“

Reading all this, I was able to accept non-dualism intellectually but not really yet experience it internally. After all, how can I perceive a person who had done me wrong as part of who I am? Let alone look at a person who is a serial killer the same way as I do my own reflection in the mirror? Time and again I found myself judging others for being, well, to put it bluntly, different than who I am.

Desperate, I called on principles I use in my yoga practice for help. When I teach and practice yoga, I adhere to three simple rules:

1. Less is more

2. Small increments

3. Repetition

Using these as guides, combined with an elementary meditative principle of observation, I set out to attempt a new practice. Prior to explaining the practice I should mention that I decided, first and foremost, not to judge myself for still seeing separation. I realized it may be a long and winding road, and that I cannot speed up the process. Thus, over the past few years, I have been observing myself. I have become aware of how I, if only in my mind, on occasion, look down at others and criticize them. My practice involved not stopping myself from behaving the way I did, as that would have been a sure path to failure, but rather to become more aware of what is going on in my mind; aware without self-judgment. Over time, and this took a while, I noticed that little by little, the more I observed the less intense my criticism became. My progress was painfully slow – tiny increments with occasional regression, but I did not let go; I held to the practice. Small increments, repetition. And then, one completely ordinary day, it hit me: a realization that was both scary and wonderful all at the same time.

What I came to realize — and this was beyond the intellect, at a place beyond words, beyond thought, is that any person I meet, any living creature I encounter, can be me under some very unique circumstances. I am not referring to reincarnation, past and future lives; but rather to this moment, to this life: under very unique circumstances, I may become that person, that person I may despise (or, for that matter, admire) the most – I can be that person. As outrageous and inconceivable as it may sound I may, for example, under superbly unique conditions, turn out to be as evil and full of racial hatred as Adolf Hitler. And at the same token under very unique settings I can also be St Francis of Assisi. I can be a child molester, which is probably the type of person I loathe the most, yet can also become Mother Teresa. How can this be?

Alfred Hitchcock, the filmmaker, had a common theme throughout most of his films: his typical hero was an ordinary person, placed under extraordinary circumstances. We all like to believe that we have a great character, that under pressure, much like in the comic books, rather than crack, we will rise and become a hero. Yet our streets are filled with broken people, homeless, mentally challenged, men and women who seem to have given up on life. Under extraordinary circumstances we may act differently than what we expect and like to believe. Even if we were challenged in the past and proved to overcome a catastrophe, the next crisis may turn out differently than what we wish and hope.

Being put under very unique circumstances, I can be that person. This is not to excuse murderess and other evil doers. But adopting this perspective, I find, allows compassion to develop. The byproduct of this understanding is that we furnish people around us with space to bring out the good in them. It also means that the non-separation I intellectualized, but was unable to grasp in practicality, suddenly became obtainable. I now find myself asking one single question whenever someone’s appearance or behavior bothers me: under very unique circumstances can I be this person? Despite my initial resentment to this idea I’ve embraced it. So far I have always answered with a yes; yes, if extreme misfortune should have it, I may still one day be that smelly homeless beggar, yes, I could have been that drunk driver whose action resulted in the death of an innocent bystander, yes, I can be this corrupt politician I disdain so much. And if I can be all these people, I must be connected with them in an unbreakable, even if invisible, link. I am all these people, and thus rejecting them is rejecting a part that is myself. Self-rejection always results in disharmony, and disharmony brings about misery. I choose non-misery.

I have asked earlier “If we are truly one entity, wouldn’t I feel pain if I hurt another?” I can now clearly see the price we pay when we act poorly towards others. It is indeed a price we ignore as we became oblivious to it. When pain becomes chronic we tend to learn to live with it. But it is still there, in the form of unhappiness, of aimlessness, of depression. We find distractions in the form of technological gadgets, entertainment, sports. But when we judge others and behave badly towards the many living expressions with which we are unconsciously connected, we suffer from disharmony. We absorb the resulting misery in small quantities, and, ultimately, sooner or later, pay a price.

All this is still quite new to me. I’m neither a sage nor a saint, nor is this my spiritual aspiration, a message to be spread to others. It is not some intellectual or mental exercise for the purpose of self-amusement, nor is it a path for a new or timeworn religion. It is a practical path I found critical for my own well-being  It is an understanding of Genesis 1.27: God created man in his own image; not a duplication but an expression of that same elementary grain. Despite the difficulties this practice entails, despite the challenges and regressions, I am on a track that feels right, harmonized. “Being put under very unique circumstances, I can be that person,” became a line I tell myself whenever I am confronted by people who make me feel anything but compassion. It has, and still is, reshaping my life.
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Connections

feet-circleWe have not yet started to comprehend,
all the manners in which we are connected;
a child dies of hunger in Africa,
and you drop your tea cup, blaming it on mere clumsiness;
a young woman helps her senior carry groceries to the car,
and you close a business deal , boasting your shrewdness.
Like toddlers, our understanding is so very limited.
Humanity is still in its infancy.
May it survive long enough to mature.

Drawing the line

As a vegetarian, one argument I have heard from carnivores over the years is that it’s okay to kill animals for food as these animals, e.g. chickens from chicken farms, would not have come to life if humans weren’t growing them for food. This argument always amuses me. I am tempted to ask if, by the same logic, we can take eggs from women who don’t desire to have kids, fertilize it with leftover sperm (there’s plenty of that in the world…) and “grow” kids which we can then use freely for organ harvesting towards medical purposes? After all, these kids wouldn’t have come into being without such a “farm”; they are “artificially” grown.
Some may cringe at this thought — after all most of us (unfortunately not all of us,) still hold human life as sacred, regardless of how that life sprouts.
Another argument I often hear when vegetarianism is inspected for morals: why stop at animals? Fruits and vegetables may also be alive. What gives a vegetarian, who avoids killing animals for food, the right to slaughter vegetables? True, some moralists on the extreme end of the scale, avoid plunking fruits and vegetables off trees and plants. They will only eat fruits that fell off a tree; a sort of a hypocrisy one may argue, as the fallen apples contain seeds of life, seeds that could have become a tree once implanted in the ground.
Realizing any argument is futile, I stopped preaching for vegetarianism out of moral reasons years ago. It all boils down to where one draws the line.
Some don’t eat steaks but feel comfortable digesting chickens, calling it poultry which makes it sound more like food. Others avoid meat but still eat fish, which they consider, I guess, less deserving.
Here is the thing: we do as we feel and then we find reasons to justify it. The more we do this, the more we get away from ourselves. If you fancy eating animals, eat it but call it for what it is.
I have friends who have no moral issue whatsoever with consuming meat. On their scale, anything less than human and acceptable in Western society as food, can be eaten. They may not eat dogs if raised in the West (an acceptable food in Southeast Asia,) but otherwise have a clearly drawn line. The line may shift over the years. That’s okay. We change. Our understanding and perception changes. We may see a connection between us and the world around us in a way that will bring about a paradigm shift. But for now, do what you feel is right, just no excuses please. You are lying to no one but yourself.

Imagine there’s no heaven

A seed carries the potential of life. Upon encountering fertile ground it may sprout into a plant. As a plant it has inherent characteristics that turn light, air and water into what it needs to develop and grow. It also has some sort of awareness. Several experiments have demonstrated that plants react to music by healthier growth (e.g. “The Sound of Music and Plants” By Dorothy Retallack.) One may claim it’s the vibrations of the sound waves, but still, there is room to believe plants have awareness. Without dwelling further into plants and awareness, I will just mention that plants reacted differently to different type of music, responding better to soothing classical music than to modern compositions. Ultimately plants, like all living entities, perish. They are born out of a seed, convert resources into life-energy, develop through a life-cycle which ends up in death. Sounds familiar?

For humans too, every sperm and every egg innate life potential. When an egg and a sperm unite, most of us would agree, life begins. The embryo has qualities that allow it to turn food into growth-energy. Awareness starts to develop from very early on (e.g. unborn babies respond to music and to their mother’s voice while still in the womb.) As with plants, one may claim it’s just a response to vibrations, but in this case, versus the plants, there is more acceptance that it is human awareness and not just triggering of plant genes by playing certain frequencies. Awareness aside, once born, the human inherently knows how to convert air and food into growth-energy through a life-cycle ending in death.

Why do we expire? Why does anything living ends up in death? It seems that as proficient as we can be in converting sources of energy into what we, as humans need biologically to thrive, we are also born with a limited amount of life-energy. In the traditional Chinese culture there is a certain type of Qi, Yuán Qi, which is innate or pre-natal, acknowledged as pre-set amount of life-energy that cannot be replenished. It is our individual clock ticking from inception, until it is all used up. Imagine it as a block of wood. It has the inherent energy of producing heat when burned. Once it is completely consumed, its energy turned into fire and heat, nothing is left of the actual piece of wood but ashes. “Though the grease burns out of the torch, the fire passes on, and no one knows where it ends,” wrote Chuang Tzu (Basic Writings). There is no “wood soul” that passes on when our block of wood is all used up; it’s all gone, turned into dust. At the end of its life-cycle the plant is dead; and so is the human. We bury the body but know it’s nothing but an empty shell.

We want to believe we have a soul, that our awareness transcends to higher planes. It is way too scary to imagine otherwise. But what if there is no after-life? No heaven, no incarnation. What if our existence came to be because a sperm and an egg met and materialized their innate life-growth potential, and our awareness is just part of that process, nothing more? While we are alive we feel awareness. It is part of our life-form, much like it’s possible each and every single living entity has awareness. Maybe, and most likely, not similar to human awareness, but an awareness all the same, suited to that specific life-form, be it a plant, a bacteria or a dog. We are not that unique in nature, just different and, probably, biologically more advanced.

We do not want to die. We do not want to believe that when we depart this life there is no greater beyond. That this is all there is.
Religion had spread like wildfire over the years based solely on our fear of death and the belief in after-life. After all, if there is absolutely nothing that happens past our death, where would religion be in all this?
But this post is not about religion, nor is it about whether or not plants have awareness. It’s about us, about our energy and impact while we are alive.
Even if after our death there is no place our so-called soul travels to; even if after our life ends, and that flicker we call awareness dies out like a blown out candle, something of us remains. It is the sum of our life’s actions to that moment. Because aside of converting energy sources such as air and food into self-serving life-growth energy, hopefully we have done something else with our lives. Each and every action we took, each and every thought we had, words we spoke and deeds we did, is energy we passed along, energy which made an impact in one way or another. And as such we already exist for eternity. Whether we brought kids into the world, planted a tree, shared our knowledge with others, built some machine at a factory or helped a child cross a busy street, we made an impact.

“Though the grease burns out of the torch, the fire passes on, and no one knows where it ends,” wrote Chuang Tzu. Our fire burnt out completely, but in the process it passed along to others as well as to the environment, and no one knows its full long-term impact.
“Imagine there’s no heaven,” wrote John Lennon.
Your life right now is your eternity.

Awareness, comprehension, futility and friendships

At any point along our life’s journey, we can only grasp as much as our mind’s capacity allows us.
Can you recall an event from your childhood, when an adult tried explaining something to you, and you just didn’t get it? (yeah, I know, some of us still don’t get it… :-)
Or maybe a book you’ve read years ago and understood one way, but now, re-reading it, you see a whole deeper meaning, that completely escaped you the first time around? Was your initial understanding wrong? Not at all. It was right for you at the time.
I feel the same way about every aspect of my life, from love and relationships, to my Tai Chi and Yoga practice. A Tai Chi move I have learned 22 years ago, and that had some specific meaning, now occupies a fuller spectrum of insights I was unable to, and, more likely incapable of, comprehending in my 20’s.
This may lead one to question how limited is our understanding now? As persons along our own individual paths, and as humanity along our joint journey.
It is futile to get upset when explaining something to a person not yet ready of comprehension, or get annoyed at oneself when an idea is out of grasp. It would be like pouring water over a stone and getting distraught the rock is not absorbing. Understanding takes time. It is difficult, if not impossible, hurrying it up. Yet, it’s a good idea to spend time with someone who may have deeper insights. It’s an even a better idea to keep company with people who are open-minded, who do not judge but rather encourage and support influx of new ideas. That sort of openness brings about growth. It is one criteria by which I seek friendships.

The day I let my troubles go

Sitting down to meditate I felt a sense of heaviness weighting against my chest. It is a feeling I have experienced before and mostly ignored. Today, however, I noticed it differently. I observed that this weight is composed of my worries and concerns, my troubles and fears; and I realized, maybe for the first time, that it is not an integral part of who I am. I perceived that though the load seems to be an part of my existence, it is actually a separate bundle; a package I have been carrying for so long that it became indistinguishable as such to the bare eye.

In meditation I had an insight. It became clear to me that the only thing making me hold onto this sack of troubles is my fear, my fear of letting it go. Sounds strange? No stranger than a fear of cutting off one’s own arm; doing away with something that had been acknowledged as an inseparable part of me for as long as I can remember. Realizing this, I didn’t bother to stop and inspect each and every item within the package. Instead, I told myself I can just do away with it, release it, let it go. Like the box of invisible items we move from house to house when we relocate, never opening it but still schlepping it along… And so I let it go, just like that.

No weight was immediately lifted up. No great light shone on me. Where heaviness once lay, a sense of weight remained; not the mass itself but a phantom imprint. The load had been there for so long that the pressure did not completely vanished – it left a shadow impression. Yet, I noticed I was breathing a little easier, somewhat deeper and definitely lighter.

I opened my eyes and looked outside the window. Autumn colors of reds, yellows and browns vividly washed over me, as if seeing it for the first time. With the curiosity of a baby I discovered a delicious palate of shades, birds soaring, leaves dancing to a symphony of wind. The sounds, smells and sights, it all hit me and there was no chatter in the mind; just observance. It was all so sharp yet connected; an experience beyond words.

What’s next? Other troubles will surely come. Some of the old worries will find their way back to that space on my chest. New quandaries will stick like Burr seeds to a passing traveler. I have no delusion that I am beyond all this. But now that I have seen it once I know I can always let it go. And when you let go of the weight, that vacant space it held, quickly fills, even if just for a short while, with unexplained happiness.

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