We Are One Voice the Universe Uses to Speak

My father died four years ago at the age of 96. By that time, he moved slowly, his head bent over, and he used a walker most of the time. Luckily, his brain and his ability to think remained sharp; slowed, yes, more easily frustrated, but deep until the last two weeks of his life.

 

And as I get into my mid-seventies, I sometimes feel him inside me. I get tired and sense him leaning over inside me or my head coming forward like his did. I slow down and feel old. Then I recognize what I’m doing and straighten up. In my mind and body, I go from 96 to 30. My posture improves. I feel more limber and energetic.

 

Most of us know Shakespeare’s famous lines from his play As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” We enter a scene, and we form ourselves accordingly; depending on where we are or who we see, we put on a character, fabricate a history, try out gestures as we’d put on clothing. When meeting parents, or teachers, we think, feel, and act differently than meeting a close friend or an enemy.

 

But who are we acting for? Who is the audience? Is it for just for others or ourselves? There is often a performance aspect to our feelings and behavior even when no one else is around. We try out being different selves to help us decide what we feel comfortable doing or being, or try out different beliefs, attitudes to see how they feel. We might stand up straight not only to look brave to others but to convince ourselves.

 

I just started reading an interesting new book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul. She clearly explains how we could increase our strength, resilience, level of success, and decrease how much we suffer. It is the same point that Buddhism and other meditation traditions have made for hundreds of years but now we have modern science to back it up. It’s less what we perceive or the events of our lives that shape us than how we respond to them.

 

Over a hundred years ago, psychologist William James said we often think we have an emotion and then act. We see a bear in the woods, or maybe a domestic terrorist on the street, and we feel fear, our heart pounds, palms sweat. We feel an impulse to run, and we run. We think the fear makes us run. But James said it’s the other way around. We feel fear because our body has begun to sweat, our heartbeat has sped up, our legs twitch. Likewise, we know we’re happy because we’re smiling. The body leads heart and mind.

 

Our emotions are not formed whole but are constructed of different elements. Murphy talks about building blocks of emotion. First, there’s interoception, or the awareness of internal sensations, as well as awareness of external sensations. These are added to a cognitive appraisal or interpretation of these sensations based on our beliefs, past experiences, our society, etc….

 

**To read the whole article, please go to the Good Men Project.

We Are Always in Conversation with the Life that Surrounds and Sustains Us

The world is constantly in conversation, talking with itself, or maybe singing to itself.

 

As I stood in the front yard this morning, gypsy moths by the hundreds fluttered around our trees in the yard. Sunlight bounced off their brownish wings, a blue jay was flying between the moths, leaves dancing with wind, while a car crunched the gravel on the road and a crow cried out. I disliked what the moths represented, the oak, maple, and apple trees stripped bare of leaves. But at that moment, all was different. The air itself felt alive and was speaking.

 

Peter Doobinin, in his book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, describes how we can use thought to improve thinking. When we are working on a complex task, or we have an appointment later in the day, we talk ourselves through it or to it. We remind ourselves what we need to do or what time we need to leave our home in order to arrive on time. Likewise, when practicing mindfulness, or maybe anytime, we can remind ourselves to arrive right here, now, to be present, to fully focus on whatever task we undertake, or be aware of the quality of our breathing.

 

For example, before a meeting, or engaging in an important conversation, we might remind ourselves to first stop, take three conscious, deeper breaths. Notice how fast or slow, deep or shallow are our breaths, then our thoughts. Notice how we feel before engaging with others.

 

We use thought not only to arrive on time or complete a task but to construct an idea of ourselves, or an identity. We plan our future, select labels for our character, write mental reviews of past actions as if we were writing a review of a movie or play. Thoughts can pop up so easily.

 

In Buddhism, thought is considered the sixth primary form of consciousness, or sense consciousness, following sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch/feeling; it is closely tied to sense experience. So we need to remember that a thought has a different quality than direct perception. It can weigh a great deal emotionally. It can block or expand our viewpoint, aid or obscure the senses in discerning how completely tied we are to the universe. But when isolated from the senses, thought colors are less brilliant than that of bird wings, flowers, or a sunset.

 

Bruce Chatwin, in his book The Songlines, takes us to the Outback to learn about the First Nation People of Australia and the creator beings who sang the world into existence; song being the original language of people. The original songs are called songlines, or dreaming tracks, and mark the routes followed by creator-beings as they carved the earth during the Dreamtime, or time of creation.

 

But dreaming tracks are not solely about the past. They mark both a where and a when, a time and all time, or the continuous process linking the Aboriginal people to the land and heavens.

According to Wikipedia, a knowledgeable person even today can navigate vast distances, cross deserts and mountains, by singing and following the directions in the songline.

 

In this way, maybe we sing a songline to reach ourselves, or sing ourselves into existence through song.

 

Two metaphors, songs and conversations, or songs as conversations and vice versa. I don’t know which is more apt. We hear the universe singing; we hear the universe in conversation all the time but maybe don’t know exactly what we’re listening to….

 

*To read the whole post, please use this link to The Good Men Project, who published the piece.

 

 

When Joy Is Hidden in the Very Air We Breathe

Have you ever had this feeling that right outside the bedroom window, on the other side of a surface you’ve touched, like the bedsheet, or a stone in the garden⎼ like a voice carried in the wind that you can’t quite make out, there is an insight, a joy waiting, hidden right there? And all you had to do is breathe a little more deeply, shift your perspective a hairsbreadth, and you’d see it in whatever is felt, hear it in whatever is touched?

 

This isn’t a hope you have but something else.

 

I feel this almost every morning when I wake up, if I don’t rush off or I’m not too angry or depressed by the pandemic or the GOP. Right behind my last dream, sitting next to the stiffness in my back, there is this sense, this urge or yearning to look deeply at the red bee balm in the garden, the yellow daylilies, the cats that lie near my feet.

 

When I took a walk yesterday, I tried to remember a time in my life when something hidden was suddenly revealed, or a work of art created itself with my hands. Something dramatic, that I hadn’t already shared with people; but nothing came to me. At first.

 

There are many examples provided by famous visual artists, athletes, poets, and composers. Zen teacher David Loy provides many in his book The World Is Made of Stories. He quotes the artist Escher talking about his drawing taking on a life of its own. The composer Stravinsky hearing music compose itself; he didn’t do it. The writer Borges saying, “I don’t write what I want… I don’t choose my subjects or plots. I have to stand back and receive them in a passive moment.” The poet Blake talking about poems coming to him almost against his will.

 

I am retired now, but the memory of my years teaching soon came to mind. Many times in the classroom the right way to reach a student or right answer to a question just appeared, flowed from my mouth spontaneously, unplanned. Painfully, not all the time.

 

Too many times, especially when I was inexperienced, the right response to a student often eluded me. But over the last few years of working, the number of wonderful moments were multiplied, when I was well prepared yet open, trusting the students and trusting myself. I also practiced mindfulness regularly in some classes.

 

As I was walking back home, down the steep rural hill, suddenly through the trees there was a view that went on for miles. It was only a peek, a break in the trees visible for a few steps when the road turned just right. I stared for a moment, absorbed, gleeful.

 

And a thought popped into my head. The reason I might touch a surface and a new reality whisper to me was because that is exactly what happens sometimes. We touch the hand of a lover and suddenly there aren’t two separate people anymore. There is only the touch. We quiet our minds, even though our hearts might be jumping wildly, and a new reality is born. We touch and are touched simultaneously, love and are loved….

 

*To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

How Beautiful Is A Good Belly Laugh: We Expect a Hannibal Lecter but Instead Find Mr. Rogers

Can you imagine or remember a moment when simply looking, listening, or tasting was all you needed in life? When time disappeared and nothing else was desired, nothing was thought missing? Or when something was just so beautiful and unexpected, all you could do was smile or laugh?

 

In No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan, a translation of the classic collection of Koans or public records of conversations between master and student that led to enlightenment, the poet and translator David Hinton wrote “once mind is emptied of all content… the act of perception becomes a spiritual act.” It becomes selfless, simply a mirror reflecting what is there before it. Slow, respectful. Letting each thing be utterly itself. No violence is possible. No anger or let down. Closer to an act of love than anything else. Just loving by sensing.

 

Hinton says this perceptual clarity is a way of awakening, of seeing the world and oneself in the same instant. It is a way for one being to meet another.

 

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

We experience such moments in so many ways but lose them somehow in all the bustle of our lives. We stare transfixed at a work of art or nature or hear a song that stops all thought, or we read a poem that takes us to a new world. The beauty clears us of ourselves.

 

When I was younger, I hitch-hiked from New York to California and stopped at the Grand Canyon. I remember standing at the edge of it, just staring, immobile, barely breathing. From behind me I vaguely remember voices of other tourists arriving but didn’t want to turn away from the canyon. A woman I didn’t know approached closely and suddenly saw what it was all about, suddenly saw what was there ⎼and maybe what wasn’t. Whatever idea she had of the Grand Canyon was inadequate or wrong. All she said, and she repeated it over and over again, was “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

 

Mary Oliver, in a poem titled “Mysteries, Yes”, said:

Let me keep company always with those who say

            ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,

            And bow their heads.

 

Or, in the poem “When Death Comes,” she tells us,

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

We often expect that life will be like a shove from behind, or merely a bump. Unexpected, yet not, we are surprised and turn around with clenched fists. We build in our mind a Hannibal Lecter but instead find Mr. Rogers. Or instead of a threat or an enemy we find someone as surprised as we are. Someone who openly welcomes us with kindness. We realize the contact was an accident. And we laugh. All the tension dissolves in an instant, and butterflies fly from our mouth instead of curses. We feel delicate and open instead of iced and closed….

 

*To read the whole piece, please go to The Good Men Project.

Finding Comfort Within: Flying Like A Bird or Setting Like the Sun

What brings you comfort?

 

It’s a wonderful sunny day. Despite the cold temperature, I open a bedroom window and take a breath. The air feels remarkable, clean and tasty. It’s been weeks since we’ve had a day like this.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully, or as much as you feel comfortable doing, take a nice breath in, and out, and taste the air. Just enjoy being nowhere but here for a moment. Then let come to mind a time you felt a deep sense of comfort. What was the situation? Where were you? Were you by yourself or with others? What were you doing? Notice what comfort means to you.

 

When I think about this question, I realize the answer has changed throughout my life. As a child, I remember walking my dog in the wooded area in our neighborhood. Sometimes, we’d take off on a run and all else would be forgotten. All that existed was us, running, together.

 

When I returned home during my college years, to visit my parents in New York City, I remember late nights, after everyone else was asleep and the city had quieted, my mother and I would sit and talk, openly, like at no other time.

 

When I first moved to Ithaca, my future wife and I lived with a group of people near a gorge and waterfall. When I’d go out and stare into that waterfall, I’d see first the flow of water. Then my perspective would shift to focus on one drop, one amongst the multitude, racing down, crashing, disappearing into the current of the creek. Any tension I had previously felt, any thoughts, would be washed away. I’d be left emotionally calm and mentally clear.

 

Now, after getting up and doing basic exercises and stretching, I love to sit with a book that inspires or challenges me. It is a grave mistake to think of reading as an automatic or passive activity that involves simply repeating in your mind someone else’s words. When you give reading your full attention you get to see the world with someone else’s eyes. And this new perspective illuminates depths missed in yourself.  Without a quality reading, the quality of the writing is never perceived. This is why holding a book can feel like holding a mystery or a treasure chest. Reading online or with a kindle doesn’t do that for me no matter the content. In fact, it turns me off.

 

Or writing⎼ I love to write stories, blogs, poems, etc. in the morning, when my mind is fresh. The words enable me to transform into other people, or to fly like a bird, to rain and snow and set like the sun or cuddle with a cat. Creativity can be so satisfying….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

“Read the Eternities:” Who Knew There Was Such Meaning in the Flight of a Bird?

It’s morning. The sun is hazy. So many Blue jays, Mourning Doves, Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees and a few Evening Grosbeaks feed at the bird feeder outside the window or on the seeds scattered on the ground. Their movements are first individual, one move here, another there. Then all at once, like a wave, they all take off. They’re here, then gone.

 

I find it tremendously soothing to put my attention on the birds, plants, and sunlight. The view feels sacred to me. Calmly focusing on it helps me gain some clarity in troubling times and to find something beyond the obvious in what I see. It helps me to find answers to the questions, fears, and confusions that powerfully arise or that I barely know are there. It reveals the moment has depths not to be missed.

 

We can let our eyes rest on the whole scene and then our body⎼ shoulders and belly especially⎼ relax; our hands at ease on our lap. Take a few slow, deep breaths. And then we watch individual movements, distinguish which birds like the feeder, which the ground. Who is aggressive and who can share a meal? Or we can listen to the calls of the different birds, hear one, then another, or listen to them all, together, like a concert. Standing by the window, we can feel the warmth of the sun shining on our face.

 

James Shaheen, in a Letter from the Editor of Tricycle Magazine, The Buddhist Review (Winter, 2020) titled “A Time for Eternities,” speaks to this point. He writes about Thoreau saying, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” Not to totally withdraw from what is happening around us, no matter how challenging or frightening⎼ the often-disturbing news headlines, for example. When times are chaotic and frightening, it is helpful to stay attuned to what endures, “to the knowledge that illuminates the deepest matters of human meaning.” He is referring not only to Buddhist teachings, but the wisdom, “through which consciousness is deepened,” the caring for others in our best traditions.

 

This wisdom is what reveals the truths in what surrounds us. In a synchronous fashion, I by “chance” read or listened to two other authors and teachers who gave similar messages, or maybe I just saw a similarity in what they said. Heaven is not divorced from the earth; enlightenment is not separate from ordinary mind. The birds and I are not as separate as we might think….

 

**To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

 

A Traumatized Nation

Even before COVID-19, even before DT, a great number of us were carrying the pain of a trauma. But since the onset of this pandemic in February and March, the pain and suffering has become ubiquitous. Sure, many of us can be relatively safe in our homes, quite content and even happy, and we need such a refuge. But what does it do to us when we can’t stand to hear the news? Or fear leaving our homes? We often think of trauma in terms of individuals. But a whole nation can be traumatized, as we have been at different times in our history, including 9/11 and, for multiple reasons, now.

 

I’m reading a book that has been extremely helpful for me, called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing by David A. Treleaven. The book has expanded my understanding of my own practice of mindfulness, how to help others, as well as how to better understand this time we are all experiencing.

 

A trauma is an incapacitating form of stress. Stress by itself can be helpful or harmful. But when it is deep and we can’t integrate or face it, it can become traumatic. The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a traumatic event as exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

 

Treleaven makes clear that this exposure can come in many ways, from directly experiencing or witnessing a trauma or from learning about what happened to a relative, loved one or close friend. Children are especially vulnerable. One in four children in the U. S. have experienced physical abuse, one in five sexual. Then you add war and oppression, whether it be sexism or violence directed at one’s gender identity, race or religion, etc. and you have a huge number of people who have suffered from trauma.

 

There is a spectrum of trauma, of course, a difference in intensity and symptoms. We can feel stressed out or suffer from PTSD. Symptoms can vary from repeating thoughts and memories, to images flooding consciousness, to being cut off or alienated from our own feelings. We can have trouble sleeping or feel our own bodies are booby-trapped.

 

And what happens when we come to fear a person’s maskless face or touching a surface in a public place? Or we don’t know how we can feed our family or if we will be thrown out of our homes? What happens when our social-economic-political worlds are being destroyed, our rights ripped away, and people who look like us are killed by police without being held accountable? All while the water we drink and the air we breathe is poisoned?

 

Mindfulness Practice:

 

One way to begin is with mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is both a present centered awareness of whatever is going on with us as well as a practice that develops self-regulation. Traditional mindfulness and meditation is based on a deep understanding of the causes of, and ways to relieve, human suffering. It teaches us how to study our conditioned responses to stimuli as well as our own sensations, thoughts and feelings so we can interrupt ones that lead to suffering.

 

Mindfulness usually helps me with any problem I face, even when I am ill or frightened. In fact, for the first few years after I learned how to meditate, I would only do it when I had a headache or felt sick or stressed. I had headaches frequently. Then I realized if I did it every day, maybe the headaches would stop. And they did….

 

**To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Walk That Reveals Dragons: Walking So Our Capacity for Compassion Is Strengthened Along with Our Legs

Walking has taken on new significance and importance today, due to the coronavirus. Gyms are closed, so the outdoors have become a gym we all share. Or we have always shared this gym, but maybe we now do it more deliberately. Almost everyone I know says they take walks. Where we each go⎼ that is not so shared. Some have the privilege of deep forests, beaches, or river sides, others city streets, parks, or parking lots.

 

I took a walk a few days ago that could have gone on forever. Our home is in a rural area, on a steep hill, and I only stopped when my legs tired. I was also experimenting with how to walk as more a meditation⎼ how to lose myself for at least a few moments. And how, when my mind wandered, to kindly return attention to the basics⎼ breathing, looking, listening, and feeling.

 

When I first started my corona-walks, I distracted myself from each step so the weight of steps wouldn’t drag me down. The walk up our hill is challenging. I would set a goal to exercise for maybe 30 minutes or an hour. But if I began each walk thinking about how many minutes I had left to finish, each step would become a burden. So I either counted steps or thought about interesting ideas or people or projects I could take on. Or I played this game with myself. I pretended I would only walk to the big house up the road. And when I arrived there, I’d tell myself to walk just a bit more, to the maple tree where I saw the turkeys last week. And when I reached the maple tree I’d continue to the next memory or turkey siting.

 

But not this time.

 

In an online birding class I took recently, the teachers spoke about how we honor the birds we live with by knowing their names and their songs. This was a new and beautiful idea for me. But as I walked, I just wanted to listen. To name the birds would be another distraction from the song itself. It would mean me, here, and it, there. But to stop walking and just listen, the sound grew closer and clearer. And when the song ended, the trees and insects and stones and cars on the road were waiting for me even more distinctly.

 

In the past, I often thought about what it meant to feel at home someplace. This is the answer. That the gullies, streams, and trees, the wind, heat, and the house I owned would live inside me, not just me inside it. That I’d be open to all of it. That it would be a place to love and think.

 

There are so many ways to think. We can think rationally and critically, use words, concepts, examine theories, research and organize facts. Or we can let our minds wander through imaginative realms, memories of the past or ideas of the future⎼ through our pictures of ourselves or how others picture us. Or we quiet the mind, by focusing on a singular chosen point of focus⎼ the breath, sensations, the maple tree, and especially feeling⎼ or awareness of whatever arises in the immediate moment, including awareness itself….

 

**To read the whole piece, go to the Good Men Project.

 

*For information on walking safely when you might meet up with other people, in this time of the coronavirus, please refer to this NPR program, Masks and the Outdoor Exerciser.

Lucid Dreaming and Breathing, to Reduce Pain and Clear the Mind

Last night around 3 am, I woke up due to pain in my upper chest. The pain was a weight pressing down on me. I didn’t know what was causing it, so there was also a little panic. I was sweating and my heart started beating faster. I thought about trying to just go back to sleep but realized the pain was too strong and my worry too present. I got out of bed, put on warmer clothing, grabbed a book, and went downstairs to sit in the recliner in the living room.

 

But I didn’t feel like turning on the light. I was too tired. So I just focused on breathing into my chest. I felt my body expand as I inhaled, and relax, settle down, as I exhaled. I focused on the sensations and let go of the thoughts.

 

And when I breathed in, the expansion of the chest decreased the pain. The pain was no longer one solid block. And I noticed it was not as continuous as I first thought it was; there were gaps. Sometimes, my hand would hurt instead. Or I could feel my back pressing comfortably against the chair, or my stomach expand and contract. My breathing got slower and calmer.

 

I went deeper into the pain and remembered similar ones from the past. I realized I could feel a restriction in my esophagus. It was not a heart attack causing the pain but probably acid reflux.

 

And then I fell asleep. But the sleep was unusual, and in spurts. I would wake up mentally, check in on myself, while my body was largely frozen and asleep. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. At first, I felt very vulnerable and scared, but then realized this inability to move was normal. Normal sleep is called paradoxical because you are unable to move your larger muscles, yet your mind, especially while dreaming, can be very active.

 

What was not normal was that I was mentally awake while being asleep. I could see one of our cats sleeping under the nightlight in front of me. Another one jumped off the couch and went to eat from his bowl. I could hear him but couldn’t move my head to see him. This state is called lucid dreaming. In some cultures and traditions, it is taught as part of meditation or healing. I entered this state rarely⎼ usually to change or escape from a dream I didn’t like. I decided I could wake up if I needed to do so.

 

And then I relaxed and fell asleep again, only to awaken a little later. And then I fell asleep for about three hours.

 

It might seem counter-intuitive to mentally go toward a pain instead of trying to immediately cut off all feeling. Certainly, pain can set the mind to screaming, so this is sometimes impossible to do. But to actually go toward the pain can signal to yourself you can relax, you can face the situation, and this can often decrease it and stop the mind from imagining threats that aren’t there.

 

Calming your mind can also allow you to feel and think clearly enough to gather the information the pain is sending you. You can then close your eyes and imagine taking a certain medication and discern if the feel of that pill would be helpful, or if drinking a certain tea or walking around or eating would increase or decrease it. Or whether you should call an ambulance or ask your partner or roommate to wake up and drive you to the emergency room. You could feel out different courses of action with more clarity.

 

However, the time to practice how to be calm in emergencies is now, when you are not experiencing one. Practicing closing your eyes partly or fully and taking 3 slower, deeper breaths when you notice you are angry or feel threatened is a good way to start. Or practicing mindfulness each day.

 

Of course, sometimes you immediately need that pill or ambulance. But how you respond to pain can either increase or decrease it. Simply allowing yourself to be aware and to be calm can not only reduce the pain, but clear the mind so you know better how to act.

 

This blog post was syndicated by the Good Men Project.

The Dynamic Relationship of Joy and Fear

It can be so difficult these days to think about joy. Joy is such a short and simple word, yet it means something both basic and profound. It can be of such benefit yet many of us create obstacles to it in our lives or have had obstacles created for us. What is joy? What happens inside us when we’re joyful? How does joy affect our outlook and ability to think and act?

 

Sometimes joy can be like discovering a secret that you can’t wait to share. Sometimes your hands want to rise up, your body wants to dance, your face to smile, as if you were embracing the world, and yourself.

 

I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails over the years, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends came to visit, I felt joy. Or when I was a student, on snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. Or when a burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.

 

Joy can be what pushes back against fear; fear can dissolve joy. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the periphery. For example, love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with love? Maybe because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can be vulnerable, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.

 

Meditation on Joy

 

One way to understand joy and feel it more often and more powerfully is provided by meditation or simply letting yourself remember a moment of joy and what it felt like. Meditation can assist mental clarity and the letting go of internal impediments.

 

To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project.