Sunday, July 31, 2011

Getting a little perspective on your yard birds

As I packed for my summer trip to Boulder, I planned to bring my binoculars and bird book, but at the last minute, I put them both away, recognizing that I wasn't going to have time for birding. Boulder was not a birding trip. Nonetheless, when I first arrived, I noticed right away that there were many new unfamiliar bird sounds as well as some that I knew but which were slightly different, suggesting maybe a different but related species to the ones I was familiar with at home. I just listened.

Flatirons, Chautauqua
Little by little I got better at just listening, and on a day trip to Chautauqua, I sat in the woods along the trail into the Flatirons just listening. It truly was a musical delight. Only once or twice did my mind grab onto a label, or my eyes wander to the source of sound.

But I did find it odd that I couldn't see any of the birds.

James Good
Gradually that changed. I saw a Red-shafted Northern Flicker's flight feather on the ground on my walk home one morning and picked it up. I had heard them in the trees at the entrance to our building, Lincoln Hall, but I never saw them.

Coby Leuschke
Then one morning, a Hummingbird made an appearance, calling an alarm above the flowering plants around the trees at the entrance to Lincoln. I noticed that the leaves of the plants below her were waving in a pattern that at first suggested they were being fanned by her wingbeats. It took a few seconds for me to realize that something was on the ground at the base of those plants, hidden from view. Its movement along the ground caused the tops of the plants to wave. It had her quite riled up. I never discovered what it was, however, because I was about to be late to morning mediation, so I left the mystery unsolved when she flew away.

A few days later, a flock of Chickadees appeared in the trees visible through one of the windows of Shambhala Hall, our mediation room. I could tell that they weren't Carolinas, but unsure of what they were, I just listened and watched. Later, a female House Finch appeared on the roof of our apartments, in the courtyard.

Robins in Snow Lion Courtyard -- Liz Sloan
And then I noticed a female American Robin sitting on a nest in the courtyard. She eventually hatched and fledged three babies.

One day Crows and Ravens showed their tails in flight so I could tell them apart without binoculars, even without glasses. And then, on an afternoon walk, I heard the sound of the Flicker in a tree above me and looked up and saw him in a hole in one of the branches of the tree. These occasional sightings always made me feel happy and present. But beyond the occasional squirrel or raccoon on campus, and these few birds, the wildlife in Boulder was sparse to say the least.

Home garden -- GKH CC*BY
I guess I got used to it. When I got home to Austin, my first morning in the garden astounded me with the variety and numbers of birds, squirrels, lizards, snakes and frogs I saw and heard within the first few hours of waking up! Critters were everywhere -- on the ground, in the trees, in the sky, at the feeders, on the bird baths. Unperturbed and raucous, they went about their business as though I weren't there. It was the best welcome home I could imagine! Well, that and the fact that Dennis had kept my garden alive and thriving, the feeders filled, and the bird baths clean and inviting the whole time I'd been gone. No wonder the critters were at home.

I had to remind myself that these were the same birds, lizards and squirrels that I had been noting somewhat dismissively before I went to Boulder, as my usual yard inhabitants. What a difference a little perspective can make.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Why Meditate?

From Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Morning and afternoon meditation were a constant in our lives at Naropa University this summer. Coming to this as I did from having meditated "off and on" for roughly 40 years, the regularity (in the past I might have said "rigidity") of the Naropa schedule was challenging at first. It quickly became a comfort, however, like a base, a simple practice to return to from wherever I went spinning off.

Shambhala Sun,
Sept. 2010
One of our first readings was Matthieu Ricard's "Why Meditate?" (2010), which I read several times during the course of the semester, each time understanding it differently. By the end of the semester, I had come to appreciate meditation in a way I never had before. Ricard described its centrality with straightforward and powerful words: “If we want to observe the subtlest mechanisms of our mental functioning and have an effect on them, we absolutely must refine our powers of looking inward” and “… cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking” (pp. 41 and 86).

More simply put, daily practice on the cushion is necessary to sharpen the ability to notice. And noticing is the foundation of all learning, insight and wisdom. So, for example, meditation helped me better notice myself reacting in habitual ways in day-to-day activities. I noticed my thoughts while washing the dishes. I saw subtle complaints, clinging to opinions, nostalgic reminiscing, and many others. This "just noticing" allows for questioning, looking deeper into those habitual thought patterns, for "just noticing" what hides beneath the surface of things that “get me,” or take me off to the past, or into the future.

Refining my attention and practicing mindfulness enabled me to see that even within the impulse I have to help, to inform, to counsel and to solve problems (in other words, the impulse to teach and to counsel my clients) is a subtle aggression, a desire to make problems go away. This came as a real surprise. But noticing it allowed me to consider refining my approach to teaching and to counseling, to "cultivate a way of being that is not subject to the patterns of habitual thinking" (Ricard, 2010, p. 86). Sometimes problems will not go away...

And Ricard pointed out something else just as foundational about meditation -- that while we can read the words of scholars and practitioners who have devoted their lives to “observing the automatic, mechanical patterns of thought and the nature of consciousness,” ... “we cannot merely rely on their words to free ourselves ... We must discover for ourselves the value of the methods these wise people taught and confirm for ourselves the conclusions they reached. This is not purely an intellectual process. Long study of our own experience is needed to rediscover their answers and integrate them into ourselves on a deep level” (pp. 86-87). In other words, you can't think your way to everything.

My Naropa journal came to contain many examples of my noticing that it wasn't all about thinking, that things happened in the gap, in the space between thoughts, and while I wasn't thinking:
I notice coincidence, repetition, and synergy here. For example, I hear "Heart Sutra" three times over the course of two days, so I Google, 'Heart Sutra commentary,' and up comes an amazing talk by Dr. John Crook, whom I've never heard of, posted on a UK site called Western Chan Fellowship, equally unknown to me. I read a little and then I leave it alone. I read more and then I leave it alone. It takes two days to finish it. I don't think about it. I am very present while I am reading. I feel my breathing slowing down, I feel my shoulders relaxing, my back straightening, at times I feel filled with energy, other times I am more empty and open. Some of his words trigger memories. There is recognition at times. And then there is ‘I don’t know.’ Then there is Richard (our instructor) saying, "you have to find out what is there before you worry about the fact that it's not there.” The Heart Sutra is about not here, not there, not anywhere. I don't want to think about it, I just want to hear it. Today I heard (noticed) this:
‘The essential feature of this approach is to realize that it is based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation. The Buddha is speaking out of his enlightenment. He is sharing it, transmitting it. To receive it one has to follow the same path’ (Crook, 1992, part 2, para. 13).
I can't think my way to this (Personal Journal Entry, July 9, 2011).
Even more to the point:
We repeated the same improv performances in Presence class today three times, focusing on the same element each time. I got bored (predictably). The third time, Lee (our instructor) added an audience, and suggested that "we" get out of the way this time ("I've done every thing I know how to do in this role with this element"). She was right. Wow.
The element was fire. I may have undervalued and diminished it's power in my life somehow. But it is there. My performance of fire came from somewhere other than thinking it up. Lee would say, it came from nothing, from space, from the ground. I discovered three things about fire by thoroughly being fire for that third time, for those six minutes.
1. It is explosive. It uses things up. It takes one thing, combines it with another, and transforms both through explosion. Nothing is the same after fire touches it. 
2. It is passionate. It is heat, lust and desire. It consumes and exhausts in its uncontrolled raging energy. 
3. But harnessed, it radiates warmth, life-giving energy and the spark that starts things growing and changing. 
It relates the things it consumes to each other. It joins them in energetic exchange. Fire only exists through connections: fire connects the earth element of fuel and the heaven element of air. It is the dynamic connection between heaven and earth. Its hard to imagine that I am or even have that connection inside me. But I was fire today. I have fire and can call upon and use its energy (Personal Journal Entry, July 4, 2011).
Given my careers in academe and in law, where logical thought is so highly valued, Crook's and Ricard's words, and my experiences with the Naropa summer learning intensive, are stunning confirmation of the importance of intuitive understanding. The Heart Sutra presents a very esoteric understanding of the nature of reality, and it’s pretty hard for me to grasp, but I'm convinced I won't get there by just thinking my way to it. “This approach is … based in meditation. Thought can raise innumerable objections and create endless metaphysical speculation..." (emphasis mine).


So, it's trusting more than just that part of my being that is analytical and strictly logical. It's about giving a say to Jill Bolte Taylor's, "Stroke of Insight." Theoretically, I get this. But where the rubber meets the road, it is not easy to trust beyond what you're comfortable trusting.

That's when it's back to the basics. Seeing how dramatic a difference being present makes, and how effectively meditation is sharpening my ability to see things I simply have not seen any other way, I am very reassured. Maintaining a regular meditation practice is absolutely essential to this seeing. Trust in the process is essential.

And today I read, by a sad coincidence perhaps, that Dr. John Crook died on Saturday, the last day of our semester. I am learning to bow to and trust those who teach. They know what they're talking about.

Crook, J. (1992, November). The heart sutra - A commentary - Dharma talk by John Crook. Western Chan Fellowship. Retrieved July 9, 2011, from
Ricard, M. (2010, September). Why meditate? (How to meditate). Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 23, 2011, from
Taylor, J. B. (2006). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Naropa summer learning intensive: Welcome to contemplative education

I had little on which to base any expectations about the Summer Learning Intensive, my introduction to Contemplative Education at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I had the overall character of the schedule (from early in the morning until late into the night, 7 days a week, for 3 1/2 weeks); some summer readings (Turning the Mind into an Ally; Sacred World, and East Meets West, an essay about the formation of Naropa in the early 70's); and a basic understanding that the program enabled teachers and others to integrate mindfulness practices into their lives at work.

Boulder Creek flooding
 from snow melt
Well, that just doesn't give you much to go on. So I just went. It was like stepping into a raging river.

There's not much you can do but just hold on for the ride. And you're going to get bumped, scraped up, and if you're not careful, you'll drown. Assuming you survive, it's quite an experience.

Thursday was the first full day and it was filled with orientations, introductions, getting settled in. Friday was my first immersion experience. I went under for the first time at Amy Howard's thesis project presentation.
Tradition; trust; natural loveliness 
Amy's talk was about opening to being awake, and redefining the meaning of your life. She asked us to file by two long, low tables of nicely matted photographs and just notice each one. When we returned to our seats, she asked us to think about which one had appealed the most to us, moved us in some way. We returned to the tables, took the picture that had affected us the most, and returned to our seats. I chose the one to the left. She asked us to take a moment to reflect on and write about what about that photograph had affected us.
This image reflects qualities that I wish I had -- grace, strength, comfort in your own body, and a natural beauty that seems to come from a connection to something larger than yourself, in this photograph, a tradition that probably goes back many many years. And trusting in your larger community. My feeling was one of sadness. I often feel sad when I see something so achingly beautiful. It's like my heart just breaks open and sadness flows out. I have always wondered why this happens. Why doesn't love and beauty and grace and connection bring about joy, rather than sadness (Personal Journal Entry, June 23, 2011)?
Closed enso
I didn't have to wait long to find the answer to that question, one that had puzzled me for decades. But before that question got its answer, Saturday came: Graduation for the outgoing class. The ceremony was stunning. Seven students in their turn, each creating an enso brushstroke, a circle representing everything, all at once. Poetry, storytelling, the ringing of the gong, tears and joy everywhere. This was no ordinary graduation ceremony.
The ceremony completely exceeded even my wildest imagination of what it might be like to complete this program. The level of compassion, caring, love and commitment, support, energy and passion that everyone, everyone brings to this endeavor is simply unprecedented in my experience, anywhere, for anything. I can't believe I am sitting here, a part of this process. I know it's a university. I know there will be difficulty and adversity and frustration here and there. But that's true everywhere. This love and support is not everywhere. That I recognize. Never do the challenges end. You just meet them differently. That makes all the difference (Personal Journal Entry, June 25, 2011).
Thus began my getting to know a part of myself that I had long ignored -- my heart. It wasn't a matter of "what's going on here," or "why," or of fixing anything. I just started to notice. That's all. The practice for noticing was, first and foremost, meditation. At Naropa, meditation is primarily Shamatha practice, or mindfulness of the breath. You simply, repeatedly, notice what comes up while you sit, and return to observing your breath: in.....out. Thoughts come up, you think them, you go off with them, you notice that you've gone off and you return to Shamatha. Twice each day, 50 minutes in the morning and evening.

"And how might that help?" most everyone wonders.
Shamatha is not an endurance test, nor will it suddenly solve all our problems. But it does help us see how our problems arise, because it trains us in recognizing thoughts and emotions. It also trains us in letting them pass without acting on them. Even when we’re bored, we can work with our minds. This helps us cope in daily life. Because practice has enlarged our perspective beyond identifying with our thoughts and opinions, we’re less likely to act from a tight, self-protected space. We have more patience, more tolerance. We’re more able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. In this way, meditation matures us (Mipham, 2003, p. 83).
So meditation was the constant in our lives. Always there.

Every morning on my
way to class, I stopped by
 the raspberry bushes...
But we also went to work that first week strengthening our practice of noticing through class activities of every kind. We explored our senses, our connection to the world, in fact, where we let the world in. We fine-tuned our ability to observe, and broadened it to include observing the observer, our feelings, our sensations, and our thoughts in response to what we saw, heard, felt, tasted and smelled out there.

Then we studied conceptual approaches to characterizing emotions, and discussed and experienced the different patterns of responses within ourselves that each characterization evoked. For example, Welwood (1983) notes:
In Western culture we have a history of treating emotions with suspicion and contempt, as alien, "other," separate from us. The "passions" have usually been viewed as our "lower nature," from Plato onward. Viewing the source of the passions as Freud did, as an "it" (translated in English as "id"), "a primitive chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement," makes it more difficult to befriend emotions and accept them as part of ourselves" (p. 80).
Welwood (1983) goes on to contrast the Western view with the Buddhist meditative approach, "which considers that it is precisely our alienation from emotions that makes them become so domineering and uncontrollable" (p. 80). I'm quite familiar with the first approach, and quite ready to try something else. So I embraced the practice of staying present with feelings and emotions, befriending them, as Welwood describes it. In short order I began to see this practice as the life-preserver it was. It is what keeps us afloat in the stream. You always have it. You can always just become present with what you are experiencing. Becoming present means observing your felt senses (tightening in the chest, warmth in the throat, pressure or burning in the shoulders, or whatever you sense in your body), your feelings (fear, happiness), your emotions (magnified feelings) and your thoughts. Just see them, notice them all.

Finally, we learned several key buddhist concepts describing the practice of integrating intellectual and intuitive understanding, with awareness of body, felt senses, and mind, to create insight and wisdom. We had been using this practice in our classes and as we prepared our assignments. It's called prajna. Judy Lief (2002) says of prajna, soon as you enter the Buddhist path and start practicing meditation and studying the dharma, you are picking up this sword of prajna. Now that you have this sharp thing, this sword that skewers and cuts through ego trips of all sorts, you have to deal with it (para. 9).
Prajna is represented iconographically by the feminine deity Prajnaparamita ... with four arms. Two arms are folded on her lap in the classic posture of meditation, and her two other arms hold a sword and a book. Through these gestures, she manifests three aspects of prajna: academic knowledge, cutting through deception, and direct perception of emptiness" (para. 18).
Leif (2002) says that we cultivate prajna through refined practices of hearing, contemplating, and meditating. We take what we read, listen to, discuss with others with an open mind; we analyze it, turn it over in our minds and look at it from every point of view we can, and then we sit with it for a time until it becomes something that we know deeply; finally, we live with it for awhile until it is part of our very being, no longer something that we must "recall."

Our final week put all we had been studying, discussing, and practicing to the test in two performances: the Warrior's Exam for Mindful Teacher Class, and Final Performance for our Presence in Teaching Class.

Shambhala rocks
The Warrior's Exam is a form of traditional questioning. Each of the nine of us would have our turns seated on mediation cushions in the center of a circle of witnesses to be the questioner of a student, and the student who answered the question. We had ten questions to study. We would have five minutes to respond to our single question, without notes. After a brief follow-up question of the questioner's device, we would have 2 minutes to respond. Then we would return to our place as witnesses in the circle for the other students. So, each of the nine questions we would answer were drawn from a bowl, along with the names of the questioner and responder for that question.

Prajna was perfect preparation for the exam: we had already heard, read and discussed, with our minds open and non-judging. We had had time to analyze and think about what we had read. We had begun to see how it applied to our own experiences, to begin to incorporate those parts of what we had heard that were meaningful, that were true, for us. And now we were ready to sit with it for awhile longer, to see what became part of us, our very marrow, because that is what was to be our response to our questions. Not a memorized script. Not a fainthearted attempt to explain. But what came from within us, from the place beyond "thinking it up."

It was an exhilarating experience, for all of us. We did the absolute best we could, for all of us. It was the most extended period of time for which I have been present. Not 100%, of course, but for nearly 2 hours, I returned again and again to being there. For everyone. And they were there for me.

HillyHilly trades for a horse
The Final Performance for Presence Class asked from our bodies that same experience of bringing forth form from space, the place beyond thinking. In other words, "let's do a play!" Being present in this context meant struggling with a predictable set of urges -- most notably the urge to run as far and as fast as I could up into the Rocky Mountain foothills. Once I committed to stay present instead of checking out, a myriad of other urges cropped up in the place of the big one. One by one, I faced them all down. I sang, I spoke, I waited for and gave cues, I played my parts, changing costumes, being conscious, taking and giving feedback, getting better each day, being there. I would have to say that I was there just about 100% of the time during the play. I could not let a stray thought take me off. There was absolutely no room for wandering. It was pretty cool.

MM sings HB to CB
Our play was called, Meditation Self-Evaluation, and it presented a series of vignettes representing the thoughts that meditators have as they sit on the cushion, illustrating their successful efforts to let them go (short bursts of thoughts that wander in and easily leave, sometimes of their own accord), and their not so successful efforts (the longer vignettes that spin out a storyline or indulge the meditator in a fantasy): Like a memory of parents arguing; a breakup; a childhood morality tale; a student driver experience; and Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to the meditator.

That one was my idea. So I played it. It was transformative. It brought up every fear, anxiety, and condemnation I could possibly harbor, and I faced them all. That's what in the Shambhala tradition they call being a warrior on this path. Never abandoning yourself.

Thomas's photo of his summer family
So, it was amazing. Practically impossible to convey in a blog post, but making an effort is a good practice. It converted two dozen people from "strangers I've never seen or heard of before" to what one participant called his "summer family." Mine too. I have arrived. I am home (Hahn, 2009).

I flew to my Austin home a day later, had Sunday to relax and readjust, and went to work on Monday. It's Wednesday now. Warrior's Exam was a week ago. I'm still impressed. This is just the first semester.


Hanh, T. N. (2009). Happiness: Essential mindfulness practices. Parallax Press.

Hayward, K., & Hayward, J. (1998). Sacred world: The Shambhala way to gentleness, bravery, and power (2nd ed.). Shambhala.

Lief, J. (2002, May). The sharp sword of prajna. Shambhala Sun. Retrieved July 14, 2011, from 
Mipham, S. (2003). Turning the mind into an ally. Riverhead Hardcover.

Welwood, J. (1983). Befriending emotions. Awakening the heart (First Edition.). Shambhala.