Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Coming to know

Teaching Birding with Buddha

Reddish Egret CC*BY Katy & Sam
A Master's Project at Naropa can be just about anything. I taught Birding with Buddha as my project. It was pretty straightforward by the time I started teaching it. I had translated class materials I earlier developed the first time I taught the course in 2011 to an e-book, which would be the text for the new course. I offered it through the Austin Zen Center, and eight people signed up. I asked them to read a chapter or two from the book each week before class met so that we could spend our class time practicing contemplative observation, writing about our observations, and sharing our experiences. The participants left copies with me of the journal entries they created during the reflective periods of our class time. That was the basic plan.

What I wanted to study, however, went beyond what one might learn about students' experiences during four 90-minute classes. I was investigating “the whole ineffable thing,” aspects of experience that are untouched by our labels, our conventional ways of relating our experiences to others. I wondered how contemplative practices facilitate access to that realm of experience. So I undertook a number of other practices that prepared me for the experience, both as a student of what I would learn, and a teacher of the participants in the study. These practices are what Naropa calls "methods," but they have little in common with the methods I learned about at the University of Texas, for example, when I was preparing to do research in information studies. These methods are much more personal and experiential. They don't require that we be separate from what we study. Quite to the contrary -- they focus our attention on our connection to everything. That is their magic.


I meditated every day. As I had learned, this practice is vital to my ability to stay present with what happens around me, from moment-to-moment. Awareness is a key component of contemplative observation and teaching, awareness of one’s inner and outer experience. Meditation is the method for cultivating awareness.


I also practiced a special kind of contemplative observation called, ‘in-the-moment.’ It keeps the experience of presence fresh in my day-to-day life.

September 2012 
This morning on our walk through a neighborhood, I did in-the-moment. I noticed my mind was grabbing at the gardens, trying to take in every detail as we walked quickly by. There was a sort of desperate quality to it, of wanting to take it all in. 
But there was also a very judgmental quality: gardens got a "good" or "bad" label almost instantly.  
I breathed into these feelings of wanting to see everything and judging, and the feeling of my knowing what a good garden was (being right about the quality of gardening), and everything changed. Suddenly I saw everything that was there in front of me as an offering for my walk. The grasping was gone. The judgment was gone. The need to be right about what makes a good garden was gone. I simply saw everything, from the grass to the weeds, to the flowers, shrubs, architectural features, sculptures, garden art of various kinds, all of it was an offering for the world to see (Personal journal entry, September 2012).

That freedom from judgment is really special. In-the-moment facilitates that. You become fully present, aware of the spaciousness inherent in any situation, and you gain a new perspective that enables you to act more skillfully and effectively in any given situation. It’s especially useful when you’re experiencing emotions like those I was experiencing on my walk. Based on Brown’s (2012a) instructions, this practice can be done at any time in any place. I always start by noticing my inner experience without judging or trying to change it. I feel my body, just as it is. Next, I feel the earth (or floor or other surface upon which I sit or stand) and the space surrounding me, feeling myself a part of my natural environment. Next I focus on the space around me that is not filled with anything, the space between and inside things, including the space inside my body – the spaciousness that inheres in every situation. Then I fully take in the situation I am in, bringing my awareness to focus on an object, person or the entire scene. Keeping a sense of my inner energy and body sensations, and letting go of thoughts, I let the situation speak to me. I end the observations by pausing a moment as I let go of the experience. I breathe deeply, noticing again my inner state, along with any questions or insights I might have. The whole thing takes less than a minute.

In-the-moment insights seem to ‘come from nothing’ as Lee Worley (2001) might describe it – from the pause, from feeling fully present, from contacting the sense of spaciousness that exists in every situation we are a part of. They are hard to explain, but refreshing and valuable. It makes me smile to experience how suddenly and mysteriously things change.

I sometimes think I see the essence of in-the-moment in other contemplative practices: Pema Chodron suggests that especially when we “miss the mark,” that is, when we fail to meet our own expectations, instead of “spinning off into self-criticism,” we “look at what’s happening around us while simultaneously being aware of what’s happening inside us” (2012, Chapter 6):
First, come into the present. Flash on what’s happening with you right now. Be fully aware of your body, its energetic quality. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions. 
Next, feel your heart, literally placing your hand on your chest if you find that helpful. This is a way of accepting yourself just as you are in that moment, a way of saying, ‘This is my experience right now, and it’s okay.’
Then go into the next moment without any agenda (Ibid.).

Thich Nhat Hanh (2006) tells us about a similar practice he shares through a Gatha he calls Ending the Day: “We can practice beginning anew at any moment of our lives” (pp. 117–118).

I also see a relationship between in-the-moment and the simple practice of coming back to the breath without judgment when my mind has wandered during meditation as well as the demanding practice of tonglen, breathing in a painful feeling, my own or another’s, and breathing out relief, acceptance and equanimity. Chodron describes the practice:
Right on the spot, you own your feelings completely. Instead of pushing the emotions away, you’re completely in touch with them… Tonglen puts us in touch with all the others who are just like us, who feel the way we do (2012, Chapter 7).
Most important, in-the-moment has become a reliable way for me to make daily use of the special teachings we received in our second summer at Naropa, wherein we experienced the inseparability and mutability of what appear to us as opposing poles of emotion. For example, we might experience anger and jealousy as unpleasant; clarity and efficiently getting a job done as good. Or we might see arrogance and manipulation as bad; generosity and listening deeply as good. We learned we could transform unskillful states of being to their more skillful expressions, for example, anger to clear seeing and perspective, because they are not separate. They are all manifestations of the same basic energy.

Transforming unskillful emotional states takes familiarity with them so that you recognize them in yourself, recognize when you are about to act on an emotion out of habit in a harmful, unproductive way. You catch yourself in the act, so to speak, and then sink into the physical sensation of the emotion (such as anger or obsession), contemplating it deeply like you would stare into a candle flame. There is no intellectual analysis in this. It is pure mindfulness of the physical sensation of the emotion.
When you can simply be with the sensation of your emotion and experience it fully at the non-conceptual level, you will notice a dynamic reversal taking place … The energy … has a vast still center; like the eye of a hurricane… When you realize the empty nature of the sensation of emotional pain, the pain dissolves into an ecstatic sensation of presence and awareness (Chogyam & Dechen, 2003, p. 240).
This sounds quite dramatic, like magic. It is. So is in-the-moment. The transformation I recounted above on the walk through an Austin neighborhood was as close to miraculous as I experience in my day-to-day life. Seeing judgment fall away and perspective shift instantly does seem like a miracle.

The secret of both in-the-moment and this practice of transforming unskillful states to more skillful ones is full presence with what’s happening in your body, your physical experience of an emotion, which brings about awareness of that spacious “vast, still center” that exists in every situation, even our most distressing emotional states. Contacting that center seems to free up the energy that we’re using to keep the unskillful state going. When that happens, the unskillful state collapses leaving clarity, compassion, generosity, peacefulness, and joy, among others, in its place.

It is easy to forget that the painful emotional states and the joyous ones are not separate. It’s not about ‘getting rid of’ some and keeping the others.
October 28, 2012

But I came to think that wisdom would vanquish distortion, that experiencing space within the pain of separation would permanently dissolve it. It doesn’t work that way. Chogyam and Dechen continue:

There is no sudden breakthrough that remains forever – there are only sudden glimpses. But the glimpses encourage us to see more until, gradually, we develop the ability to integrate these experiences of unconditioned being with the rest of life (p. 241).
So, it’s not about achieving freedom from pain. It’s about seeing how inseparable our wisdom is from our pain -- a hair’s breadth away. Not two. Brown (2012b, p. 6) alludes to this too:
Awareness continually dawns, naturally. We can cultivate conditions that encourage that dawning, but we needn’t be hard on ourselves when we snooze, reject, or cling. This perspective on awareness that comes and goes, helps us develop compassion for others who are also loosing their minds.
(Harper, 2012, p. 5).
In-the-moment contemplations were indispensable to building the experiential foundation that enabled me to accept the more subtle invitation to experience that teaching Birding with Buddha would offer me.

Haiku and Ikebana

I began incorporating Haiku and Ikebana into the reflective element of nature contemplation in early October 2012, and found them so useful that I decided to make them part of my study. I wrote them into the Birding with Buddha book, I introduced them during class, and I practiced them myself.

After a period of contemplative observation, I reflect on what I have seen and heard by writing. First, I describe the scene and what happened. Then I describe my thoughts about it, how I felt emotionally, and the sensations I noticed in my body. These two together, the contemplative observation and period of reflection constitute the basic instruction for Birding with Buddha.

At the end of the reflection, I pause, breathe, feel myself fully present in the space, and write the first line of a three-line poem. I find that I don’t have to 'think up' the next two lines, and they do much more than merely sum up the experience:
October 8, 2012
Haiku and Ikebana drew out for me the non-conceptual aspects of the observation, qualities I would not even want to try to describe in words. Such words would rob the experience of its power as an image and a feeling.  
It's not like looking at the Haiku and the Ikebana later necessarily brings up the experience and feeling, rather, the time and attention to creating them prolonged the immersion in the experience and feeling long enough to make of them stronger memories. The actual visual experience easily comes to mind, any time, along with the attendant feeling tone (Personal journal entry, Oct. 8, 2012).
When I add Ikebana to the mix of reflective contemplations, I follow the written reflection I just described with a period of pausing, breathing and feeling myself fully present in the space as for Haiku. But instead of, or in addition to, the Haiku, I gather five stems for an arrangement. I allow my gaze to be soft as I wander around in the space (usually my garden). I stop, let my eyes focus on the plant that first attracts my attention, and cut a stem. I repeat this step until I have five stems. I take them inside, choose a vase, and trim and arrange them with a minimum of thought.
October 10, 2012
Perception: I heard two slurred notes then saw a tiny pale bird come down from the center of the tree to a feeder hanging in plain sight. He landed on the backside though. I only saw his tiny head popping out on the right over and over again. He flew down to the bowl of water below the feeder, perched on the edge and dipped his head towards the water several times. Then he flew up and to the right and out of sight. 
Thoughts: The feeder swaying in the breeze was rhythmic, as was the bird's head popping out from the back of the feeder over and over. I wondered, however, if I'd get a better look. I got bored and wished there were more birds. But then I was delighted when he flew down to the bowl, especially the way he flew, floating like a leaf. And I was shocked when he abruptly departed.  
Feelings: I felt interested, noticed a bit of straining to see the bird because he was so tiny and behind the feeder. I felt myself smile when he fluttered down to the water, and surprise when he flew. It took my breath away. I took a deep breath and felt the finality of the event, like it was a dream.


Tiny yellow head
Centers my attention
Oh! You fall like a leaf




Sometimes I journal when I travel to watch birds with my friends, and even sometimes when I bird at home. These reflections help me to better understand the effect contemplative observation has on my experience of nature generally. I use the same journal to reflect about the experience of contemplative teaching.


Garden classroom
The four classes were 90 minutes long, each. I offered the students before each class a chapter or two from the book, Birding with Buddha. At the start of class, I read aloud a passage, and then we practiced contemplative observation following the instructions for that week’s chapter from the book. I practiced as well, making every effort to fully embody all aspects of the contemplative teacher.

We held all of the classes in my garden, so we got to see spring come to life from late February through mid-March. While our first contemplation each week was from the book, our second contemplation was unrelated to birding, and chosen to help the students generalize the practice to other contexts. The contemplations on birds are at the end of each chapter in the book as the “Contemplative field trips.” Richard Brown introduced most of the complementary contemplations during the second half of our classes in the Summer Intensives. I presented them much as I learned them from him, with the exception of Beneath the Filters. I based it on two Contemplative Education Master’s Project presentations, Amy Howard’s in the Summer 2011, and Joanna Vausberg’s in Summer 2012.

After each class, and at the end of the fourth class, I read my participants’ journal entries to see whether participants were able to follow the instructions, and what they experienced with the practice.

I invited all of the participants to discuss their experiences of contemplation. Everyone participated. I did not record these or take notes. My own contemplative teaching experience was most intense during these discussions. I was as completely present as I could be, feeling into the subtle communications taking place – gesture, expression, body posture, tone, and other communicative elements. In staying present and receiving each contribution as an offering, as Kelly Petrie, one of my instructors, so nicely described her own contemplative practice of facilitating a discussion, I compassionately noticed my personal expectations and any judgments that arose in myself in response to what was offered … and opened to whatever arose and accepted the offerings with clarity and compassion (Ibid.). Clarity and compassion. What a combination. I reflected on the experience of contemplative teaching in my journal after each class ended. In effect, the classes were my contemplative observation of myself, as Kelly had suggested.

Anyone may acquire a copy of Birding with Buddha from the iBookstore, or as a pdf. See the earlier entry here, Birding with Buddha.



Brown, R. C. (2012a). In-the-moment observation practice. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU635e Contemplative Teaching, Boulder, Colorado: Naropa University.

Brown, R. C. (2012b). The quality of awareness: A transition to the ten aspects of knowledge. Unpublished lecture for online course EDU735e Transforming Curriculum and Instruction, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Chodron, P. (2012). Living beautifully with uncertainty and change. Boston & London: Shambhala.

Chogyam, N., & Dechen, K. (2003). Spectrum of ecstasy: Embracing the five wisdom emotions of vajrayana Buddhism (1st ed.). New York & London: Aro Books.

Hanh, T. N. (2006). Present moment wonderful moment: Mindfulness verses for daily living (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Harper, G. (2012, October 28). Not five, not four, not three, not two, not one. Unpublished paper for online course EDU 735 Transforming Instruction and Curriculum, Boulder, CO: Naropa University.

Worley, L. (2001). Coming from nothing. Boulder, Colorado: Turquoise Dragon Press.

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