Tag Archives: anxiety

Turning Toward Radiance

I recently paid a visit to the nuns at Aloka Vihara. They are ordained women in the Thervadan Buddhist tradition who are starting a new monastery in the northern hills of California. While I was there they spoke about their home and so many unknowns in their future. So when I was asked to give a talk, I chose to speak about the unknown, and how to practice with the uneasiness that might arise in those circumstances. Deep bows to the nuns for their warm hospitality and sincere practice, and for being willing to be pioneers of the ancient Way.


cave buddhas

Busy, Not Busy

This post is especially for the many readers who live outside the San Francisco Bay area, though some locals may also be interested.

Hartford Street Zen Center

Hartford Street Zen Center

In June I gave a Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center on the “One Who is Very Busy.” Deep bows of gratitude to Reverend Myo and the sangha for inviting me to speak, and for being such an attentive audience. If you would like to hear the talk, it’s on their podcast page.

No Time to Lose

Yesterday I was at the park relaxing in the grass with a friend who is a long-time sitter. She said she often encounters people who are interested in meditation and are just getting started. My friend asked me how to respond to people who say, “I can only sit for one or two minutes, and then I have to get up because I can’t stand it anymore.” I too have heard this comment, and I don’t doubt that it happens. Hearing it, I am reminded of the Zen tradition’s emphasis on posture both as a support for, and an expression of bodhi-mind, the mind of awakening. That is not to say that sitting up straighter will cause your mind to go blank, and result in a mental state of ultimate peace. Rather, it means that in Zen one doesn’t focus so much on the imperatives associated with thoughts. We simply abide in body and mind, without attempting to add anything or take anything away. In and of itself, it can be a tremendous relief to sit down on the cushion and know that, for a limited span of time, there is no need to get up and start doing something else.

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school, put it this way:

Just this seeing and hearing

Goes beyond seeing and hearing,

And there are not other colors or sounds to offer you.

Having completely settled within this,

You are genuinely beyond concerns.

Notice that Dogen mentions “Just this…,” subtly giving a nod to the fact that you might want to seek for some quieter or calmer state, particularly when you feel agitated, or as you get older and lose our seeing and hearing faculties. Alternatively, you might seek for some more exciting state, feeling more comfortable in the swirl of activity. Yet there is no better experience to be found, because awakening is already expressed within the everyday experience of delusion. In fact, it is impossible for one to be anywhere else but in the present moment, since everything is in the midst of being created in every instant. Still, to say this and accept it as a concept is what we call in Zen “a painted rice cake,” something that is not going to satisfy your hunger. Zen is a lifetime practice because ultimately the present moment is indefinable, and thus it cannot be conceptualized. It is a practitioner’s endeavor to encounter it, to live it.

So the question arises, “How does one settle within this?” Here you encounter the body, abiding within the sensations and mental states that arise. You might notice tightness or pain in the body, or a tight jaw. You might encounter a subtle sensation of fear and its sidekick adrenaline, or of anxiety, or of simply feeling sad and overwhelmed. You might encounter the sound of ringing in your ears, and of a rapid, shallow breath. The real question is, so what? What is so difficult about sitting in the midst of that? Is it that you think it will go on forever? It cannot, as there is nothing that goes on forever, even Shakyamuni. Is it that you think you need to do something about it? Well, sitting is a form of non-doing something about it and, if you sit long enough, you will see for yourself that your mind will change. In fact scientists have now shown that, due to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the physical brain to change its structure over time, any activity that you do regularly will tend to be easier to do over time because your brain builds the pathways to enable it. However that is simply a symptom, I believe, of the truth that by sitting we can experience the natural stillness of mind within the world of activity.

And when you are sitting and you find your mind racing or simply wandering, pay attention to the way you are sitting. Are you able to balance between left and right, between front and back? Are your hands in an open, relaxed position? Is your chin tucked in enough to lift the crown of your head?

zafu zabutonThe teaching of the Buddha is that your fundamental nature is peace and clarity. It’s okay to doubt that, but please don’t doubt it so much that it knocks you off your cushion. Just sit!

Your Most Present Concern

So often, in everyday modern American society, we receive the message that we are defined by what we don’t have – the latest cell phone, the ideal job, the perfect family, the nicest car or the right insurance. We judge each other by our failure to acquire these things. And we judge ourselves equally harshly, fueling a drive that is based in anxiety and comparing mind. This message is encapsulated in commercials, in packaging, and in the ways we talk about what it means to be successful. For most of us, not a day goes by that we don’t receive this message.

So tonight I want to offer you a completely different message.  I want to encourage you to release yourself from a life driven by a sense of inadequacy, and to turn instead to a life that revels in the incredible fullness of all that you are simply by being human. Tonight I want to release you from living a life defined by what you lack.

Mural of Life at SFO

Mural of Life at SFO

At times I wonder whether the modern day preoccupation with distraction and material acquisition is actually based in a fear of death, a fear of facing that which is inevitable for each and every one of us. Perhaps, you might think in secret, if I just have that big, beautiful house and a device that gives me driving directions, then I won’t have to worry about the fact that I am passing out of this existence.

Yet even death is not our most present concern. Our true concern is to live fully while we are alive – to release ourselves from a limited view of who and what we are – to reconnect, over and over again, with that which is greater than our self, but arises through it – to discover that the true meaning of enlightenment is a direct experience of the wisdom that runs through all things, even the horrible ones.

Mind you that by ‘living fully’ I do not mean living large, or fulfilling all your sexual and material desires, or even being the most calm or the most wise. I mean actually experiencing firsthand the incredible fullness of each moment, the magnificent transformation that is taking place in every instant. Notice the incredible revelation of truth that is expressed by the fact that everything is dependent on everything else – not some things are dependent on some other things, but everything needs everything else in order to exist. This noticing is the foundational Buddhist practice of mindfulness – paying attention to this very moment so clearly that there is no one who pays attention and no moment that can be measured. Life is simply the bare threads woven together to make an infinite fabric.

Sound impossible? Well, consider how many times things have actually turned out exactly as you expected them. They may be something like what you expected, but are they truly arising exactly in ways that you can predict with precision? I didn’t think so. This unpredictability is the weaving, the activity of impermanence, that change upon change. Still, we know that things do not change at random, but are governed by the laws of cause and effect. Awakening to these laws at work in our lives, we can find bright clarity about how to live and we can find deep compassion in understanding that nothing separates us.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it beautifully when she said,

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather our concern must be to live while we are alive – to release ourselves from the spiritual death that comes from living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

So please check in with yourself. What is your most present concern?

Ice Cream Won’t Help

A few days ago I read an article which stated that fully two-thirds of the American population is overweight and one-third is obese, and also stated that these figures are likely to rise in the future. This is a problem, one which is directly addressed in Zen practice.

Many Americans seem to be trying to feel better by eating too much. The problem is one of overwhelming the body with excessive consumption of food and drink. It is a problem which points to a nation of people who are reacting to their suffering by overwhelming their senses. These are people who are trying to put out a fire by eating, who are trying to stop their pain by putting greater quantities of food and less nutritious food in their mouths. However, what people generally experience when they try this method of managing suffering is that it is only temporary. You may momentarily feel less anxiety while you are eating the pint of ice cream, but a few hours or minutes later, it will be back. So then you feel the need to do it even more, and you learn that the suffering you are experiencing burns and burns no matter how much ice cream you throw at it.

Buddhism’s answer to this issue is to stop trying to end suffering by increasing desire. If you think about it that way, it seems completely illogical in the first place. How could you end suffering by increasing desire? And yet, that’s what seems to be happening here. The Buddha in the most basic of teachings suggests that suffering can only be addressed by finding some way other than reactivity. You have to find a way to respond, instead of reacting, and in order to do that you have to be able to slow down enough to see how your desire is a reaction to your suffering. This is what he revealed in the Four Noble Truths.

1) There is suffering. 2) Suffering is caused by a mistaken way of understanding the world. 3) There is a way to resolve suffering. 4) The way to resolve suffering is by applying practices that help you to respond to things more appropriately because you see how they really are.

This is where Zen comes in. Zen puts you into situation where things are simple enough that you can start to see how they really are. Zen asks you to be present in a place and in a way that minimizes the amount of sensory input you receive. The point is not to deprive you of anything, but rather to heighten your awareness, so that you can begin to understand what you are encountering and how you respond to it.

Think about it this way: In Zen, you sit in a silent room to minimize sound input. You sit facing a wall to minimize visual input. You sit still to minimize touch input. You don’t eat or drink anything while sitting, to minimize taste input. You even go so far as to train your mind to focus on your breath or on simply being present with your sensations and thoughts, to minimize thought inputs. Why? Because there is something to be said for not overwhelming the senses. There is something to discover in the mind that is sheer presence, something that cannot be discovered by simply adding more and more sensations, tasty as they may be.