Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice

I’ve noticed that when I explain Mindfulness these days I am especially emphasizing the active ending of the definition: Mindfulness is the balanced recognition of arising experiences, external and internal, moment to moment, so that the mind remains clear and energetic enough to respond wisely and kindly. The words, “to respond” are crucial. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.  The title was meant to be a playful riff on the injunction to children by parents and teachers to do homework rather than daydream. I meant it to mean, “Try meditating.” I still mean that, but I am aware also that it’s possible to mistake the instruction for cultivating balance and non-reactivity, for developing passivity or even submissiveness. Inactivity when there are choices to be made is indifference and a form of aversion. What I want for people to understand is that Mindfulness is the best guarantee that our responses will be alleviating suffering, and certainly not causing suffering. The poet Pablo Neruda, in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” says, “What I want should not be confused with inactivity. Life is what it is about…”
I think about voting as an expression of Mindful attention. Spirit Rock is soon planning to revive a class we had a decade ago called “Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice.” Each month we had people representing different views about a particular social issue present their views. I look forward to inaugurating that class. 


Meditation and Music: Dedication to Practice

I was giving instructions at a meditation retreat yesterday and I heard myself say,"Try repeating these blessings for feelings of joy and contentment for yourself and for others over and over in your mind. It's important, on behalf of cultivating these feelings, to be rhythmic and steady and continuous, moving from one to the next, not lingering to think about each blessing analytically." Then, as I sat with the group, all of us quietly practicing, I found I wanted to add, "Except, if you find as you practice that one or another of those feelings---joy or contentment---arises in your mind strongly, delighting it and filling it with ease, stop the recitation of blessings and rest all of your attention in the feeling." I said, "I have the sense, when I do that, that I am marinating my neurons in joy or contentment, habituating them to those feelings so that they become more and more the natural context of my mind."

As I said that, I thought, "I'll say exactly this when I teach with my friends Barbara Bogatin and Cliff Saron next month at Spirit Rock." Barbara is a cellist with the San Francisco Symphony who has studied and practiced mindfulness for decades. She describes her practice of the cellist in similar terms. "Sometimes I'll play the same note over and over," she might say, "listening for when it is exactly right and then repeating that note." I have the feeling as I listen to her play that Barbara and the cello and the note are not separate from each other. Her husband, Cliff Saron, a neuroscientist, will teach about how the research on mindfulness practice confirms what mindfulness practitioners have always reported, that dedicated practice transforms the mind from habits of suffering to habits that create happiness, like joy and contentment.

Barbara, Cliff and I will be teaching the day-long class "Tuning Your Instrument: The Buddha, the Brain, and Bach" at Spirit Rock on February 21, 2016. Click here for information.

Here is a video of Barbara and her cello visiting the Wednesday morning class at Spirit Rock and teaching about mindfulness and practice!

The Delighted Mind is Buoyant


I have been thinking about the ways in which how I teach what the Buddha taught has evolved over these past decades from emphasizing the “ending suffering” aspect of practice to “creating happiness.” The change has been happening slowly. It was only this morning, teaching at Spirit Rock, that I stopped myself in the middle of a sentence and said, “Wow! I’ve never said that quite in the same way before.” All of a sudden, my understanding of Wise Effort, the Buddha’s instructions to redirect the attention from a developing afflictive state (an annoyance turning into an anger turning into a rage) to a wholesome state (patience or compassion) became more complete. I’ve always taught about developing enough mindfulness to detect the arising of suffering. Indeed, using mindful attention to “head off” an afflictive state before it becomes overwhelming lessons the habitual tendency in the mind to give in to anger. More than that, though, awareness of one’s growing ability to defuse suffering before it arises is cause for exultation. “Hey, I just did that! I almost fell into confusion, but I didn’t!” The delighted mind is buoyant. An appreciative Joy blessing at that point might be, “May I continue to have a buoyant mind, one that is free to be happy.”

The only thing that upsets me is...

“The only thing that upsets me is my mind,” is what my friend Kathie said to me just before I left to teach at Spirit Rock on New Year’s Day. I laughed. I taught it that day as an amazingly concise summary of the Buddha’s insight about the end of suffering.  I have been thinking about it ever since, mulling it over with pleasure, enjoying how the phrase echoes in my mind. At first listen, hearing the words, “The only thing that bothers me…” awakens the attention.  The word “only” sounds momentarily hopeful. I can think of many things that upset me. I am upset about wars, and inequality of wealth and resources, and climate change. The end of Kathie’s sentence shifts the meaning of suffering from external situations to the condition of the mind that meets them. We all have the shared difficult challenges of the world to address, to be concerned about, as well as our personal disappointments. I think that if I counted the times in a day that my mind accommodates itself to situations where I’d rather things (great and small) were other than they are, I’d see that it is an ongoing life challenge. That the mind can do that, and routinely does, is its great potential. That the mind can meet challenges with poise, with curiosity, with patience, with energy and with kindness is the promise of practice.

There are more elegant ways to state the Buddha’s wisdom than, “The only thing that upsets us is the mind” but I am still finding it disarmingly wry.