Sunday, February 16, 2014

Simplest Meditation Instructions Ever

Meditation can be as complicated as you want to make it, but here's a move in the other direction:

1. Pay attention to whatever you notice (inside or outside yourself, it doesn't matter) without thinking it's good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, wise or stupid, worthy or unworthy.

Actually there's only one step. That's it.

Sometimes the word "curiosity" will help you.

You can start anywhere, even in the midst of a judgement: "this sucks!" Well, what's it like? how does it feel? Explore it, its color, texture, emotion, sensation. What images come to mind? What is the interpretive dance that would describe it? If it were an animal, what would it be? Just keep yourself company. You can't do it wrong. When you notice you're back to judging your experience, putting it away in a box, just notice that. You can start again. You can start anywhere. Really.

There's a koan (any koan is helpful because a koan never makes things wrong or right) that goes like this: "What is it?"

That's it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Playing is the Way

There's a koan that goes like this:

You go to wild places in search of your true nature. Where is your true nature?

Getting Sick
I've been thinking recently about work and play. A month or so ago I got sick, the kind of sick that seems to be the body trying to get a little attention, kind of like it's going on strike. It got my attention enough that I realized sometimes people, no different than I am, get sick and then they just up and die. And there's no time for them to say, okay body, I promise I'll do better, I won't take you for granted anymore. So I began to think about how I needed a vacation. Working too hard. Time to play. And this led me to an exploration of what a vacation is, and by extension, what it is to play.

What's a vacation?
I notice in my body that there's a real difference in how I anticipate a day of work, even work I love, and a vacation. When I think *vacation* there's an excitement and lightness that I feel. Try it for yourself. Anticipation of a vacation is scientifically proven to make people happy. When I think vacation, my whole body spreads out, parts of me that I had no idea were tense are suddenly at ease. but what makes something a vacation? Why isn't tomorrow a vacation? Probably because there's something I have to do tomorrow, maybe a whole pile of things. If tomorow I was going on vacation, the things I'd have to do would be different, and they might be optional. I might look inside and ask myself, what about it? What shall I do today?

What's play?
Let me first say that I think that play is a very deep thing. I think that Zen, at its best, is a kind of playing. And also that koans are the best toys ever.

The koan that I started with speaks of a "true nature", and play seems to be that. That moment when I look inside and say to myself, "what shall I do today?" is where play begins. If I'm really interested in the answer then I just begin to follow my nose. I give myself the luxury of permission to do whatever I want. I notice I can even do this when facing a deadline. If I think how awful it is and how late I will have to stay up to finish, I feel hopeless, but when I tell myself, "I wonder what I'll write? I can stay up all night! I can do whatever I want!" then everything shifts, I'm not tired, I'm on the lam, suddenly I'm playing.

In play, it feels as if I have all the time in the world, the present spreads out before me.

Play can be done with others, but there's something individual, even solitary about play. Because even if I'm playing with other people, it's not for someone else, it's for me. I'm not looking to fit into someone else's idea, I'm exploring something for myself. I once came upon a squirrel who was pouncing on something (or nothing) in the grass, the squirrel clearly didn't see me, it climbed a few feet up a tree and then jumped, over and over as I watched. I could make up a story about how it had a purpose, but in that moment the purpose was clear, it was having fun.

What's a toy?
Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist, coined the term "transitional object". A transitional object is something that has no fixed identity for the child, it can be many things, it can be a rocket ship or a hippopotamus at a tea party. In true play we look at the object, the toy, and decide what we want it to be, we try it out and see what it does, then we try something else. We take our time and let our relationship with the object grow. As we grow, so does our imaginative interaction with the toy, with the world.

Koans and meditation are like this. I begin to trust myself and I get interested in my own responses. I have all the time in the world. And I'm interested in where I find myself.

Wild places
Wild places means I don't know where I'm going. I lose myself in the tall grass, I'm curious, I ask myself what I love, what I want, where I will put my foot. I can do this anywhere.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To self or not to self? Stepping off the 100 foot pole

The awakened person sits on the top of a hundred-foot pole;
She has entered the way but is not yet genuine.
She must take a step from the top of the pole,
And worlds in the ten directions will be her complete body

Rachel BoughtonStarting at quite a young age, one of the fundamental human tasks seems to be to figure out who we are. This includes features like what we like and don’t like, how we’re different from other people and things, what we want to be when we grow up. I remember how, when I first took up meditation in my teens, I began reading about finding no-self. The idea that I needed to dismantle my identity was something I didn’t really question, it seemed clear that it was important, but I determined that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I was a useful person who was still trying to find out what a self might be for me. I really didn’t want to chuck it all before I had an idea what it looked like. In retrospect, I think this was a good call, since discovering who I am continues to be quite a profound journey.

I engage with the question of who I am every day, all the time. Sometimes this feels deep and insightful, other times it's like being trapped in ancient TV re-runs. It's a cool thing when it happens that who I am will shift abruptly, for instance I might feel something to be inside me that is normally outside of me; a tree branch I’m looking at might be as much a part of me as my arm. Or I will know myself differently, with more appreciation, without having done anything different to deserve it. Or I'll discover something to be true that I had hidden from or overlooked, and the world will seem bigger. Other times, though, because I’m sitting still and paying attention to my thoughts, I’ll be telling myself stories about what I just did or said, or about what my role is, or if I did something wrong, assessing whether I’m approved of or admired, whether I approve of myself, who is my friend and who isn’t, or who loves me. And then I’ll just notice the way I’m always making myself up, over and over, creating this "me". 

It’s a remarkable process, going from the automatic relentless familiarity of those thoughts, to the noticing of it. And then there’s another remarkable moment in which I ask myself if I could do without it, and could I stop? Just for a minute, just to see what it’s like, do I dare? It’s a moment that feels surprisingly risky, as though I’m a waitress with all the dishes piled on my arms, and if I did this they might all be dropped and broken. It’s not a trivial question, what I need to hold and what I can let go of.

I had an experience recently where I began to ask myself what I really wanted. I was wondering about depth, about having a life of discovery and uncovering buried things, and I wondered if that was what I truly desired. I noticed that there’s a part of my mind that thinks it only wants to have a “good enough” life. I tell myself that I want to get this next project finished and out of the way, so that it’s good enough, sophisticated enough, respectable enough, safe enough, that I can relax and get on with my real life. But when I go after the “good enough” goals, the world seems difficult, I feel tired, overwhelmed, a bit nauseated and defeated. And I decided that’s because “good enough” is not really what I want. When I really want something, I work like a beast to accomplish it and that’s fun, but it’s really hard to work away at something I don’t actually want.

So, as far as holding things and putting other things down, I find that I can put down the stories I make up about myself, at least long enough to find out what my life is like. I can risk finding out what I really want. Depth and discovery are only that, finding out what this moment is really like.

The woman in the koan is me/you/us (koans are like that, they are always me, every part of them), and stepping off the pole, it’s not really falling at all. The world in the ten directions is me then. As someone noticed, that’s how I can tell I’ve stepped off, because the world has become my complete body.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Trusting Yourself With This Moment

We've only got this one life, and it's made up of a bunch of present moments all strung together. It would seem an obvious benefit to show up for them whenever possible, but I, for one, am not always good at that. Instead I notice myself using this moment, especially when just sitting quietly, to do a particular and apparently very important maneuver, to connect the past with the future. So I'm constantly fetching around in the past for a story, memory, analysis, and then creating a future based on that. Like this: I did something, I'm worried about the consequences, so I will plan to do something to change or avert that future. Or, he said this, then that must mean he feels this, so probably this other thing is going to happen. Or they did this which means... Anyway, I seem to do a lot of it, and it makes it really difficult to hear the birds singing outside or see the play of the light on the walkway, or appreciate the person I'm with.

It's nice to notice that it can be otherwise. There's a peculiar precarious feeling to allow myself to have this moment. It's like somehow the past and the future are handholds and when I let myself be here, I'm without the safety of knowing who I am. At the same time, when I do risk it, the present is so very rich.

So this is something to check out, when you feel scattered, or obsessed, is it possible to let yourself have this moment? Knowing, of course that you can have the past and the future back, but for this moment, can you just have it, to taste the mystery of what this might hold?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Why Meditate? Because you can't see what you can't see.

pt. reyes

The storehouse of treasures opens by itself, you can take them and use them any way you wish.

Once I was taking a hike on a chilly day on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Drake's Bay. I was having a conversation, it was windy, what I saw was mostly ocean and horizon. I didn't expect much from the view and wasn't paying much notice and then, far far out, there was a splash. And after that there were more splashes. Whales began appearing, jumping and breaching. The ocean, it seemed, was full of whales.

And another time the dog, who seemed to have acquired a maternal instinct in the springtime, brought in a very tiny baby vole. We kept it warm and fed it and suddenly, for all of us, it became clear that the ground had life underneath it. Our imaginations had expanded to include a vast world there, full of vole families, living inside the earth.
baby vole

When I meditate, new worlds appear. Sometimes I  notice something physical, a way I hold my face, something about how I'm breathing. Sometimes I notice my thinking, and I wonder how it was I came to believe that thing, so far from what I really believe. Sometimes it's the texture of reality that comes to me, how soft and nourishing this thing is that I had never noticed before, and the problems I had a moment before just fall off me. Sometimes I find myself trading places with a tree, a bird, and the koan shows me that my life is so much richer and more mysterious than I had been aware of.

So why is it one would meditate? These things are pointers to something I notice more and more: when one thing is revealed, something else comes into view. And the layers just go on and on. That's why I think meditation is an adventure. The territory is extensive, probably endless. There are moments when the view is a little vertiginous (vertigo inducing) but every step is fascinating. You can't see something until you see it, and each step shows you something new.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happiness: The Great Way is Not Difficult?

handrail on a tricky bit of trail in Oregon

Koan: The Great Way is not difficult, it just precludes picking and choosing.

Preclude is such a great word. And so under-used. It's great because of the way it admits everything except what follows it, in this case Picking and Choosing. But what is actually meant by picking and choosing? Does that mean I don't get to like some things and not like others, no preference for spicy or mild, paper or plastic? Is this some kind of dry and dull non-attachment thing that Buddhism seems to cling to? No, it's not that at all. That's why preclude is such a fantastic word here, it points out the ease of it all. The Great Way is a very broad path; all of reality, everything, is on it. The only thing you can't do is turn away, you can't be somewhere else than where you are. It's so easy and still so hard. And I find it helpful to notice that effort sometimes.


The whole idea behind meditation and the arts of paying attention came out of a desire to address the problem of suffering. Suffering may be broadly defined here. You can understand it as many things: boredom, pain, loneliness, a distance from the world, anger, fear, disappointment, envy. We each have our own particular version that we carry, perhaps even that we come to this world with. Most of us arrived at meditation as a way of responding to some kind of suffering, or as a way of getting away from it, or we stumbled into it because something deep inside us had a longing for some kind of freedom.

Hard work, in a funny way. 

Something I observe is that, while happiness is very appealing, and the happiness that I come upon through meditation is quite compelling and potent, I'm used to trouble and strife and unease, so I return to it. It's a habit, a feeling I'm familiar with and I find myself making a case for myself that I can get away with just a little bit of blaming this person, or the luxury of feeling dread and disappointment. It's like when you're really tired on a long drive and start to tell yourself that you could maybe sleep with just one eye closed. So in that way, the Great Way is hard work for me, since it requires being honest with myself. It's good to remind myself from time to time that I really care about this, enough to look again, enough to put my shoulder into it.

You can't have it both ways

So, just like I can't really sleep with one eye closed while I'm driving, I can't indulge in a little bit of suffering and be on the Great Way. But wait, the suffering I'm talking about isn't grief over loss, or pain, or the unavoidable texture of things. I'm referring to the suffering that comes from telling myself that this isn't it, that somehow my life is flawed, that my problem is that's what is happening now is wrong. Because the first step (and every step) on the Great Way is noticing what's happening now.  I'm not being a hardass about this, it's just empirical. It's like this: I'm rushed, just a bit, taking a friend to the airport. I've convinced her we have enough time if we do it just right and so we set off. The conversation is a good one and suddenly she says, "wow, what a beautiful bridge!" and I say "Dang! wrong bridge!" and realized I've missed my exit and gone the wrong way. Now we're really late, perhaps irredeemably so. What happens next? Either this is suffering because I add to it by telling myself I need to have done it differently, that this connects to many other wrong things, or it can be otherwise. I can be here. When I'm here, the sun shines brighly off the shiny paint of that bright black GMC sportscar in front of me. It's beautiful, the way the convertible top is so new and clean, and I begin to see the clouds reflected in it. The same sun is warm on my face. I feel the solidity of my body, I'm alive. Anything is possible and I haven't precluded the possibility that this is all perfect.

Take the hand that's offered 

One of the tricks of the great way is not to refuse when the universe reaches out its hand. There's the koan, your breath, a person who says "hey, lady, wake up!" I had a friend who found that the part of the stoplight that said "don't walk!" was such a great gift. He could stop for a second in the middle of busyness and just not walk for a few minutes.

Don't lie to yourself

The last thing for right now is this, and more on this later: there's a way that happiness and disappointment and dysphoria recruit for themselves. It's probably just a thing our brains do automatically, but it's worth opposing. The difficult feelings can be so strong that they make us forget that we ever were really happy, that there really is a light inside everything. Maybe we tell ourselves that it protects us to forget this, that we need to harden ourselves so as not to be hurt or fooled. 

Just for now, try not making things up. Try not knowing how things are going to go. Hold the koan in your meditation and revery and see where it goes. Sometimes the shift to putting my foot in the Great Way is just glancing in its direction. And here are a few things to consider:


1.    When have you been really happy?

2.    What are the conditions under which you couldn’t be happy?

3.    What do you allow to help you when you’re unhappy? What can’t help?

4.    What qualifies as suffering in your book? How do you know when you’re suffering?

5.    What does meditation do for you? Does it help? Always? What else helps?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Zen koans, what and how?

Three sisters mountains, OR

“The coin lost in the river is found in the river”
“A thousand mountains are covered with snow”
There are sayings, snippets of conversation, questions, parts of poems and even stories that are called Zen koans. Koans serve as a way of opening up your experience of life, they undermine the way you usually think about things, and reveal surprising or beautiful aspects of reality. The Zen koan schools began a millennium ago and the koans are to be found in collections with titles like “The Blue Cliff Record” or “The Gateless Gate”. Koans are meant to change the way you understand things in a real and irreversible way, like seeing through a door that had previously been closed.
Is it special, this combination of words? Are the questions of our lives koans?  Koans traditionally are limited to those written down long ago, but in reality, there are infinite koans. What about your life questions, like the tough decision about what to do with work or relationship that you keep returning to? Probably not, since questions like that tend to go around and around on an endless hamster wheel of predictable thinking. A koan will allow you to approach those problems and decisions from the side, or from underneath, by taking away the thoughts that confine you. One woman working with a koan noticed that she had always thought of herself as a worrier. She could see that was just a part of her nature, the way the autumn leaves were red. And once she stopped worrying about that, everything else got easier, too.
So even if you are the sort of person who does everything your own way, just start by using the koans that are offered and take the ride.
There are  many different ways of working with koans, but what I’m suggesting here is that for the time being you simply take a koan on as a companion, an object of attention, something to return to when your mind has been off somewhere making trouble for itself. So you can choose, or sometimes a koan will stick to you, like a burr in your sock, and it’s not even volitional. The koan will disrupt the endless circle of thoughts, of planning for disaster or complaining or blaming or defining, predicting and explaining. You can refer to it, like a compass or an amulet or a friend.
The first thing to do is to notice when you’re uncomfortable or suffering. You may do this first during meditation, because there you’ve assigned yourself the task of paying attention. Your mind will be chewing at a thought or an emotion like a dog with a bone - sadness or anger or boredom, with some sort of explanation, or some image. And you’ll notice it’s not much fun. You can bring the koan in here, try this one: “Sickness and medicine heal each other, the whole world is medicine.” Just say it to yourself, all of it, or part of it, the bit that sticks.
Your mind will make connections or shift itself around, sometimes your body will, too. Be curious about what happens, and remember that you can rely on the koan. You don’t have to worry it or get it right. Just come back to it. Make note of when something loosens for you. You’ll know it’s working because things will seem less difficult. Also make note if something becomes really intense, because sometimes the koan will bring some internal conflict into sharp focus. You’ll start to see the absurd things you’ve been letting yourself believe and the effect of those beliefs. Either way, something gets clearer, and you can trust the process.
So you can keep sitting quietly, paying attention for a bit every day, noticing simple things like your body and sensations, and bring the koan to mind. “Sickness and medicine heal each other, the whole world is medicine.”
And try one more thing this time. At a time when you’re not officially meditating, when you notice your mind has gone somewhere and you’re not enjoying it, say you’re stuck in traffic, bored, annoyed or in pain…bring the koan to mind here, too. See what happens.

Rachel Boughton