Everything Changes: The Four Reminders

Tibetan-Buddhism-Wheel-Of-Life-07-00-12-Links-Of-Dependent-ArisingEvery human being knows that change is an absolutely inevitable part of existence. Every aspect of our lives is in a constant state of change – how we feel, whether we’re in good or poor health, what our physical environment is like, and which of our loved ones are with us. And of course every human being knows that, from our subjective vantage point at least, the ultimate change awaits us all; someday we ourselves will die.

This emphasis on impermanence leads many people to think of Buddhism as a dreary way of thinking, with that whole ‘life is suffering’ thing. (It’s actually more along the lines of “suffering exists.”) If that were all there is to Buddhism, that might even be an accurate portrayal. Of course it’s not all there is to Buddhism. As much as anyone else, Buddhists recognize that life is full of joy, full of opportunities for laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity.

But no one, Buddhist or not, can deny that life is also full of suffering, precisely because we live in a state of impermanence. You would have to be truly delusional to deny that you will face the loss of people and things you hold dear, that you will be sick, that you will grow old, and that ultimately you will die. We even now know that impermanence isn’t just part of the human condition, but rather part of the entire workings of the cosmos. Continents shift, mountains rise and are eroded, species come about and disappear, stars burn through their nuclear fuel and die out. Literally everything you look at, for as far as you could see with the most powerful telescope, is in a constant state of motion and impermanence. If there is anything you could point to and label permanent, it would be impermanence!

Faced with this reality, we have two choices. We can live our lives in a state of denial, and set ourselves up for more suffering when the veil inevitably falls, or embrace it, and figure out a way to live and enjoy life despite the seemingly cruel truths of this universe that we’ve been born into. Buddhism is a system that embraces the latter, and offers tools to be brutally honest with ourselves about our state of being while still embracing the laughter, love, compassion, kindness, and generosity that are all very much possible, even critical, in a universe of impermanence.

In our sangha we recently completed a four week study and discussion of the Four Reminders. Also called The Four Mind-Changers, these are reflections that are meant to wake us up, to jolt us into recognition, not just intellectually but also emotionally, of the facts of life that are difficult for us to hold onto in our everyday lives. In a very pared-down nutshell:

  • The first is that, as human beings with the capacity for reflection and understanding, we can take advantage of our faculties to come to terms with impermanence. Simply by being alive, we have received a great gift, and a great opportunity.
  • The second is that we will die someday, and we don’t know when, so we should cherish the time and life we have, and use it to come to terms with our existence.
  • The third is that karma is real, that we live in a universe of cause and effect, both in our own thought patterns and in our external behavior. We can “life-hack” ourselves so that we create conditions for more skillful thoughts and actions.
  • The fourth is that samsara – the constant flux of existence – is “defective” if we view it through the typical human lens, which expects, even demands, permanence and constant happiness. The truth is we can’t make demands of the universe, and if we do, we’re only asking for more suffering.

There are traditional formulations of the Four Reminders, and traditional ways of thinking about and understanding karma and samsara, which probably would seem quite foreign to someone not brought up in Buddhist culture. In our sangha we’ve recently read Vishvapani’s modern, more accessible version of the reminders. They’re a great resource for people interested in a Buddhist thinking outside of the traditional cultural context in which they were first developed. Whether you take concepts like karma and samsara literally or metaphorically, the basic ideas of impermanence and cause and effect are hard to deny. From what might seem a dreary and depressing view of existence, there is the chance for a liberating change of heart and mind. All we have to do is be reminded.


The Five Precepts as Gemstones

precept stones

My shrine at home is pretty standard for the most part. There’s a Buddha statue, with right hand raised and facing outward in the protection mudra. There’s also a bowl cradled in the left hand, which I think is characteristic of the Medicine Buddha, signifying healing. There are some candles and a bowl where I burn stick incense. The one piece of (I think) original flair is my “precept stone” bowl, although to be honest I have no idea if this was an innovation, or something I had seen somewhere and forgot about.

We’ve talked about the Five Precepts before, and anyone familiar with Buddhism knows them by heart and strives to live by them. They’re not commandments, but voluntary choices, a code of ethical conduct closely tied to the Right Action component of the Eightfold Path. There are a lot of English translations of the original, but they all go something like this:

  • I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life.
  • I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not given.
  • I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake to abstain from intoxicants, which cloud the mind.

At Triratna we also add a positive counterpart to each of the traditional precepts. If the negative formulations listed above remind us of unskillful behavior that we want to avoid, the positive formulations remind us of skillful behavior that we want to cultivate.

  • With deeds of loving-kindness, I purify my body.
  • With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
  • With stillness, simplicity, and contentment, I purify my body.
  • With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
  • With mindfulness, clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

A lot can be said about each precept, and some of them mean different things to different people. The first precept, for example, clearly suggests that we not go around killing people, but many Buddhists also extend that to animals, and so they are vegetarians or vegans. The one about sexual misconduct shouldn’t be confused with some sort of moralistic “sex is sinful” commandment; instead it means that sexual behavior should not be used to harm anyone, for example by interfering in a couple’s committed relationship or entering into sexual relationships that aren’t equal and consensual. The fifth precept, for some, means total abstinence from alcohol, but for others it means simply stopping after a glass or two of wine, or at least striving to remain mindful – in control, moderate – when drinking. There’s a great quote by Triratna’s founder, Sangharakshita, in his book Vision and Transformation, about the fifth precept:

“If you can drink without impairing your mindfulness (it might be said), then drink; but if you can’t, then don’t. However, one must be quite honest with oneself, and not pretend that one is mindful when one is merely merry.”

Back to my gemstones, part of my practice is, when I sit to meditate, to take each stone out of the bowl, hold it and look at its color, feel its weight, and recite the negative formulation of the precept. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the gemstones I chose, but they made sense as visual representations of each precept to me. The first precept is a lustrous silver, signifying that life is precious and not to be taken. The second precept is green, probably jade, because at least in the English language green is associated with envy, something that might lead to taking the not-given. The third precept is rose quartz, I think. Red is the color of passion, and the softened, gentle color of the rose quartz is a softer, gentler form of sexual energy. The fourth precept is the black stone, onyx I believe, and it reminds me that unskillful speech is dark and negative. The fifth precept is blue – no idea what kind of gem – and blue is the color of calm water or a clear sky, so a mindful, responsible, disciplined state. As I say each precept aloud, I place its stone in front of me. If I feel that I’m in a relatively safe place in regard to each particular precept, I put it to the left. If I’m in a state where I might risk unskillful behavior related to a particular precept, I put it on the right, as a reminder to be careful.

After I’ve finished my meditation, I gather up each stone, and recite the positive formulation, again trying to focus on the color and weight. Then I place it back in its bowl. Sometimes, if I think I really need the reminder, I put the stone in my pocket and keep it there for the day. I’ve gone to more than one party with the blue stone!

I don’t think this is standard practice in Buddhism, but it’s got meaning for me. Of course the particular ritual is unimportant, as long as it helps us act skillfully, and remain mindful.


Beginner Courses at Triratna: The Seeds of Sangha, with Tea

tea and buddhaWhen I stumbled across Triratna-NYC a while back and enrolled in a beginners’ course in meditation and Buddhism, I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully that didn’t stop me, but some people might feel more comfortable with a little bit of a taste of how things operate. So, here goes…

The courses are currently running on Tuesdays, from 7pm to 9pm, on 14th Street. More details here. Each course has four sessions. The first hour is dedicated to meditation practice. Newcomers learn what meditation is, and are led through two of the basic meditations, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana. We also talk about setting up a regular meditation practice at home, finding the right posture, dealing with the Five Hindrances, and any other issues that come up through questions and discussion. There’s no chanting of mantras or full-lotus-position sitting in the beginners’ group. It’s all in plain English, and people sit in chairs, unless of course they prefer the floor or a cushion.

There’s a tea break after the meditation portion, where people in the beginners’ group can mingle with mitras and friends of Triratna who have had more experience with the dharma. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the meditation portion of the evening gives way to laughter and conversation, some announcements of upcoming events are made, and then the two groups go back to their spaces. The main sangha of mitras and friends goes back to its dharma study, and the beginners go back to their own introductory dharma study.

The dharma study portion of the beginners’ course focuses on four topics, each one running a four-week cycle. The topics are the basic foundations of Buddhism, including of course the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The other two cycles cover the Wheel of Life and the Six Perfections. These are not exhaustive seminars, but rather introductions to the key components of Buddhist thought and tradition. We read relevant material taken from books, articles, the internet, and the Pāli Canon. Attendees get handouts, and the handouts have material to be read and reflected upon, as well as workbook-like exercises that people can complete during the week, away from the course and immersed in their daily lives. There’s no required homework, but many people find that the readings and exercises offer them a way to slowly integrate the dharma into their lives.

People come to the introductory courses with all sorts of backgrounds, in life as well as in meditation and Buddhism. Some have been meditating for years on their own, but haven’t explored the sangha jewel, the practice of Buddhism in the context of a community of spiritual friends all seeking to deepen their practice together. Some have meditated a few times in the past, and want to make meditation a larger part of their lives. Most have had no experience with meditation or Buddhism, and are curious, and perhaps a bit shy at first.

The atmosphere is ideal for any background. It’s casual and welcoming, and quickly a sense of community and friendliness – the seeds of sangha – develops. Everyone in my beginners’ group was friendly, but I became particularly close to a few people who I now count as dear friends, both within the context of our sangha and outside of it. During the tea breaks, and then when I “graduated” from the four cycles and joined the main sangha, I became close with mitras and friends who have been with Triratna for years. Many of them, too, have become dear friends, but I feel a deep sense of community with all of them. I find myself these days with dinner plans and other social engagements not only with friends I’ve had for years and years, but also with the new(ish) friends I’ve made at Triratna. That all started when I googled “meditation classes in New York,” and I couldn’t be more thankful. A few years ago I had never heard the word sangha. Now it’s something that has complemented and enriched my life.


Meditation Timers: Modern Gadgets Meet Mindfulness

At our Tuesday Sangha Nights we usually do things in a pretty traditional way. We salute the shrine, we chant the Refuges and Precepts, both in Pāli and in English, and then we sit to meditate. There’s a meditation leader, usually an order member or someone who’s asked for ordination, and he or she marks the beginning of the meditation and the start of each stage with a tingsha meditation bell, pictured here. The ambience is peaceful, with candles and incense, and a groupdragon tingsha of sangha members sitting on cushions in various postures, or on chairs, and soon enough the noise of the city fades away as we get into our meditations.

At home, a lot of us use more modern tools. There are several different timed meditations on the Triratna-NYC site, and you can simply play them from your computer to do a 20, 30, 40, or 60 minute Metta Bhavana or Mindfulness of Breathing.

And as with most things in life these days, there’s an app for that. My informal survey of our sangha has the Insight Timer as the clear favorite, but there are plenty of others. I’m in the Insight Timer camp myself, and I have several pre-programmed meditations of different lengths that I use. If you like a social media angle, you can make a profile of yourself, have ‘friends,’ join groups, send messages… all of that stuff. Personally I don’t use those features, but I can see the appeal if you want to have a kind of virtual sangha and see who, across the planet, you’ve just been meditating with.

insight timer

You can also keep a journal, adding notes on each time you sit – which meditation you did, what hindrances may have arisen, and so on. If you’re a lover of stats, you can see how your meditation practice has been going by the numbers – total number of days meditating, consecutive days, amount of time spent, etc. Of course you can ignore all of that, too, and just meditate.

The great thing about these timers is that you simply touch “start,” and then you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on a clock or watch. Not that a clock or watch isn’t a perfectly suitable alternative if you prefer not to use a smart phone.

There are also links to several other meditation tools, including special clocks and timers of the physical, non-app variety, as well as CDs and MP3s. If you have other favorites that are not included, leave a comment and let us know.


Bringing Mindfulness to Habits

by Vishvapani | Mar 21, 2014 |

Many of our ways of coping with the challenges of daily life seem like a good idea, but they turn out to be unhelpful. What happens when mindfulness meets multitasking, rushing, tensing, keeping up and keeping going?


1.     Multi-tasking

Time is precious, so it makes sense to do as many things as you can at the same time … right? That’s an attitude our culture encourages, but if our attention is spread across several things, how fully can we take in any of them? And what effect does multi-tasking have on our state of mind? Research suggests that you don’t actually get more done by multi-tasking. It’s more efficient, as well as more satisfying, to give your full attention to whatever your doing so you can do it properly.

A mindful alternative: doing one thing at a time (at least when that’s possible).


2.     Tensing Up

Perhaps your experience sometimes goes like this. You know it’s going to be a difficult conversation. You turn it over in my head beforehand. You think you’ve worked out what to say, but when it comes to it, you’re feeling tense. The other person responds badly and you tense up even more. You snap at them. This isn’t going well …

A mindful alternative: staying open to what’s happening. This means noticing tension whenever it arises and finding the space to be open to what the other person is saying, even if you don’t like it. Mindfulness practices can help.


3.     Keeping Going When You Really Need to Stop

It’s late afternoon and you notice strain creeping into your work, but you’re on a roll so you just keep going. That evening you’re shattered and realise that the strain was actually much greater than you felt at the time.

A mindful alternative: pacing yourself. Pacing means slowing down or stopping before you want to. That can be a challenge, but the experience of running long distances or managing pain shows that if you pace yourself you can achieve much more.


 4.     Rushing

Rushing happens when we’re so focused on a deadline that we prioritise speed over everything else. It can go like this: It’s morning and you’re trying to get yourself and the kids out of the house. You clean your teeth faster, eat your breakfast faster, talk faster. By the time you’re all on the road, you’ve had a couple of arguments and you’re rushing to work … and the day hasn’t really started yet.

A mindful alternative: getting off ‘autopilot’. It’s true that some things need to be done quickly, but bringing awareness to what’s happening interrupts the tendency to rush. We need cues to remind ourselves to get off autopilot and take things steadily.


5.    Trying to keep up with what’s happening

So much of the information that comes at us through the mainstream and social media carries a hidden message: ‘It’s important that you keep up stay in touch, otherwise you’ll be left behind.’ So we keep cramming more stimulation into our limited minds, squeezing out a the space in which we might feel calm and spacious

A mindful alternative: paying attention to what we take in through the senses and reducing input. Our attention is a precious commodity, we need to guard it carefully.

Link to original article 


The Five Precepts

handleaf[Image Source] If you’re not familiar with Buddhism, you may never have heard of the Five Precepts. They’re the ethical base of Buddhist practice, a sort of code that practicing Buddhists live by. They’re very closely tied to the Right Action spoke of the Eightfold Path, which, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, is part of the Ethical Conduct path of Buddhism. The Five Precepts are, in a word, central to Buddhist thought and practice.

In the West we’re quite used to commandments, and it’s easy to confuse the Five Precepts with some sort of list of commandments. They’re not. Nowhere in the precepts will you see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Instead, they’re formulated as choices, as voluntary undertakings, as decisions made by the individual because they make sense to the individual through practice and reflection, not because some cosmic (and potentially vengeful) being commanded them. Buddhists chant or recite them as reminders, as a kind of affirmation of the choice to practice.

The precepts have both negative and positive formulations, and in both, you can see how the practicing Buddhist enters into a kind of equal partnership with them. Take a look at the negative formulations first.

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.

4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

Notice that they all begin with “I undertake to abstain from…” Not “I vow not to…” or even “I will not...” For many Buddhists, in intention and in actual behavior, they do amount to vows, but they come from a humbler place, a place that recognizes that we don’t always get it right, even with the best of intentions. That doesn’t imply a lax attitude toward the precepts, but rather a compassionate attitude to ourselves.

We’ll look more closely at each of the precepts in later posts, but here’s a quick summary of how they’re usually understood:

1. The first precept is related to the practice of avihimsā, which is nonviolence, harmlessness, the absence of cruelty. For many Buddhists, but not all, this means vegetarianism, or even veganism. The central aim is to abstain from causing suffering to other sentient beings, human and non-human alike.

2. The second precept is obviously about not stealing, but it’s also a little more subtle. It’s about not manipulating people into giving, doing or saying things that they don’t give, do or say freely and voluntarily.

3. The third precept does not take the kind of moralistic attitude toward sex that we often see in the West. There’s no sense that sex itself is bad or sinful, but rather that since it’s such a basic human urge, it’s very susceptible to being misused, to being the source of harm. Obviously this covers issues like rape or sexual abuse, but it also covers sex that causes harm or pain to another married or partnered couple, or compulsive sex that causes harm to ourselves.

4. The fourth precept is about telling the truth, but not just in the sense of not lying. Buddhists are very concerned with attaining a vision of reality as it really is, and speech is one way that we can (further) distort reality for one another, not just through lying, but also through exaggerating, gossiping, and speaking ill of people.

5. The fifth precept is about drinking and taking drugs. Again, it’s not so much that these things are sinful in themselves, but rather that they interfere with mindfulness, the truthful and direct experience of the here-and-now. Some people take the fifth precept as a call to complete abstention, while others (usually the ones with more self-control!) take it as a reminder to stop after one or two.

We’ll end with the positive formulations of the five precepts, the flip side of the same coin in each case.

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

If the negative formulations are the stick, at least of a sort, the positive formulations are the carrot. They are the benefits that one may gain, “purified” body, speech, and mind that are not as vulnerable to the urges, the whims, the moods, the dissatisfaction, and the general uncertainty – the suffering – that we live with.


Metta from a Lifeboat


Image (c) Robert Blackwood

The metta bhavana can be a tough nut to crack. Its five stages, outlined in a recent post, are meant to evoke feelings of loving-kindness for different people, first for oneself, then for a friend, then for a neutral person, then for an enemy, and finally for everyone in the earlier stages, with an increasingly expanding circle that eventually includes all sentient beings.

I’ve learned a few ways of going about the meditation from different sources, including teachers, fellow sangha members, books, and even Google searches. The goal is to create a sense of loving-kindness, and how you get there in your own practice seems to be unimportant, so many people have advised me to try different approaches until I find one that works for me. Right now I’m using varying approaches that seem to work better for the different stages.

For Stage 1, where the focus is oneself, I usually visualize myself in a happy and safe setting. I’ve called up images from childhood, probably more iconic than historical, because I doubt I’m the only person who finds it much easier to feel loving-kindness for the child version of myself than for the adult version of myself. But using this kind of visualization opens the door to running away with the storyline, and a metta bhavana meditation can become a stroll down memory lane. Other times I’ll simply imagine myself sitting there on the cushion, from the vantage point of an observer who thinks, “this guy isn’t so bad after all…” That’s not quite metta, but it at least prepares the way.

For Stage 2, visualizing a close friend smiling or laughing usually does the trick, but I sometimes find myself wanting to know what my friend is laughing about. So off I go, following the storyline as I create it. Other times I’ll recite (some version of) the lines that many people use in the metta bhavana: May you be happy. May you be free from suffering. May you be loved…  The danger there of course is that it’s easy to simply recite the lines and forget about the metta itself, to just go through the motions without any emotion. But Stage 2 is generally the easiest stage, probably for most people, because you start from a point of naturally feeling metta for a close friend. That’s why one of my teachers sometimes reverses the order of the first two stages, starting with the one that comes prepackaged with a good amount of metta to get the ball rolling.

In Stage 3, I’ve found that what works best for me, so far at least, is to imagine that neutral person doing something mundane that I’ve never actually seen him or her do. Riding the subway, waking up in the morning, smiling at a partner or friend. There’s no storyline for me to fall into, but there is a sense of familiarity. This person does the same sort of things that everyone else does, myself included. So these images come with a sense of camaraderie, with that crucial recognition that we’re all in this together. That makes metta easier to cultivate.

I’ll skip to Stage 5 now, and then come back to Stage 4, and the lifeboat. Stage 5 starts out easily enough for me, with all four of us in a room, and me feeling by that point in the meditation enough metta to go from face to face and look on each of the players with loving-kindness. It’s the spreading-out that’s challenging for me. The expanding sphere image doesn’t work for me for the admittedly ridiculous reason that a sphere will include the layers of the earth before it reaches people on the other side of the globe, and I find myself fixating on images from high school geology textbooks. (I’ve admitted that this is ridiculous.) Spreading out over the surface of the planet is good enough, but I’m a bit of a map geek, so there are geographical distractions. Plus, it’s all so abstract, with a bit too many special effects for my tastes. What I usually do is a kind of shuffle of faces that I’ve encountered through the day, some real, most composites or complete fiction, and I try to look on each one as a real person, with all the same desires and challenges that I have. It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street and making an effort to look on each passer-by with metta, with a recognition of similarity rather than otherness.

Stage 4 is of course the most challenging, and the technique I use depends on whether I’m calling to mind simply someone who annoys me, or someone who I actually think of as an Enemy. Smiling, happy images tend to work for the former, while using the moon trick works for the latter. One of my teachers, the one who shared the moon trick with me, recently had another great suggestion for when I’m having a hard time getting past the past:

Imagine yourself in a very rough sea, with waves crashing around and on top of you. You’re coughing up water and at risk of going under, of drowning, but your Enemy is a few feet away in a lifeboat, and he or she is reaching out to you, trying to pull you out of danger, to save your life.

That really changes the dynamic! Suddenly the Enemy is not all bad, and maybe even quite good. You can imagine the look on his or her face, reaching as far out as possible to grasp your hands, really desperate to save you from drowning. Obviously you feel gratitude, which isn’t quite the same as metta, but which is at least something you can work with as a foundation for evoking feelings of metta.

I have a feeling that the metta bhavana is always going to be a work in progress, and it’s probably the case that people develop different approaches at different times, or with different players in the mix. The good news is that there’s an endless supply of practice opportunities off the cushion. The guy on his cellphone in the elevator next to me? May he be happy, may he be free from suffering… The woman paying by check in line at the grocery store ahead of me? May she be safe from inner and outer harm… And me? May I be filled with loving-kindness, at least some of the time


Put Them on the Moon


Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.

You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.

The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:

  • Stage 1: Yourself
  • Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
  • Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
  • Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
  • Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.

When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?

As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.

This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.

My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.

It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.

And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.


That Eureka Posture

I think it’s safe to say that right after I began meditating, the object of my concentration was neither the breath nor the cultivation of metta, but rather the pins and needles in my feet, the cramps in my legs, the ropey knot in my back, and the soreness in my buttocks. I tried many different postures – sitting on the mat, sitting further forward on the mat so that my knees touched the ground, sitting in a chair, straddling the cushion… they all seemed great at first, but within five minutes or so, the pins and needles, cramps, knots, and soreness began, then slowly got so bad that I was silently begging for the final bells.

Many of the books I was reading at the time had sections or entire chapters devoted to posture. At first I scanned them only because posture just didn’t seem important. I wanted to get on to the “real” stuff of meditation, and I couldn’t imagine that to be related to how one places one’s butt on a cushion. But soon enough I saw that my failure to take meditation posture seriously was going to be a huge hindrance to my practice. I went back to those books and read those sections carefully, but I still couldn’t quite understand what, exactly, I was doing wrong.

It wasn’t until my first retreat that I asked more experienced meditators for advice. We eventually decided that straddling was the best position for me, and then several of my sangha mates when to work erecting some strange contraption involving a folded yoga mat, two meditation cushions, a rolled up towel, some blankets, and some sort of foam block. The keys ingredients of my position on the contraption were:

  • knees on mat, foam, or something soft
  • proper height of cushions so that I was neither slumping nor teetering, so that…
  • …my sitz bone acted like a fulcrum, balancing the weight of my body above it
  • …and my ankles were lifted a bit off the ground so that my feet weren’t bent under too much weight

I was a bit skeptical, but we sat for an hour-long meditation, and at the end, I was thrilled to report that I felt no cramps, anywhere. When I got home from retreat I quickly reconstructed my meditation contraption.

cushions_mat_ankle restkneeling_medititation_posture

If you’re new to meditating, do not underestimate the importance of posture. And do not underestimate the advice of experienced meditators who can help you work your way through a few different options. Straddling the cushion is just one solution, and it worked for me, but it may not be the best solution for you. In our sangha we have people who straddle the cushion, people who sit cross-legged on it, and people who sit upright in chairs, with all sorts of minor variations. You’ll know when you’ve found your eureka posture, and then you can get back to the actual practice of meditation.