The Self: Thinking about the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, The “Great Forest of Wisdom”

Pretty quickly after starting my hike to Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest, I headed off on the “short cut” a steep climb up to the tea house that overlooks the Temple complex. The trail climbs up and in places the dirt is slippery, my shoes not biting into the soil. I slip, a little, and continue my ascent. Around me are fellow pilgrims, pushing up the trail. I met a man from Darjeeling, a couple from Singapore, two Indian soldiers off for the weekend, and a grandmother from Taiwan. Here we were, all together, taking this challenging path to the Temple, grateful for the cloudy skies and slight chill in the air.

The heavily forested slopes of the mountain on which Taktsang perches is a great place to get lost. Trails wind all over the side of the mountain, and it’s hard to even get a glimpse of the Temple. The only thing you can see, literally, are the pines in front of you as you make your way up the hill. You cannot see the Temple for the trees. It could be that the Temple is, in fact, not even there!

Taktsang Monastery, Summer 2018

This forest was the perfect metaphor for the moment. I was seeking wisdom through these trees, imaging that some moment of awareness might strike me as I made my way toward this illusory goal. This trek was my fifth trip up the mountain and my first on the short cut trail. At some point on the climb, I wondered if I was even headed in the right direction!

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the texts that suggests that we are in a great forest of wisdom and we don’t have the skill or wisdom to recognize the very thing that will set up free. The teaching, like many in Eastern philosophy, is a dialogue between two people, in this case Yajnavalka and Janaka, Yajnavalka is the teacher, Janaka is the student. In a series of questions and responses, the two edge toward the lesson, that the “Self” is pure awareness. Once that awareness is recognized, freedom from the cycle of birth and death is attained.

While the forest of the hillside below Taktsang includes a maze of trails headed to some distant point, our lives are similarly covered in “trees” each of which might obscure the path to understanding and awareness. While I’m pretty sure that this metaphor is NOT the one that was constructed for this teaching, it does fit my current state of existence nicely. As the Brihadaranyaka text states, we cannot see the Self as it is; it is surrounded by various aspects of our daily existence from senses, thoughts, emotions, and etc. In Buddhism this forest is the five skandhas. The things that keep us from seeing what we really need to see.

The obscured “Self” in the Brihadaranyaka text is always present, never sleeping, never changing. It is, as Eknath Easwaran translates, “…the light within the heart…” the constant pure awareness that exists within us all. (109) For me, walking up that forested hill, the truth is obscured as I breath heavily in the thick, monsoonal air, filled with rain, just about ready to burst. I make my way to Taktsang, almost mindless in my quest to achieve some level of understanding.

However, on this trek to Taktsang my body and mind lead me astray. I wonder at my physical health, just a few months from a terrible health scare. My mind is racing, wondering which trail to take next. My injured right knee is explaining to me, in a kind of tortured voice, that it’s in some pain. My mind is disheveled, wondering about the students and adults being led by Namgay, our tour guide. Is everyone ok as they take on the well-worm path to the tea house? I think about my family, my parents, money, food, EVERYTHING that can possibly come to mind on this hike, does.

My experience of the hike is exactly what the Brihadaranyaka is all about. We are consciously trapped in a world of our own making. We built the forest we now travel through and the forest keeps us from seeing the truth of it all. Masking the very nature of our being, we are struggling through life in various forms.

And. And. There is a way out. The answer is one of the reasons I was drawn to Hindu and Buddhism philosophy in the first place. There is always a way out and through. The Brihadaranyaka says it like this:

“When all desires that surge in the heart

Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal.

When all the knots that strangle the heart

Are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal,

Here in this very life.”

Eknath Easwaran, translator. The Upanishads. Nilgiri Press: Tomales, CA. 2007. 115

Once I reach the Temple and drop off my backpack in the security area, I walk up the steps to the various shrine rooms, listening to Namgay explain the place, hearing the chatter of other pilgrims, watching two women ask for a blessing from a resident monk, others placing money and food as offerings. Slowly, my mind comes to rest after the climb, the steps to the temple, and unencumbered by a backpack filled with gear. Shoeless and plodding, I feel lighter, aware of my surroundings. I prostrate to Padmasambhava in one of the secluded rooms, and sit, for a few moments, meditating on the moment. I wonder, what did I hope to attain? Is that desire to make it to the temple the one thing that was blocking me from recognizing awareness?

I hike back down the mountain. It takes me about forty-five minutes to get down, less than half of the time it took for me to climb. I ponder all that I had experienced and try to release all of the tension I felt. The return trek is, in fact, much more mindful than anything I had done going up to the Temple grounds. I started to see beyond the trees. I also learned, on that day, that being able to see past the trees, the skandhas, the senses, emotions, thoughts, and body is the stuff of meditation. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to lay it all down and experience that thing that the Brihadaranyaka is all about.

May you be happy, May you be well.

From the Upanishads to the Heart Sutra: A Side Trip into Nihilism

As I’ve delved into the various teachings that are informing my world right now, I finished going through the Katha Upanishad and am deep into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Both works are taking me into the origins of Buddhist philosophy and as such as giving me so much to think about and work with.

As part of this study, I reread the Heart Sutra. At first it was just a way to refresh my thoughts about the ways in which the Katha Upanishad and the Heart Sutra are connected. What my study became, however, was a much deeper struggle and very challenging meditations on the meaning of the Heart Sutra. Beware, fellow human, meditation can lead one into very dark places. As I have heard Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse say many times, meditation and mindfulness are not for the faint of heart and, more importantly, that it often can upend one’s life in a moment. His words are so accurate when it comes to my own struggles.

I started my reading of the Heart Sutra with Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Her words and laughter made the Sutra less intimidating and allowed me a commentary to latch onto much as I had done with Eknath Easwaran’s words at the beginning of the Katha Upanishad. Her commentary is complex and effusive, offering not just insights into the Heart Sutra but also into our own nature. She constantly reminds the reader that we can get in our own way while medidating and studying these Buddhist texts. The texts can become, she says, the trappings of a superficial dharma. We use the dharma to suit our needs rather than aspiring to the principles of serving all sentient beings.

As those words rattled in my brain, I wondered at my own choice of dharma study. What was I really trying to do here? Why look into these various religious texts and seek to uncover some new found truth for myself. Was this practice just another in my own self-centered way to soothe my ego mind and try to understand my world and its problems? Was this just a shallow, self-referential treatment of these deep philosophical notions?

At first, of course, I thought not. My approach is for all sentient beings and that my aim was true, to quote Elvis Costello. I soon found, however, that this altruistic approach was just another way for my ego to reframe my study to make me feel better about what I was doing. I did not discover this problem until I was deep into the meditation on the Heart Sutra.

Sitting down and beginning a practice is always a challenge, and being present for the moments to come is one of those ways in which our mind surveils our practice. We think “be in the present moment.” Of course we can be, AND at the same time, our ego mind is lurking in our mind, just waiting to strike. At least that’s what I think I experienced. Let me explain: as I sat to meditate on these lines, I opened a path into a deep, dark place. The lines were,

“So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

I logically, rationally understand that emptiness is shunyata/sunyata and that it means no substantiality, no permanence, the interdependence of all things, and the constant flux of our existence. At the same time, emotionally, these ideas struck at the heart of who I was. As I went into stillness, I felt a sensation of falling into darkness. Fear rose and I felt a sense of dread and foreboding. This sensation caught me off guard and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had dug into the wrong hole at the wrong time. Nihilism emerged, and I felt meaningless and literally empty; a kind of void, blank.

The phrase “lean in” has been used and overused recently and in this moment my attempt at leaning in took me deeper into that oblivion. Rather than emerging into a sense of wholeness and connectedness that I had experienced before, now I was stuck in the worst kind of place. Darkness overtook me and here I was, floating in this void. It was awful.

I ended my meditation, dedicated the merit, and sat there. I found myself crying, big tears flowing down my face. I shook, helpless in the moment, overcome with this terrible feeling. I immediately thought about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse and his words on meditation practice, “It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy.

Dharma is not therapy. There it is. As clear as can be. I had entered the practice on the Heart Sutra as a kind of therapy during COVID. In fact, I started down this intellectual path reading the Upanishads and the Heart Sutra as a way to open my mind, change my perspective, understand something in the context of COVID. What I ended up doing is making every possible mistake on the path of releasing my own grief and frustration at my life and the life of my family during this pandemic. I pursued the Heart Sutra as a strange kind of balm, not realizing that what it really did was shatter my ego mind, thus leading to that sense of nothingness. The nothingness, it seems, was my terrified ego screaming into the darkness. “You’re destroying me!”

Destroying ego, in fact, is one goal of meditation. Crushing the self-clinging ego mind and the ambitious path we set ourselves on is one aspect of who we claim to be. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche had told me this story. I read her words over again, after the meditation, and I think I finally started to get it. I was using the Dharma as that balm, a salve for the pain I was feeling. It’s not therapy and not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, it’s challenging in every way, and it’s the path I have chosen.

May you be happy, may you be well.

Into the Depths of the Katha Upanishad

At the end of each year, I often dive into a kind of self reflection and assessment of what the past year was like and what I hope to accomplish or uncover in the coming year. This process of reflection has taken me down some very interesting roads and sometimes revealed the complexity of my ego mind in rationalizing my life and choices.

This December, I began the process again using a tool supplied by the folks at Monk Manual. This approach to planning has been helpful and I’ve taken it step by step, gradually answering a series of questions and plumbing the depths of my mind.

In this process of self-reflection, I turned to the Katha Upanishad and the Upanishad translations by Eknath Easwaran. I really have enjoyed his writing style and his translation/interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita is remarkable. The Katha Upanishad is one of the great works of spirituality and religion, and taking on Easwaran’s translation has been eye opening and valuable in examining the whole notion of the “self”.

In my effort to unpack my deluded mind I live with everyday, I found my way into the Katha Upanishad, taking it slowly this time, walking through the concepts and information that is the heart of this spiritual teaching. Written centuries before most Buddhist works, this text offers a fascinating insight into the nature of the “self.” The self, according to the teaching, is immutable, unchanging, and eternal. The very notion of the Self or Atman is a powerful force in spirituality as so many of us hope and wish for some kind of continuation after our physical deaths. The Katha Upanishad offers a way forward, a way into knowing what the Self is and how it can be known.

With pen in hand and journal opened, I forced open the pages of my journal and began the effort of putting into words the ideas I learned about MY self and the Hindu concept of Self. This path has taken me, so far, into the depths of philosophical questions about Self and finding the synergy between this Hindu Self and the Buddhist notion of true nature or Rigpa. Funny. That’s A LOT of work for someone just reflecting on their past and immediate future! Ha!

As I understand it, the Katha Upanishad tells us an ancient truth: that something within us continues after our physical bodies die. (Easwaran 78) This so-called “truth” is, of course, disputed by science. We have no analytical evidence of a continuation of some form of life after death, unless you consider the life our bodies give to bacteria and microorganisms as we decompose. Still, the “truth” of a eternal Self is considered established by many cultures and societies. A recent series of articles on the topic, including this National Geographic essay, offer insights into what happens after death. While these kinds of ancedotal experiences are interesting, the Katha Upanishad offers a relatively clear message as to what happens to our being. It is THIS Self that I am exploring as I wonder about my recent past and future.

The concept of a Self existing beyond the realm of death is fascinating in and of itself, but what really intrigues me and the things that drove me to reopen the Katha Upanishad and examine the concept of the Self is the whole idea of a Self. Is there, in fact, an eternal Self? What do I mean by a Self? Something that is akin to who I am right now in this existence? Or is Self something other than a collection of thoughts and emotions floating for lifetimes in an ocean of samsara? Am I “me” for eternity?

The Katha Upanishad reveals that the Self, as referenced here, is “immutable” and exists without the limits of the physical contact of the body. The text states, “The supreme self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible…” (Easwaran 82) Even more fascinating here is that the Upanishad says that Brahma, Aditi, and Agni are “the self indeed” making the connection between Self and gods. That one connection, that one idea bridges the distance between what gets called the Self with what Buddhism refers to as true nature or Rigpa.

Here’s my thought; in Buddhism, I’ve read repeatedly how Buddhist philosophy denies the existence of an eternal “self” as mentioned in the Upanishads and elsewhere in the world. That our understanding of the self is not based on what really is eternal. What is eternal, in essence, is a true nature that is ONE with Buddha or buddha nature. This immutable Rigpa is the thing that continues from lifetime to lifetime. What hit me hard when I was rereading the Katha Upanishad was that the Self, an independent existing entity, is, in fact, not what the story is about. The Self is, in fact, comprised of these various god qualities. The Self, then, is not this unique, untethered being. The Self is the connection to gods or god. It is unity with the ultimate nature of the universe.

OK, yea, that stuff I said above has all been said before, but reading it, in this way, this time, opened my mind in such a way that it redefines my understanding of Self. Too, the Katha Upanishad offers that the way to understanding this Self is through meditation and those who “abandon unrighteous ways” and who “still the mind.” The connection to Buddhism and Buddhist thought and practice, then, becomes clear and self evident. Establishing a meditation practice and allowing for the non-dual understanding of everything becomes the key to unlocking the path to Nirvana, Enlightenment and etc. Again, yea, I knew that and after reading these passages, I know it.

In the next couple of posts, my plan is to dig a bit deeper into the Katha Upanishad and consider some of the other paths offered in the reading. If YOU haven’t read the Katha Upanishad and want to have a go at it, it is so worth it and helps to reveal some of those ideas that linger in our waking minds.

May you be happy, may you be well!

Tonglen for a Tortured Soul

The swinging doors bang open and the gurney is shoved into the Emergency Room. An elderly man is on the gurney gasping for air, his life ebbing away. I sit within six feet behind an opened glass doorway, watching as the paramedics work their magic on his frail body. Chest compressions, IVs, a tube snaked down his airway to provide oxygen to his rapidly declining oxygen saturation levels. The movement around this human is frantic in stark contrast to his body, unmoving, responding only to the reaction of the hands on his chest, the tube down his throat. Chemicals are injected into his body. No obvious physical response. He moans as they push down on his chest.

In the midst of these heroic measures to revive this dying patient, I wonder at his life, his family, his current situation. Are family members waiting for word of his condition just outside the room? Will he survive another day?

In those last moments of this man’s life, I turn to Tonglen, giving all compassion and love that I have and taking on any suffering this man has experienced. These first tentative steps in this practice in this “real life” are awkward. I reach into my mind for the structure of the practice and slowly, as if learning how to think for the first time, begin the offering. As the patient wheezes on the gurney, I imagine taking on his suffering as my own. I visualize the suffering as a kind of dark smoke lifting from his body and into my own. As it enters, I dispel the ichor into the bright, clear, luminous nature of my mind, imagining the cloud dissipating into nothing. In exchange, I breath out love and compassion as I hear the paramedics use technical jargon to refer to the passing of this man’s life from his body. I stay with the practice until they take his body away, wheeling the portable bed to another room in the hospital. After about thirty minutes, I rest.

Breathe in all of the pain and suffering; breathe out all of the love and compassion.”

Tonglen, taking on suffering and giving compassion, is one of the main practices in my meditation routine. I’ve followed this practice after hearing a teaching from Alek Zenkar Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave a concise talk on the nature of Lojong and Tonglen, and the need for such a practice in our lives. At it’s core, it is about ending the false sense of dualism in our lives; the idea that we are somehow separate from everyone around us. Tonglen helps us recognize that, at our core, we are all the same. We will all face the tragic end of our lives on a gurney, in a hospital bed, or in some other setting we rarely get to choose.

As I reflect on my own experience with Tonglen, I’m drawn into the strange and sad tale of our current state of existence in the United States. The stark and sharp divisions between political parties and, more importantly, families and individuals, it harrowing. In my own situation, distant family members have decried the “fraud” in the election and the spread of “fake news.” Their anger, unwieldy and disconnected from reality, is obvious.

It has taken me a while, and, now I begin the process of Tonglen related to my family. To genuinely and passionately take on that fear and anger only to release back love and compassion. I imagine going to a Trump rally and simply being in the place, doing this same practice for those around me. To ask nothing in return and to give without acceptance or recognition.


About twenty-seven minutes into the movie Travellers and Magicians, the monk says to Dondup to be careful of trying to travel to or search for a dreamland. The monk warns that when you wake up from your dreamland, the result might not be so pleasant. This moment in the movie strikes me as the kind of life I have lived; (and to a certain extent, still do) hoping for a better outcome than the one I’ve experienced so far. Within my grasp, I imagine, is a possibility of some alternative future.

Ahhh but as the movie shows us, hope can be elusive and is kind of like living in a dream in which everything that is in front of us (in front of me) gets pushed aside for some future possibility. Sounds like a clear definition of a dreamworld.

Duck Lake, Fall 2014

Too, searching for some kind of unknowable future state of being is, in fact, one reason for suffering. The kind of suffering that evokes mental and emotional pain and anxiety. Living in a constant state of what could be is a means of denying what is. At least, that is my experience.

So, the big question is, how to manage some imagined future possibility within the framework of no expectations. For example, playing a basketball game with no outcome in mind. Win or lose, the outcome does not matter; it’s playing the game and playing it well that is determinative of your accomplishment. Of course, the problem with this analogy is that our lives are not games to be played. As I can attest to here in COVIDland, these experiences are not playful. We are just trying to make it through without hurting ourselves and each other.

As I think on the idea of no expectations and imagining a possible future, I’m drawn back to the The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the section on “The Nature of Appearances.” In that section, Padmasambhava said, “Now, with regard to the diversity of relative appearances; They are perishable; not one of them is genuinely existent.” (53) In effect, all ideas, thoughts, emotions come from our minds and, as a result, are at their core are empty or insubstantial. The words, “not one of them is genuinely existent” sticks with me as I imagine a world outside of COVID and restrictions, of the chance to experience the world without hesitation.

And then…and then, I think about what my expectations for a non-COVID experience are like, and I suddenly realize the privilege and power implied in the “outcome” of not being under the threat of a virus and disease. What I understand, is that my privilege has given me the opportunity to choose a path unlike so many fellow humans in the world. I’ll have the chance to experience a multitude of moments after COVID, something that billions in the world will not face. My moments of inconvenience with this disease are daily occurrences in places all over the planet. For just one example, food insecurity for children and families represents the kind of restriction on behavior and choices I’m feeling now. Yet for those humans facing terrible questions about not having or finding food, their experience never goes away.

…on the way up to the Tiger’s Nest Temple, Paro, Bhutan 2013

So, I’m pulled back into the realization that this moment is passing for me but not for many in the world. I’m faced with the recognition that, when it comes down to it, having compassion for all of us going through COVID and extending that to all of us who are experiencing any kind of horrible circumstance is the path through this momentary inconvenience for those of us lucky enough to be born in a favorable circumstance.

I wish you well, fellow humans, on this path and strange existence. My wish for you is that you find your own, kind way through the pandemic.

The Words of My Perfect Teacher?

Soygal Rinpoche, the disgraced former spiritual director and leader of Rigpa International, was and is my teacher. His death in August 2019 came as a kind of sharp contrast to the effusive teacher I knew from retreats and videos of his teachings. For years I studied under Rigpa and Rinpoche going through the Ngondro teachings and finally moving into the heart of Dzogchen. The teaching I received were transformative and I came to find a sense of awareness in the way Rinpoche brought the dharma to me.

After more than a year and a half after his death, I am still learning from Rinpoche through the teachings I have on DVDs and on my computer. The messages and the information is remarkable in the way it reaches the core of my being. He did, in a very real sense, speak directly to me.

Last week, I had a series of dreams featuring Rinpoche and his teachings. In the dream, we sat in a room together, across from each other, he communicating information, ideas, and a direction for my practice. These dreams, three in all, were vivid the morning after the dreams and remain so to me on this Thursday in November. The messages he imparted I’m writing here as a way to try and work through the various ideas that came from the dreams.

Now, before you get all “it’s just a dream”, I know that whatever my mind produces in my sleep is supposed to be just another aspect of my ego mind. People in your dreams are, for the most part, just reflections or expressions of ourselves. I understand that. So, the teachings I received in the dreams are just me talking to me through Rinpoche’s visage. While my rational mind can and does understand those various elements of dreams, the interaction I had in the dream feels somehow meaningful.

Sogyal Rinpoche from the Lion’s Roar article

The first dream started in the middle of a teaching. Rinpoche was sitting slight askew to my position so that I was looking at the right side of his face, as if he was slightly facing away, only looking at me through his right eye. He was dressed in his gold-colored robe with a yellow button down shirt. His demeanor was casual but intense. Like he had to get out what he needed to say as quickly as possible. That sense of earnestness was palpable, and I tried hard to listen to each and every word in the dream.

As I think back on the words he was saying, they came out so fast that I couldn’t grasp everything. A sense of “I’m missing the important parts” of his words was a thought I had in the dream and I wondered if I would remember this all when I woke up. That sense of knowing that I was in a dream is something I have experienced before and this feeling was heightened in these moments.

As he spoke, I grasped that he was talking about the teachings in the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche. The conversation we had was about the stages of the Ngondro and how to actualize those teachings into concrete actions in my life. I had written down, a few years ago, a practice guide, for myself, to help me focus on what I needed to do. In the dream, Rinpoche told me what I needed to change about my practice and where I needed to go, now.

Patrul Rinpoche

The rest of the conversations were like two acquaintances talking about the world and the situations we find ourselves in. The conversations were less like teachings and more about Rinpoche’s interpretation of the world we experience. Through all of this, I asked about his betrayal of some of his student’s trust. When I initially asked he demurred. When I pushed harder, he looked at me, directly now, and told me about his failure as a teacher and spiritual guide.

The dreams and the experiences of the dreams were interesting and, in some ways, bizarre. This experience of Rinpoche was not the only time I have had dreams about him and his teachings, but this was the first that spoke directly to me and my practice.

Surely my experience was another way for me to center and ground my practice. Too, it was a reminder that I have been lax in staying focused and attentive. Finally, whether Rinpoche came to me or not, the fact is that his teachings were meaningful to me. The challenge, really, is how much of the teaching I keep, considering his behavior in this life. That part of my learning, I’m still trying to understand.

Living with Fearful Thinking

My sister dropped me on Instagram having heard enough, I suspect, of my support for individuals on the fringes of society. Maybe it was my post on children in cages at the border, or maybe it was the lack of a pandemic response? I’m not sure what her last straw was (we haven’t spoken, yet), but I suspect it is the fear-based thoughts about the coming American apocalypse as promoted by the current Administration.

In recent days, the president has proclaimed that seniors would have no air conditioning, that projects will be built in suburban neighborhoods, and that crime was coming to the doorstep of families far and wide with the election of Democrats this year. The fear mongering is impressive in the hysteria promoted by the current president and from my conversations with my sister, it’s clear to me that she and her family have bought into that mindset.

Really, however, it’s not the current moment that has so many people spooked in the United States. Fear-thinking has been around for a very long time in this country and has been used by many people to encourage actions as broad as violence toward groups of people to voting for a candidate. Fear, it seems, is a powerful motivator for some.

In my own lifetime, I can remember Ronald Reagan scaring the public with the threat of Russians threatening global extinction through their nuclear arsenal. Reagan, using the language of war, claimed that his election would turn the tide on the rising conflict and help prevent the kind of destruction the nation might see with the election of Carter. His fear mongering, similar to the current president, promoted the idea that people must vote based on their fear of what could be. In a famous ad “The Bear in the Woods” Reagan suggested that a bear (a Russian bear) was lurking in the woods ready to attack. This ad displayed, as clearly as any, the fear that some force was coming for America.

Why, then, are people acting based on fear? Why is fear such a powerful force in this election and in the United States?

While we can name numerous factors that play into the current state of fear (COVID spreading, economic catastrophe, murder hornets) one core piece of the puzzle is the role racial politics play in the way Americans see themselves and the world. The deeply ingrained fear of the “other”; Native tribes, black men, Irish, German, and Mexican immigrants, thugs, robbers, thieves in the night, the boogyman, or gay men marching in a Pride Parade are all threats to the structure of a civil society in American cultural history. It only takes a famous person or powerful government official to fan the flames of fear, bringing along with it the commensurate reaction of an easily manipulated populace.

In this context, those of us not driven by these various societal dog whistles watch in astonishment as those around us are driven to panic. Offering compassion and kindness seems to illicit an equal and opposite response of hate and anger. Staying in that moment with a loved one filled with such resentment is hard. In most cases I’ve witnessed and been a part of, the situation only resolves when one person leaves the situation (aka my sister dropping me on Instagram).

Too, avoiding the smug reaction of indignity and sense of entitlement at having the “right” response in this moment is the wrong approach. Those who are caught in thinking things will be worse after a candidate is elected or that some group of people will tare down their homes, fall into the trap that our lives are based on some mythical perception of how things could be better “if only” this happens. In fact, we know that even in some of the worst cases in the world, lives move on and the world continues to spin. (I am NOT saying that elections or social changes don’t matter; they do have an impact AND our power to resist is more broad and effective than we imagine)

As I contemplate what I am going to say to my sister, I think about how, given her situation, what chance does she have to escape the fear she lives with in her life? Watching Fox television and buying into the various conspiracy theories about our world that feed the fear she feels is almost impossible to stop. I am not, it seems, a savior.

What I can do, however, is be present to hear those fears and listen. Not to change her mind, but to repeat back to her the thinking she is articulating. Maybe, by helping her hear her own words, she can hear the fear that captures her imagination. I’m not sure what the answers are for our family and friends. What I do know is not having an answer is, actually, the best place to be.

Grinding It Out

My wheels spin on this blustery day as I speed past the multicolored autumnal view in front of me. The day is warm, too warm for a late October ride, and I pedal my bike with a kind of fury I haven’t felt in a few days. The riders I pass smile through masks and sometimes wave. I feel a sense of urgency and the need to please as I encounter each rider, slightly raising my left hand in a common “Hello” as we pass each other. The headwind makes me really work for my progress and, on this day, I’m feeling prepared for it’s onslaught.

This Sunday ride, the kind of ride I’ve taken for the past three years, is my long, slow pedal around Albuquerque. The day moves slowly and the ride seems to drift or float as if it’s not really me pushing the bike forward. I slide in and out of daydreaming, recognizing that I’ve traveled miles not aware of exactly what has passed. I always wake from my slumber to half-raise my left hand at a passing rider, jogger, or skater. That one act is my only acknowledgement of the world around me. I am, as they say, in the zone.

On this particular Sunday, I’m wearing my Day of the Tread jersey. This one piece of attire represents so much in my present and past. I’ve survived a Heart Event, three years in the past, and this ride is significant in that it marks a milestone in my life. On this day three years ago, I rode about 50 miles on the annual Day of the Tread event in Albuquerque. Think of the event as kind of a party ride; people dressed in costume on their bikes celebrating everything from Halloween to the Day of the Dead, Dia De Muertos. We start in downtown Albuquerque to the sound of music blaring and riders excited at the prospect of a day in the saddle.

Day of the Tread, 2017

In that ride, now in my distant past, I felt good, pushing my Cannondale with my friend Rocky on that morning. It was the first long ride I joined that year. My body did not revolt, as I thought it would, and I came home feeling energized and happy about my progress. A week later, I was in a hospital bed in the ER, wondering if I would survive the night.

Fast forward to Sunday, October 25th. I’m riding along the trail thinking about that past and wondering about my future.

Day of the Tread, 2018

My heart and its physical health is one of the things that propels me forward on this windy morning in Albuquerque. The ride feels like a rescue effort, a personal reflection on the chances of death that I face on a daily basis. And. And. The reality is that we are all in that moment. We just don’t think about it, do we? At any time we can face the ticking the clock; you know the one, that big one ticking down your life. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that the clock will tick one final time for us all.

So, I ride. I ride for myself. I ride for my family. Literally, I ride for my life. The miles i Put in, the stress I put on my heart is a good thing. With each pedal stroke I think about all of these things that have happened and the reasons I ride. I imagine that each push on the pedal is me one step closer to being healthier. Each time I raise my leg and force it back down, I’m supporting my two daughters and hope for the chance at long years with them as they grow up and find answers in their own lives. Too, I’m working for my parents and the opportunity to step in when they need my support. For all of the reasons stated above, I am on this trail on October 25th in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Day of the Tread, 2019

Sometimes, it’s the easiest path to fall into the feeling of that grief reality of death. By contrast, however, I have the choice, we have the choice, to open up to compassion. Yes, we all face our own ends. In that knowledge we can take hold of that common experience and extend ourselves into the feeling of compassion for all folks facing this one stark reality. We are all in this boat, all of us alive today, and we can extend a hand of friendship and support to each other in this moment.

My ride, then, has become something much greater than me on a bike on a trail. Me on a bike represents the move toward something much greater than myself. It’s a meditation on impermanence. Everything changes. Maybe, in this moment, I can make a difference in the lives of those around me. I think that’s what my ride on the Day of the Tread ultimately was all about.

Day of the Tread, 2020

To See Yourself As You Really Are

Students are streaming into the Zoom call as I begin a lesson on Ancient Greek Philosophy. The “faces” that look out from their bedrooms, desks, or black screens with bright white letters are dull, virtual representations of students. Reactions are delayed; attempts at laughter or reaction fall flat. Screens click on and off a live view. We are all caught in this moment together; trying to learn something about the distant past in the present personal and community crisis we face.

Who do these students see? What image an I projecting out into their worlds? My screen is always live, active, talking or cajoling them into some kind of response. How do these fellow humans see me and how can I see myself as I really am? Not as some kind of projection, but as some kind of authentic me?

Captured in a room prepping for the next class…

I think about how the COVID experience has changed the way I think and feel. We are all, I believe, subject to dependent arising; that what happens around us shapes our understanding and reaction to the world around us. We are caught, for better or worse, in these shifts in society and changes in the world around us. In fact, in a very post-modern sense, we are shaping each other around the world. For example, I planned to lead a trek in Bhutan this coming summer…the chances of that happening seems impossible. Not taking students to Bhutan will affect the folks who are counting on that income. Many people will be affected, economically, from the decisions we make in COVID land.

But it’s beyond all that, isn’t it. We are affected economically, and it’s the human interaction that is being reshaped by these quarantine and distancing rules. Who we ARE is molded by every decision in every moment by people we know and many who we do not. Who we really are is changing, moment to moment, into something else entirely.

Still, I haven;’t answered my own question: who am I to these students? What am I projecting to them? Doubt? Fear? Self-loathing? Or hope, a sense of calm, awareness in the now? Maybe, more directly, that talking about ideas can be a balm in these very difficult circumstances.

So, in the Zoom class, I pose questions, I ask about the connections between Plato and us…his idea of an individual verses how we now perceive the world. Can we find some way of making those contacts to the distant past and learn something from it? On this day, in this class, no. We don’t. Students are silent, dulled by their experience, driven to distraction by the very low hum of the computer screen and the glare of the LED lights brilliantly flashing into the eyes of those held captive by the classroom meeting. It’s the early AM and those blank screens shouting back at me, “leave me alone” are oppressive.

I struggle to make contact, emotionally, intellectually, anyway I can. And yet. And yet….the screens send back their forceful message…no, not today, sir. I imagine my students saying, “not in this moment as we are forced to endure this class by the powers that placed us here.” Tragically we both are struggling with these virtual spaces, each of us wondering at our own selves.

We all see the limits of human interaction in this electronic medium. At the same time, we experience the very question that is now a part of our daily existence: who am I in this virtual sphere? Where am I in this COVID land? Am I who I was or am I somebody else.

It is without question in my own mind that, yes, we are not who we were and, more importantly, we will never be who we were. That lesson could lead to a glimmer of hope: if I am not who I was, who CAN I be?

The Many Forms of Meditation

First and foremost, I do not claim to be anything or anyone but myself. What I mean by that statement is that I have no special expertise or knowledge in the areas of meditation and meditative practice. Like many of us, I am a practitioner without a degree, so to speak, in meditation. That being said, I have experienced meditation in a number of ways and some of those ways have been very valuable to my mental health.

Meditation, as traditionally taught and practices, involves sitting on a floor on a cushion for some period of time. At its root, meditation is a practice of recognition; recognition of your thoughts and emotions as they sweep across our fragile mental state. Once recognition occurs, then the practitioner can begin o play around with methods for understanding where the root of these thoughts and emotions is. As I am sure you have heard, at the core of this recognition is the knowledge that thoughts and emotions are, at their root, of empty essence. They are not tangible, hard and fast things that are permanent fixtures. Once we become aware of the fact that our thoughts and emotions are NOT ourselves, we are freed from the kinds of suffering that comes from those same mental formations. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

The thing is, sitting on a floor on a cushion is just one way to find the kind of recognition and awareness that meditation offers. We can, for example, find similar experiences in a variety of different methods that help us reach that same place. As the teacher say, of course, nothing really compares to just sitting and not moving for an extended period do time AND I can offer my experience as a kind of balance to that one idea about meditation.

One Method for Students and Ourselves

As a History teacher in middle and high school, I’ve had the chance to use these methods with students to help them become a bit more aware of themselves. For example, I’ll often find, when teaching 8th grade, that some boys will often poke, touch, or physically mess with other boys in a class. Some of that behavior is so automatic that they don’t even know they are doing it! Getting them to have awareness of their bodies is something that teachers have done for millennia. We don’t call it meditation practice nor, I imagine, would meditation teachers refer to the method of changing a behavior in class as a meditation practice. Nonetheless, here is one alternative method to sitting meditation.

I’ll often call for a break in class to reorient the room. Then, we will, together, walk in circles in the class, saying nothing. I make it a kind of game….stay an arm length apart, don’t touch the person in front or behind and just walk, slowly, around the room….I’ll gradually speed up the exercise. The students start giddy and silly, and as the speed increases and the rule about not touching gets harder to accomplish, they concentrate on NOT touching and on walking quickly. Soon, the room is silent expect for the patter of feet on the ground. Heavy breathing happens and in some students they start to sweat a little. After a couple of minutes we slow down the pace, walking ever more slowly until we are barely walking. Then we will find our seats and sit quietly for another minute or two.

Once the students are seated, a quiet calm extends over the room. Of course, it doesn’t last long…in 13 and 14 year olds NOTHING lasts very long and if it does their minds and bodies go crazy. Still, in that moment of calm I notice that the deed is done; they are now aware, for a minute, of who they are in their bodies.

Mild Exercise as Meditation

Moving or doing a physical activity is ONE method for entering a meditative state. It can be as simple as walking slowly and then faster and slower, changing speed and movement, until our thoughts are slowed and our minds are more clear of rising thoughts and emotions. It’s that GAP, that moment when we slow down, that the thoughts are still and we can feel the space between constant thought and emotion. It’s the very moment of awareness of that space where we can recognize the concept of emptiness. In that moment, we are not nothing, we are, in fact full. Full of potential and awareness, ready to take the next step in our practice.

Strenuous Exercise as Meditation

If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is a point in which your thinking mind turns off and you are one with the game, the team, the moment. It takes a bit of training and effort to reach this point. The training is really in getting your body to move in the ways it needs to to accomplish the game. So, in basketball, learning the shooting motion or dribbling the basketball without loosing it, those two actions, when learned well, allow the player to no longer think about the action. It’s in those moments that our minds empty of thoughts and the action becomes automatic. The trick is to stay in that moment of empty thoughts and emotions, and recognize that it is present. That moment in time is part of that same idea of recognizing the GAP between thoughts and staying with it.

With practice, the space between thoughts can grow to the point that any form of movement can bring about this experience…the space between thoughts…and expand the awareness of the present moment.

My Experiences with Meditation

I use many methods for meditation. When I first stepped into the stream of Buddhism, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, he said,

If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us… then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes… If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.

Meditation can be, in fact, washing dishes, vacuuming the house, mopping the floor, mowing the grass, weeding a garden, or any other daily act we do. Meditation can be the focus of any act in our lives.

What this all means is that rather than thinking of meditation as a separate activity, we bring the meditation to any activity. In those moments, meditation is an ongoing, constant state of mind rather than a cordoned off moment sitting in a shrine room in our house or attending a meditation practice in a place other than our own homes and outside of our lives.

Meditation becomes the source rather than the addendum. It can be the center of our lives.

For me, I ride bicycles. It’s my chosen form of exercise. I ride and ride and ride. It serves multiple purposes for me; to be exercising as a means of maintaining my body and a place of silence and stillness. A couple of weeks ago, I entered a complete state of meditation to the point that I had ridden many miles and they passed in a moment. In a blink of an eye I was miles down the rode in a state of mental stillness. I was surprised when I broke the meditation and found myself somewhere far down the road. Probably not the BEST thing to do on a crowded street, but on a country road outside of town, a perfect chance to just be in the moment. Riding my bike and doing nothing else.

Be well, my friends. Take good care of yourself and each other.