In certain moments an internal dialogue starts up when faced with food that is, for lack of a better word, bad for your diet and eating plan. Last night, I made nachos for my daughters and made them as clean as possible: not a lot of cheese, chips that were baked, not fried, and fresh salsa. Nevertheless, for me, the saturated fat in the nachos was not the best option and while I was tempted to partake, I did not. What was the thing that kept me from ingesting this tasty treat? What was present, in my mind, to replace the temptation?
Each time I am tempted to eat something that is not on my eating plan, the thing I bring to mind is my hospital visit. I think about laying in that bed, unsure of what my situation was, wondering at what doctors might find. That unsure feeling of what was happening to my body and what I could do to correct, adjust, or alter my path. Those moments of foggy perception I keep with me when I am faced with a food choice. It’s, simply put, this idea: I never want to be unsure again…at least in this way…in terms of my health. That’s why I stay vigilant on the path of eating what I now know is good for my body and my particular situation.
In a similar way, I stay focused on my practice using the same basic approach; if I veer off of the path of enlightenment for all sentient beings I am actually letting down many people who rely on those of us who seek to make things better. I often think that if we all just cared for one person other than ourselves we would heal the entire world…if we were focused on the needs of just one person over our own needs we would find a transformed community.
Now I’m not here to lambast anyone at all; we all make choices and I have as well. The simple fact is that it’s clear we face many choices that take us in one direction or other that doesn’t really help those around us or ourselves.
I’m not one to gush about diets and such. We all choose our paths to good health and eating. I’m also convinced that making a choice for your health is one based on your own ideas, insights, and research. What I am communicating here is what I am eating, specifically, and what the impact has been on my body and mind. The following details are meant simply to tell my story in hopes that someone will benefit from this knowledge.
Briefly, I prepared salads and hot meals by adding just about any vegetable I could find. I scanned the cookbooks for ideas about combining foods and settled on eating wild and brown rice, a quinoa blend of grains and seeds, and heating vegetables in a pan using a wide variety of spices. I wanted to create meals that were as simple as possible to prepare and store in the refrigerator so that I NEVER had to think about what to eat. I found that if I had to think about what to eat, I made poor food choices. So, I made lots of food.
Finally, sautéed tofu (without oil)
I Started with Wild and Brown Rice
I Added Veggies
As these images show, I assembled my rice, veggies, and then extra firm tofu in that order. I seasoned the rice with tumeric, cumin, cayenne, and onion powder. The veggies I used apple cider vinegar as a stir-fry sauce and added a variety of spices to that base…as the veggies cooked, I added a bit of water…what you see in this photo are veggies that have been refrigerated for a couple of days…the color is fading. The veggie mix included celery, mushrooms, multi-colored carrots, onions, and bell peppers.
I’ve found that onions are an excellent way to use the natural oil from that plant in cooking; cook the onions first with a bit of vinegar or water and they make I nice stir-fry base to add the other veggies….of course, if you want veggies to come out equally crunchy, add the firm veggies first and then the softer veggies later….that makes them equally firm and delicious.
Many people at work have asked me about breakfast as that is the one area they are very concerned about. The thing is, on a plant-based diet, oats and grains are on the menu! So, rolled organic oats or steel cut oats are great breakfast foods with fresh and some dried fruits.
I just want to pause for a minute and talk about grains. In the United States, the craze about not eating grains has become a kind of mantra. My guess is the meat industry has pushed out a message that meat is the answer to all our dieting ills. For a while, I was completely convinced that eating protein was the key to weight loss and good health! Yikes!
Here’s the thing; the whole protein thing was so ingrained in me that when I read about a plant-based diet I was shocked that it could be healthy. What about getting enough protein or gaining weight as a result of eating grains? Weren’t we paleo people at heart?
Here’s a truth for you to digest: once I switched to an entirely plant-based diet, I started shedding pounds. In the first 10 days I lost eight pounds….just like that. Now I’m on the two or so pounds a week weight loss. I exercise intensely at least four days a week for any least one hour per session. AND, and it’s not the exercise that looses the pounds; that’s only about 500 calories per session….it’s the food that is helping my body.
Search the internet for the phrase Protein Myth….see what you find. Then check out Forks over Knives and see how body builders can build muscle without protein supplementation. Once you start looking at the data, the scientific data, you find a very interesting picture of what a plant-based diet can do.
The science behind plant-based diets is available although not extensive. The National Library of Medicine holds numerous articles that use a variety of technical jargon to explain the impact of plant-based diets. The Nutritional Update for Physicians offers some insight to these diets.
A number of studies have been done including the Dr. Dean Ornish program. “In the Lifestyle Heart Trial, Ornish10 found that 82% of patients with diagnosed heart disease who followed his program had some level of regression of atherosclerosis. Comprehensive lifestyle changes appear to be the catalyst that brought about this regression of even severe coronary atherosclerosis after only 1 year. In his plant-based regimen, 10% of calories came from fat, 15% to 20% from protein, and 70% to 75% from carbohydrate, and cholesterol was restricted to 5 mg per day.”
Studies have found that plant-based diets have shown specific positive outcomes for people facing diabetes, heart disease, and other health related issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study on this topic stated that benefits for a plant-based diet are clear and specific. Other studies have offered similar proof for the plant-based diets in general. The key is that one can find a decent amount of information on the benefits of the diet regimen.
OK, so what about me? I’ve lost about 30 pounds on the plant-based diet. My blood pressure is better than its ever been at around 115/60. Other important changes include HDL and LDL, and a wide variety of additional physiological changes.
Emotionally, I feel like I am making a real change in my life. The physical changes are important and I am still struggling with fear; the very real fear from dying, tomorrow, from some unknown and undiagnosed heart condition. That’s where my Buddhist practice comes in. Without my constant and focused attention on Vajrayana and, in particular, Vajrasattva, I would be, literally, lost in my mind. So, chants and prayers, meditation and attention to the state of my mind and the attempt to bring about awareness is my constant and specific focus.
This aspect of my life is the most challenging. Becoming still enough to bring about the nature of mind AND to not have ego ruin the whole thing takes enormous energy. Nothing about Vajrasattva and Vajrayana practice is easy. Nothing. As an aside, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that somehow you are going to find some calm resolve in the heart of meditation. Only when awareness dawns and becomes a stable aspect of your being can you even begin to say that you are happy, calm, and etc. Even then you have to stay vigilant.
Be well, my friends. I will update health and diet information as well….finally, I will post successful recipes along the way in case you are interested….like the following veggie lasagna I made yesterday!
The G-Funk Veggie Lasagna
Grab any kind of vegetable you can find….I used the following veggies for this dish:
1 orange/yellow and 1 green bell pepper, de-seeded and sliced into about 2″ lengths
3 multi-colored carrots, cut into small rounds
2 yellow squash cut into small rounds
1 yellow onion, diced
8 large white mushrooms, sliced
2 cans of dice tomatoes (or just dice about 8 Roma tomatoes)
1/4 cup of any prepared pasta sauce (no oil is best)
1 package of brown rice lasagna pasta
Pre-cut all veggies and place them in a bowl.
Usually I put more dense veggies in a pan sooner; in this case, I put them a sauté pan (a deep one in my case) all in together and cooked them for about 15 minutes in about 2.5 CM of water and a splash of balsamic vinegar (more if you like it). COVER the pan and allow the water to steam the veggies.
Add spices according to your taste, for this recipe I used:
2 tbsp of Tumeric
1 tbsp of Cumin
2 tbsp of Cayenne
1 tbsp of Black Pepper
1 tbsp of Onion power
5 garlic cloves, sautéed FIRST in the process
Cook all of the veggies etc for about 15 minutes on medium high heat; cover to ensure the water boils into a steam.
In a separate pot, heat about 6 cups of water, bring to a boil and add the lasagna….the pot needs to be big enough to hold the pasta and not have it break.
Once it’s all completed, drain the pasta and cool it off with water…then:
Lay the pasta in rows in a 9×13″ glass (oven approved) pan. Add the diced tomato and sauce mixture by spreading a small amount (about 1/3) over the pasta.
Add the veggies (about 1/3 of the total)…repeat for the next layer.
For the final layer, put the veggies on TOP of the last layer of pasta…once all of the veggies are down, add the rest of the diced tomato mixture to the top.
Bake the dish on 375 degrees, covered with aluminum foil, until the mixture is bubbling.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before serving….for those who like, add grated soy cheese or top with a kale/spinach mixture. Enjoy!
When I wrote this title I was reminded of The Style Council song, “My Ever Changing Moods”. The lyric is really wonderful and one line speaks to me and my particular changing moods, “Bitter turns to sugar, some call a passive tune / But the day things turn sweet, for me won’t be too soon…” The video is a flashback to 80s and cycling….awesomeness.
The song, for me, harkens to an idea that goes right along with Buddhist thought: the idea of impermanence and the ever changing conditions we find ourselves in. Our own bodies are ever changing, never the same from moment to moment. Filled with food or water or something else; empty, drained, a whole variety of physical experiences changing and moving day after day, even minute after minute.
In the past couple of months, I have changed my body radically. If you saw me in August and then jumped forward to today, you would find someone who looks different….30 pounds of flesh burned off of my silly bones. Internally, you would find changes to oxygen uptake, muscle strength and endurance, and chemical changes that are equally dramatic.
I developed an exercise routine that has been a powerful shift in my daily movement regime. I move a lot more than I did just three months ago. I stretch and push and ride and run and MOVE for hours during the week. All of this movement has reshaped my body to the point that I can now move more efficiently. What do I mean? Here’s an example: in the morning I wake up about 6:00 AM, get out of bed and take the dogs out. As I walk downstairs, I step on six steps to a landing and then through the den and out the back door.
Before I started this shift in physical exercise, when I walked downstairs I had to grab the handrail. I woke kind of woozy, and needed some support to balance. Now, I walk down the stairs without need of support, foot stepping on each step one at a time with a feeling of stability and strength. That one subtle change has made me feel better…I can’t tell you why. A small change that adds to my mental well being.
The other thing that I’ve noticed, and in fact noticed today, was that I do not breathe as hard as I work out; I’ve just become aware that, when pushing hard during exercise, my heart rises but my breathing rate rises slowly. Today, with my heart pounding at 140 BPM, I was not out of breath. I pushed myself on a spin bike, hard, testing my strength and fitness. The feeling was surprising, shocking even. What had happened to me?
The best way to describe these changes is to start with a basic idea: that it had been years since I had exercised in such a way that I could measure, in a very specific way, my progress. Since November, I’ve been hooked to machines and measured my progress using a Polar watch that measures my workouts, heart rate, cadence, steps, etc. The information is interesting to see in that I can watch what I do and how long it takes me. I’ve also seen how my body reacts, through graphs, and noticed that I don’t work as hard to exercise at the same rate.
All of the numbers really just boil down to how I feel. When I exercise, I feel good…positive, strong. Those changes did not take long to kick in at all. Maybe after three weeks; I started to feel better. I noticed that I walked a bit taller, stood a bit stronger, and really felt like I was stable in some way. It’s a feeling I took for granted for a long time. Now, I’m more confident in my body.
The lovely benefit of these physical changes is the changing mental capacity to continue my practice. My body has changed my mind, in effect. I’m capable of staying in meditation longer with less physical discomfort. Too, being on a strictly plant-based diet fits within the context of my Buddhist practice. Simply put, I’m using my eating as a form of Vajrasattva purification. In fact, the whole idea of purification, as I’ve discussed, has these various levels of engagement. In a sense, Vajrasattva is very much about basic, intermediate, and deep levels of purification. My eating plan fits nicely within that context.
Finally, each night, before I go to bed, I dedicate these changes and purification to all sentient beings struggling with their own maladies and illnesses. I completely understand the fear we go through when faced with a health crisis. I sincerely hope that my practice can make a difference.
Ok, so it’s time to jump on a proverbial soapbox and talk about plant-based eating and diet. Since August, I began a campaign to transform my body through an eating plan that made sense for me. If you are anything like me, mindful eating was about as far away from what I did as possible. Sure I ate foods which were considered “healthy” or “good” food and avoided food that was “unhealthy” or “bad” food. The problem, I discovered, was that “good” and “bad” food are terms determined not based on scientific principles but on a whole series of essays and articles written by folks who are either not trained or have a personal story to tell about their transformation. In fact, you are going to read one of those stories right now.
The truth is I ate in a variety of ways. I ate for comfort, sustenance, exercise, hunger, or as a part of a group. Sometimes I chose foods deliberately and sometimes not. I generally ate veggies and fruit more than meat and bread. In August, I decided enough of this crazy eating! This change coincided with my renewed effort on Vajrasattva practice. I was (and am) determined to make a difference in my life and in the lives of those around me.
So, I changed my eating plan. Included much more plant food and even less non-plant food. I avoided certain foods I knew were harmful. In particular, I read a huge amount of scientific evidence that showed internal physical changes as a result of changes to diet (and exercise). I followed the Dr. Gundry diet and stuck to it for months. I lost weight and began to transform my body. My blood work changed. All of the markers of so-called “good” health came back positive. Triglycerides 95; Cholesterol 154. The changes to eating were showing up on internal diagnostic tests. The transformation was working!
Ah but was it? I’ve said before that I experienced a heart episode and the placement of a stent in a coronary artery. Fun. Here I was transforming myself and them BOOM! What had I done wrong? Where did I go off the track?
Simply put, I went off the track 20 years ago…never changing my diet in ways that supported a healthy heart. Even though I had made significant changes, those changes were recent and not effective at dealing with the real problem. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We are often addressing one problem, when a completely different problem arises. We are using a screwdriver when we need a wrench; a spoon when we need a fork.
My heart event cast doubt on my eating plan. Was I eating the right foods? Was food even something I could use as a tool for good health? So many questions I asked. I dove into the research. I searched for answers to these and many other questions.
The main question for me was: can someone arrest and/or reverse heart disease? The funny thing is, this so-called “disease” isn’t a disease at all, I uncovered. The spread of plaque in my veins and arteries is directly related to choices I made. Hardly a disease at all. In fact, stopping the spread of these pieces of fatty substances and cells in my body is directly related to food we eat.
Think about that: through a specific kind of eating, we can stop fatty cells from building up along the lining of our arteries and veins. This atherosclerosis happens as a result of what we eat.
The skeptic in me asked, repeatedly, is it possible to deny my genetics and, in effect, reprogram my body to do what I tell it to do….to fight DNA? I jumped, head first, into a very specific diet and eating plan led by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. His approach connects to a larger study done by other scientists and doctors called The China Study. In effect, Dr. Esselstyn promotes a plant-based diet without dairy, meat, nuts or oils. Almost all vegetables, grains, fruits are part of the eating plan.
The test, for me, was this: would such an eating plan have any affect on my blood work? Was it possible to make such a change in such a way that I would be able to see any improvement in my internal, physical health?
So, as a personal, human experiment, I began my campaign: plant-based eating. I ate salads that included lots of veggies, also wild rice and brown rice, quinoa, all kinds of veggies including onions, kale, squash, whatever. I didn’t follow recipes and instead first stir-fried (without oil) everything. I used water, vinegar, garlic, and a variety of seasonings to make what I was eating taste better. I added cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, bay leaves, all kinds of spices in a variety of combinations.
After two weeks of eating (and exercise), my blood work was transformed. Actually transformed: Triglycerides from 95 to 74; Cholesterol from 154 to 98; LDL from 90 to 40; HDL 47 to 43. In his book, Dr. Esselstyn stated that dramatic changes could happen; honestly, I didn’t believe that it was possible to see such a radical change in such a short period of time.
As I switched to the diet, the change also hit my body as I dropped, in two weeks, 7.8 pounds. I had already lost about 20 pounds since August on the Dr. Gundry diet. Now, I was seeing even bigger changes AND was eating and feeling satisfied with food. I wasn’t hungry!
Psychologically, I feel better as well; my mental health has improved, markedly, over these weeks. I can sense that I am making some kind of difference in my life. Honestly, it’s been a long time since I felt like I could make any kind of difference in my own life (more on THAT idea later).
If you have read this far, good on ya. My story of transformation is my own and who knows if anyone will face a similar experience. I am here to say, however, that change can happen and you (we) have the ability to do it.
As the practice begins, my mind settles and I sit in a calm state of mind, slowly bringing to my consciousness images of Vajrasattva and the purification practice he communicated to Nagarjuna. I’d be lying if I said the practice was easy or that I am so engrained in it that the whole process goes smoothly. I practice in fits and starts, with children asking for homework help, the demand for food or other support pulls me off the cushion. I am literally jerked into and out of my practice over and over again. With young children and the demands of work life, setting aside an hour or more for practice is a luxury.
Further, as a recovering heart patient, I am doing my best to improve my chances at survival: specifically, exercising four to five days per week, intensely, as a way to make my physical life better as well as transforming my diet to a plant-based approach to eating. These things, physical and mental health, are so intimately connected. Without physical well-being, the Vajrasattva practice is less effective. It’s easy for us to take for granted the act of just being able to sit and breathe. Many in the world cannot accomplish that one task. Sitting is painful or breathing is labored. As Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye has said repeatedly, we have little time to accomplish what we want to accomplish in our lives.
My physical practice is managed by a heart rehab clinic. I walk into the clinic, a building filled with a variety of exercise equipment, a room filled with people on the same path I am on. Most, actually almost everyone, is much older that I am. When I first started working out at this gym, hooked to machines that measured my VO2 max, my heart rate, my heart rhythm, I noticed immediately that I was not among the typical participants at the clinic. During my first exam that set my workout model, I exceeded all the benchmarks. The staff told me that I was on the upper end of the curve of people who faced these kinds of heart conditions. My heart was stronger, my body more fit. As a way of explanation, I was told I have a genetic abnormality, a unique and unusual form of heart condition that was manageable, and possibility, correctable by exercise and diet.
At the same time, I cannot help but notice the change in my mental health; I felt/feel damaged. I drew the genetic wild card and that, as a result, my life had to change, dramatically. Here’s the bizarre part: I lived with this problem for years and years not knowing of the problem in my coronary artery. That ignorance led me to make all kinds of bad food and exercise choices. Sure I still had the problem but I didn’t know. Ignorance was, in a sense, bliss.
The bliss I felt ended with a hospital visit. After that visit, I pulled myself together and started on a path of healing. Central to that path is Vajrasattva practice and the daily physical activity that transforms my body.
Since I left the hospital (a mere 36 hour stay), my motivation to change is all consuming. I am determined to make a serious change in my physical and mental health in a way I have never, ever faced before. Facing death can be a real motivator. I eat a plant-based diet almost entirely; I have gradually moved to a vegan diet based on the information I gathered from a variety of sources including Dr. Dean Ornish and the authors of The China Study including Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. These studies led me to the practice of purification through food….one that fits neatly within the practice of Vajrasattva.
While I imagine that Vajrasattva wasn’t specifically teaching about a diet when he talked about purification of our minds, he lived in a time when a plant-based diet was common and accepted by the community of followers. As a result, he didn’t really have to tell people to eat plants instead of animals!
The synergy between the diet, exercise, and Vajrasattva practice is remarkable. It’s as if I am practicing as I eat, exercise, or meditate. I have felt uplifted by the connections between these various approaches to health and wellbeing.
Very specifically, I have lost 25 pounds, have experienced mental clarity, and have had setbacks and fears all along the way. I have felt transformed and stuck, have felt a sense of dread and doom as I wonder at the next heart event. Through it all, I have tried, desperately, to live in the moment and not grasp after fears, thoughts, and emotions. Sometimes my success is breathtaking (like the consistent weight loss) and sometimes my fears can feel overwhelming. Through it all, I fall back on my internal motivation to change for my childcare, family, and for anyone I can help along the way.
Coming out of the hospital, my life takes on what many folks call “the new normal”. I’ve never been on medications for any length of time and now I face at least one medication that doctors tell me will require a lifetime commitment. The New Normal. They tell me, in no uncertain terms, “there is nothing you can do to change the trajectory of your life unless you consume this medication twice a day for the next X number of years,” X being the amount of time I have left to live.
We all know, in some way, that our lives are limited in scope; that the time we have on this earth is marked by birth and death and some number of years in between. If you are anything like me, I KNEW it but I didn’t know it. Now I know the truth; the reality of an end is very clear to me.
So, what’s left to do in my life? How can I make a difference in a way that is meaningful? My first step toward meaning comes from practicing Vajrasattva. In the hospital I heard the suffering of fellow patients and I sincerely wanted to ease their pain. What could I do, really? During my deep, dark night of the soul, I came to one realization: I can practice healing for all sentient beings and I can take on the suffering of others through tonglen and lojong practices.
DONE. I have a plan. Here’s where it starts: Patrul Rinpoche and the Vajrasattva practices. In the book The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche lays out the Ngondro practices including Bodhicitta and Vajrasattva (pages 263 – 280). Vajrasattva was a bodhisattva. His personal history and story is shrouded in mystery in that very little detailed information exists about his life and practice. At the same time, his impact on Buddhism, and particularly Tibetan Buddhism, was profound. Some sutras talk about how he transmitted his teachings to Nagarjuna and from there to the rest of the Buddhist world.
What the Vajrasattva practice is at its core is purification. The goal of the practice is to purify any and all defilements: disease, negative thoughts and karma, as well as retiring the relationship between the student and the teacher as well as restoring the very practice of enlightenment by, basically, renewing vows of practice for those who have strayed from the path.
Patrul Rinpohce said that this practice starts with confession. From his text, he commented that the main obstacles to realization are negative thoughts, actions, obscurations (not seeing the truth) and habitual tendencies. The practice is about clearing your mind as if you were cleaning a mirror so that your true reflection appears within the surface without blemish, tarnish, or other distortions of the truth. You are connecting to your true nature, buddha nature, as a means of purifying your body, speech, mind and the BSM of all beings. Confessing your previous transgressions and really owning those negative actions, thoughts, and emotions is the key to realizing the practice AND purification.
The core of the practice involves a wide variety of meditations and mantras much too elaborate to talk about here. One core principle is to recite the 100 Syllable Mantra, a poetic verse recorded in the Mahavaironcana Tantra from the 7th century C.E., as a means of working with your mind.
While much of tantric buddhism has as a practice visualizations, this one in particular has visualizations of you being purified of disease or negative thoughts, actions, etc. Truthfully, that is where I started: purification of my own body as an extension of purification of all bodies. Through this meditation, I will help heal my physical and mental obscurations and hinderances. Through the practice, my goal is to extend the healing out to all sentient beings.
As I step gingerly through this process of healing, I will offer my thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. Clearly, I know very little compared to most folks who have come before me, and, more importantly, have little to add to the conversation. At the same time, if I can just offer one person support in their time of need, I have accomplished something worthwhile. For those reasons, I practice.
As I have said in previous posts, illness presents so many opportunities for practice and reflection. Since last year I have faced a series of minor illness that built to this very moment. Each of those illnesses were unconnected to the present problem I face, according to doctors I have spoken with; and yet, I am hesitant to give up on the notion that certain conditions do not have a precursor, a single connection that links symptoms to disease. I believe in causation. Buddhism has taught me that lesson.
On Tuesday night, walking my dog on a brisk walk and slow jog, my breathing became labored, my throat tightened. I called my partner and asked her to pick me up. My first thought was that I was having a reaction to a recent medication I took, an antacid. As an aside, I generally take no medications when faced with some pain. I use medicine as a specific remedy. So, when I arrived at the house, sat in a chair on the front porch, I tried to catch my breath, and felt lightheaded and sweaty. I took a benedryl and drank water…I felt better….in the very next moment I had some clarity of my symptoms and realized I was going to pass out; I said to my partner, “call 911.”
In midst of the ambulances and paramedics, I was connected to blood pressure cuffs and the like, completely lucid and aware. To that point I used my meditation practice to gain some control over my wild mind…staying in the here and now, being completely present for what was happening. They took me to the hospital and I was poked and prodded. Initial results showed nothing, absolutely nothing. Blood work came back good, and my heart rhythm was normal. The staff stuck me in a room and I waited for the next morning for more tests.
In those hours in the hospital I watched and listened as patient after patient was wheeled into the ER. My room was the first in the ER, next to the outer door. The swish of the automatic door opening and closing each time a patient was ushered into the triage. Feet away from my bed was a radio alerting staff to the next patient and their condition. Every word of their initial report spilled into the air. No names, just basic information: a 51 year old woman, blood pressure 157/94, a 77 year old man, unresponsive, and on and on. In front of my room, a glass doorway partially covered by a pale green curtain, I heard the last gasp of life from an elderly man as the staff worked to save him. As the night wore on, I heard the nurses and doctors call out medications, treatments, and a series of “codes”.
As I lay in my bed, I brought my legs together and began meditation. Distracted as I was, I could only use the “Benza Guru” mantra over and over. I grabbed my phone, turned on the mantra on repeat, and for about two hours just stayed in that place. Stillness spread across my mind and I was spacious. At that point in the early AM, I started a tonglen meditation in its most simple form; giving and taking. Giving happiness, taking on suffering.
The words of Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye and Sogyal Rinpoche were right there, present in my mind. I did what I could to remember the process and I didn’t feel like I made any difference in anyones life in those hours in the hospital bed. I let go of the whole idea of accomplishment. In the back of mind, I thought that I COULD make a difference; that somehow my giving and taking would help relieve some pain or suffering from someone. So, I let go of accomplishments and just stayed with the practice for a time.
As I am sure you know, time in a hospital is measured in visits from nurses, doctors, and staff. I did not and would not turn on the TV during my entire time. I just sat and allowed my mind to be empty; truly empty…I did not attach to any thought. I credit not being distracted with my practice and the teachings I have heard. A calm mind woke and I was present when staff came by and food was offered. Ultimately, a sense of being grateful rose for all of these staff, all of these people caring for me, and being cared for.
My stay in the Hospital was brief; 36 hours. In that time I was treated and released. My plan of action was put into place and I have a way forward.
During and after the visit I felt and feel so lucky. I faced the prospect of death and came out with a sense of wonder and awe at the world, and my place in it. More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson in compassion. Sitting in the ER for 24 hours, laying on a bed will do that for you. Listening to folks come and go, hearing the challenges and difficulties of all the patients, sitting in the midst of all this confusion, pain, and suffering, what was real was that we all face the same basic situation: suffering in many forms.
I wish I could say I have some deep insight or perspective on any of this stuff. What I took away and what I am keeping with me is the simple truth: that the way to peace is through compassion for all sentient beings.
I’ve tried for a while to reconcile the notion that once buddha nature dawns and awareness is revealed that stillness pervades and one’s mind, finally, is at peace. While that idea is so pleasant and wonderful that how can it NOT be true? Isn’t the goal of meditation and practice to achieve that state of mind, completely void of causes and conditions, awake and aware in such a way that thoughts are not chased, ideas don’t provoke anger or resentment, and that emotion is in check.
I am now of the opinion that none of that is true about awareness and enlightenment. OK, yes I do think enlightenment and awareness does dawn and that one’s mind open…it’s clear from all of the information that such an awakening happens. While I am not adept practitioner, moments of awareness have dawned and I have felt the bliss that comes with the experience. What I also know is that maintaining that moment is a constant vigilant struggle. One cannot just stop and say, “Whew, I’m enlightened! It’s over!.” There is a maintenance plan that comes with the process. Without maintenance enlightenment can be lost. At least that’s what appears to be the case.
According to Terry Reis Kennedy on Jun 21 2017 in the Deccan Herald, the Dalai Lama commented that “in essence, enlightenment is the awakening of the mind’s true nature by the process of purifying thoughts, removing obscurations, and dispelling dissonant emotions.” Once purified, we are in that state of being. No longer attached or chasing thoughts…we are freed from attachment and aversion.
In my practice, the attachment and aversion piece is still operating like a well-oiled machine. I am attached and averse. In moments, however, those attachments dissolve and awareness dawns for a moment. A moment….then it all collapses. Why? Because I haven’t completed the work; I’m only gaining these small glimpses and my mind is still consumed with samsaric thoughts.
So how do I and all of us clear those thoughts and establish a permanent place for the awakened mind to reside and stabilize? That is the question. My ngondro practice is one place I have begun and I believe many practices can lead to the same location. I am reminded of the readings I did years ago on Thomas Merton. Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain, describes a process for understanding that many Buddhist practitioners would understand. Very briefly, the book is autobiographical describing his conversion to the Catholic faith. The struggles Merton experiences come very close to the whole idea of how attachment leads us to excess and a permanent place in samsara. Once we apply the antidote, in Merton’s case Christian philosophy, we can clear the mind and find the source for our practice and life.
What is that source that Thomas Merton wrote about and the source that I seek in my own practice? For Merton the source is G-d; a spiritual connection between human and the divine. In my case, I’m looking for the source in my mind; the buddha nature that is constant, clear, and luminous.
But I haven’t answered the question, have I? How to get there? First, there is no there; the clarity I seek and we seek is always present. That’s the real irony of the whole thing. We go looking for the elephant by following the tracks when the elephant was always present, right here. We try to search and search around the world, talking to teachers, friends, relatives, whomever only to recognize that the answers are in us, always. It does’t mean, however, that we can rely only on our own mind to seek for buddha nature. As I have found out the hard way, the path to understanding requires a teacher. Someone who can help us reveal the path to enlightenment. In Vajrayana, that path goes through love and compassion for all beings. We (I) have to be willing to give completely of myself with no thought of gain.
Until I can truly put all sentient beings before me AND accept their suffering as my own, I won’t make a whole lot of progress. Too, without a stable, informed practice, I’m like anyone else wandering in the dark trying to find my way by using my senses to orient my body onto the path. As we all know, our senses can be fooled. We face the kinds of delusions and illusions that distract us. My leg hurts, I can’t practice. I have a headache, I’ll practice tomorrow. On and on.
I leave today’s thoughts with just this notion: that my course of action has to be based in bodhicitta. Thomas Merton found this concept in December 1968, days before his eventual death. He said,”The rock, all matter, all life is charged with dharmakaya … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.” His insights on this truth he came to him after years of meditation and reflection. I choose this same path in the hopes that I too can gain some measure of understanding and realization for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Imagine for a moment that your mind is like an overgrown garden. Weeds, tree seedlings, edible plants are all mixed together this this former lush garden. All of the plants combined in a kind of crazy dance of vines and branches, twigs, and leaves, cluttering the once established garden, blocking any view of the fertile ground that once harbored those edible plants.
That overgrown garden is my mind; grown over with old and new thoughts, weeds of various sizes and shapes, roots too thought that go deeply into the fertile soil of my ego-mind. As I sit on my meditation cushion or chair and try to rest in that space of calm abiding my thoughts, those weeds in the garden, take hold of my mind. Their twisted, snarled branches of thought and emotion perfectly intertwined with my mind, almost indistinguishable from the calm abiding I’m trying to cultivate.
It takes me a few minutes and soon I see the problem. One particular thought keeps coming into my mind; some negative action or emotion I experienced ages ago, capturing my attention and pulling my mind in that direction. I try hard to cut to the root of that thought and find the source so that I can clear the space….to, in fact create spaciousness. I cut, pull, dig into the rich soil of ego mind, trying to remove the thought at its root and remove it from my mind. It works….for a while; then a few days later, the thought is back, the root remains and my mind is, again, overgrown with the weed from that root…disturbing my calm abiding and sending my mind for the weed-wacker…the tool that will finally and completely end the thought.
What I realize, of course, is that I cannot remove that thought, that weed, from my mind because the lived experience holds that thought in memory and I’m stuck with it. I have to find another method for dealing with those thoughts, those weeds in my garden of mind.
What if I ignore them, I ask. I ignore them…and for a while they go away. Then, at some point, the thoughts are triggered again, rising as strongly as ever, present in mind. I try again to cut them out…only to again fail at my task. I feel, literally, trapped by my thoughts.
Then I come upon another method; focusing on another thought. It works! I can focus on something else and that thought slowly disappears. I’m free, I think, from that horrible thought. I look at the sunset, mountains, trees blowing in the wind, a full moon and think, finally I have an object, a thought, I can attach to and ignore/end the negative thought and emotion! Woot!
Of course, you know what happens. I get sick, illness overtakes me, and the negative thoughts and emotions descend on me with full force. Here I am again, trapped. I HAVE to find another way.
Can I find another object, one more permanent? OR, or, is there a method for ending my attachment to those thoughts?
In recent days popular news organizations in the United States have picked up a story on how mindfulness practice and its benefits are hyped to the point of misinformation. In a series of stories and reactions, people across the internet are weighing in on the question: is mindfulness meditation an effective method for transforming our lives?
In the magazine Psychology Today, Peggilee Wupperman writes about the situation, stating that “It depends.” The article offers insights into the difference between mindfulness training and psychological counseling as methods for dealing with problems in our lives.
The original peer-reviewed article establishes that, in fact, the claims of some mindfulness practitioners are hyped beyond the actual benefits of the training. The article states, “Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.” In a nutshell, claims of a peaceful, stress-free experience through mindfulness meditation is limited and, in some cases, dangerous.
While my limited experience with these topics does not even compare to the thousands who practice mindfulness meditation, what I do know is that meditation does not lead one to some peaceful, gracious place of bliss. Quite the contrary, meditation brings up all sorts of demons hiding in our minds, opening us to some of the worst (and best) experiences that we often relive by breathing and sitting on a cushion or in a chair. Some of the worst mental experiences of my life have been when I was in the midst of some form of meditation.
Too, the benefits of mediation as taught by some mindfulness practitioners are completely detached from the source of mindfulness training and the whole purpose behind it: to become aware and awake so that we can take on the suffering of others. Meditation and mindfulness has as one of its goals the expression helping everyone BUT ourselves. That the entire point of mindfulness is not even our own mind! Sure, our mind does have something to do with it, but the whole point of training is not about our own experience, selves, or, frankly, anything to do with us. It’s about helping those who are suffering.
The truly powerful goal of meditation and mind training is to care for those around us and in the world (all sentient beings). As Dilgo Khyentse said in Enlightened Courage, “Enlightenment will be ours when we are able to care for others as much as we now care for ourselves, and ignore ourselves to the same extent that we now ignore others.” (29) This giving and taking is a central part of meditation practice and is the one thing that appears to be missing from the mindfulness training that so many promote.
Digging a bit deeper, the root text of this teaching comes from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. Living in the 12th century in Tibet, this teacher expounded on the view that the heart of mahayana practice and Buddhist meditation was in the practice of Bodhicitta. In that practice one exchanges oneself for others. The idea can be a literal exchange, offering your body in exchange for someone else, or through meditation exchanging someone’s suffering for your happiness. The idea here is that self-cherishing, protecting oneself over others, is one root cause of our own suffering. Once we let go of self-cherishing we can find the freedom we seek. We no longer cling to the idea that we are a unique self; in fact, we become one with those who suffer, taking on that suffering and freeing them from samsara.
This one passage in the root text offers some perspective:
To free yourself from harm
And others from their sufferings,
Give away yourself for others;
Guard others as you would protect yourself.
Chekawa’s description of helping yourself is to “give away” yourself in a very specific and rational way. Stories abound in Vajrayana and Buddhist teachings about people giving away parts of their body to help others; to carve off a piece of flesh for a starving dog, for example. These stories tell us that we can give away ourselves in service to others, thereby aiding their suffering and serving the purpose of reaching a state of being in which “self” becomes meaningless and care of others becomes primary.
Of course, we all struggle with this idea. I imagine that if mindfulness meditation teachers starting espousing the idea that we give ourselves completely to someone else’s suffering many would not attend those meditation sessions. And, the truth is that wouldn’t be surprising. How many of us (me included) are not constantly worrying about ourselves? Our health and well being; hell that’s the whole point of what many of us know as mindfulness meditation! We are helping ourselves overcome stress and achieve a state of calm. What a terrible thought that what we think we are doing is, in fact, the very opposite of what we need to do….to give away ourselves rather than nurture it! Yikes!
As I’ve tried to navigate these waters for the past few years, I take heart in the words of Dilgo Khyentse, Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye and Sogyal Rinpoche who talk about giving and taking, who have taught the tonglen and Lojong practices, and have opened the door to a different way of seeing meditation. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those teachers who offered a perspective that goes against the grain of mindfulness and actually opened my mind to a process and practice that, while very difficult to accomplish, is nonetheless powerful and transformative.