Sitting Zen

Practice of the Week
Sitting Zen

Category: Might Be Your Thing (This practice is not for everyone -- but may be just the thing for you!)

Adapted from James Ishmael Ford, "Sitting Zen," in Everyday Spiritual Practice

"One day some people came to the master and asked, 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?' The master held up a glass and said, 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly." (Achaan Chah Subato, Theravadan meditation master)
I've been a student of Zen for thirty years now. Zen meditation is my core spiritual practice. I do it because of that broken glass. My life, like so many of our lives, has been marked by death and suffering. I look around and I see our existence rising and falling, and I feel pushed into a serious and sustained exploration of the essential nature of it all.

For me this has come down to doing two things: shikantaza and koans. Shikantaza, or "just sitting," is the primary meditation practice of Zen. But this “just sitting” is not passive. Rather, in sitting, one tries hard simply to be aware. And in so doing a dynamic process rises where the various things of our lives, out in the environment and from deep within our bodies, is each revealed.

As a complement to shikantaza, I study koans, from the Chinese Kung-an, or "public case," as in a public document. Koans are stories and brief statements that become objects of meditation and present the opportunity for brief and deeply intimate conversations with a spiritual director. To engage a koan is to allow the possibility of awakening to the real nature of things.

So, each in their own way, shikantaza and koan study help me to understand the actual nature of this "already broken" that marks all things. It is a lesson that is eternal and, in some ways, must constantly be relearned. There is part of us that recoils at transience and wishes things were permanent.

Zen meditation is a medicine against this illness of clinging to the passing as if it were permanent. Now, while I meditate regularly and go on intensive retreats frequently, the proof of this practice comes out in daily life. Zen really is about living our lives each moment by that moment, each day by that day.

Seasons have come when members of my family have been quite ill, close friends diagnosed with cancer or suffering setbacks in their lives. And too many people die -- sometimes without warning, as an accident or blindingly quick illness; sometimes marked with feelings of bitterness and regret that will never be addressed with any satisfaction.

How precious and precarious all things are. This is true of glasses, and of pets, spouses, parents, children, siblings, and friends. It can be very hard to just enjoy it incredibly.

Even though sitting zen is physically demanding -- traditionally one sits in a lotus or half-lotus position on a cushion on the ground, for half-an-hour at a time -- I've found it worth experiencing the difficulties. It's important to emphasize the difficulties, both physical and mental, for difficulties are the path of spiritual discipline.

To attempt to sit silently and be aware is to become aware. And what we become aware of is a jumble mush of dancing monkeys. Our minds are filled with thoughts and emotions racing and raging. When we actually sit and notice, we discover much about ourselves, and a fair amount of it isn't particularly pleasant.

But as the mind quiets a bit, other things are also revealed. We begin, perhaps, to notice the many springs of our lives. Not only are there difficulties and endings, but there are also beginnings. This slowing down and noticing is an opportunity. And this opportunity is a chance to notice the passingness of things, the precious fragility of everything – a single blade of grass, a much loved coffee mug, a fading photograph, a quick kiss.

When we really attend, we may find all moments speak of the wonder and the transitoriness of life and death within the interdependent web. I've found that, as hard as it can be to face, there is beauty and wonder in this existence. The simple truth is that this very moment is the only place we will find joy and love and meaning.

Whenever I'm reminded of this, I realize how grateful I am for my practice and my spiritual guides. My Zen practices are the truest of the many reminders I've ever had.

Perhaps we all need such reminding. Certainly, as we notice the breath, we find a new season, a new beginning. With each breath, with each moment noticed, we find hope is within us. And, this hope may reign so long as our blood pounds through our bodies.

Because of our clinging to what is passing as if it were permanent, we miss what is actually going on. We need to wake up from the drowsiness of clinging. Zen is all about waking up.

Zen practice is about noticing the luminous quality of the ordinary. I sit still and notice. I engage a koan and notice. I notice how everything is already broken and there to be enjoyed incredibly: including glasses -- and you and me.

The great play of the cosmos, our rising and falling, is the precious web of existence. When we take up a practice like Zen, we can come to know this as liberating, as freeing, as our true heritage. We so easily get caught up in the mix of things. We need to pause and remember the glass really is already broken.

This pause is important, because it awakens us. However we do it -- in sitting Zen or some other practice -- I hope we will completely engage that pause, that invitation to enjoy incredibly!

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week"


The Gratitude Visit

Practice of the Week
The Gratitude Visit:
How to Open Your Heart

Category: Occasional. These are practices suggested for "every once in a while." Some of them are responses to a particular need that may arise; others are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. All of them are worth a try at least once. And any of them might become a regular and central part of your spiritual practice.

A story:
Once upon a time, there was a very depressed teenage boy named Roy. Roy hardly spoke to anyone. He spent his days at school feeling overwhelmed and depressed. He even seriously thought of ways of committing suicide. Luckily, Roy had an English teacher named Mr. Downing. Mr. Downing had a big heart, and he could see that Roy was in trouble. One day Mr. Downing asked Roy to stay after class and join him for lunch. Hesitantly, Roy accepted. During the lunch, Mr. Downing asked Roy a lot of questions, like what was troubling him, and how he might be of help. He told Roy that he thought he was a very smart and special kid, and gave him a lot of encouragement. Because of his talke with Mr. Downing, Roy put off his plans to kill himself. Eventually Roy graduated from Jr. High and never thanked Mr. Downing -- for twenty-five years. By then, Roy had become a successful and happy person, and he wrote Mr. Downing a detailed letter reminding him of what he did for Roy as a teenager, and how his act of kindness changed, and even saved, Roy's life. Roy tracked down Mr. Downing's phone number, called him up and asked if he could visit. Roy went to Mr. Downing's home, shared some more about who he was, and read aloud the letter he had written. As Roy finished the letter, both men were teary eyed. Mr. Downing Roy that the letter was one of the best gifts he'd ever received. For several days, the encounter left Roy with a warm glow.
What is called "Positive Psychology" represents psychology's shift from focus on the ill to helping normal people live more fulfilled and happy lives. Dr. Marty Seligman has tested various techniques to see if they can increase a person's level of happiness over a long period of time. He's found some techniques that work, and some that don't. For example, he's shown that, unless one is quite poor, more money has almost no effect on one's level of happiness. Beauty, youth, and intelligence also fail to lead to happiness. Seligman also found some things that do work, and one of the of the most powerful is the Gratitude Visit. It's a way of thanking someone who has affected your life in a positive way.
"The Gratitude Visit involves three basic steps: First, think of someone who has done something important and wonderful for you, yet who has not been properly thanked. Next, reflect on the benefits you received from this person, and write a letter expressing your gratitude for all he or she did for you. Finally, arrange to deliver the letter personally, and spend some time with this person talking about what you wrote." (Marty Seligman)
No one knows why the Gratitude Visit has such a dramatic effect in lifting the spirit. Research shows that it not only lifts your level of happiness that day, but its effect lasts a full month with no negative side effects. That's powerful medicine. If only anti-depressants were that effective!

To whom would you want to write a letter? What would you want to tell this person? Even just contemplating such a letter and/or visit may be of help. First think of anyone who you'd like to thank for affecting your life in a positive way -- a coach, a minister, a parent, a friend, or even an employer. It's best if the person you choose is someone you could potentially meet face to face sometime in the next month.

Second, when you begin your letter, simply say why you're writing and what she or he did for which you are grateful. Give details about his her or his kindness or help has affected your life in various ways. Then, if possible, do whatever it takes to arrange a face-to-face meeting. That may not be easy, but it's a hundred times better than a phone call -- and please don't even think about email.

When contacting the person to whom you've written, it's best if you can be a bit vague about why you're wanting to get together. The Gratitude Visit is even more fun when it's a surprise to the person receiving it. When you're face to face with your recipient, say that you have an important letter to read to them. Make sure they're not distracted with other things, and when the time is right, read the letter slowly and with feeling. Savor the experience for awhile, and if it feels right, then feel free to talk about what you wrote. I don't know if this experience sounds like much to you, but the reality of it can be very heart opening and powerful.

The Gratitude Visit is a dramatic way to show someone you care, but you're also welcome to express gratitude to people in smaller ways. For instance, you can write a not to a waitress saying you appreciate her great service. You can send an email to a friend briefly stating how he or she has positively affected your life. You can write a little love not to your mate expressing your gratitude for something nice that was done for you. All these little notes of gratitude help to bring the spirit of appreciation and thankfulness into your daily life, and that always feels good.

At the beginning, you may feel some resistance to doing something like this. My bet is that if you start this letter of gratitude, you'll soon find yourself enjoying the process. Then, if you can, arrange to meet with this person sometime in the next month or so, and read your letter directly to them. You'll be glad you did, Take not if this exercise givesyou a bit of a lift in life. If you're like most people, you'll be surprised to find that it does indeed have a noticeable effect.

Also on the web about Gratitude Visits: HERE, and HERE. For a "Virtual Gratitude Visit" see HERE.

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See also Practices of the Week, "Be Grateful" and "Be Grateful to Everyone"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"



Practice of the Week

Category: Might Be Your Thing (This practice is not for everyone -- but may be just the thing for you!)
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self." --Bhagavad Gita
Adapted from Eva S. Hochgraf, "Yoga," in Everyday Spiritual Practice

No matter how busy I am, every day I do yoga. I just don't feel right if I don't. Yoga helps me start out my day feeling calm and centered. It is a living, moving meditation. The series of poses settles my mind, and I reach a point of clarity and focus that carries through my day.

My first yoga class was part of Sunday school experiment when I was a child. I learned about slow, deep breathing, and I wowed the grown-ups in the class with my flexibility -- imagine being better at something than grown ups! Through the years, yoga has not only kept me flexible, but taught me a basic respect for my body, which kept me aware of the deep relationship between the body and the mind. Somewhere along the way, I began to notice how much of a calming effect yoga had on me -- an effect that lasted even when I went home to a trying two-year old. As my body stretched out and my muscles had a chance to quit being so tense, my mind followed.

My Practice

Every morning, before I get up, I like to start my day with a few deep breaths. It wakes me up, and reminds me to start the day in a deliberately calm way. I do a few simple poses in bed to help get my blood flowing. It's easy to bring your leg over to the other side of your body as you lie on your back and allow your spine to feel a gentle twist. Some mornings I start with a gentle rocking of the hips to wiggle out the kinks. It doesn't have to be very big or dramatic; it can be whatever comes to mind. What is most important is to enter the day with a body awareness.

I like to do my regular routine before breakfast; yoga's not fun on a full stomach! My routine has possibilities for leisurely expansion or hasty contraction, because some mornings are hectic while others afford more time. Like most of my life, yoga is most satisfying at the comfortable balance of adaptability and habit.

A yoga series, like the Sun salutation or the Moon salutation would be my bare-bones minimum. We do these series frequently in class, so I don't have to think about what comes next. I also know how to play with them: add poses or refine moves when I have time. These series work particularly well when they are repeated, once on the busy days, a few more times when I'm in the mood. Even if I do them just once, though, I feel the difference as I head out the door, my head held high and my steps light and limber.

Getting Started

While some people begin to learn yoga from a book or video. I recommend beginning with a yoga class. It’s much easier to copy a person that a picture, and it’s very helpful to have someone answer your questions. Going to a regular class also helps keep your momentum going. But if you can’t find a class that’s convenient, don’t give up. You can still learn a lot and experience the benefits of yoga through books and videos.

These days, the opposite problem is more common: you may find so many different classes that you don’t know where to begin. Look first for a teacher who has some training and experience and a class that is offered at a good time and place for you. Keep in mind also that there are many different kinds of yoga – some are very exercise oriented (e.g., Hatha), others more energy focused (e.g., Kundalini), and still others very precise and helpful in realigning your posture and balance (e.g., Iyengar).

Some yoga classes include individual poses, often increasing in difficulty throughout the class time. Others will run through a specific series of poses every time. Some yoga uses a lot of props (straps, blocks, etc.), while others need nothing more than a mat. Some will do poses to music; some are aerobic. Most will offer a time of relaxation at the end. Experiment until you find the class that is right for you. Ask to try a beginning class for one time before committing to a course. If you’d like to expand your horizons beyond the particular class you’re in, take yoga workshops or go to yoga retreats. Your teacher will be able to make referrals.

As you become a yoga practitioner, you will learn that yoga is much more than an odd kind of exercise. It is much more spiritual and metaphysical than limber limbs. Its Indian roots are infused with a deep philosophical understanding. What the Western world calls “yoga” is really just the more athletic branch of the total system of yogic training and study as it is classically understood in India. Yoga is grounded in a detailed philosophy of nonviolence, selfless service, vegetarianism, breath and energy pathways, meditation, chanting, prayer, self-inquiry, and more. Yoga is a total life approach that offers rich rewards at whatever level you encounter it.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week"