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New class starting soon!

Picture 110

I’d like to announce a new class starting in January.

It’s called Selfless Self Help, and it’s taking place in West Newbury, Massachusetts. Let me know if you have any questions.



The teachings and compassion

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion,...

Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, 16th century image from Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just making a cup of tea in the kitchen, I had an idea for next week’s talk: the wideness of the dharma, and the wideness of compassion.

The gist of it: sometimes we have limited views about what the dharma (Buddhist teachings) is, and about what compassion is. So, come next Tuesday (4-530pm) and let’s discuss this. How varied and vast is the Buddhist tradition? What does it even mean to be a Buddhist, or to practice Buddhism? What is compassion, and how can we cultivate it?

Thanks very much to the Rowley Public Library for having me lead a discussion/talk last night. It was very interesting, and I was so glad to see some people come out to participate. It was especially nice to have someone ask for meditation instruction. That is something I love, to have someone not only express an interest in meditation, but actually ask how to do it. I hope some of you from last night’s event will go to next week’s dharma talk (Dec. 11th).

Since it often feels stingy to just promote an event here, and not offer any ideas, here’s one regarding compassion. Not that I have any great insight into the matter, this area of the teachings is one I find difficult, more than meditation practice, more than the so-called “wisdom teachings.”

One way you learn about compassion in this tradition is in terms of the “four immeasurables,” or the four “brahma viharas.” They are: equanimity, kindness, joy, and compassion.

They’re immeasurable in that they are practices and feelings that are very large. The intention cultivated becomes very large. I would also imagine that the benefits of this kind of practice are vast. They are practices of the heart, as I see it, so you could say it’s about making your heart bigger. Maybe finding that vastness, in your heart, that’s already there (but for me, it feels more like actually make your heart bigger, expanding your heart, beyond pettiness and defensiveness).

They’re also called “brahma viharas.” This tends to get translated as “divine abodes,” which is nice, but also kind of stodgy. Who says abode these days, outside of a fantasy novel, or a movie set in Medieval England? Brahma is a god, one of the main gods, in the Hindu tradition. That’s where the divine comes in. As I understand it, the idea of these practices being divine dwelling places is that you uplift yourself to a kind of bliss, a kind of superhuman or extraordinary enjoyment. It feels good to cultivate these virtues. This always seems to be the irony of suffering- it feels terrible, but we want it so much, somehow. It’s not easy to let go of things like anger, even if they feel awful (and therefore it seems like dropping them should be a piece of cake).

This is no small teaching, the four immeasurables. As I mentioned, compassion will be one of the foci of next week’s discussion. Here was my thought though. You don’t get them separately. Yes, they are cultivated on their own, in a concentrated way. At the same time, they’re not really separate feelings. You can’t be compassionate and still be unkind. You can’t be levelheaded (equanimous) without being compassionate. They go together. They’re really one thing, with four aspects.

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot ...

Compassion personified: a statue at the Epcot center in Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Holidays 2012

One thing people talk about is whether they’ve gotten Christmas trees yet. My family has not, yet. No lights either, although we’ll be getting both. I’ve enjoyed seeing people’s displays outside going up, mostly trees wrapped in lights, sometimes more complicated setups.

I’m going to write a little about the holidays in relation to the talk I’ll be giving tomorrow at the Rowley Public Library (Mass.).

So this is some self-promotion (come see the talk! it’s free!) but also based on stuff I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last year or so, and of course, having celebrated the holidays with varying degrees of success since I was a kid. All of this is in the context of the dharma, and of meditation practice. That’s pretty odd, in a way, although to someone who meditates, it all becomes part of a kind of stew, it all gets brought in together.

I think one direction I could take this in, which I won’t, but it would be interesting- why would a Buddhist think about celebrating Christmas? There are so many problems with that- the commercial aspect, the religious aspect, the fact that there are a number of Buddhist holidays. Worth thinking about.

Instead I think I want to write about, briefly, the idea of holidays as legitimate spiritual experiences. In one way, that’s the big question starting out- if you’re going to examine how you celebrate the holidays, in terms of spiritual practice and the path, you have to look at the possibility that holidays are not a good way to practice for a variety of reasons-

the aforementioned commercialization

not being a natural fit with your beliefs (Buddhist Christmas, Yogic Hanukah, Christian Halloween)

randomness of celebration

it being merely social or conventional

So that’s a start. Obviously, my bias is more towards the legitimacy of celebrating (eccentric) holidays as spiritual practice. Some responses to the previous problems:

Don’t do it in an overly commercial way. Don’t buy too much. Even if making presents doesn’t seem appealing or good enough, you can celebrate in do it yourself ways as far as decorating, food, and so on. Bottom line, I think, has to do with seeing that the craziness of the commercial aspect of the holidays is not pleasant, and not wholesome.

If it’s not a fit, fine. I’m greedy, though. And I like some of the holidays. (Not New Year‘s so much, because I’m not great with crowds, don’t really drink much, and I get my own, better, New Year’s in February.) Even if the fit is not completely apparent, I want to enjoy the food I’ve always eaten, some of the music (some of it), some of those old movies. This is nostalgic. That is not necessarily a problem. Another angle- there’s just tremendous energy involved in this stuff, having to do a lot with the group feeling. I enjoy that. I find it interesting, and want to make the most of it.

This one goes like this- these days are not inherently special. It’s just a day on a calendar. The day you got married, the day you were born, the day something amazing happened, these can feel like significant days. The day something very old happened, maybe something you’re not psychologically or idealogically invested in, is just another day. This used to be a big one for me. At this point it somehow seems unimportant. So what? The atmosphere exists, whether or not I’m going to contemplate Christ’s birth, or his resurrection, or the spirits going to walk among the living once a year.

(As a side note, I think part of my thought about this has to do with looking at contemporary American culture, so-called irony, and self-mockery. These fit under what one teacher called “frivolousness” the last two, that is. My very rough and unstudied understanding- at a certain point in recent history, lots of modern people lost faith. Religion, as well as the humanities, hadn’t protected us from terrible tragedies on a global scale. People felt they couldn’t assume the traditional way of having faith, of going along with the rituals and calendars, worked. The traditions seemed corrupt, bankrupt, a way to corral people, take their money, and worse. This contributed to a view of everything being equal. There was not high culture, and low culture. You could appreciate all of it. This was because, in part, it was all garbage. You could mock all of it, and find some distance, some safety, some perspective. Clearly, I have a problem with this kind of ironic remove. Watching a cheesy movie can be fun, and it’s also not the same as watching a movie that was carefully made, that touches you, or moves you.

The holidays, I’m positing, used to have more power. People’s lack of faith, their lack of connection to their traditions, especially in America, although I’d guess in many places that have modernized, led to disconnection from the rituals and experiences of the holidays. People doubt the holidays. I think this is a missed opportunity.)

(Another side note- there are other responses to the randomness objection. One is about the actual contemplation of the meaning of a holiday. Personally, this one doesn’t do it for me exactly, but it’s there, and is legitimate, I think. So, Christmas could seem random, but if you connect to some of the ideas it embodies, then it becomes about that. It’s about the teachings a holiday embodies. Another, more interesting to me, response, is seasonal/natural. Holidays are specific to times of year. As seasons shift, things feel different. There are actually real energies that come into play at various times of year. It’s not just about the temperature changing. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia or association. Energy changes as nature shifts with the seasons. It follows that holidays connect to this. I’m enjoying playing with this idea, and practicing with it. It’s, as they say, “a bank of energy.” That’s worth exploring.)

The last one is easy enough to take apart. First, saying something is merely social or merely conventional is misguided. Social norms, conventions, what you could call a larger body language, are really powerful. How often do you just jump outside of those norms? They’re really powerful. They shape everything. Second, this begs the question: why would such social experiences arise? Why would people engage in them? Why would they last? It’s not enough to see a habitual pattern and dislike it. You have to do something more.

I wrote a lot more than I thought I would about that. Sorry for not including lots of little pictures to make it more fun. If you can, come to the talk tomorrow, in Rowley. It will probably be very different from what you’ve just read. Happy holidays!

christmas 2007

christmas 2007 (Photo credit: paparutzi)

Sunday meditation

I’d like to offer public sitting meditation Sundays, from 7-8 am.

It will be 5/donation. Pay what you can. If you can’t afford it, come anyway.

Call or email for directions or information.



We’ll do sitting, a little walking, maybe a tiny bit of chanting. It’s open to any level of experience, any tradition, background, whatever.


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Meditation and transformative practice vis-à-vis rationality, phenomenology, neuroscience and {clinical, developmental, evolutionary} psychology because humans.

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