Category: The Spiritual Journey

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In the final issue of the Inquiring Mind, a journal that for 30 years has discussed topics serving the Western Theravadan Buddhist community, I was delighted to read Gil Fronsdal’s essay, “When Mindfulness Is Too Much.” I felt a tremendous sense of relief.

His comment that giving up mindfulness⎯though “temporary, proved to be a necessary step in my path toward liberation” ⎯resonated strongly with me. From my 44 year journey of meditation and yoga, both as a practitioner and a teacher, I have very much valued how mindfulness shows us how to be present in the moment with whatever we are experiencing. Yet, I have also seen, as with various other mind focusing activities such as the simple act of witnessing, for example, how mindfulness is still, as Gil Fronsdal aptly said in his essay, “an activity of the mind.” The way I have framed the dilemma of longing to go beyond mindfulness is to understand that there are times when mindfulness is not enough.

A different type of experience is that state of deep quiet when all mental activity has come to a stop. I have at times concluded this must be the emptiness I have read about. Other times, I have felt so altered I could find no words to adequately describe the truth of my experience, though I have hinted at it in various poems.

I very much appreciate Gil Fronsdal’s statement, “Now I have a connection to a dimension of mind or of awareness that is unconstructed.” It is helpful for me to have this confirmation of something I have long suspected. He continues on to say that the “unconstructed became very important because it highlighted how everything else is constructed.” I find this perspective of the “unconstructed” and “constructed” to be a skillful insight on the spiritual journey.

Only a few days before reading this article, I had observed a potential tension created by a part of the mind (which I have often called the left brain or the analytical brain) towards something quite the opposite⎯a rising, radical and expanding experience. My sense afterwards was to label that experience as rapture, but even that did not seem to be an adequate description. A startlingly clear delineation between the “constructed” and “unconstructed” was actually helpful because I recognized how both types of experiences are informative in their own way.

The Spiritual Journey

1-MARCH –Awakening

I wrote a blog in the last days of February, which I did not post because I was concerned it was too personal. As I take another look at “Valley Canyon Selfie,” I realize this piece is one example of a long-time interest I have had in describing the journey towards happiness.

Remembering the year 1970, I was 26 years old, single and working at the Stanford University Graduate Library having recently completed my M.A. in English Literature. It was lunchtime. I sat on a bench near the library, but I do not remember eating. I remember feeling completely miserable.

Within 3 years, I was married, had a child, met my spiritual teacher and was on the way to learning about the art of happiness. To begin with, I had the insight that happiness was my birthright, which was news to me. The birth of my daughter touched a joy I hadn’t known existed. Still, it has not been an easy, straightforward, upward climb.

In the past, I have often been disappointed by external circumstances or people; that is when happiness has been elusive. It’s taken a long time for me to take responsibility for my internal landscape. It took even longer to recognize that a difficult childhood, for example, were not enough reasons for me to be unhappy. I didn’t always get how joy is its own reward and doesn’t require a narrow groundwork of perfection to bring about happiness.

For me, formal sitting, meditation, has been a primary practice to help clear the mind of unhelpful baggage. In recent years I have noticed that what some meditation teachers call “ordinary dharma” has come into my life quite naturally and without fanfare. By “ordinary dharma,” I mean ongoing mindfulness, or what I like to think of as conscious living. A commitment to what my teacher often called “constant vigilance” leads to greater peace, gratitude, happiness and insight through everyday awareness of each moment. “Valley Canyon Selfie” is one of my attempts to describe how such a process can work.

 

2-FEBRUARY—Valley Canyon Selfie

February close to completion, the first of the long-stemmed Valentine roses fades. Outside, the meadow is mowed, paths cleared and walkways weeded, somewhat. I do what I can, aware of the need to prepare for another drought season ahead, knowing there is always much more to be done.

After yesterday’s walk with a friend who likes to move fast, I woke up this morning not wanting to sit, or even do yoga. The body ached. I pushed through a threatening cloud of negativity, gently searching for and, gradually, finding a way to do my morning practice until it released a threatening reactivity like a dissolving fog. I became grateful. I answered emails, washed dishes, walked, put off some paper work.

I am satisfied, now, without much justification, it seems, since there is still that mental to-do list. I’ve checked off several things, except, of course, the one I am putting off. Perhaps, I will put it off a little longer. Rest. Do nothing. Examine, once again, the card that arrived in the mail yesterday. On the front of the card is the photograph of a pig-tailed little girl with her outstretched arm on a pooch sitting next to her; both look straight ahead at a large body of water; both wear a swim ring.

I receive a request for Face Time from my daughter. Seeing the youngest one in her lap, it is as if the sweetness of the photo I had just been looking at has, suddenly, come to life. I display the 3 year old’s drawing I had received from him in January. “I did that,” he cries out. He shows me his new toy. My daughter and I walk our iPads outdoors into what had been, for me, a cloudy morning, but as we share each other’s environments, the sun comes out overhead by our meadow where I am standing and shines across my screen.

It is time for lunch. We say goodbye. Soon after, I smile with the realization that one of my early morning activities, which I had not planned but had enjoyed spontaneously, was also the perfect preparation for that which I thought I was putting off. I could not easily do the latter without the former. And so I continue to be uplifted by an awareness of the natural connection and flow of life when I allow that to happen and don’t get in the way with hasty judgments or self-criticisms.

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