Saturday, February 24, 2007

Making Good Causes

"It's a matter of making causes. If the causes are good, the result is bound to be good, because all things are born of causes." (Being Dharma, Ajahn Chah)

1-Minute Contemplation: Look back over the last day. What happened to you? Seek to find the causes operative in your life over the past day. Rest assured that you won't find them all--life is too complex to pull that off. But to see even one when we saw none before is a step down the right path.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Does Time Seem to Go Faster as We Age?

"Where did the day go? Five minutes ago I was waking up at eight o'clock, and now it's nine pm and I haven't gotten a single thing done."

Why is it that life roars by faster and faster as we age? Think back to childhood. It seemed like we had time to do everything we wanted when we were children. I can't recall ever being pressed for time, nor worrying that I wouldn't be able to get a task done. In adult life, admittedly, there are many more demands for our time. Not only do we have our hobbies, but now work demands our time, as do responsibilities such as house cleaning, laundry, yard work, home repairs, and cooking. So while the number of hours in a day has not changed, the number of things we try to squeeze into our waking hours has. And yet I still have days where I accomplish responsibility after responsibility, respond to emails, read for an appreciable time, write a short essay, play a game of chess, and still have time to meditate and spend the evening with my fiance. How can we have more days like that? The answer is intention.

On those amazing days like I described above, I find that a clear intention--all too often unconsciously set--carries me through. I say "unconsciously set" because while sometimes I consciously state my intention with each new activity, many times I only notice when reflecting back on my day how intentional everything was. I observe after-the-fact that as I finished the laundry, I confidently decided to meditate for 20 minutes. After that, I resolutely chose to write for an hour.

How does this compare to a "normal" day, when we seem so pressed for time? On these days, we tend to go about our day intention-less. It's really easy to move through life without intention. We have this vague mental construct of our tasks, and as we proceed from one to the next, there is no clear delineation between them. Further complications arise in that we are usually thinking about tasks 5, 6, and 7 while we are working on task 4, and occasionally our minds drift back to task 3.

On the contrary, when we set a specific intention before beginning a task: "I will sit and write for 1 hour," this provides a structure, a frame, within which our minds can work. With resolution, we place our minds in an optimal state for completing the task in front of us. We've noted our goal, defined the specific conditions for its outcome, and know our timeframe. Given this structure, our minds are assured that once the time for this task is up, they will be allowed to think about the other tasks--this helps us be mindful and focused on the current activity. Additionally, once we have completed this task, we then set our intention for the next task, and this provides a clear boundary between activities, to which our mind seems to respond very well. This "break in the action" allows our mind to regenerate, to rest momentarily and switch gears to function optimally on the new task.

From a Buddhist perspective, such conscious intention-setting allows us to break our karmic habits and choose our next actions with mindfulness. When we allow all our activities to run together, it is extremely easy to get caught up in our habitual thoughts and actions because we haven't given any direct instructions to our mind otherwise. However, by setting our intention, we have set the stage to see our habitual responses to life and, therefore, have the ability to change our response to one we deem more skillful. Setting our intention before each activity is truly an act of mindfulness, one with immediately observable benefits. It is also an act of compassion because it gives us the space within which to examine our responses and ensure that they are motivated by compassion, not ill will. As we age, we tend to get caught up in our habitual responses. We lose the mindful curiosity of our childhood. Things are no longer "new" to our minds, and so as we gain experience, it becomes ever easier to automatically respond as we have in the past. Conscious intention-setting counteracts this tendency and gives us a tool through which to develop compassionate, mindful action.

1-Minute Contemplation: Where do you find yourself getting pulled through life, time passing you by? In what way would intention practice help in your specific circumstances? Can you resolve to set your intention in these areas, and see what effect it has on your life?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Deeply Held Belief in Nonviolence

I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about a mutual hobby, tabletop gaming. We are both huge fans of the Lord of the Rings universe and play Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings Strategy Game. Tactics play the major role in this game, as each player controls an army comprised of units from within the Lord of the Rings mythology--elves, men, dwarves, Gandalf, Saruman, etc.--and fights a battle with their forces against the other player. To give our games some depth and meaning, however, we created a strategic world within which we play the game. In other words, it's closer to "real life" in that the results of our battles ripple through our respective Middle Earth empires. When (and if) to attack, how much force to use in doing so, what additional units to produce to strengthen our armies, where to maneuver--all of these are now important factors for which we have to account. Said another way, instead of just playing the role of a Field Commander in a single battle, we now play the roles of President, General, Defense Minister, and Foreign Relations Advisor, as well as Field Commander.

While we discussed our game and what appears to be an impending invasion of my territory by my friend, I noticed how uncomfortable I felt regarding our war. I love fighting our individual battles for the strategic challenge they present, just as I enjoy chess, Go, and other such games. But the more my job becomes "leading an empire," the more I shy away from warlike tendencies.

I think back to my college days, when I frequently played the computer game Civilization. In that game, you are charged with leading your chosen civilization from a single settler in antiquity to launching a manned spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star, in the 21st century CE. Across this vast span of time, you can lead your civilization in an infinite number of ways, including creating and breaking diplomatic ties, choosing your form of government, forging trade routes, building Wonders of the World, and waging war. I always, always, always tried to win via diplomatic relations, and could never bring myself to wage war on the other civilizations, except under self-defense.

In Buddhism, the number one moral teaching is, "Do not harm, but cherish all life." All other ethical actions can be reduced to this one teaching--we should not lie because of the harm it can have on others as well as ourselves (we count as "all life" too!), we should avoid stealing because of the pain it causes others, etc. In November of 2005, the Dalai Lama gave a talk on the heart of nonviolence, and here is an excerpt from Stanford University's coverage of the event:

"Violence is destruction; nonviolence is construction," he [Dalai Lama] said.

But the boundaries between violence and nonviolence cannot be determined simply by observing actions on their surface, he said. An individual can use nice words to cheat or exploit another, he said. Conversely, a harsh action could be done out of compassion and the intent to protect others, he added. Limited violence can be permissible, and countering a violent action with a strong countermeasure sometimes is not only permissible "but is the right thing to do," he said.

The organized violence of war, however, is never a lasting solution, he said. Acting out of negative emotions, however natural they may be, obscures reality, he said. In today's reality, "the whole world is like one family or one body. Destroying one part of the world is like destroying yourself," he said.

War is very hard to justify, he said. It's too early to say whether the war in Iraq is right or wrong, he added. "We'll see," he said.

As I am a Buddhist, I embrace the idea of nonviolence. But in conversing with my friend, for the first time I truly observed for myself how deeply ingrained this approach to life is in me. Even in my completely unreal fantasy game, as soon as the game gave me responsibility as the leader of a people (rather than just a General in a battle without context), I felt it was completely wrong and irresponsible of me to pursue war. Even knowing this now, and knowing that our game was designed completely around giving us a reason and a context to fight our individual battles, I still struggle inwardly with any decisions involving waging war because I deeply feel that peace is always an option, and to allow events to proceed to the point where violence is unavoidable is to have failed in my job as leader. I agree with the Dalai Lama that strong countermeasures are sometimes necessary to minimize violence and harm in the long-term (WWII and Hitler being an obvious example), but it is only under extreme circumstances that this type of action is necessary.

1-Minute Contemplation: When in your life have you had the experience of seeing a deeply held viewpoint naturally emerge? Did you expect that response? Did you know it was even there? For me, I knew I had felt violence was wrong, but it had mostly been an intellectual understanding that had provided guidance for me. Until my revealing conversation with my friend. It was only then that I truly saw for myself the depth of feeling I had of the importance of peace and harmony in the world.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Respect Those Cabinets!

Buddhism is about respect -- respect for oneself, respect for one's neighbors, respect for one's enemies, respect for all animals, even respect for your kitchen cabinets. You might be thinking, "I was with you through the animals, but my cabinets!?" Yes, that's right, even your cabinets deserve your respect.

In a way, I'm using respect as a mental trick. In Buddhism we tend to talk about mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, concentration, and generosity. While I think it's obvious that respect is a positive trait, and belongs in the above group, it shows itself infrequently in Buddhist sutras. But if we take a good look at respect, we can see that it really represents an effective means to practice, particularly when applied to kitchen cabinets.

When I open my cabinet to get a glass, I can pull the cabinet open, grab my glass, and let the cabinet door slam back against the cabinet itself. Or I can open the cabinet door, remove my glass, and let the door go a few inches from the casing as I turn my attention to my next task--filling my glass. Or I can close the cabinet door carefully, holding it all the way until I gently bring it back into contact with the cabinet. Here is where respect appears. If I respect the cabinet, how will I close it? Will I allow it to slam noisily? Or will I give it the attention it deserves until closure?

Here, again, you might be thinking, "But the cabinet isn't sentient. How can I respect a cabinet? That's nonsensical!" I agree, it is nonsensical. There's really nothing a cabinet can do to earn your respect. And that's the very reason why you should respect it! It teaches you that all things deserve respect, even those things that haven't earned it. So when somebody who really annoys you enters your conversation at a dinner party, your practice of respect will bear fruit, and you will find that you respect that person despite your differences.

There's another benefit to showing respect toward your cabinets. If you respect your cabinets, you will do nothing to harm them purposefully. You will be gentle with them, maybe even loving, and this becomes a lesson in nonviolence and nonharming. Furthermore, to avoid harming your cabinets, you will close them gently, paying attention the entire time. This is a practice in mindfulness. This practice is so effective because you have immediate feedback: sound. When you slam your cabinet doors, you are immediately reminded of your transgression.

So we have come full circle. We began by observing that Buddhism centers around respect for all beings. We then chose to extend this to non-sentient objects. By doing so, we obtained the wonderful side effect of the practice of mindfulness and nonviolence. In this way, we never have to ask, "Am I going to be able to carry this practice off the cushion into everyday life?" because the practice began in the midst of everyday life! So the next time somebody asks you what you get from your Buddhist practice, you can answer with a straight face, "I respect my kitchen cabinets."

Monday, February 05, 2007

2007 Blogisattva Award Nominee

I'd like to extend my thanks for my nomination in the category of Best New Blog, 2006 in the 2007 Blogisattva Awards. There is some amazing writing represented in these nominations. Please visit Blogisattva and check out some of the nominee posts!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sixteen Foot Buddha

"With a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha which is sixteen feet high." (Not Always So. Shunryu Suzuki.)

I just completed a difficult work project that has occupied most of my waking hours throughout January. Throughout that process, I both struggled mightily with my practice, and also found beautiful refuge in my practice. My regular sitting practice suffered because I had to constantly work. Several days into our hardest week on the project, I was extremely close to burning out, and my body let me know it by catching a brutal 24-hour flu -- my first flu in over 10 years. It was at that point I recognized that no work project was worth my health, and yet my task would not complete itself. So I put the work I had to do aside and sat for 30 minutes.

In my meditation space, I learned a tremendous lesson.

As Shunryu Suzuki says in the quote that opened this post, "With a blade of grass, we create a golden Buddha which is sixteen feet high." The joy in life opens up for us when we can look at even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential thing, and see something as glorious as a sixteen foot golden Buddha. In my hell-week meditation, I saw directly how I was the source of my own suffering, with my response to aspects of the project, and it was completely in my power to respond differently. I was not seeing the sixteen foot Buddha sitting right in front of me, within the task I was spending so much time on. After that, I slowed myself down and worked with a mindful awareness of myself working, regardless of the deadlines that seemed impossible to meet. And what I found was that I was more efficient, more effective, and more calm throughout the entire process. I took what life was presenting me as my practice. So while my sitting practice still suffered, I gained valuable experience seeing that there is always time and a means to practice, if only I allow myself to see the shimmering golden Buddha within each blade of grass.

1-Minute Contemplation: Take a moment and consider a recent time when you looked at your blade of grass and saw only a hair-thin stripe of plant. Looking back, having achieved some space from this event, can you see a glimpse of the glorious golden Buddha?