Friday, April 2, 2010

Year to Live, Take 2 the date of my last post indicates, I didn't quite make it with my first try at the Year to Live practice. I'm not sure when I actually stopped. But by the middle of September, I consciously decided to let the whole thing go.

It had just become too much. Digging around in the depths was a bit more than I was ready for. And looking back, I honestly don't know what the hell I was thinking. I had just come through some pretty heavy life changes. Why did I think it was a good idea to jump into a hardcore practice like A Year to Live?

Because that's what I do. I jump in with both feet and take on too much. I aim high-sometimes too high.

But as I've gotten older, I've finally started to realize that I don't have to attack everything full-force. I can do things a little slower and enjoy the journey. I don't always have to force everything along.

But lately, I've been getting the urge to take up the practice again. Having a sangha really helps. And a few people from the Dharma Punx crew have taken up the Year to Live practice on their own. The idea of having some support really appeals to me.

Because even though I don't want to overcommit...I do want to commit myself to doing the practice 100%. No excuses, no games, no missed days. And I finally feel ready to go take that on again.

So here we go. Round 2. Got my mouthpiece in and I'm ready for the bell.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

4 and a half months and counting...

That's how long I have left. 4 1/2 months, more or less.

I've been asking myself, more than ever, how I want to spend those days. Honestly, I've been questioning whether or not to continue the Year to Live practice at all. It's been a hard road lately. Meditation, once my refuge, has become something...well, scary. A place where I really face up to my demons. Where I see them clearly for what they are, where they came from, and (sometimes) let go of them.

Sometimes. More often, I find myself in bed at the end of the day, having been "too busy" to meditate.

This is what I do, I guess. I get busy (stop snickering, Cape). I find 1,000 ways to occupy my time, usually with work. And of course, some of that is necessary. I need to work, to get clients, to research, to write. That's what I do.

But lately it's all been a blur. Too much, too fast. No time to be present.

Amazing, isn't it? I mean, really, there's always time to be present. In fact, that's all there is. this moment is it. And yet I keep waiting for the next, and the next, and the next. Trying to stave off...what?

I don't have any real problems right now, at least not compared to the last year or two. I have some money coming in, a job I really love, good friends, a great relationship. There's no recent traumatic event that I'm reeling from. But here I am, with just as much suffering as when things were darkest.

Maybe I'm just more aware of it, so I see it more clearly. A constant background noise--a static-y buzz that digs into my heart and sets my nerves on fire. The feeling of constant, never-ending discontent. Craving.

Ah. See, that's why I write this. It helps me see clearly. When I write things out, the 10,000 little buzzing thoughts that rattle aruond in my head fall neatly into line. I'm forced to focus on what I'm really trying to convey, what my real experience is. when I write--really write, when I'm not self-editing but just letting things flow--it's very meditative. Moreso than just about anything else I do.

Before, when my life took a sudden and harsh shift, the suffering of others was all I could see. My own pain reflected back at me...but more than that, I could see, for the first time, how others suffered. In a deep and very real way. Out of that perception grew more compassion, more caring, more mercy and forgiveness--for myself and others. After all, if we're all suffering in our own way, it's hard to hold a grudge against somebody. Not to say I have no grudges, of course...

Then, after a few months, a new awareness came: Fear. Fear was all I could see, and it dominated my meditation. Anxiety, worry, all the related emotions came up. But I had guidance, and I understood that this way simply another level of awareness. "Oh, here's what's causing that suffering--all that worry and anxiety and fear!".

Now it's shifted again. Now I see craving, and it's twin aversion. The constant hunger for more, for something else, for things to be different. To have everything the way it "should be". To not have to put up with difficult emotions or people. To just "have a normal life".

And I think that's underneath the fear, the root of it. The root of everything.

Of course that's what Buddhism teaches. Suffering is caused by craving. I knew that. I knew it was true the first time I read it, 20+ years ago.

But to see it, to feel the truth of that in my bones...that's something very different. Beyond words.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why We Practice

Yesterday, after the Dharma Punx group, someone who is new to meditation asked me "What's the goal of this practice?"

I shot back without thinking: "Enlightenment. Freedom from suffering." I also mentioned that the Buddha said that he really only taught "about suffering and the way to end suffering."

Which is true. But her question got me thinking. I realize now that my answer may have been pretty unsatisfactory, a little too quick. Too trite and easy. "Unsatisfactory", if you'd like to put a little dharmic irony into it.

So what is the goal of practice? As I thought about it, I kept on coming back to the Year to Live practice. After all, it's essentially a Buddhist practice condensed into a finite time frame. And of course, that's true of all practice, and everything we do. We don't know when that final bell will ring. It may happen today. Or tomorrow. Or fifty years from now.

And we have no way of knowing what will happen to us during that time. We only know that everything that arises will fall away. That nothing is permanent and unchanging. That there will be joy, and love, and happiness. And that there will also be pain, and sorrow, and grief.

What Buddhist practice has taught me is that we can choose to sit with those experiences fully, not pushing them away or clinging to them--and that this is the only way to true freedom. This is detachment and equanimity in action.

It's important to be clear when using those terms in my view. "Detachment" or "non-attachment", as well as equanimity, are somewhat loaded terms. It's easy to interpret them as literal detachment--not caring about what happens to us or others in a meaningful way. A kind of spiritual hard-heartedness that keeps us from getting hurt too much by the ways of the world and the teachings life hands us.

I see this in many spiritual practicioners, including myself. In trying to relieve our suffering and be "ok" with letting go of our suffering, or not craving or clinging to pleasure, it's all too easy to become truly detached. We can meditate and think ourselves into a state where we don't get touched by anything at all. Where we can fool ourselves into thinking we are free. In fact, we may succeed only in giving aversion and craving a spiritual veneer. In the end, we can end up neglecting our true work--the "heavy lifting" of spiritual practice--in favor of a false sense of well-being.

For instance, it's easy for me to ignore that fact that some relationships in my life are very difficult for me. I can breathe, and relax around my own feelings and emotional reactions. I can tell myself it doesn't really matter, that all things are impermanent, and that this is too.

And that is all true.

But if I don't take that a step further and look at the root causes of my suffering, and the suffering of the other person, all I've succeeded in doing is putting a Band-Aid on a deep wound. I may cover up what is there, but the root causes are unaffected. In the end, that wound will likely fester, cause more suffering, and feed itself.

In some cases, those deep, old wounds can consume our entire lives. They often do. Or they may scar over, hardening us, protecting us, but never really healing.

True spiritual work can be hard, it can be ugly, and it will probably be scary as hell. It requires you to look deeply at the things you would like to leave untouched. Real practice, for me anyway, is not all sunshine and roses. You have to get your hands into the shit and mud to plant the seeds that will grow into awareness, compassion, equanimity and true freedom.

So back to my example. If I go deeper, I can see that the person I am having difficultly with is suffering. I can see that they are probably unaware of this fact, and that they are totally caught up in samsara--the cycle of karma, attachment, and so on. I can see that their life experience has conditioned them to react in certain ways, and that these reactions shouldn't be taken too personally. Underneath it all, they are like a small child, pure, capable of unconditional love and compassion.

In reality, they are trapped in a hell of fear, pain, and confusion. They only want to be happy. But they only know how to react, rather than respond. In short, their angry words are 100% rooted in their own shit, not mine, and I don't need to take it personally.

Now if you follow that line of thought, it's hard not to have real compassion for someone. It's hard not to see yourself in them, to see them as a being that needs some loving-kindness and understanding rather than rejection.

Taking that further, it means we have to recongize our own anger, fear, confusion, and so on. We have to recongize and be accountable for our own actions and how they created the situation. And we need to do all that without casting blame or making it someone else's fault--including our own. Too often we take on burdens that aren't ours, matyring ourselves to play the saint, or allowing someone to do that same to us.

We also need to see clearly that we can't change anyone, ever. We can only accept them as they are, with all their warts and blemishes--and do the same for ourselves. All we can do is show them a better way, and offer support. The work must be their own. And we have to be OK with things if they (or we) try and fail to change, or if they willfully ignore our heartfelt advice.

That's a hell of a tall order, isn't it? That's what real practice requires. In my opinion, anyway.

It's a lot of hard work. Most of it done alone, sitting quietly with whatever arises. Letting it develop fully, watching our reactions, and then letting it go when it wants to be let go. Our time on the cushion teaches us all of the above. Nothing else I've found really does that--not in the deep, internalized way meditation can. I can talk til I'm blue as Krishna about all of the crap I wrote, but if I don't get it--really get it, in a totally non-intellectual way--those are just words. Maybe useful ones. Maybe not.

It's up to us to put in the hard work and time to develop our own awareness, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Only when we start to forgive our own faults, to accept ourselves as we are--with all our fear, delusion, and hatred as well as our innate loving-kindess, compassion and awareness--can we truly do the same for other people.

Otherwise it's too easy to forgive, but hold a grudge. It's too easy to forget an old hurt and pretend it doesn't affect us. It's too easy to become detached.

So what is the goal of practice? All of the above. But also:

To have a clear seeing and--most importantly--a non-judgemental awareness of everything that has brought us to this moment. To be in this moment fully, living completely in the body, heart and mind.

When we can do that, we're free. There's no suffering, no craving, no attachment. At the same time, we are fully engaged, unconditionall loving, and compassionate--to ourselves, to others, and to the world at large. And we do it all without expectations or attachments to an outcome. We're just there, fully.

That sounds like a lot to ask of anyone. But I believe, and the Buddha said, that enlightenment is available to anyone in this lifetime. Our true nature IS that Buddha-nature. All we have to do is wipe the dust from our eyes and see life clearly.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dharma Punx Boston

More gratitude:

Thank you to everyone from the Dharma Punx Boston group. You are all amazing people with amazing stories of struggle and triumph, even if you don't see the triumph yet. Thank you for having the courage to sit down, shut up, and face down your own greed, hatred, and delusion. There is nothing more difficult or more rewarding. Most of all, thank you for showing me what the human heart is capable of.

Thanks to Sean and Michael for keeping me moving forward and helping me get this whole thing up and running. It never would have happened without you. You guys are a huge support and I deeply appreciate everything you've done.

Thanks to the absolutely incredible folks who came to Mudfist 2009, the Bacon Dharma camping trip. What an awesome weekend. I have been grinning for three days straight. I think people assume I'm either crazy or high. Maybe both. But for the first time I can remember I'm actually not affected by the city-stress, the aggravation of traffic, the constant invasions of personal space. OK, a little bit. But I hardly ever want to punch people in the face.

In all seriousness, everyone there made it the best weekend I could imagine. Sure the rain wasn't great, but hey--it kept us under the tarp and around the fire. We ended up talking and getting to know each other way more than we might have if it was sunny and 75 degrees. So thanks for the rain, baby Jeebus. Or whoever.

Having that weekend mark the halfway point of my Year to Live practice was perfect. So again, deepest thanks, much love and metta sent to all of you. Hopefully we'll get together again in August, and again in September at Kripalu!

*knuckle bump with the giant rubber DharmaFist*

The Halfway Point.

Today marks the halfway point of my Year to Live practice.

I wish I could find the words to describe the changes I've seen in my mind, my heart, my relationships. All I can do is offer gratitude for the teachings--all of them--that I've been fortunate enough to receive during my time on this planet.

I'm thankful I was born human, and therefore able to understand the Dharma. To whatever hiccup of karma landed me here, and now, I thank you.

I'm thankful I was born into the family I was born into, and given the oppotunity to practice compassion, forgiveness, and unconditional love. Thank you for showing me so many things about myself, the world, and how I relate to it.

I'm thankful for the amazing friends I've made--and those I've lost to sickness, accident, or violence--for everything. You cannot know what you've meant to me. Even the crazy ones, the thugs, the criminals and hooligans. And the ones who have been there, good times and bad, in all seasons. Even when I am not the easiest person to be around, you've all ignored my sometimes difficult nature and chosen to see the person under it all. Thank you.

I'm thankful for the gift of loving a few incredible women in my life, and what I learned from them--in good times and bad. Most of all I'm thankful for the amazing woman who is teaching me so many valuable lessons right now. My few words fail to describe your tremendous impact on my life and view of the world. Thank you.

and thank you all, for reading this. I hope that you go through your day with awareness and compassion. I hope you can see the incredible opportunities for growth and healing, forgiveness and gratitude, in all things.

May you be happy
May you be at peace
May you be free from suffering

Friday, May 22, 2009

Metta Practice

Metta (loving-kindness) meditation is a major practice of the Theravadin tradition of Buddhism that I practice. Interestingly, I find most meditators prefer to focus on a strict vipassana (insight) practice, rather than the more heart-based practices of what the Buddha called the “4 Divine Adobes”, or brahmaviharas.

Why is this? I don’t know. But I suspect that many of us got into meditation to fix something in our lives—that is, to try to escape our suffering in a more positive way than drinking, drug use, etc. I know I did. If it wasn’t for martial arts, Buddhism and meditation, I very much doubt I would be here today. Like many of the kids I hung out with, I likely would have ended up trapped in addiction to drugs or alcohol or in jail, or dead.

To be completely honest, the latter is the most likely scenario. As my meditation practice has deepened, as my mind and heart have opened, I can see clearly the urge for self-destruction that drove me to live my life looking for a fight. Fighting was my favorite thing in the world—the only place I felt perfectly at home was in the adrenaline dump of a good brawl. I had so much hate and anger boiling up inside of me that I needed to let it out somehow—and that was the only way I knew.

How no one stabbed, shot, or simply beat my dumb ass to death during those times is still something that amazes me. We are so fragile; all it would have taken is a bad fall on concrete to end my life, or someone else’s. Thank God, or whatever is out there, that none of that ever happened.

I think it’s that awareness of my past motivations that brought me to metta practice. I knew that I needed to find a way to deal with those old angers, the old wounds, the resentments, judgements and grudges that still drove me in so many ways. And I knew that my insight practice wasn’t cutting it, nor was doing Muay Thai or any other martial art. They helped relieve the symptoms—the day to day frustrations, lack of awareness, etc—but the root was something that went much deeper.

Metta practice allowed me to see clearly for the first time in my life that I was worthy of being loved. That I wasn’t someone who was inherently bad or undeserving. That I didn’t need to walk around with this weight on my chest. I could open myself to myself—and by doing so, to others.

Initially, it was very difficult to sit and repeat the phrases:
“May I be filled with loving-kindess
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be well
May I be happy”

My mind kept on intruding and asking me who I thought I was fooling. Weren’t other people more deserving? Why was I wasting my time on this ridiculous, useless practice?

Yeah, my mind is kind of an asshole. But maybe you recognize those thoughts. They are very common especially when you being to practice metta. Hell, they’re some of the first thoughts that came up for me when I started vipassana practice.

I have an idea why:
Our society still has a deep, unconscious remnant of the idea of Original Sin—that we are all inherently bad. On top of that we pile the habitual separation of body and mind, and the shackles of a warped version of the Protestant work ethic—one where nothing is ever good enough and our worth is measured only by our work and wealth. And the cherry on top is our modern need to consume, to define ourselves by what we own. Like the bumper sticker says “He who dies with the most toys wins”.

And all of this—even if we consciously reject it—still works on our subconscious mind and our hearts. Especially the deep cultural programming of the Judeo-Christian idea of Original Sin. That simply doesn’t exist in many other cultures.

For instance, when the Dalai Lama was asked by an American psychologist whether or not meditation could help his patients deal with their self-hatred, he was dumbfounded. The DL went back and forth with his translator for a good ten minutes, and then finally asked the psychologist to explain what he meant. When he did, the Dalai Lama replied (more of less) “We don’t understand. The Tibetan language doesn’t have a way to describe what you’re talking about.”

Think about that. They have no concept whatsoever regarding the self-hatred and self-judgment that is so common in Western societies. It doesn’t exist for them.

But we do and I think a major part of our meditation practice—if not the vast majority—should focus first on uprooting these deeply-held and very damaging beliefs. This is also the view one of Jack Kornfield—in his book “A Path With Heart” he prescribes metta practice first, before all others—even vipassana.

So give it a try. At first, just focus on yourself. Later, you can expand the practice to include loved ones ,enemies and even the whole world—but it all starts inside. After a good year or so of metta practice I still work primarily on myself, although I do include others towards the end of the meditation session.

Metta has made a dramatic difference in my quality of life—moreso than anything else, although the compassion , sympathetic joy, and gratitude/forgiveness practices come close. I hope it does the same for you.

Here are the basic instructions, as well as a copy of the text of the Metta Sutta. I like to read the sutta aloud or to myself at the beginning and end of a sitting—I find it sets the mood and centers me a bit. I am not a meditation teacher, however, and I strongly suggest you read Salzberg’s “Loving-Kindess” as well as Kornfield’s “A Path With Heart” for more information.

How to Practice Metta (Loving Kindness) Meditaiton:

Find a comfortable place to sit. Relax your body and become aware of bodily sensations—the touch points (where your body makes contact with the floor,cushion or chair), your breath, or sounds. Relax and soften your belly.

After a few minutes of this, you can start the metta practice by repeating the phrases:

May I be filled with loving-kindess
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be well
May I be happy

Repeat the phrases mindfully—really get behind them emotionally. Picture yourself as a beloved child or being held in the arms of a being of pure compassion—Kuan Yin,Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, Mary, whoever or whatever makes you feel unconditionally loved.

Pay attention to the resistance you may have. Don’t push it away or judge it or judge yourself for having those thoughts of “not good enough”. They are complete normal. It’s what the mind does and it’s nothing to personalize. Just note it and go back to repeating your phrases with real feeling.

You may noticed bodily sensations: warmth in your heart, a tightness in the belly or throat, or even full-body waves of energy. I’ve actually felt energy move up through my chakras—although I didn’t know where they were at the time.

Don’t resist these sensations, but don’t cling to them either. They are positive and pleasurable, but if you start focusing on them you can create a craving for them. Just accept them for what they are, enjoy them and let them go when they want to go.

After 10 to 15 minutes, stop the metta practice and spend a few minutes just sitting and watching your mind. Notice how much calmer it is, and note the sensations –good and bad--that metta practice created for you. Open your eyes.

As a side note, metta practice can also be done walking, standing or lying down—I like to do a few run throughs right before I fall asleep at night.

A Translation of the Metta Sutta:

“May I be happy. May I preserve my happiness and live without enmity. May all beings be happy. May they be of joyful mind, all beings that have life, be they feeble or strong, be they minute or vast, visible or invisible, near or afar, born or are to be born, let all beings be joyful.
Let no one deceive another, let none be harsh in speech, let none by anger or hatred wish ill to his or her neighbor. Even as a parent, at the risk of their life, watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless heart of compassion I cherish all living beings, suffusing love over the entire world, above and all around limit; thus I cultivate an infinite goodwill toward the whole world.

Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all my waking hours, I cherish the thought that this way of loving is the noblest in the world.

Thus shall I, by abandoning vain discussions and controversies and by walking a wise path, be endowed with insight, let go of attachment to sense desires, and know the deathless. May this also be the cause for all other sentient beings to be fulfilled in the conditions leading to their realization of liberation. May all sentient beings escape the dangers of old age, disease, and death. May all beings be liberated.”

There are many other versions, but I like this one the best. To see some of the others and to learn more about metta (loving-kindness) meditation practice, you can go to

For books, the best one I’ve read—and really the one that kick-started the widespread practice of metta in the U.S.—is Sharon Salzberg’s “Loving Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness”. You can pick up a copy at

I hope you find this post helpful and that it benefits you and all beings in all directions.

May you be filled with loving-kindness
May you be peaceful and at ease
May you be well.
May you be happy.
May you be liberated.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Second Thoughts

Lately the Year to Live practice has felt like a burden. I have been struggling with so much resistance--to sitting, in particular. Especially the "Life Review" part of the practice.

The Life Review is just what it sounds like--you sit, calm your mind, and allow events from your past to arise and pass away. You try to let go of all the bad stuff, express gratitude where appropriate, and ask for forgiveness if needed.

In the book, Levine says to stay away from the heavy stuff, the negative experiences, when you begin the practice. And this is where I get stuck. Most of my life has been crazy, especially up to about age 21-22 when I got into martial arts and started meditating a bit.

I was very different then. Violent, for one thing. Against myself, in the form of drug and alcohol abuse. Against others, both physically and emotionally. At one point in my life my favorite thing to do was get into a good brawl. I would get drunk and just go looking for fights. How I didn't get shot or stabbed is beyond me.

I had so much rage and hate boiling up inside of me that it was all I could do to keep myself under control. Sometimes that effort alone was exhausting.

So there's lots of bad stuff there. Lots of painful memories, going all the way back to when I was a really little kid. I don't have that many happy childhood memories. I mean, I have them, but they are far outnumbered by ones dominated by feelings of fear, regret, and anger.

I remember more good things now. But to get to the good things I've had to go through the pages of my old books, reading all the old stories of pride, abandonement, rage, and fear. And as I read them, reliving them vividly. Feeling the waves of emotion that only a 6 year old can feel--utterly consuming, overwhelmingly intense. Letting them pass through me, finally, and trying to come to some sort of resolution. Trying to forgive and let go.

So I guess it should be obvious why I've been resisting practice. It's hard. It's tiring. I don't feel like too many people understand what it's like. I think most of my friends and loved ones find the Year to Live practice interesting; some of them even find it amirable. But it seems like it's one of those things you need to do in order to really understand.

It's intense. When I am fully in it, fully aware of Death on my left shoulder, everything in life is so precious--even the painful parts. In some cases, especially the painful parts--because it's through those experiences that we can gain the most wisdom. And those "bad" experiences have their own beauty; they're real, they're raw, and they're totally human. They are life, in all it's ugly glory.

And that's not to say that I don't think there aren't benefits to the more pleasant experiences I've had. I've had feelings of compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude so intense during a sit that I can feel them--feel them arise from the thoughts, crest as they move through my heart, and then settle deep in my lower belly. Sometimes they start from the other direction--running up through the lower chakras through the top of my head.

But I try not to cling to either of them. And yet, I find myself clinging to the negative, the painful, the things that create suffering. I suspect that's a sign of some unfinished business, some old (and new) loose ends that need to be tied up.

and there are lot of them. I made a list of all the people I feel like I need to make amends to, or that I have some unfinished business with. It's long. In some cases--ok, in ALL of the cases--apologizing and asking for forgiveness is going to take a lot. My ego definately does NOT want to come along for the ride. There are lots of thoughts about "Ah, let it go, it's not a big deal, they probably are OK with it..."

And maybe the people I need to talk with are "Ok with it". But I don't think I am. I have some attachments to those past events. And I committed myself to this practice. I have 7 months and 3 weeks to let go of all of them.

What's really funny is that I get kind of upset when I think of January 2, 2010. Intellectually I know it's not my real death (well, hopefully not) but it still creates a little wave of fear and grief. If I dwell on it, those feelings get very intense. And at the same time--I am totally aware that it's only a mental construct. But...I can't see past 1/2/2010. It's just a blank, an endless black void.

I like it that way. I've always believed that the best way to use an opporunity is to burn your bridges behind you. Not in the sense that we usually use that term--but in the sense of taking away the "outs" we like to leave for ourselves...just in case. Not having a vision of life beyond the next 7 months and 3 weeks forces me to "be here now". There's nothing else, no second chances, no mulligans.

And the truth is, that's our life. All of us, every single person reading this, will die. Sooner or later--and I hope that for all of you it's later. But as far as I know there aren't any do-overs. Once this moment is's gone. And we can very easily go through our whole life like that. Half-asleep and stumbling through the wilderness, grasping and clinging to anything that we think will show us the path out of the woods.

Wow, depressing. Yeesh. See what I mean?

But in all seriousness...I'd like to challenge everyone who reads this (and there's a surprising number of you--very good for my ego) to spend one day, just one day, living like it was your last. Your last chance to have that conversation with your mom. Your last chance to call up the lover you hurt so many years ago and say "I'm sorry". Your last chance to go to the park with your kids--and really be there with them, not on the phone or chatting with other parents.

Go for it.