Archive for the ‘practice’ Category

During Maracatu rehearsal the other night something interesting happened. In a matter of an hour two alfaias (rope-tuned bass drums of varying sizes playing a mixture of complimenting, powerful rhythms) got cracks. Our wonderful group leader was shaken and asked us to play a song that celebrated the spirits of Maracatu. That somewhat surprised me: he seemed to have given this happening some meaning, saw it as a bad sign. I liked the devotional song a lot but the new rhythm was hard to pick up for a beginner. We did the song a number of times and moved on. Soon after that our leader’s alfaia cracked, the third one in one evening! In my time with the group this had never happened before. Our leader explained that drums don’t get cracks because someone plays passionately but they do break when they are played nervously, with the wrong kind of energy. I think  he was also devastated by the fact that two of the drums got broken when he was playing them.

My first thought was of a practical character: could the changed in the last few days weather conditions have effected the skin of the drums? Of course, it could be the combination of both: dry air and nervous energy. The last two practice sessions we were preparing for the upcoming workshop with the three renowned Maracatu teachers from Brazil. Our leader arranged for the workshop to happen in Uppsala and was keen on our group making the best of this master class with the masters of Maracatu. Maybe a little too keen. Maybe the pressure was too much and he brought in something extra into those rehearsals.

This made me think of the right effort that has always been a big question for me in many life situations. Strong willed and persistent as I am sometimes, I can keep pushing to only end up in the same place I started. I could have saved the efforts and time by stepping aside in the right moment, had I paid attention and not have become obsessed with the idea of how it should be. Most often I could make a good case for my persistence that in the end is more a sign of stubbornness.



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In his  interview at  Buddhist Geeks lama Surya Das was asked about the ways that would allow us to experience the transformative powers of spirituality in our everyday lives and outlined the following six building blocks as a base for a well-rounded and grounded spiritual practice.

  • a daily, formal spiritual practice period (meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, etc)
  • some form of spiritual study (anything from opening the book of nature to studying yourself to studying your relationships)
  • inner growth work (therapy, men and women’s support groups, twelve step programs)
  • working with teachers, elders, experts, and mentors
  • group practice, being a part of a community
  • some form of service, giving back

He also noted that most of the time we already are doing one or two of those and that could be enough for some period of time (parenting, being a good colleague and worker, being engaged in the community work, etc). What I particularly was glad to hear was the point about the inner work. It is my understanding that meditation alone is not enough to help us deal with the internal issues and as another guest at BGs mentioned some time earlier, it was not designed for it.  This inner growth work includes any kind of self-inquiry work that gives us insights about ourselves such as expressive arts, gardening, contemplation.

I have been exploring different forms of inner work, depending on what I have access to and what appeals to me at the moment. Moving to a greener part of town that would allow me to take walks in the fields and the forest at any time was a way to come closer to nature that always brings me back to center and is conducive to the contemplative moods as opposed to analytical thinking. I see the inner work as coming close to the unconscious part of ourselves by getting to know its language that uses symbols to communicate to us.

“To get a true sense of who we are, become more complete and integrated human beings, we must go to the unconscious and set communication with it. …It is only by approaching it that we have a chance to become conscious, complete, whole human beings… We begin to live in partnership with the unconscious rather than at its mercy or in constant warfare with it.”

Robert A. Johnson “Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth”


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During one of the sittings Reb told us, “Samadhi (mental one-pointedness, concentration) can only be achieved by patiently bearing and quietly observing the discomfort of the body.” It is when the mind is no longer trying to fix what is but is quietly observing it. The physical discomfort in the body indeed provided plenty of material to sit with during the sesshin. I could feel the tensions, contractions and pain in different parts of the body and saw how the mind wanted to escape from them by focusing on something else and not feeling. “This pattern on the wall looks exactly like the lamb from “Little prince”. If I connect the marks on the wood I can trace it! ”

When one particular area in the body was shouting for attention, I’d choose to breathe into it until it became more bearable and then include another one. And after a while yet another one. I would be then holding all of them in awareness at least for a while until something else hijacked the attention and I’d start the process again as if collecting the beads from a broken necklace back on the thread. This kept me quite busy most of the time.

In one of the chapters of “Touching Enlightenment” Reggie Ray describes how “we” comes to be as we encounter discomfort and deal with it by tensing, freezing our body against what we are feeling. He contends that the discomfort we experience in the body work can also be seen as a sign of our progress on the path. “We begin to understand that distress itself is an expression of the “wisdom of the body”. It is the body’s way of letting us know there is work to be done and life that needs to be lived – and our discomfort shows us the way in. Discomfort is always a message – that we are holding on too tightly to our sense of self – and an invitation for us to relax, open, and surrender to the fire of larger experience.” (Reggie Ray, “Touching Enlightenment”, p. 82-83)

Again and again I got reminded why I was actually sitting zazen, that looks so peaceful and relaxed on the outside yet the most radical and the most courage demanding activity that I have engaged in, so far with varying level of commitment. Why? Because in zazen I am asked to stop doing the one thing I am so good at – making conceptual maps of reality and instead practice and experience life .

Reb mentioned again and again the tenderising effect of zazen on body and mind. When this happens, when “meat” softens, some people can break out crying and as those tensions get released. Myself, I am amazed how this has to do with the opening up to whatever shows up at the doorstep, how at the point when I can no longer resist it, the body gets settled and I am left with nothing and… everything. The whole works.

Waiting at the highest point of tension not only became so tiring that the tension relaxed, but so agonising that I was constantly wrenched out of my self-immersion and had to direct my attention to discharging the shot. “Stop thinking about the shot!” the Master called out. “This way it is bound to fail.” “I can’t help it”, I answered, “the tension gets too painful”.

“You only feel it because you haven’t really let go of yourself. It is so simple. You can learn from an ordinary bamboo leaf what ought to happen. It bends lower under the weight of snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred. Stay like that at the point of highest tension until the shot falls from you. So, indeed, it is when the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall from the archer like snow from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it.”

E. Herrigel. “Zen in the art of archery”

In what ways do you deal with bodily discomfort in life? What discoveries have you made on your journey?

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Reb emphasises that one cannot be still by oneself, only together with all sentient beings. We cannot be ourselves by ourselves. All other beings are helping us, only we tend to forget about it. One cannot do anything by oneself. So Reb defines enlightenment as helping others and helping others as enlightenment. (Oneself is included in the realm of others, of course).

In the place of stillness the action and the actor (practitioner and practice) meet. The actor is the action. The action is the actor. When there is an actor in addition to the action, there is no stillness.

“…all right doing is accomplished only in a state of true selflessness, in which the doer cannot be present any longer as “himself”. Only the spirit is present, a kind of awareness which shows no trace of egohood and for that reason ranges without limit through all distances and depths, with “ears that hear and eyes that see”.

(E. Herrigel, “Zen in the art of archery” )


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This is another year Reb Anderson invited us to have a jam session with him at a Zen sesshin on the tiny island of Idöborg in Stockholm archipelago. I suspect Reb developed a strong bond with the island and the cold waters of the Baltic sea as he keeps returning to this place just as many of us do.

The little experience of sitting sesshins I have come from this environment, with this teacher and basically this gang so in a way it was like going home. Meeting some of the people at the boat terminal on our way to the island was like seeing old friends again – it felt as if we never parted. Apparently, nothing brings people closer than sitting, surviving the contents of one’s mind, and working, walking, eating and sharing living space in silence for about a week.  Quite a few of the people have been to Green Gulch Farm where Reb’s been teaching and/or sat sesshins with him in other countries.


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When I saw that Vince Horn was interviewing Insight meditation teacher Christopher Titmuss on Buddhist Geeks on the issues of sexuality and love in the practice of Dharma (episodes 176 & 177) , I heard myself exclaiming, “At last!” As lay practitioners we deal with these issues everyday yet few Buddhist teachers in their Dharma talks explore the ways of being a sexual being and a Dharma practitioner. Probably because there is not much said about it in the traditions or because these questions are not often asked? A the same time, I cannot help but notice that many people around me, including those practising Buddhism, have been going through separations and divorces and often see those relationships ending as a failure.

Here I could not agree more with Christopher when he points out that in our modern world defining a successful relationship as long-lasting, monogamous, heterosexual, etc is not helpful to us. I find that by putting a label on the relationship (many of which are simply too narrow for our modern lives) or deciding what it is supposed to be like we put an additional pressure on it which can lead to its premature ending, at least in its current form. I realise it is not the label per se that puts pressure on us but the expectations we associate with it and the static, Polaroid-like image in our head of what it should be like. It is then even more important to bring attention and exploration into these areas and observe the whole dynamics as the relationship unfolds.

The questions I ask myself about anything when I feel stuck, including all areas of the heart are

What is the most important thing for me in this area?


What does it ask from me on a daily basis?


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Do not be absent minded in your activities, nor so absorbed in one aspect of a matter that you fail to see its other aspects.

From Dogon’s “Instructions for the Zen Cook”

Many of us know from the kitchen experience that if we focus on one side of the meal we are preparing (for example, its aroma or color) and even temporarily forget the others, our checking out from the world into our heads can ruin the whole meal. It’s easy to get carried away and forget to add salt and spices or miss the critical point when we should remove it from the stove.

Burnt oats (not happy): Read my lips, “Eat this!”

I find the same to be true of  life: if I choose to focus only on one aspect of it, for example work, I can get signals from inside that something is missing, something is out of balance, that I left home. Still, this is what most of us have to deal with at different points in our lives when one side of it temporarily takes over. In the best case we are aware of what’s happening and can even tell others who might be affected that we will catch up with them once the project is done, the book is finished or we have solved the issue of poverty in the world. In the best case we can come back to the center in time before some damage is done (in yoga, on the physical level, the price of not being aligned is that we either collapse with our bodyweight on one particular part of the body and can get injured or have to resort to great muscular effort to sustain balance.) But even as we let our life on the everyday level come slightly off-balance, we don’t have to be out of balance with the experience of life, do we?  We don’t have to go to exotic places or eat exclusive meals in posh restaurants to experience the gift of life, to feel alive.


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