Monthly Archives: May 2013

Come Home to the Senses — Day Long Retreat

In the midst of a series of extremely cold windy days, the morning of our daylong retreat started with more of the same, but by the time the students arrived, the wind had quieted down, and by the end of the first sitting practice, the birds were singing, a sure sign of a calm day ahead.

We were able to spend much of that mild sunny day doing walking and sitting practice in the garden. Being able to practice outside isn’t just pleasant; it provides a bounty of nature’s dharma lessons. The Buddha and his students practiced almost exclusively out of doors, even though there were undoubtedly followers who would happily have provided regular shelter.

The retreat seemed to be timed perfectly since our last dharma talk had been about the Sense Spheres, and here we were with a full day to practice resting our awareness in the Sense Sphere portal.

We had lots of things to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Indoors I provided mint and basil clipped from the garden and set out on the counter to sniff, along with a bottle of vanilla. A student brought roses we put on the table, and there were more roses in the garden as well as a bounty of flowers, birds, trees, leaves, vistas, including the mountain.

I encouraged them to do traditional walking meditations, but also to take time to use all the senses to experience the garden. So they reached out to touch, leaned in to smell, closed their eyes to listen. They became totally enmeshed in the life of the garden, noticing everything, and in that noticing the garden came more intensely to life. We noticed, among other things, how the bees buzzed with such joy in the trumpet vine flowers, the way the trees and the day lilies opened their arms wide to the sun, inspiring us to do the same. The way light danced in the long grasses, the happy song of the waterfall. The colors, the interplay of light and shadow. Yes, indeed, it is a ‘high’. But it is not induced by ingesting chemicals, but by pausing in our lives to simply be alive to our senses. And to sense ourselves as natural expressions of life as well.

Resting awareness at the sense portals, we have the choice to be present or to get lost in all the patterns of associative thoughts, emotions, memories, judgments that the senses might trigger. We always have that choice, wherever we are. The dharma shows us the map of where we are in any given moment, and gives us the way to come home to our senses, again and again.


Drawing of Buddha by Mary Wagstaff

The next day was Vesak, the Buddhist celebration of the life of the Buddha, so I had created cards featuring a drawing of the Buddha by friend, artist and wise surfer Mary Wagstaff. Each retreatant received a card to write their insights and gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings.


At the beginning of one meditation, I passed around a basket of shells and each person felt around and chose one to hold through the meditation, to rub the thumb against the rough or smooth surface when the mind wandered to bring them back to the present moment. Communing with the little shell in hand, the realization of oneness, of life formed of stardust, expressed in all its variations, but always kin, always the same at core. One student allowed the shell to take her to a sense of gentle lulling wave action in her meditation.


At one point we lounged around in the studio and listened in silence to Missa Luba. This African choir sing a Catholic mass in their own language with such beauty. It was a perfect choice because the glory of the mass and the earthy drum beats, reminded us that the spirit of being is in the very pulse of the earth and our own bodies. Our aliveness is an expression of that spiritual nature.


Towards the end, we came out of silence to share experiences in the garden communing with flowers, the view of the mountain, hummingbirds and the waterfall. Several reported momentary or extended periods of feeling one with everything.


To help the students develop their own meditation practice at home, I led a short visualization exercise: Imagine your home. Imagine the place where you meditate or where you could meditate. It’s a quiet private place, etc. etc. Now imagine a time of day when you do or could easily meditate, etc.


How do we find time in our busy lives for this kind of relaxed awareness practice?
First we recognize it as a priority. We see how when we meditate it benefits the things we say we care about most: our health, our family and friends, and a sense of natural aliveness, not alienated or isolated.


Then I used the same shells from the previous experience and took my bell bowl and began to fill it with all the tiny shells that represent all the little bits and pieces of life demands — emails, errands, obligations, hassles —  they rattle around making a lot of noise and there’s no room for the big shell, that thing we say is so important: the practice that enables us to be healthy and loving. When I dumped the little shells out and put the big ones in first, they made no sound except to ring the bell on contact. Then I poured the little ones in, and they all fit right in, nice and snug, settling into the open spaces the big shells had created. A good lesson for us all. It is so easy to fill our time with the little things, putting off the big thing that matters, the big thing that would make all the little things so much easier to manage.


So as I share this experience of a retreat with you, I hope there is inspiration to spend time resting your awareness at the sense portals when you take a walk or sit in nature. May you give yourself many opportunities to do so. May you establish a regular daily practice of meditation to develop a strong muscle of mindfulness. May you put that practice first so that all else will fall nicely into place in your life. And if the Buddha’s teachings have value for you, may you open to the gratitude for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

Coming Home to Our Senses

In our many months of exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness we have been balancing concepts and simple practice. It is important to keep in mind that the practice of anchoring our awareness in physical sensation and cultivating compassion is always more important than the concepts. You can have insight practice without the concepts, but the concepts are only useful in tandem with a dedicated mindfulness practice. These are experience-based teachings. But the concepts, if you can stay with them, will make it so easier to do the practice and to stay grounded in it.  Some of the concepts explored seem abstract, others feel more concrete and easily accessible. Today we will look at just such a concrete teaching: The Sense Spheres. With this exploration we are coming home to our senses. This is where we begin every meditation and where we return to when our mind has wandered off into thought. So it is not foreign or alien. It’s one of the first things we learn as babies. The six sense-spheres are paired in two’s: the sense organ and the sense object. We have the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each is paired with its counterpart object: sight, sound, odor, flavor and touch. That’s five senses. What is the sixth? The Buddha considered the mind to be one of the senses because it is an integral part of the process of sensing. Without the mind, how would the sense organs know what they were sensing? It is liberating to think of the mind and thought as just another sense and sense object, as impersonal as the eyes and sight. How refreshing not to think of the mind as who we are but as just an organ that processes sensory input using thought, reason, memory and reflection. Especially as we age and the mind sometimes falters, if we see it as an organ like the ears or eyes or taste-buds, all of which often deteriorate in some way with age, we might be sad or frustrated at the loss, but we do not see it as a personal failing. It’s just another common occurrence in the process of growing older. Applying Our Understanding of The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates: body, feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness make up the way we perceive and experience the world which we encounter initially with our senses. Knowing them, we can see clearly the stages of experience and are better able to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Here is a typical sequence of the perceptual process:

  1. Body — Initial contact with a sense object, for example: a sound.
  2. Feeling Tone – We have an immediate feeling tone response to the sound. It’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A pleasant ‘What lovely bird song!” or an unpleasant “What an irritating leaf blower!” or a neutral soft thud of a car door closing, that might not even register.
  3. Cognition – We identify or work hard at trying to identify the source of the sound. “What kind of bird is that?” Now if you’re a birder, you might go on to, “I should know that.” If you’re not but think you’d like to be, you might think ‘I should take that class on bird song’ and suddenly your mind has taken you to the local community college, and then you think about how you could go on one of those birding field trips. And suddenly you’re in an Amazon jungle, binoculars in hand staring up into the tangle of vines and leaves. Your mind itself has become a jungle.
    Or if the sound was a leaf blower, we might go, “Maybe it’s not a leaf blower, maybe it’s a chain saw.” The mind wants to identify accurately the source of any sense. “What neighbor is using that chain saw?”
    Then it goes into association that takes us on an extended journey into the past and the future: “I should probably call someone to check out our trees. That one oak has a branch that really looks iffy. I was really afraid in the last storm. Boy that was a rough night.” “I wouldn’t want it to fall on the house. God, what if it fell on the house when the grandchildren were napping in the guest room.” And on, and on in a flurry of memories, planning or fantasy.
  4. Volition – Perhaps we decide to go do something about the sound: If it’s unpleasant we might put our hands over our ears, close the door, or get away from the sound. If it’s pleasant we might move closer to the sound, or we might move our bodies to the delightful rhythms of the sound, or investigate it further to see what the sound is.
  5. Consciousness – At some point we become aware that we are lost in thought.

We don’t decide to think all these thoughts. The thoughts, projections and associations proliferate quickly into a densely woven network, and we are as helplessly trapped as a fly in a spider web. So there’s no point in beating ourselves up about having been lost. And doing so is just another tangle of thoughts we immediately get lost in. That’s why compassion is so important. The moment we are aware that we have been thinking is cause for celebration, not punishment. We are here now in this moment. Ah. How do we untangle ourselves from the web of thought? That’s an almost impossible challenge since we are not aware that we are trapped and don’t see it as a problem until suddenly we do. Wouldn’t it be easier and wiser to learn to recognize how the web arises in the mind and how to not get drawn into it? That’s what we do with mindfulness practice. We slow down enough to see how the process works. We set the intention to be with the sensory experience itself, to let a sound be a sound, a smell be a smell, etc. and to be sufficiently aware not launch into subjective mental activity that takes us out of the present moment.
Woof!   In class we talked about the value of treating the wandering mind like an excited and untrained puppy. This helps us to hold it with the right amount of loving kindness and intention to train it well. We have the puppy-mind on a leash but at first the leash is so long the puppy wanders far and wide. As we learn to hold the leash — learn to anchor our awareness in physical sensation — the puppy may begin to wander but doesn’t go very far before we gently pull the leash.

So in the example above of the mind following a sound all the way to the Amazon, with training maybe it only gets as far as the local community college. With more mindfulness practice, eventually a sound is just noted as sound.


Symphony of Silence    Perhaps you are familiar with the work of John Cage who famously composed and presented a piece titled 4’33 which he performed to a packed symphony hall. It consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence on his part, allowing the sounds of the audience be the symphony. As originally performed it is reported that the audience had a lot of response, was made uncomfortable, and there was a lot to listen to. I just checked several YouTube versions of recently performed versions of 4’33, and the audience was almost completely silent! What a rich silence comes from hundreds of people sitting together paying close attention to one focus, a man with a piano and a timer, or a conductor with an orchestra and a timer, all in silence, but not waiting for anything. So John Cage taught us something hugely important. Can we incorporate it into our own practice? The willingness to be present for whatever arises without needing it to be more than simply noting ‘sound’ or one of the other sense objects. That is our mindfulness practice. 


This is not deprivation but liberation and the opening of a previously unnoticed and ignored richness of the present moment. This is awakening to the joy that rests in every moment if we are only here to experience it

Annata — No Separate Self

Last week we came to the fifth of the Five Aggregates and what did we find? That not one of these aggregates is us. Each is impermanent and insubstantial. None of them is governable. We looked straight into the jaws of the scary beast: ‘No Self’, Annata.

But just as we were about to succumb to a hollow sense of loss, we clarified our understanding of this concept by adding the word ‘separate’. There is no separate self, and the addition of that word ‘separate’ changes everything, doesnt it? Suddenly instead of a being the lone subject of a disappearing act we are invited to celebratory reunion!


The Buddha taught that there is no separate self that we need to defend or prove worthy of praise. We begin to see how we build up this separate self —  the way male birds frigatebirds inflate their pouches or the way male turkeys fan their wings. All very fine for an avian mating dance, but for humans hoping to be seen, respected, loved or appreciated, self-inflation is a very unskillful and ineffectual ploy. Instead of drawing people in, we put people off. No deep connection can be made when we are focused on the impression we make.

What is it we really want and what’s a skillful way to get it?

At the core of our being we want connection, We want to feel we are a part of something larger than we are. We want acceptance, We want communion. We want safety so we can fall apart when we have to and not be kicked while we are down. We want to hear someone say things like, ‘I’m with you. I am here for you. We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re soul-mates.’

Do you recognize that core hunger? It’s at the heart of each of us. Our tendency is to put this core hunger down and despise what we see as pathetic neediness. We might not even acknowledge that such a hunger exists because we have masked it with other goals and purposes. But if we can see the hunger as simply a human condition using unskillful means to get basic needs met, we might find that we can be kind, not just to ourselves but to others we deem as pathetic. Our intolerance is just a projection of our own internal discomfort with who we believe ourselves to be.

Mindfulness practice teaches us is to see clearly, to stay present with it and to not turn away. With compassion we acknowledge the hunger and befriend it. Not to make any resulting unskillful behaviors okay — ‘That’s just the way I am — deal with it!’ Not at all. This is a practice of investigation, kindness and discernment. When we get into the Noble Eightfold Path we will have more opportunity to explore what constitute skillful means to have our needs met while playing well with others and maintaining high standards of integrity. But for now we are learning to see the causes and conditions of the unskillfulness of our words and actions.

By seeing clearly and responding with compassion, our behavior is more skillful. It comes from an understanding our deep interconnection, not from a reactionary chain of ‘should’ commands that are inauthentic, short-lived and ineffective.

The Banquet Table
Through mindfulness practice, we see more clearly how our hunger is the hunger of a blind person starving in front of a banquet table.

A banquet table? Yes! Because we already are intrinsically connected to all that is and the only thing that keeps us from recognizing it is the very activity of pumping ourselves up into something separate to be admired, instead of allowing ourselves our full humanity and ease of connection.

When we can see our efforts to shore up a separate identity for what they are, we can let them go. When they arise, we can acknowledge them, own up to them, and see them as leftover from a habituated pattern we are consciously releasing.

These habituated patterns are not ours alone. We often can see them in others more easily than we see them in ourselves. Typically, the very things that irritate us most about others are projections of the things we ourselves do.

Striving to be seen, to be hailed as special and unique takes us away from connection. The achievement of such goals can leave us feeling even more separate and alone than we already felt.

Once we recognize the striving for what it is, we can release that hunger, that driving desire, and allow our natural expression of connection serve us and our community. We can bloom into full expressions of the qualities, skills, and talents we are given and develop.

We can stop operating from the idea we have something to prove, or something to hide, or something to fear, and recognize that we have something to give, something to share.

If you cling to the idea of being unique and special, then be unique and special as a snowflake. Snowflakes have more in common than what minor variations set them apart, and ultimately they land on the ground and become one field of snow. Then the snow melts — ah can you feel the joy of the thaw! The warming of the ground! — and what was snow becomes a flow of water returning to the sea. That’s us too. In this experience of being alive, we have taken this form of human. The conditions vary, just as do snowstorms. But we are alive in this moment to experience whatever it is, and we are not alone.

The Uniquely Unworthy Self
Sometimes we hold ourselves apart not to prove how special we are, but because we believe our ‘separate’ self to be unworthy. We attribute our being with a set of what we believe to be uniquely damning and shameful qualities.

Again, this is not the true nature of our existence. If this resonates, there is a lovely phrase that’s worth repeating to yourself like a mantra: The ocean refuses no river. In the Dances of Universal Peace it is a song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ggA-G0wOtg
We sang this together in class and it created a spacious way to hold all that we were experiencing with a gentle compassionate kindness that is so important if we are to ever discover the deep connection to this and every moment, to each other, to all beings, to all the elements, to all that is.

The Danger of Longing to Belong
When we feel this hunger to be special and to belong to something greater than ourselves, and don’t recognize it for what it is, we may feel honored, maybe even thrilled, to be welcomed into groups that accept us but don’t accept others. How effectively this feeds our dual desires to be both special and connected! In creating this club-y quality, we turn that hunger into a weapon for dividing all that is into ‘us against them.’ Throughout human history and in the current headlines there is that drive to divide and conquer. That is what we see played out again and again.

But our true hunger is not to be part of something contrived and divisive, but to be able to feel our connection with all that is. To sense our being as an expression of the great isness, called by many names, including God. When people claim the name of God for their club alone, they cripple the very God they worship by such limitation.

Personifying God is also limiting. How? We have just established that the Five Aggregates that make up body and personality are impermanent, so why would we ever attribute such traits to that that we hold to be an all-encompassing and infinite power?

It’s always a fine place and time to awaken
Our meditation practice is developing the muscle of consciousness with the intention of mindfulness, and sometimes we are gifted with resulting bare awareness of the infinite nature of being, of life in the moment as illuminated expression of isness. It doesn’t matter where we are. There are no perfect settings for awakening. Why do we think we need to go somewhere else or wait for some other time to find it? It’s right here in every moment, if only we are here, anchored in physical sensation and nurturing kindness and compassion.

In that illuminated moment, fleeting as it might be, insight pierces the illusion of linear time and an infinite unity of being is felt and seen. Ah! Once we have been infused with even the briefest experience of the infinite, it informs our being forever.

I encourage you to be available for those insights, but not to aggressively seek them out. There’s a quality of relaxing into the oneness that cannot be achieved or accomplished. It is a receptive quality. We are simply present, easeful and open, noticing the arising and falling away of experience, without expectation of what will arise or what will fall away. We sit with a relaxed alertness that creates a spacious stillness, and let that be enough.

If you can’t fathom how to do this, think about how you get a baby to settle down to sleep. Do you chase the baby around the house? Or do you quiet down in your own being, and share that sense of quiet with the baby. Reading Goodnight Moon and singing lullabies. You hold the baby, using a soothing voice, rocking gently, walking back and forth as we do in walking meditation. Just so we prepare our mind to quiet down — not to sleep, but to awaken!

The Core of the Teachings
Annata, no separate self, is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings. It sits with the two other Marks or Characteristics: Dukkha and Anicca. Anicca we have been exploring continuously as we look at the nature of impermanence. Dukkha we will become more familiar with when we come to the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is the sense of unsatisfactoriness that permeates life, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, caused by how we relate to the nature of impermanence.

Our exploration continues! Please allow these words to sift through your awareness. Take in whatever resonates and let the rest go. There is no test! Instead there is the ongoing opportunity to contemplate the way we relate to our experience of life.

This is an experiential practice. Give yourself periods of silence when there is nothing but this moment to notice. If you think there is no time for such non-action, you are thinking way too much.

May we hold whatever we notice with awareness and compassion.

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.

The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.


In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?


  1. Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.

For our purposes here, let’s say that:

Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’

Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.

To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.

Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?

Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.

Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!

At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.

“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!

This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.