Category Archives: ritual

The Conscious Heart

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

This quote was shared in the poetry class I attend and it has stayed with me. At first I thought it was because it speaks to the treasure of being alive to feel gratitude for each moment just as it is. We always like well-worded expressions of things we agree with. So in meditation class two days later, I shared it with my students.

But upon rereading the quote, what really intrigued me is the the idea of a conscious heart. We think of consciousness as the sole province of the brain, but why can’t the heart be conscious? And what do we mean by heart in this context? Surely not the pump that keeps the blood flowing, that can be replaced by a mechanical version without any alteration, I assume, to our ability to feel deeply a sense of love, interconnection — or change the way when we suffer loss, our chest area tightens up in grief.

When we begin to meditate, our first task is to let the thinking-thinking mind take a break. In class we pictured taking our heads off and setting them respectfully to the side for our time together. (Perhaps the Queen of Hearts saying ‘Off with their heads!’ was not a cruel madwoman but a crazy wisdom sage? Hmmm.)

Dropping the center of awareness to our heart center shifts everything, doesn’t it? One of my Buddhist teachers long ago explained that bowing is not about submission or worship but allowing the heart to rise higher than the head.

That explanation made bowing possible for me. I had had some resistance, as people not raised to bow often do, especially if they spent their childhood genuflecting before an altar where objects of worship demanded singular devotion.

Years before Spirit Rock existed, I sought my meditative sense of peace and balance at gatherings of Sufi-based Dances of Universal Peace. I love to dance and sing so it was a natural for me.

It wasn’t quite a perfect fit for various reasons. The first was an altar with lovingly framed photos of Sufi masters. I was uncomfortable with any living human being put up on an altar. But friends told me it was not about worship, just gratitude and respect. Since there weren’t altars in all the different places we met over the years, it wasn’t a deal breaker in any case.

But then when I started attending Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a big altar with a Buddha statue (and later a matching Kwan Yin to balance out the gender energies, I think) and it replicated in a more pronounced way the set up of church altars of my childhood. I noticed that some people when they entered the room put their hands together and bowed to the altar. I didn’t. I was just getting to know this Buddha fellow, but I knew he said he was most definitely not a god.

Then I heard that lovely explanation of bowing, of dropping the head lower than the heart, and I found a way in to a practice that had more meaning to me. I am still not a big bower. Which means I’m in the right tradition, because some Buddhist schools go deeper, and I mean deeper, into bowing. Recently I learned there’s a whole reasoning behind the bow that has the five points —  head, hands and knees — touching the ground, representing the Five Aggregates, the evidence of our earthly existence (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, consciousness.) In this way the person surrenders attachment to these ideas of self, none of which are real or permanent. I like this explanation as an even deeper release of the over-thinking that keeps us in a sense of isolation. But still I won’t be trying this out any time soon.

There are other practices that may be off-putting to Westerners in the various Buddhist traditions. One student in class said that she felt uncomfortable when she attended a meditation group where they began with chanting. Because I am a guest teacher at that group, I was able to share what was being chanted and why. It is a chant for taking refuge that is done at the beginning of retreats, and apparently some classes. We take refuge in the Buddha, both the inspiration of the historical Buddha, and our own buddha nature, our own inner wisdom that we are cultivating as we meditate. We take refuge in the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha as well as the insights, the truths, we find in nature and other wisdom teachings. We take refuge in the sangha, the group of people we are sitting with and the wider community of Buddhist practitioners and others who support us in our meditation practice and in living in ethical life-affirming ways.

Here is the chant in both Pali and English:

Ti-Sarana
Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Dutiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi.
Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi.

The Three Refuges
I go to the Buddha as my refuge.
I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

For the second time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the second time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

For the third time I go to the Buddha as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Dhamma – The Teachings, as my Refuge.
For the third time I go to the Sangha – The Community, as my Refuge.

—————————–

By taking refuge we are lovingly setting intention for the retreat or meeting. That explanation helped my student feel better about the chant. But she still felt uncomfortable about it being in a foreign language. Though I have chanted along on retreats and meetings, I have never committed to memory the Pali three refuge chant partly for that sense of discomfort around appropriation.

Native Americans often complain of their traditions being appropriated, so perhaps that is part of why I resist diving deep and claiming as my own words that are so deeply a part of another culture. (I seem to have no problem studying the Buddha’s teachings as they confirm my own insights, and he was just so good at organizing (all those lists!) and drawing correlations between insights. For me his teachings form an invitation to go beyond traditions and geographic or cultural boundaries.

When I was doing Sufi dancing, I sometimes felt that sense of appropriation, singing words from all the world’s spiritual traditions, some in their original languages. It was a deep unifying celebration of universal wisdom that was deeply moving and satisfying. But sometimes I was just too aware of being a girl born in Ohio and raised in California singing words of traditions not my own.

Another student said she had no problem with chanting foreign words because it took her back to her own childhood when Catholic masses were performed in Latin. She felt uplifted by setting aside the need to understand in her head and to just open her heart to a great rejoicing.

So ‘discomfort around traditions’ became a companion theme of our class this week. Students talked about their early discomfort in putting hands together, with or without a bow, when finishing meditation or with other people. Being raised to think of that as a gesture reserved for prayer made it challenging or at least unnatural to use it any other way. For most, what didn’t come naturally at first has become much easier, especially since people seem to do it much more, so it feels more natural. There’s even a hands together emoji.

One reason it is more common is because so many people take yoga, and it is explained by teachers that it means something like ‘the light in me honors the light in you’.(I had learned it meant ‘the god in me honors the god in you’ but I like the idea of light.)

One student has found that putting one hand on her heart is more deeply satisfying and truer to her own nature. The rest of us were quite taken with this. It was easy to see that if you ended a time with another person in this way it would be a lovely way to say that the interaction was meaningful, that it touched our hearts.

Another student said that she and her little grandson have their own tradition of putting their hands on their hearts and then blowing a kiss from that hand. Aw! So sweet!

When class ended, as always, I did the traditional Buddhist dedication of merit with my preferred wording of metta, lovingkindness: ‘We dedicate the merits of our practice here today for the benefit of all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be happy.’ Then we all put our hands together and bowed to each other as we do each week. And then we spontaneously put our hands on our hearts.

I bow to all of you, dear readers. Thank you for staying with me on this journey, for making it your own and for sharing it with others.

First Foundation of Mindfulness – Review & a Few More Thoughts

We have completed our exploration of the Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness, focusing in turn on the breath, postures, contemplation on the body, elements and death.

When you pour a concrete foundation, you want it to cure before you start adding more layers. Just so, I want to take the time to review and discuss the First Foundation of Mindfulness before we move on to the Second. If you missed any of the dharma talks within this section, then the links above can take you to where you need to go to ‘fill in the blanks.’

If you are just joining the discussion, you have a ready-made curriculum in the links above. Take your own time to do so in a way that is meaningful for you. You might set aside a period of time every day to read and reflect before or after meditation practice, for example. You can also visit the pages on the right column of the blog for more explanation and basic instruction.

The First Foundation of Mindfulness is one dharma lesson that could be a full life practice on its own. Sensing into physical sensation and knowing that we are sensing in to physical sensation. All that follows is rich and valuable, but only if we have laid this first foundation. You will see as we proceed how each one builds on the last.

What we have learned in this exploration is the basis of vipassana practice. We could go so far as to say that without this First Foundation, we don’t have a vipassana (insight) practice since that is where the original instruction for vipassana bhavana* comes from. So let’s make sure we understand it!

In our most recent class we had a discussion on anything from the previous talks on the First Foundation of Mindfulness that were still unclear, as well as any insights that came to the meditators from the explorations.

We focused a good deal of our discussion on the breath. In this tradition we do not change the breath but focus our awareness on the natural rising and falling of the breath. I had to repeat this several times during the class because even though the meditators practice in this way, most have knowledge of various other trainings, such as yoga or qigong where there are breath exercises that consciously alter the breath for a particular purpose. These are all fine but they are not recommended for the ongoing practice of insight meditation.

In this practice, we are not actively trying to change things to make everything right. Instead we are cultivating a way of being with things as they are. So it is how we relate to causes and conditions in our lives that is our focus. So the breath is as it is, and we cultivate our ability to attend it. This noticing may bring about change in the breath, but we are not actively working to change it. We are not finding fault with the breath for being ‘too shallow,’ a prevalent opinion in our culture. If we sit in an erect but relaxed position, we naturally open the column of the rib cage for the breath to breathe; if we notice and release whatever tension we find, and if we simply sit and know that we are sitting, the breath will be fine. Let the breath live unjudged! It certainly deserves it, as it gives us life and all. Just saying.

One of the meditators mentioned a particular breath practice she has found very calming where you inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for the count of seven, then release the breath to the count of eight. So I had her lead us in this and it was very interesting.

One meditator mentioned that she does a count to match her heart rate, so being led was difficult since our hearts don’t all beat at the same rate. This was a useful observation for any of us wanting to do some of these practices.

I mentioned a qigong instructor named Ken Cohen who provides a series of breath exercises. These various breath practices are perfectly fine and could be valuable. I only want to be clear that they are not a part of the basic practice of insight meditation.

A few minutes of breath practice before meditation could be useful in the process of establishing a personal practice. Without a teacher, a bell, a sangha, a class time, a setting that tells our busy mind ‘Now it’s time to meditate!’ we may need some amount of ritual to transition into our practice, especially at first.

Here is the guiding question to know whether such a practice, or any ritual, is beneficial: “Is this guiding me toward a mindfulness practice or is it potentially a hindrance to it?”

How could a ritual become a hindrance?  I promote what I call a ‘portable practice.’ The beauty of insight meditation is that you can do it anywhere at any time. There is nothing required but the intention to be present and the intention to be compassionate. When we add rituals or objects that we depend on to get us where we want to be, then we are creating conditions that could become hindrances. ‘If I don’t have my (fill in the blank: altar, breath practice, beads, spoken chant, etc.) then I can’t meditate.’ If we set up anything too elaborate, we undermine our ability to practice in say, the airport lounge. If we are dependent on causes and conditions, then we are not centered, grounded in our own experience.


So that was the review, but here are some things to consider that we didn’t cover in any of our previous explorations of the body as the First Foundation of Mindfulness.

The Body Google
Our body is a storehouse of information as well as the vessel in which we are able to function in this world. As we deepen in our ability to sense into the body, we also learn to listen to it in a way that was probably foreign to us.

If we have chronic pain or illness, this listening can help to alleviate physical suffering. With the enhanced awareness, we might notice the conditions around each occurrence. You don’t need advanced training for this, just a willingness to notice. 


For example, if your back ‘goes out’ you can ask what was happening in your life in the days leading up to it? What condition arose? This cause could be a difficult conversation that you had or are dreading having; a challenging deadline that lies ahead or that you failed to meet; a worry over the well being of a loved one; the loss of a job or fear about the future; guilt about the past; or any number of things that cause tension, stress and mental or emotional anguish that quite often will be experienced as physical pain. 

If we learn to listen to the body, then to ask questions of ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our minds, we can alleviate the pain! If this is an interesting area of exploration for you, I highly recommend the books of Dr. John Sarno, an orthopedic surgeon who began to see the mind-body connection quite clearly in his many patients and has an excellent prescription that is free, except for the price of his paperback book, and easy. Reader, it changed my life! If it can change someone else’s, I hope you will forgive me this bit of promotion. If you know someone who might benefit, speak up. I am ever grateful to my friend who told me about it.

The Aging Body
As we age, mindfulness becomes increasingly valuable to keep us going in health and happiness. We can care for the body best by being mindful of what we are doing with it, by being considerate of its needs and by paying attention where we are going so we don’t trip and fall. 


We can notice if we are being overly cautious or protective, as if the body is fragile. This makes for added tension that in turn is a setup for harming ourselves, getting into pain or avoiding activities that might be healthful. We can notice if we are driving the body too hard. We can notice if this driven quality comes from some fear-based emotion, and is therefore unskillful. We can notice when we have a sense of well being. We can appreciate it without clinging to it, wishing it could stay this way. That in turn causes more tension, and then we lose the sense of well being we have found.

While this is the end of our discussion of the First Foundation of Mindfulness, it is just the beginning of our own internal awareness of how to live mindfully in this human form so that we can best appreciate this fleeting gift of life.


* Vipassana bhavana is Pali for insight meditation. It is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices, as taught in the the Buddha’s Sattipatthana Sutta (which is what we are currently studying.) The word vipassana is Pali. Passana means seeing or perceiving, and vi means ‘in a special way.’ Bhavana means mental cultivation.

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

(This is a pastel by my friend Wendy Goldberg, titled Twilight Tomales.)
Paying attention to the seasons and rhythms of the earth helps me to stay more present, so I enjoy celebrating the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. This year on December 21, 2008 at 4 :04 AM PST the earth is tipped on its axis to the greatest degree, so that in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears at its lowest point. (Those in the southern hemisphere are experiencing the summer solstice.)

Throughout the centuries in cultures around the world winter solstice riturals have been focused on the return of the light. I can certainly understand that, especially in times before electric lights and central heat, but I want my personal celebration to focus on what is in this present moment. And what is most present in this moment is the darkness.

So in 1992 I wrote the poem that follows. It has since been incorporated into solstice rituals around the world, including our Friday morning class at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

For yesterday’s class I was again asked to read my poem, but our dharma teacher Dana de Palma added a new twist, asking me to create a solstice altar, something we have not done before.

Here is the altar:
I happened to have a black and white patterned shawl that I set in the middle of our circle. On it I placed a small low table. I covered the top with aluminum foil to protect it and to reflect the candle light, and filled it with candles, small decorative objects, some natural items I had gathered on recent hikes, and some inspirational phrases (see below). Around the table I took some upturned circular lids from big yogurt cartons and made a ring of twelve around the table, placing a candle in each one. My sangha sisters Patti and Alice brought additional candles, and together with sangha brother Bill, we prepared the altar, making sure each candle was secure and wouldn’t burn down the building! (If it had not been wet out, I might have added some evergreens as well.)

After a delicious hour of yoga led by Janice Gates, in which she encouraged us to feel our expansive hearts radiating out in all directions, even while feeling totally present in our bodies and in the room, and a lovely meditation by Dana in which we felt our inner light growing with each breath, I read my poem and we did a candle lighting ritual.

As I introduced the poem, I told the circle about my own personal difficulty with some of the wording over the years, and how just that morning I had found a different way of seeing it. The poem tells us “Do not be afraid…” Well, I object to anyone telling me how to feel or not to feel, even a poem that I wrote! As practitioners, we are instructed to be with what is, not try to change our feelings.

But now I can see that the poem is just offering an opportunity to question some long held assumptions and beliefs about darkness, to look more closely at this culturally inherited negative story about darkness and see something more there than previously thought. Looking more closely and finding a way to reframe the story is a very Buddhist practice indeed. Phew! It’s not a bossy poem after all.

Here is the poem:

In Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Do not be afraid of the darkness.
Dark is the rich fertile earth
that cradles the seed, nourishing growth.
Dark is the soft night that cradles us to rest.
Only in darkness
can stars shine across the vastness of space.
Only in darkness
is the moon’s dance so clear.
There is mystery woven in the dark quiet hours,
There is magic in the darkness.
Do not be afraid.
We are born of this magic.
It fills our dreams
that root, unravel and reweave themselves
in the shelter of the deep dark night.
The dark has its own hue,
its own resonance, its own breath.
It fills our soul,
not with despair, but with promise.
Dark is the gestation of our deep and knowing self.
Dark is the cave where we rest and renew our soul.
We are born of the darkness,
and each night we return
to the deep moist womb of our beginnings.
Do not be afraid of the darkness,
for in the depth of that very darkness
comes a first glimpse of our own light,
the pure inner light of love and knowing.
As it glows and grows, the darkness recedes.
As we shed our light, we shed our fear,
and revel in the wonder of all that is revealed.
So, do not rush the coming of the sun.
Do not crave the lengthening of the day.
Celebrate the darkness.
Here and now. A time of richness. A time of joy.

— Stephanie Noble copyright 1995

And here is the ritual we did:
Each person in turn lit a candle saying one of the following intentions or another intention that rose up naturally within them, with absolute permission to do so in silence:
May I be a lamp unto myself. (This was the Buddha’s last instruction to his students.)
May I be guided by my inner light.
May my practice bring awareness of my own inner light.
May I light the darkness with awareness.
May my inner light grow and glow.
May I sit and savor the darkness until I see the light.

Because we had about twice as many candles as people, I encouraged people to light a second candle to send metta to anyone they knew that was in need. Everyone did light a second candle, and that addition, though unplanned, sweetened the ceremony further. (My second candle was for my beloved sister-in-law Rose and niece Doris, mother and daughter, who are both in the (same) hospital right now. May they both be well.)

For lighting the candles, we had provided both lighters and matches. Some people had trouble with the lighter or just didn’t like it. People who used matches sometimes felt rushed in saying their intentions while the flame was headed straight for their tender fingers. For anyone wanting to create a ritual like this, I would suggest having a lit taper candle resting in a solid holder – a short glass or cup would do – that would make the lighting simply a matter of picking up that candle and lighting another. (Although I must say that each person’s way of dealing with the challenge was lovely to behold.)

At the end of Dana’s dharma talk about the solstice, after she dedicated the merits of our practice to all beings, we took turns blowing out the candles, saying ‘so be it’ or ‘may it be so.’

Later one sangha sister asked me if I thought she could get away with incorporating a ritual like this into a dinner party she was having with some people she didn’t know well enough to know how they felt about the solstice. Her question brought up such an interesting truth: That many people have resistance to acknowledging this natural annual event of the earth. There is a long history of seeing it as pagan ritual, and a long history of seeing pagans as anti-Christian, when they are just not necessarily Christians, which is quite a different (and totally non-threatening) thing. Even in our little Buddhist community, a significant number of people left before the ritual began, when usually everyone stays for the whole class.

So, with that in mind, I told my friend to celebrate the solstice with her guests by having the radiant heart of a hostess, offering a delicious meal, creating a candle-lit atmosphere, and by staying fully in the moment, allowing the conversation to grow rich and deep. And if, by chance, through that conversation she finds that her guests are interested in celebrating the solstice too, she could have extra candles to create a ceremony, or simply suggest they all bundle up and step out into her lovely garden on this cold clear night and take in the beauty of the star-studded darkness.

So however you celebrate the solstice over this weekend, whether with friends or family, or by adding a little ritual to your personal practice, or simply by giving yourself the gift of a little longer rest on these long winter nights, may you find a sense of joy and deep connection in being fully present in the darkness, present enough to sense your own inner light glowing and growing.

May it be so! Happy Solstice.