Sep 14

Pickpocket Sutra

Last time, I wrote about practice as a way of return, of recollection, of remembering—coming down out of our thoughts and memories and dreams to experience of being in a living, breathing body here and now.   I wrote about how this movement of return can feel like a last resort, something we turn to when all our thinking and distractions fail.

This week the universe taught me a deeper lesson.  On Saturday, I taught a meditation workshop at New York Insight in Manhattan.   A wonderful big group turned out and it was a wonderful experience.  Afterwards, I practically sprinted to Grand Central Station (and those of you who know me well enough to know that my childhood nickname was “Pokey” know how rare an event this is).  I was so happy!  I felt so blessed to be able to share the wonderful art of meditation, the art of return, to a big, diverse group of people.  I felt with life, in perfect agreement with it.

I took my seat on Metro North, and realized I had been pickpocketed!  The envelope with all the money that had come to me in that beautiful spirit of dana was gone!  In an instant I felt bereft.  The city had been beautiful and full of light and now it was all in darkness.  Hurt battled with rage and even embarrassment.   Decades before, I had been pick pocketed (twice) which spurred me to write a story for New York Magazine about pickpockets that involved following around a N.Y.P.D. pickpocket squad.   I felt like a friend’s mother who once shouted on a subway after she discovered she was robbed:  “I’m a life long New Yorker!”  As though only tourists deserve to be robbed.

Then hurt and self-pity took over.  All that effort, only to have the dana snatched from me!  I began to tell my story about how unfair it was, how cursed I was….Wait…what was I say to myself?  The awareness seeped in that I had been teaching all day—all week—about the way spiritual practice allows you to be with life as it arises, about the way it allows you to find a freedom and happiness that isn’t welded to what is happening.

Practice opens up the space between stimulus and response—from the minute level of the stimulus that is constantly streaming in, car horns, sirens, indigestion to the macro level of robberies, floods, Academy Award nominations or bad reviews.   The movement of return, of recollection, of breathing and sensation helps us remember that we have a choice.   I realized that I couldn’t change what happened—life is quite surprising, in spite of our best efforts.  Yet I didn’t have to go into a story about it.  I could choose not to believe I was cursed or assign blame or any of the rest of it   I did not have to make an identity out of it.  I could simply relate to it as something that happened.  Before it happened, I had been soaring along, with life.  Was I not still with life?

Whoosh, in flowed a vibrancy and light and freedom.  I saw that things happen.  I once had the strangely unique experience of having my wallet stolen during a Family Week at the Insight Meditation Society.   Reporting the theft to a State Trooper back home so I could get a new driver’s license, I mused to him that what was strange was that the theft happened at a place where nothing bad ever happened.  He looked at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars.  Good and bad things happen everywhere.  Life goes up and down.  The gift of spiritual practice is that our deeper peace and happiness, our sense of connectedness to a greater whole, doesn’t depend on what happens.  It gives us a capacity to open to a deeper truth, a greater whole.

Later, I looked up the word “bereft,” and discovered it comes from a root that literally means to be robbed or have something snatched from you–not just money or property but deeper qualities like dignity, freedom, happiness.  This is what injustice feels like, I realized.  This is what many beings feel every day.  Bereft.   I also realized that the feeling among the group of us—the feeling of mutual dana or generosity—could not be stolen.  This is not hippy delusion.  If we are a little bit more free inside, we can see more.

When something shocking or upsetting happens, when loss or blame –or wild good fortune happens—where do you turn?  If you are like me, there are favorite stories you can slip into like old sweaters, cozy but ugly, stories about being unlucky or unloved or cursed.  And what is it like not to put on the sweater of failure?  What would it be like to dwell in the space between praise and blame, stimulus and response.  To listen to the silence instead of the old stories?

Aug 14

The Art of Returning

2040755784_a196cf40fa_bDear Noble Friends,

I’ve been away a long time.  Now it feels good and right to come home.  Late yesterday afternoon, a group of us gathered to practice mindfulness meditation and do a bit of yoga and talk in a beautiful yoga studio in Tarrytown (Yogashivaya.com).  The yoga studio was filled with the golden natural light of late summer.

We spoke about the gifts of practice–and especially about the power of return.  ”Sati,” the Pali word for mindfulness literally means to remember or recollect.  On the most practical level, it means to come down out of our thoughts and memories and dreams to focus again on the immediate, present-time experience of breathing in and out, of being in a living body here and now.  All of us who meditate know the quietly momentous quality of the shift from concept to experience–the feeling of awakening from a dream, of returning to our senses.

People who don’t meditate sometimes have the false impression that it is a way of spacing out or floating away from the real world.  But those of us who practice know it can be like sitting on a hot stove at times.  You can feel like the Buddha facing the armies of Mara.  Waves of desire and anxiety and complex knots of long-suppressed feeling can come, compelling us to get up and do something, go to the refrigerator or the computer, do anything but just sit there and fry.  But if we stay on that seat, if we keep practicing the art of return and remembering–literally pulling together or collecting all the disparate parts of ourselves, body, heart, and mind–there comes a moment when  new power of awareness is released.  There is a feeling of opening and expansion, as if a door or window has opened and fresh air and light come in.  There is the feeling of being met by life.  Suddenly we remember that we are a part of a greater whole–a mysterious but very real and vibrant whole that has been waiting for us all along.

Sitting can feel like a last resort.  We return to ourselves often when all else has failed, when all our thinking and other efforts to escape suffering can’t bring us peace.  Yesterday, a number of us spoke about times when we have been hurt and confused by our children or other loved ones, times when we are shocked and sad and unsure what to do beyond being triggered (and then bearing the ripples that come from being triggered).  In those times, and in so many other difficult moments in life, the art of returning can remind us that there is always a deeper truth.  We remember there is a truth that cannot be thought, that must be experienced.

Heartbreak and disappointment can open the door to deeper insights, deeper seeing, truer passion.  Returning to our senses because thinking is leading us nowhere, we remember that each moment, each breath can be a refuge and a resource.  Surrendering to what is instead of what we wish can invite a power greater than our own ego.  Returning to the moment, we can rediscover the light of awareness that is always inside us.  Surrendering to what is, giving up all resistance to reality, giving up every argument, every last hope, we can experience the way the light inside us seeks the light outside us.  We can experience the perfect momentary peace of giving ourselves up like an offering and being received.

Jun 14

Three Marks

Space aliens, robots, and clones don’t have belly buttons—this is a common trope and test of otherness on TV and in the movies.  Yet I remember finding this devastatingly clever when I first encountered it on TV as a child.  You could be perfectly human in every way, but if you lack this one tiny, seemingly insignificant detail, and you are revealed to be not of this world.   It felt like an important lesson: little facts that are easily overlooked can turn out to be crucial.  Did Adam and Eve have navels?  How could they?  Yet what did it mean if they did not?  This silly little mark turned out to be a door to Mystery.

In the same way, the Buddha’s three marks or seals of existence can seem like insignificant details of our lives, no big deal…until they are.   The first of the marks is that all things in this phenomenal and temporal world (including you and I) are impermanent.  Everything changes yet nothing disappears completely—the state of things change.  Secondly, all things in this world (including our mental constructs and machinations) lack a separate and inviolate selfhood—everything is subject to causes and conditions, everything is influenced by other things and made up of other smaller parts that themselves contain smaller parts.  The third mark or seal of existence is knowing that such a changeable, dependent world is bound to lead to frustration, anxiety, unease, suffering—“dukkha” in the language of the early Buddhist’s texts.  Nirvana is waking up from the fever dream that we can control such a world.

This week, if you wish, join some of us as we continue to observe these marks of existence as they manifest in our lives, remembering that we are all in this together, that no one can really stand apart, on higher ground.

May 14

The Sunlight of Awareness

“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty, “ taught Mother Teresa.  “Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.”

Every year in Japan, the ancestors are remembered and hungry ghosts are fed in a ritual called Oban.  I once experienced a Western Soto Zen version of this practice, including among the hungry ghosts all those beings that society rejects and those parts of ourselves that we forget or abandon or try to hide.

But how are we to feed the hungry ghosts? Early Buddhist tradition describes the use of spells and also service to the living.  Last week, after I had tea with an extraordinary Japanese woman named Masami Saionji, I realized that we greatest nourishment we have to offer, the salvation that we ordinary mortals can extend to one another, is the light of our own caring attention.

The chairperson of three international peace organizations and a descendent of the Royal Ryukyu Family of Okinawa, Masami Saionji glowed with kindness as she looked at me, inviting me to see how everyone can make a difference, can be a force for peace and oneness rather than suffering and separation.  She described feeling surrounded by hungry ghosts in her ancestral homeland after the war, despairing that she could help them until there came a deep experience of receiving the light of a greater awareness, a greater force of wisdom and compassion.

“Sati,” the word for mindfulness in Pali, the ancient language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, means to remember.  To re-member is to pull together or re-collect all our parts, all our members, to be one in all our diversity (including our inner diversity).  “Metta” or loving kindness has the quality of sunlight, shining on all without exception. “Bodhi” mind is heart and mind together, no separation.   May all beings, living and dead, inside and outside, be embraced by the sunlight of our own kind attention.   May all beings be seen, be met, be free.

Apr 14

Life Preserver

I dreamed I was being carried along by life like a leaf on a stream.  In the dream I was wearing the royal blue dress I wore at my daughter’s wedding in England last November, which seemed strange because moments before I was holding my daughter’s tiny hand as we walked down steep brownstone steps in Brooklyn.  As I floated by someone standing on the shore told me my hair looked good and that was nice but hardly enough to make a life.

Here’s the kicker:  I woke up realizing that I hadn’t been dreaming and that I actually am—that we are—being swept along by life, being lived rather than living, helplessly reacting to circumstances and conditions vast and microscopic, outside and inside.  Interconnected and impermanent we may be, subject to ceaseless change, but I wanted to add my conscious “yes” to life.  I wanted to live deliberately, to actually read and sign the contract that bound me instead of travelling blind.  I wanted to feel it before it passed by.

It turns out that being present is a courageous act. It involves discerning what we cannot change and changing what we can.  We cannot change other people or the forces that act on us—we cannot change the relentless force of change.  But we can change the quality of our presence here and now.  We can turn away from the old thoughts, pull ourselves out of the deep groove of habit, and be here now.

We have a special potential the Buddhists call “bodhicitta.”   This isn’t a very graceful metaphor but think of it as an inflatable life raft or vest implanted in our hearts and minds (heart/mind).  “Bodhi” means awakening and “citta” derives from the Sanskrit root “cit,” which means “that which is conscious”—consciousness or mind.  Bodhicitta means “awakening or awakened mind” or “mind of enlightenment.  Bodhicitta is an expansive capacity of awareness and compassion, allowing us to be with change, connecting rather than being swept away.

Apr 14

Entering the Temple



Late yesterday afternoon, ten of us sat in a sunset-washed yoga studio, practicing being still together, noting in the barest, sparest way how it feels to be in a body.  By noting in a bare and spare way, I mean we practiced gently restraining thought, allowing our sensations and feelings to arise and present themselves effortlessly, without commentary and judgments–including judgments about our inevitable thoughts and judgments.

For me, the stillness of our shared meditation had a holiness about it that went beyond associating the day with Easter.  There was a sense of returning to the greater Whole that went beyond the experience of remembering that I have a body, that I am present on the earth, breathing and alive.  Sometimes when we sit, the sensation of being whole opens into the sense that we are part of a greater wholeness–a light of awareness appears that seems to come from a greater Whole.

After we sat together, someone shared an experience that happened during the recent Passover holiday.  In the midst of an ordinary reaction to a family member, another way of seeing and feeling suddenly opened in her, allowing her to see that her sister and everything that was all right, just perfect just as it was.  I thought of something that I once heard from a great teacher–that the truth cannot be thought, that the truth is not a proposition but living reality to be perceived.   Sometimes, as my friend did, we experience being filled with a light of awareness that is finer than thought, that is made of an energy that is not separate from wisdom or compassion, not separate from the Whole.

Einstein famously tells us that problems cannot be solved on the same level they are created.  Meditation is one way to contact this higher level.  Another noble friend who came to meditate last night, compared meditation and prayer, offering that mediation is being with what is while prayer is more often seeking (even if it is seeking to praise).   We spoke of the kind of prayer that is deep listening—a listening that is not separate from the sense of being listened to by a greater Whole.   We could substitute seeing or receiving or perceiving.

In years past during our Sunday meditations, we spoke about the word “contemplate,” that it comes from a Latin root that means to come into the temple (originally not a building but an empty space set apart for reading augurs or signs—for reading the way things are).   Sometimes when we sit and turn our attention to our experience just as it is, when we re-enter the temple of our own mysterious bodies, we can perceive what is usually imperceptible, that we are surrounded and filled by the unknown.

This week, if you wish, join us as see how deeper truths open to us at moments, right in the midst of our ordinary lives.  Open to the possibility that a great and mysterious Wholeness can find you right where you are…as if we have never really been apart.


Apr 14

Including the Body

Leonardo_da_Vinci-_Vitruvian_ManParabola’s upcoming “Embodiment” is being printed and packed for shipping as we speak.  The frantic, last-minute push is over, and now a space opens, a time for collecting ourselves.  It is now Passover and Holy Week, an especially rich time to contemplate being in a body.

We invite you to try this gentle exercise, best done in the stillness of sitting or being in nature.  Without adding any thoughts, gently restraining the impulse to analysis or any kind of metaphorical or theological fanciness, allow yourself to notice “there is a body.”  Be patient and gentle with yourself.  Allow any background noise of thought or the life outside to be just that, background noise.  Allow the sensation of being in a body may appear.

The Buddha instructed his followers to abide contemplating the body internally, which is what we usually do when we meditate or often when we are relaxed and walking or sitting in nature.  He also invited people to contemplate the body externally, which can mean observing other bodies around us–not with judgment and comparison as we usually do but with an awareness that we humans are alike under the skin, all suffering, all striving, all awake and asleep by turns, at peace or gripped by fear or desire of some other conditioning.

Yet the Buddha also added an instruction to “abide contemplating both internally and externally.”    This can mean having a two-way attention, sensing ourselves while being aware of the impact of our words and actions and presence on others and in the world around us.  We humbly invite you to try this in the coming days.  It can be amazing to see how opening to sensation and direct seeing–how inviting the whole of ourselves to be present–can support a deeper understanding of great and mysterious Truth.

Apr 14


Last Sunday evening, a group of us meditated and exchanged about what the Buddha meant by the word “samadhi” — a word usually translated as “concentration.”  I don’t know about you, but I dreaded the word and the state that I thought went with it.  I associated concentration the kind of grim mental effort I made in college, usually the night before a test or a paper was due and fueled by lots of coffee and cigarettes and fear.  In meditation, I believed I strongly preferred  mindfulness, a sky-like state of awareness that would alight on things like a butterfly and move on.   But turns out that those beautiful moments of alighting on a sensation or a sound were moments of samadhi.

It was revelation to discover that samadhi happens when we are free from stress and strain.  In his classic teaching on meditation, The Satipatthana Sutra, the Buddha describes concentration as being “free from desires and discontent with regard to the world.”  It the blossoming of attention and joy that can appear when we are fully present. Ajahn Sucitto, an English monk in the Thai Forest tradition,  describes the joy that comes when we let go of all the tensions and thoughts that keep us from being fully present (quote via Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein):

“Receiving joy is another way to say enjoyment, and samadhi is the act of refined enjoyment.  It is based in skillfulness.  It is the careful collection of oneself into the joy of the present moment.  Joyfulness means there’s no fear, no tension, no ‘ought to.’ There isn’t anything we have to do about it.  It’s just this.”


Mar 14

From “I” to “We”

Sunset“‘Each one, on his own, wouldn’t be able to do it,’” said a policeman whose job it was to guard some 7 million people bathing in the icy Ganges last February, 2013.  ”‘They give each other strength.’”  Can being with others–even in conditions of dense crowding and pollution–actually be good for our bodies, hearts, and minds?  The quote above is from an article in a recent National Geographic by Laura Spinney, who followed psychologist Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews in the U.K., as he explored how being part of a crowd can help us in tangible and intangible ways.  ”‘They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they den help determine our physical well being,’” Reicher told Spinney.

Reicher echoed a theory that originated with the 19th-century French  sociologist Emile Durkheim, who called the positive energy that can come off a crowd “collective effervescence.”  This idea fell into shadow during the mass violence of the 20th Century, but was he on to something?  To find out, Reicher and colleagues traveled to the Maha Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival in India that drew at its peak 30 million people.  In spite of rough conditions, unheated tents, crowding, solid evidence that the Ganges is neither drinkable or safe to bathe in, the mostly elderly pilgrims reported feeling rejuvenated.

How can this be?  Scientists speak of an “urban advantage” when it comes to health, and not just health but the development of art, knowledge, wealth.  The key to the positive benefits seems to reside in the shift from a mere physical crowd to a psychological crowd–in the shift from “I” to “we.”  Indeed, after the great Hindu religious festival broke up and people were headed home, there was a stampede at a train station that killed 36 people. They stopped being in a state of “we,” and shifted back to “I” (or maybe “me first.”)

During the festival proper (which drew 70 million people over 56 days!) there were no outbreaks of serious disease and an observing Harvard professor of planning and design was amazed at how clean and beautifully organized the whole thing was.  Most mysterious intriguing, the people interviewed reported feeling better afterwards–for a long time afterwards.

I can’t help thinking about how well I felt in India–not that I did any bathing in the icy, polluted Ganges or dwelled in an unheated tent in such a huge crowd.  But I did glimpse what it can feel like to shift from “I” to “we.”   Home again, I can’t help thinking about how it feels to sit with others as opposed to sitting alone.  There is an energy that appears and supports us all.  And even sitting alone, I feel (at least sometimes) as if I am with others, and with God.

I can’t help but think of the generous and accomplished woman at the party in Mumbai who said that in the end no one matters, that it is only passion, love, a certain quality of feeling that matters,  I think of the people I met there who were actively shifting from “I” to “we” — shifting from high-earning careers to living in a shared world.   It is beginning to dawn on me that the passion that matters–the quality of mind the Buddha called “ardent” or “long-enduring mind”–comes to us as we shift away from ourselves.  It is beginning to dawn on me that there may be a way out of this global crisis we are in, that there may be a vast renewable resource available with the flip of a switch, from “I” to “We.”


Mar 14

Exterminating Angel

One dark and stormy night, taking advantage of the enforced intimacy that comes when a hurricane knocks the power out and trees are down in the roads and all you can do is huddle near the wood stove, I asked the young man who is now my son-in-law what he learned from his study of theoretical physics.  I mean what about string theory and the 11th dimension and what not might be applied to everyday life.

I immediately regretted this blurt, fearing that it might come across as a bluntly American/ New Yorky kind of challenge–whaddyagonnado wit all dis stuff?   Plus, he had already been through a lot.  In the space of a week, the poor English lad had experienced a mild earthquake, a hurricane, and major power outage.  ”Tell him we like to show our foreign guests a really big time,” said my father.

To my relief he answered immediately.  ”No one is special,” he said.  He explained (and I paraphrase) that in light of the inconceivable vastness of reality,  in light of our inconceivably infinitesimal teeny weaniness in relation to it all, the very idea of insisting on any kind of singular and isolated specialness is just completely ridiculous.

I believed this was true, but it haunted me.  In the light of this all this vastness, what matters, what can guide us?  Near the end of my recent amazing trip to India, the answer suddenly and unexpectedly fell into place.

I was at a party in Mumbai. It was a beautiful night in every sense.  The apartment was full of art and music and opened onto a big terrace overlooking the Arabian sea.  The night air was soft and the air scented with an unnamable combination of spices and all the people gathered there seemed to be very accomplished and creative, but also searching and questioning in a sincere way.   The conversation turned to what it takes to live a life that matters.

In the end, nothing matters, and no one, said an attractive older woman who managed to combine approachable warmth with a regal bearing. In light of eternity, nothing and no one matters, not Gandhi, no one.  She had everyone’s attention.  Passion matters, she added, and the sense was that she meant being connected with what you were doing, being in alignment with a meaning beyond yourself.

She spoke quietly but firmly, not arguing a point but sharing a hard won truth.   The conversation rolled on in to the subject of changing paths from money to meaning, to the chance encounters that sparked this change (one man there left the Wharton School for music after an encounter with an exterminating angel–literally, a bug exterminator who sat down and talked to him about what really mattered).  The quiet words that woman said burrowed into me like a really beneficial virus.

I think people can come into our lives like guiding angels (this particular angel was not an exterminator but a distinguished Indian business woman).  With a few remarks she helped me see that the guide I was really looking for was an inner guide.  The guide was knowing whether we are really in alignment with a greater energy, whether we are really outside the prison of self, engaged in the dance of life, open to vastness.