Off the Mat — Taking what is not offered

February 16, 2009

(Another in a series of dharma talks)

During a recent meditation retreat, the other participants and I each undertook to live by the five Buddhist training precepts during our time there. One of those precepts is this:

For the purposes of training, I will not take anything that is not offered to me.

This is a common sense rule for those who will live in close proximity to one another – no “borrowing” your roommate’s shampoo, no swiping someone else’s flip flops. It’s a basic principle that is embedded in social systems everywhere – in the yoga tradition as the niyama of asteya – non-stealing. God told Moses a version of the same thing.

It isn’t wildly surprising that the precept forms a basic part of so many different cultures: it’s a simple way to maintain cooperation and minimize friction among humans. The training precept articulates the Buddhist version of the rule: unless it’s yours, don’t touch it, and it’s only yours if it’s specifically offered to you.

So on the retreat, we didn’t need locks on the doors. We didn’t have to wonder what would happen to the shoes we left outside the meditation hall. We didn’t have to hide our stashes of candy bars. My stuff was my stuff. Others respected that boundary. Things stayed where I left them.

They were safe.

I was safe.

* * *

I get up early. It’s still dark. I move quietly to avoid waking my roommate. He rustles under his covers and resumes his quiet snoring. I make my way to the small open closet at the foot of my bed. By feel I find clean clothes, make my way out of the room, down the hall, into the bathroom. I shower, towel dry, and dress. My mind watches each action, notices its own intentions. I brush my teeth at the sink, gather my old clothes, and return silently to my dorm room. In the dark I trade out the toiletries and old clothes for clean socks and a hooded rain shell, and I make my way to the bench just outside the building where I left my shoes the night before. It’s freezing outside, and foggy, the damp wood planking chills my soles. My breath billows around my head as I slip into socks, then night-cold shoes. I pull the hood of my shell over my head, and I begin walking slowly the hundred yards or so to the meditation hall. My attention is on the sensations in my feet – lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving, placing, weighting, lifting, moving…

None of that quiet concentration would be possible if I were fretting over a missing water bottle or a jacket that wasn’t where I left it.

* * *

On retreat, the word-silent lunch seems loud with chair scraping, silverware clinking, and washing noises coming from the kitchen, the gurgle of hot water into tea mugs. My chores are later in the evening, so I have 90 minutes before meditation resumes. I find a path that twists and turns and switches back-and-forth up the steep hills. It’s cool but not cold except when the wind picks up. After fifteen minutes of climbing, my heart is pumping loudly, my breathing is strong. I reach a level spot about halfway up. Old rocks protrude from the grasses beside a laurel tree. I catch a leaf and crush it, releasing its royal scent.

I finish the climb, pause to admire the view, and begin to descend on a different path, past other outcrops. As I pass one, a tiny, perfect rosette of glaucous leaves catches my eye – an Echeveria – Hen and Chicks, but a kind I’ve never seen before – growing from a crevice in the rock. I think of the perfect spot for it in my garden in Colorado. I tug gently, the more firmly and the root pulls free, breaking off at the tip. I zip the plant into a pocket and resume my descent.

Then it dawns on me: who offered me the plant I’ve taken?

I can’t replace it in the crevice where it grew, so I try to replant it in a different spot, suspecting that the transplant won’t take without close attending that I can’t provide.

I begin to see more clearly that the training precept not only affects how others treat my stuff, but how I relate to the world around me.

* * *

Back at the meditation center, the Buddhist training precept of not taking what is not offered renders unnecessary my “I must protect my stuff” instinct. That doesn’t make it go away, of course, but it does draw the impulse into awareness: “Oh, I guess I don’t need to hide my water bottle behind the pile of zabutons after all.” And discovering how much of life has been devoted to protecting my “stuff” is at once a surprise, and a relief to be free of the worry. But after the initial freedom from the compulsion subsides, what begins to arise in me is an awareness of my raw attachment to my things – and my desires to be attached to other people’s things. And the closer I look at those impulses, the more they seem to be efforts to reinforce me, the one wanting, the one defining stuff as mine or wishing it to be mine.

At the heart of ownership, at the heart of property, at the heart of possession is the one possessed of the thing. For something to be “mine” is to define it in terms of a self. And whenever something is defined in terms of a self, that relationship also defines the self.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I learned that a dear friend and favorite yoga teacher was moving away from Denver. She had enriched my life significantly, and I found I wanted to give her something to reflect my appreciation. For several days, I debated exactly what might work for the purpose. After inventing and discarding half a dozen ideas, I thought of the perfect gift – an old Tibetan singing bowl that had been given to me years earlier and that formed an important link in the story-chain that led me to discover, practice, and teach yoga. Once I settled on the gift, I began formulating exactly how to present the story to her so she’d understand it in context – so she’d appreciate it as a part of me and my story. I imagined in my mind how I’d see her before the last Sunday morning class she’d teach, how I’d present the gift, how she’d respond, and how we’d be connected by the gift.

Of course, the actual giving didn’t go anything like I’d imagined it. I did see her before the last Sunday class. She was rushed and harried, greeting not just me but dozens of others who were also there to practice one last time and to say goodbye. I quickly handed her the unwrapped and tarnished bowl and dented striker, and all I managed to say was “there’s a story behind this that I’ll tell you later.” The opportunity “later” never materialized, and I never got to tell my friend the story of the bowl. And she never asked for the story behind it.

So instead of the bowl connecting the two of us as I intended, it’s probably just one more thing that got packed and moved. If it’s being used at all, tarnished thing that it is, each time it’s rung, its vibration and pitch don’t tie anyone to my story.

And the more I realize how much that fact bothers me, the more it seems related to the Buddhist training principle I learned on the retreat.

Because, really, my little sense of offense has nothing to do with what I was giving, but rather with what I intended to take. Though my actions were giving a gift to my friend, some part of my thoughts were all about me. Instead of “I give this to you,” it was “I want something from you, and getting it involves me putting this into your hands.” When we give in order to be appreciated, we often are taking what is not offered.

* * *

Once I saw this clearly relative to the bowl, I started to see it everywhere – in my dealings with my children (I get unhappy when I give them my Saturday afternoons, but they don’t clean up the kitchen), with my co-workers (I resent covering for them when they had sick kids, if they don’t cover for me when I was out), with my friends (I make time for them, but they don’t reciprocate as I want them to) –everywhere. It became disturbingly clear how often I was interacting with the world not simply out of a sense of love and generosity (though there was some of that to it), but out of a desire to control things – to get what I wanted by being perceived as generous and loving. I’d attached my wanting to the objects and devised ways to give them in order to assure myself some benefit.

Have you ever given a gift to someone, and then been disappointed by some aspect of the person’s response? When you gave a check to a nephew who was struggling to pay his college tuition, perhaps he spent all the money on iTunes, loading up on Italian goth metal music. When you gave your daughter a pendant for her birthday that you received decades ago from your grandmother, perhaps she looked at it briefly, said, “eh,” and dropped it on the table behind flashier stuff. Have you ever said (or thought) to one of your children, “You should do X for me because I gave birth to you/put you through school/fed you/sheltered you/whatevered you?” I have. And I was trying to take something that was not offered, just because I’d offered something – in theory – “freely” at some point in the past.

* * *

The Buddha taught Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine, and Jesus warned against doing alms before men.

* * *

All of it, really, is simply a lack of letting go, a giving only half-completed. There is no giving without letting go. So long as I attach strings to the gift, there is neither giving nor gift.

So here’s my resolve: in giving, to give freely and to let go; in receiving, to receive only what is offered by family, friends, and existence.

* * *

…the world offers itself to your imagination.

— Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”


A quick note on going veg, three years in…

February 7, 2009

In response to a couple of questions from a couple of friends recently, I’ve been reflecting on my experience as a vegetarian. I went back over the posts I’ve written here, and as I looked at them, I realized that my experience has been different than I anticipated. The reasons I stopped eating meat are not the reasons I do not eat meat today. The practice has, to borrow a phrase from pgk, “opened up possibilities” that I didn’t expect.

As I wrote here, I stopped because once I learned the details, on a visceral level I couldn’t participate, even indirectly, in industrial agriculture practices. At the same time, I realized on an intellectual level that I’d be treading more lightly on the earth if I ate the plants, rather than the plant-eaters. As I wrote here, about a year after I stopped, I began to consider the similarities of consciousness in animals and humans.

Since then, I’ve found something else – more about myself than about animals.

When I was eating animals, I did not allow myself (quite literally, albeit subconsciously) to consider them as beings. There is something about the way my mind works when it is in acquisition mode – I’m easily prone to unconsciously pursuing my wants, and as I do, I tend to objectify whatever it is I’m seeking. Placing animals outside of the category of “object to fulfill hunger” didn’t exactly turn off the basic grasping impulse, but over time, I think it has diminished it a lot. I no longer think of pigs as pork, cows as beef, deer as venison, chickens as Popeye’s ingredients. That’s not to say that I necessarily feel particularly warm and fuzzy toward them – I tend to think of chickens as small, feathered reptiles and domestic cattle as genetically mutilated deer. I allow that I feel a fondness for pigs, but those who know me well would insist that’s because of a basic affinity for mud.

But even without any particular attachment to them, I find myself recognizing in them and their lives, a fellow-feeling, one that simultaneously blurs the definitions of consciousness, identity, and self, as it expands the universe of “you”s available for relationship.

Might it be possible to open to that possibility while eating meat? I don’t know. To my knowledge, there isn’t an official rule book that says “no awareness of animals as beings without vegetarianism.” But for me, it would be hard to get from where I was then to where I am now without the vegetarian boat to get me across the river.

So the reasons I stopped: to decrease, if only by one person’s diet, the appalling suffering caused by industrial agriculture and to lighten earth’s load a little bit.

What I didn’t expect, or even reasonably expect to expect: that I’d find my understanding of self and other, me and you, changing so deeply as a result.

Yeah – there’s other stuff, too: I have more energy, I get better nutrition, I found weight loss and management a lot easier than before. Those things were nice discoveries, particularly once I figured out how to get the protein I needed to stay active. But the life-changing part is seeing consciousness –seeing god – through the eyes of a German shepherd in the back of a pickup, in the ear-twitches of a doe and fawn shuffling through leaf litter beneath live oaks in search of acorns, in the jittery reptilian stare of a lizard pausing between zigs and zags on sun-hot rocks.

Book Blink — In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965, by Alan Watts

February 2, 2009

Somewhere in my psyche, there is a sense that book reviews should be something substantive, something constructive, something profound.

Somewhere else in my psyche, there is a recognition that I’m never going to write such a thing.

So here in the blog part of my psyche, I’ll try out something else: when I finish reading a book, I’ll post a Book Blink. Nothing as substantive as a book review. More like a thought upon finishing a book.

So here’s tonight’s:

In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915-1965, Alan Watts, New World Library: Novato, CA; 1972. 384 pgs.

I picked up the book because I love Alan Watts’ exquisite articulation of Buddhist experience that I’ve found and followed in podcast form during the past several months. It took unexpected effort, though, to finish the autobiography.

Reading it, I realized two things. First, Watts’ exquisite descriptions of satori and karma and impermanence and discrimination and interconnectedness and identity are as much an artistic rendering as an oil painting of a sunset. While the painting can remind me of a memory of an experience of a sunset, I usually admire the painting less for what it depicts and more for its intrinsic existence and the mind to which it provides a face. And while I love verbal expression above almost any other art form, I usually don’t mistake the art for the thing. But maybe I have done so with dharma books, which I consume in large quantities. Watts’ words, a bit like sirens’ songs, are beautiful enough that I’m almost willing to lay aside the journey and retire to the island of his descriptions, instead.

Which leads me to the second realization I had while reading In My Own Way: Watts seems to talk a lot about rejecting spiritual discipline. At a couple of different places in the autobiography, he speaks warmly of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “no path, no approach” approach.

Was I practicing yoga? If so, why? I replied that this was my problem: I could not do any systematic or formal meditation because I had pondered too long his own reiterations of the point that methodical spiritual disciplines are merely highbrow ways of exalting the ego. Aiming at unselfishness is the most insidious form of selfishness

Thereupon Krishnaji picked up two cushions from the couch and said, “Look. On the one hand there must be the understanding that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to improve, transform, or better yourself. If you understand this completely you will realize that there is no such entity as ‘you.'” He then moved his hands from the first cushion to the second, and went on, “Then, if you have totally abandoned this ambition, you will be in the state of true meditation which comes over you spontaneously in wave after wave after wave of amazing light and bliss.”

p. 112

This, of course, is a path of “no path,” which is definitely a path, albeit a pathless one.

Get it?

Throughout the book, Watts seems to acknowledge (but only tacitly) that discipline actually does matter — not because it produces insight so much as because it prepares the disciple by eliminating all of the other obstacles to insight — including the disciple’s own belief in discipline as a path.

A criticism: the book might have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. Apart from the dharma aspects of this relatively non-dharma book, as a memoir, it seems a bit more self-indulgent than historical. It’s a very fine line to walk, presenting the style of a life and the stories of a life from the hand of the one living it. But the reason I had to work to finish the read was to convince myself that there was value to plowing through a fair amount of Watts’ self-congratulatory “I’m not like the poor run-of-the-mill fools out there” musings.

Apart from that, though, I found the content of the book valuable. First, it connected a number of dots that I’d picked up from odd podcasts with respect to Watts’ extensive knowledge of not only Eastern philosophy, but also Christianity (turns out he was an ordained Episcopal priest for a time); his discussion of Christianity as an outsider (his letter resigning his ordination and separating himself from Christianity is included in the book, together with some poignant correspondence that resulted from that letter). Second, the book tells of his interactions with the apparently very small world of the first Western flowering of the dharma in the 1950s and early 60s in the US — from Krishnamurti at Ojai to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard to Shunryu Suzuki and Aldous Huxley in California to the founding of Esalen near Big Sur. Learning enough to put them in order makes it easier to remember who fits where and how their ideas relate and differ.

So I’m glad I’ve read the book. With Watts’ historical framework, I have a better sense of order and relationships from an era that ended shortly after I was born. With his account of his attempts to fit a traditional religion’s model, I have a different perspective on my own related struggles. With his sirenic renderings of satori, I have a kind of beauty that I instinctively want, even if it is one that, like Odysseus, I both desire and resist, tied to the mast with unstopped ears.

* * *

He gets all of this, of course:

My own work, though it may seem at times to be a system of ideas, is basically an attempt to describe mystical experience – not of formal visions and supernatural beings, but of reality as seen and felt directly in a silence of words and mindings. In this I set myself the same impossible task as the poet: to say what cannot be said.

p. 5

Ideas Welcome

December 22, 2008

Two details regarding the Spirit Rock retreat last week that I haven’t figured out at all:

First, I experienced a lot of anticipation leading up to the retreat. I probably talked too much about it with colleagues and friends, but they were patient and indulgent with my unfocused animation. As a yoga teacher persuaded me a long time ago, it’s often best to set aside expectations before embarking on a new sort of experience. But I didn’t manage that overly well this time.

To get to Spirit Rock for the start of the retreat on Wednesday, December 10, I had to catch a flight from DEN to SFO. Nothing terribly unusual about that. I get to the airport in the morning, check through security, find the gate, login, and field last-minute office work by email. The gate attendant calls the boarding sequence. I board, find my seat, and settle in.

And sitting there on the airplane, my mind shifts a bit, and I see everything from an outsider’s perspective – to borrow Oliver Sack’s phrase, like an anthropologist from Mars.

No, wait. That’s too cold. More like the first-time-appreciation of Miranda’s “…brave, new world…” phrasing, before Huxley turned it dark and naïve.

The people walking down the center aisle of the plane are a varied lot, each remarkable, each strange, each new. That they are embodiments of consciousness is remarkable, strange, and new. That I can see them is remarkable, strange, and new.

After a time, the sense subsides, leaving new tracings in my mind.

How? Why? Exactly what?

Couldn’t tell you.

Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, three days into the retreat, I woke, showered, walked to the meditation hall and sat the pre-dawn meditation. When the bell rang gently, I got up, left the hall, put on my shoes, and began walking down the hill to the dining hall.

As I walked on a little dirt path down the hill, my sense of self turned suddenly transparent, and I saw from the perspective of something other than Sean. Not that there wasn’t a Sean – he was there, but he wasn’t the perspective I was seeing from. He was the perspective that something was seeing through. That perspective was filled with quiet, abiding joy – joy at the cold air, joy at the diminishing cramp in Sean’s neck, joy at the emptiness before eating, joy at the peace of the retreat, joy at Sean’s sore right knee, joy at the slanting sun, joy at the cloud of exhaled air.
The sense sustained itself for a time, then subsided.

It’s hard to find the right words for the completely natural sense of seeing through the self of that experience.

* * *

Ideas or references to others’ ideas about such experiences are welcome.

Red pill

December 19, 2008

In reflecting on my few days at Spirit Rock last week, I have to allow that I spent most of the nine or so sitting sessions each day in various degrees of discomfort, generally increasing from the first day to the second, from the second to the third. And also generally increasing from early morning to late morning to afternoon to evening.

Recounting this fact to a friend elicited this question: “Why would you think positively about such an experience?”

In listening to a dharma talk recording this evening, I think I heard an approximation of an answer to that question: it’s possible to reach a point where you’re no longer afraid of being afraid. You’re not averse to feeling aversion.

* * *

During the retreat, one of the teachers, Mary Grace Orr, read the following poem, though I don’t remember who she said wrote it. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, it doesn’t lend itself to google searches:

What is is
Is what I want –
Just that,
But that.

Winter Haiku

December 19, 2008

Frog creaks at sundown,
Dry-throated; brown grass, acorns
Await winter rains.

Word-less-ness: Being Silently

December 17, 2008

Three days in to a five-day meditation retreat, this was my situation:

I’ve taken and lived a retreatant’s version of the Five Precepts: no harming any living being, no taking what is not offered, no speaking, no sex, no intoxicants.

At three days of silence, I’ve lived wordlessly for longer than I’ve ever done since I began talking at (my mother reports) six months of age.

The days are filled from before dawn to long after sundown with sitting and walking meditations, alternating. All in silence. After the first two hours on the first day, sitting meditation becomes progressively more uncomfortable – excruciating, if you listen to my ever-suffering mind. Briefly, the lotus blossom opens and transcendent clarity opens without notice, without words. It sustains and then subsides, its space and openness re-cloaked, re-filled with the muck of pain and suffering.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, I take a pen and write this note to my meditation teacher:


I’m a bit frustrated with myself. I had one of those peak experiences this morning, and I spent the rest of the day in aches and pains and aversion and samsara.

Is this really the path? Does it get easier?


I fold the note and pin it to the section of the bulletin board for notes to Howie, and I go outside for a period of walking meditation.

The simple framing of my situation in words reignites my conceptual mind enough to allow me to see a space between the seeing and the suffering. My suddenly-word-re-enabled mind crafts responses from Howie to me:


Yes, it’s the path. Easier? No.




Yup. Now go back to meditating.

I resolve to retrieve the note, as the very forming of the words has created the space I needed between the pain and the suffering. When the bell in the courtyard signals the end of the walking meditation, I return to the bulletin board and find that Howie has already collected the note. Ok. I return to silence and wordlessness.

The next morning, I find his response folded around my note, both pinned to the board. His note, of course, is much kinder than any I’d have written to myself:

Hi Sean,

Some days are dukkha days. Some days are sukkha days. Learning how to find our composure with both is the way… The by-product is more ease and consequently more pleasure. Hang in there. It is actually a sign of deepening when things get crazy.



A most kind response to a problem that had resolved itself as soon as words were reintroduced into my mind.

* * *

I’m fascinated by the wordlessness of my time there. I became acutely aware several times of how much word-ing intervenes between experience and comprehension, how much dualistic word-ing shapes experience to fit dualistic models and understandings.

The longer I lived in silence – even for just the few days I was there – the quieter the word-ing part of my mind became. That was useful as it allowed me to see a bit more clearly what words would otherwise have obscured. But when the word-ing part of my mind subsided, I lacked the usual tool set that allows me to maintain a separation between my body’s pains and my mind’s suffering.

Makes me wonder what might be built with intention and awareness in such a space.