Step out of the Bureaucracy of Ego

Chakra 7thI’ve been thinking a lot about escape lately—and the comforts of home.

Escape is a myth, an illusion. There is no escape. This is it. Here we are.

Yet, paradoxically, there are many escapes—even more than the good old standards like binge-drinking, drug use, overeating, sex, TV, caffeine, and shopping. Reading, writing, and speaking just to hear oneself talk can all be forms of escape. Even yoga and meditation can serve as escapes and feed our addictive personalities.

“It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking.” ~ Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

I have created a comfortable home. I have an awesome life—which is not to say that I don’t have struggles and stresses—but, my struggles and stresses have evolved and diminished incredibly due to the lifestyle I have chosen to live. One of simplicity, natural beauty, mindfulness, and loving kindness.

This life I am currently living has bloomed and flourished thanks to discontent. In my 20s, I was discontent with the standard life I had been conditioned to embrace: the hamster wheel of school, higher education, attainment of degrees, career promotions, two-week vacations, professional existence until retirement, and death.

Even earlier, I was discontent with the dogma I had been conditioned to believe—that I was an “original sinner,” full of faults, needing to confess, repent, and be redeemed or saved. That Jesus was the perfect, white-skinned, blue-eyed son of God, crucified for my sake. I was discontent with the contents of my mind, my moodiness, my manic depression, my irrational anxiety, my being told to just take one of these pills every day to make the pain go away.

Now, it’s clear to see that my discontent was a great gift.

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Smiling Meditation & Homemade Toothpaste

Last week, the planets aligned, and a long-awaited dream came true: I learned how to make natural toothpaste.

I had long since learned the dangers of fluoride and other substances and additives in “mainstream” toothpaste brands such as Crest and Colgate.

For years, I’ve been buying supposedly natural, “organic” toothpastes from the store. However, where I live in Guatemala, these are imported and prohibitively expensive. Plus, they all have some questionable chemical foaming agent. We are conditioned to believe that toothpaste needs to foam in order to make our mouths clean.

I’d heard how easy it was to make a natural toothpaste at home, yet I never took the crucial next step of learning how. So last week, I took a workshop on aromatherapy, in which we learned the basics about essential oils and also made a few products to take home, including deodorant, insect repellent, and toothpaste.

The toothpaste is made from coconut oil, which is liquefied and mixed with bentonite clay and drops of peppermint, clove, cinnamon, and ginger essential oils. We also added stevia powder as a natural sweetener.

However, having a fresh, clean mouth and lovely teeth is only half the battle. Our smiles must also be real.

Here are instructions for practicing smiling meditation, as taught by the amazing Thich Nhat Hanh in his classic book, Being Peace.

“During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

I know this is the only moment.

‘Breathing in, I calm body and mind.’ This line is like drinking a glass of ice water—you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile. ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here and I know where I am. This is very important.

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my Ph. D. degree, and then I will be really alive.’ When we have it, and it’s not easy to get, we say to ourselves, ‘I have to wait until I get a job, in order to be *really* alive.’

And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive in our entire life.

Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment. ‘I know this is the only moment.’ This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. ‘Calming. Smiling, Present moment, Only moment.’ I hope you will try it.”

I vow to smile. I vow to try it. I vow to be grateful—to see the beauty on the path—right here, right now.

Buddhism as Religion Versus Philosophy

“At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger —  the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing.” ~ Joan Sutherland Roshi

Buddhism can be and is practiced as a religion by many people who don robes, ring bells and burn incense as they bow, chant and meditate.

Yet as the popularity of meditation continues to advance in mainstream culture, an ever-growing number of secular Buddhists practice mindfulness meditation without incorporating any the bells and whistles (er, gongs) of traditional monastic systems such as Zen.

In light of this evolving understanding, Buddhism can be considered a living, breathing religion that promotes leading of a conscious life for the benefit of all beings.

Many people associate “religion” with Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism exclusively.

Buddha dharma demands interactivity from its practitioners. They are prompted to doubt, question and investigate the teachings for themselves. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha states:

“Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we heard it for a long time).

Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations).

Do not accept anything on account of mere rumors — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).

Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures.

Do not accept anything by mere suppositions.

Do not accept anything by mere inference.

Do not accept anything by merely considering the reasons.

Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your preconceived notions”

Blind faith is not an option here. Nothing is to be taken for granted just because a holy or learned man said so.

Krishnamurti echoes these sentiments:

“The many religions throughout the world have said that there is an enduring, everlasting truth, but the mere assertion of truth has very little significance. One has to discover it for oneself, not theoretically, intellectually, or sentimentally, but actually find out if one can live in a world that is completely truthful.

We mean by religion the gathering together of all energy to investigate into something: to investigate if there is anything sacred. That is the meaning we are giving it, not the religion of belief, dogma, tradition or ritual with their hierarchical outlook. But we are using the word ‘religion’ in the sense: to gather together all energy, which will then be capable of investigating if there is a truth which is not controlled, shaped, or polluted by thought”

Religion, then, takes on a meaning distinct from the mainstream definition. Religion is the movement toward personal and collective transformation, and it is not bound to any particular institution or church.

Like all of major religions, Buddhism offers an ultimate reality, whether it is labeled as nirvana, satori or our buddha nature. The key is that each individual human being has the innate potential to awaken and become a buddha. The multitude of schools and sects of Buddhism all offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. From the noble eightfold path in Theravada Buddhism to the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a framework of daily life practices and meditation techniques that culminate in enlightenment. Buddhists who approach or attain the experience of ultimate reality become transformed by their experience — their ethics and behaviors change organically as they become more conscious, present, kind and compassionate.

The modern classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, identifies Buddhism as a whole to be “quite different from the theological religions with which Westerners are most familiar. It is a direct entrance to a spiritual or divine realm, without assistance from deities or other ‘agents.’ Its flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than what we usually call religion”. While it is notably distinct from most other major religions in terms of deity and dogma, Buddhism is still a religion, in the newly defined sense of the word explored in this essay.

At the start of his spiritual quest, Prince Siddhartha left his sheltered life seeking answers to life’s big questions. Are we born just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the point? After years of experimenting with a wide array of ascetic religious practices, he abandoned all beliefs and doctrines and finally understood the workings of the mind in a state of clear awareness and sublime bliss under the bodhi tree. From then on, during the four decades until his death, the Buddha taught what he had learned through so many years of trial and error.

The Awakened One discovered the ultimate truth of authentic religion when he let go of organized religion, and Buddhist practitioners both secular and religious continue to follow his wise path.

Cultivating Beginner’s Heart

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

–ee cummings

Prajnaparamita

Ever since I stumbled upon Zen philosophy (back in the San Francisco Bay area circa 2003), I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “beginner’s mind.” I’ve attempted to maintain it myself, to varying degrees of success. It’s a daily, lifelong practice.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” teaches Suzuki Roshi in his classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Buddhists see the heart and the mind as one entity: the heart-mind. Westerners generally think the heart feels, and the mind knows.

Could we equally say, “Beginner’s heart”?

Take a deep breath. Arrive here in this moment even more fully. Let your heart-mind read and absorb these words.

“When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely—the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears—when you give your whole attention to it.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Can we blur the lines between mind and heart? The mind is the heart. The heart and mind are inseparable.

A beginner’s heart is open, curious—full of awe and wonder.

Beginner’s heart remembers that we are all ultimately the same.

Emerson lived with beginner’s heart:“That which draws us nearer our fellow man, is, that the deep Heart in one, answers the deep Heart in another—that we find we have (a common Nature)—one life which runs through all individuals, and which is indeed Divine.”

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Practice Loving Kindness with Metta Aspirations

11179971_10152784915271994_8682155515547017100_nSilently repeat any or all of the following (or your own aspirations) in your mind.

May I be safe.

May I feel secure and grounded. May I feel a sense of belonging to the Earth. May I know who I am.

May I be happy.

May I be joyful. May I be content. May I live with bliss.

May I be healthy.

May my body be strong. May my mind be balanced. May I exude well-being.

May I be peaceful.

May I be calm. May I be patient. May I be loving.

May I live with ease.

May I relax. May I let go. May I just be.

May I be free.

May I be free from suffering. May I be free to be me. May I be liberated.

May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a loved one and repeat each phrase to them in your mind’s eye.)

May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a neutral person whom you do not have strong feelings about and repeat each phrase to that person.)

May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Visualize a difficult person, someone with whom you are having a conflict, or even an “enemy,” and say the phrases to them. This one may take a while before you can actually do it!)

May we be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free. (Repeat the wishes, visualizing yourself together with all your loved ones.)

May we be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free.

Visualize yourself and your wider community.

May you be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free.

Visualize the light of your metta reaching out to shine upon all beings on Earth.

The remaining aspirations are wishes for all beings, including ourselves.

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be healthy.

May all beings be peaceful.

May all beings be free.

May all beings feel strong & supported.

May all beings be loved & cared for.

May all beings breathe & relax.

May all beings go with the flow.

May all beings express our unique power.

May all beings open our hearts.

May all beings listen.

May all beings imagine.

May all beings connect with our intuition.

May all beings connect with our divine nature.

May we all love.

May we all share.

May we all serve.

May we all unite in peace and harmony.

What is “practice”? What is not practice?

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1. Nothing is not practice.

2. We have our formal practice of hatha yoga, or mindfulness, or whatever, and we have our “informal” practice of life. We have meditation and “postmeditation.”

3. Formal practice is important. Essential. Sit down and shut up. Learn to concentrate the mind. Delve into the practical techniques of meditation. Gain insight, humility, compassion and so much more.

4. Just as essential is “informal” practice: how we carry ourselves in the world. How we speak, eat, act, drink, look, see.

5. The best is when boundaries are blurred, when formal and informal collapse into one. When work is play and play is work. Passion plus compassion.

6. Enlightenment is not an epiphany. It’s simply being absorbed in the moment and in the paradox of life: that all is one and the same yet each is separate and unique.

7. Keep doing your yoga schmoga, whatever it may look like. Keep being you, whoever you are. And realize that ultimately, we’re all made of the same stuff and headed toward the same end.

8. Practice or don’t practice. Everything is practice!

Read the full version here.

Will Yoga Send You Straight to Hell?

Read the original on elephant.

bird on cross

“There’s the spiritual health risk. When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to. The bad spirit can be communicated in a variety of ways.”

Father Roland Colhoun, a Catholic priest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland recently sparked a debate online as he joined a long list of Christians and people of other religions to link yoga with the devil. During  a sermon at a February 22 Mass, he told the congregation “it’s a slippery slope from yoga to Satan.” With regard to the risks of yoga specifically, he reminded us that Pope Francis said “do not seek spiritual answers in yoga classes.”

His words echo a friend-of-a-friend of mine, a self-proclaimed 54-year-old former yogi who not long ago tried to persuade me that the world is run by Satanists (okay, maybe it is) and, furthermore, that yoga and dharma open up our minds to evil, dark spirits and are therefore to be avoided. I said, “I don’t think I could quit doing yoga at this point even if I tried.” She didn’t hear me. After she called me ignorant because I chose not to enter into her debate, I ended the conversation and went about on my merry, diabolical way, chanting OM and forming complicated mantras with my fingers.

In reply to the Irish priest’s outrageous comments, Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, wrote:

“Yoga, although introduced and nourished by Hinduism, was a world heritage and liberation powerhouse to be utilized by all. The Vatican Library itself reportedly carried various yoga related books; like Bhaktiyoga, Yoga-system of Patanjali, Yogic Powers and God Realization.”

Why is yoga so popular? Because it improves our well-being and quality of life.

Even just practicing the physical aspect of yoga (which is what many practitioners do) results in a slew of overt benefits. Much of modern yoga is basically advanced calisthenics with some deep breathing and positive thinking thrown in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there?

Yoga is denounced by conservatives who view it as “New Age,” which refers to an amorphous cultural movement with no hierarchy, dogma, doctrine or official membership whose influences can include Oprah, astrology, “manifesting,” Goddess worship, occult practices like Tarot card reading, vegetarianism and veganism, “positive psychology,” Taoism and/or self-help. New Age originates from 19th century “New Thought,” whose founders were most influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson—who was heavily influenced by Vedanta, the spiritual teachings of Hinduism. Ralph Waldo read the Bhagavad Gita and considered himself a yogi. He could be considered the father of “American” yoga.

In stark contrast to the monotheism of Bible-believers, pop yoga culture totally embraces  Vedantic concepts, such as: all is one; humans are spiritual beings in physical bodies; we are co-creators of the universe; and life is a journey toward awareness of our true source. Many religious people criticize New Age thinking, because its tenets are in opposition to the belief that there is One True God, namely theirs, rather than, God forbid, a Goddess. Yoga is neither angelic nor Satanic. It is a personal practice that may be physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, educational and/or enlightening. Retaliating and attacking is getting us nowhere. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s not about generalizations (“Christians are judgmental hypocrites” versus “yogis are brainwashed hippies”). Yoga and Christianity actually have a lot of things in common.

May we remember that awareness, kindness, meditation, compassion, morals and ethics, are the basis of all good religion and spirituality.

How to be Free: Breathe, Stretch & Solve All Your Problems

Take a deep breath in through the nose…
Exhale through the mouth. Aahhhhhhhh.

Yoga entered into my consciousness as a concept and into my daily life as a practice in February of 1993, 22 years ago. Mindfulness came along and shook up my life (and mind) about ten years later when I started studying meditation in California in 2003.

Now, I am certainly no expert and do not like being referred to as a “guru,” even jokingly. I do, however, have a lot of experience with and gratitude for yoga and mindfulness, as both a practitioner and a teacher. And I happen to love to write and share my experience with others.

So, while this book may not solve all your problems (of course, no book ever can or will), How to be Free is a practical, fun, user-friendly guide to starting (or renewing) a meaningful spiritual practice.

The e-book is available for purchase on Kindle or Smashwords, or in the EnlightenEd bookstore.

Here is one of the dozens of practices from the book, for your use and enjoyment!

Let go of negativity.

Notice signals of clinging such as irritation, anger or fear. Notice the ideal or expectation to which you are clinging. See the harm in holding onto this negativity. Let go, with love and compassion.

What daily practices help you maintain balance and mitigate stress?

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