Three Reasons to Love the Dark

Three Reasons to Love the Dark

This time of year, we descend steadily into darkness. During October and November, the LA day shortened by two hours, shedding a couple of minutes a day, a rate that will continue until December 21st. We fell precipitously on November 1st; with the end of Daylight Savings Time, the sun set at five o’clock instead of six.

All this darkness can be disconcerting. Biblically, darkness often connoted sin, evil, and separation from the divine, and those associations permeate our secular language as well. We entertain “dark thoughts”, live in “dark times”, and go through “dark nights of the soul”. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her lovely Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is necessary — physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Our bodies need it. “Every time we turn on a light after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. …Even the light from a cell phone charger or glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is on the way.” These mixed messages compromise our sleep, which has been shown to compromise our immune system, our memory, our mental health, even our relationships. Instead of fighting the long dark evenings with artificial light, we could take the season’s cue and rest. This is a natural time of year for slowing down and letting our bodies rejuvinate.
  2. Our psyches need itThrough exploring her own aversion to darkness, Taylor arrived at this: “when the sun goes down, it is time for another natural thing to happen, as the slower, quieter, and more tactile rhythms of night time open doors that remain shut during the day. No doubt there are frightening things behind some of those doors, but there are also stunning things, and eventually, with some practice, one learns that all these doors open on the same room.” Those doors often reveal fear, grief, loneliness, and anger. But to the extent that we dull ourselves to painful emotions by refusing to enter the psyche’s dark places, we also dull ourselves to joy. “To want a life with only half of these things in it” — only the happy half of the human experience — “is to want half a life.”
  3. It’s where the light isIn the Bible, when Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God, he walked into a huge cloud enveloped in darkness. Moses’ entire encounter with the divine occurred within that dark cloud. “The darkness in this story … is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’, that it has its own word in the Bible, araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it….” The counterintuitive idea here is that the divine light is in the darkness. They arise together, and instead of the light dispelling the dark, they simply coexist. Gregory of Nyssa echoed this when he said that “those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” All of this reminds me of the Buddha’s description of the inner brightness of the mind: “Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is colored by defilements. … Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is free of defilements.” (AN 1.49-52) The mind’s intrinsic quality, apart from the states that visit it, is luminous. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu noted, “To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed, aversion, or delusion are not intrinsic to its nature….” Instead, the mind is a mirror for whatever states — skillful or not — arise in it. This is the inner brightness we can find when we close our eyes in meditation, shutting out the light around us, and venture into the araphel — a potent, dazzling darkness.


VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

To coincide with the 21st Conference on Climate Change happening in Paris right now, the visionary Cheryl Slean and Guy Zimmerman have led the creation of the VisionLA ’15 Climate Action Arts Festival happening through December 11, all over Los Angeles. There are close to 100 performances, screenings, concerts, workshops, and family-friendly events; a big art show at Bergamot Station; and a closing celebration of music and dance from String Theory Productions and poetry from LA’s poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez. Most events are free. All support the mission of “calling for a swift response to the climate crisis and creatively envisioning LA’s sustainable future.”

By engaging the international dialogue on climate change, imagining creative responses and building momentum for change, artists and storytellers have a crucial role to play in shaping a better future.


Cheryl and Guy are both dedicated meditation practitioners. When I spoke with Cheryl a couple of months ago at the height of the festival’s creation, between a long day of meetings and a long night of work, I was struck by how seriously she cleaved to the Buddhist principle to work without attachment to outcome. Her excitement and devotion to the project, and her acute understanding of the problem of climate change, were evident. And yet, she understood that she could not control the outcome of her labors, and to try to do so would be to suffer. She was working ardently, ceaselessly, to create the festival, and still managing to position her mind to let go of the results. It was inspiring to witness, and the results, it appears, are spectacular.

The festival is a creative and hopeful response to a daunting problem. Go!



The Buddha listed three unskillful mental states that underpin suffering (the kilesas in Pali): greed, aversion, and delusion. They are particular manifestations of clinging, and they are all rooted in ignorance. Greed, sometimes called “desire” — meaning sticky desire, or an entangled sense of need — is the kilesa most obviously related to clinging. We grasp our material possessions, as if we could fend off impermanence with the right car or a comfortable house. We grasp at people, requiring certain behaviors of our loved ones in order to be happy. And most tenaciously, we grasp at ideas — about how the world should work, about what is right or good, about what will make us happy. Rilke pointed out the suffering in such grasping when he wrote about “them” (those who grasp) in “You Mustn’t Be Afraid, God”:

They’re like a gale against the branches blowing
and saying “My tree.”
They scarcely see
how everything their hands can seize is glowing
so hot that even by its extremity
they could not hold it without getting burnt.

We hold — we grasp — and we get burnt.

And yet, the Buddha did not take issue with having things. He had many lay followers, some of whom had great wealth. He did not tell them to get rid of their possessions or neglect their family responsibilities. Greed is not equivalent to having. So what is the right attitude toward all that we believe to be “ours”? Gratitude.

Gratitude changes “having” from greed into joy,

said the teacher Emily Carson. When we are grateful, “having” becomes a joy and a release, not the fearful grasping of greed. Gratitude is the response of a wise heart.

A teacher of mine had a friend who became a stream enterer, one who has tasted enlightenment in an irreversible way. Afterward, she stood in front of a statue of the Buddha and bowed and wept and bowed and wept with gratitude. When so much ignorance has burned away, gratitude is what is left.

If we are not feeling grateful, here’s some advice, again from Emily Carson:

…imagine that you have only one moment left to live, only one more second in which you will draw breath, and for that one second, if that is all you have left, then I think you will find that you want that moment and that the only attitude which makes any sense for the brief remainder of your life is gratitude.

Even if we are not facing our last second, the rest of our life is still, in a sense, a “brief remainder”. The Buddha called this life a “precious human birth.” Gratitude is, indeed, the only attitude toward that precious life that makes any sense.

An Ancient Path

An Ancient Path

The Buddha’s fourth Noble Truth, after the truth of suffering (#1), the truth of the source of suffering in clinging (#2), and the truth of the cessation of suffering in letting go of that same clinging (#3), is that there is a path of practice by which we can know the first three truths for ourselves. The metaphor of a  path, with its implication of monotonic progress toward a goal, is imperfect. As with any practice, the way never leads entirely forward, and defining and assessing “progress” is approximate at best. But setting aside its limitations, the image of a path can be a vivid and inviting one for those of us interested in freedom.

When the Buddha used the metaphor, he did not say that he had invented the dhamma, the teachings, and he did not claim to be the first to know them. Instead, he said:

It is just as if a person, traveling along a wilderness track, were to see an ancient path … traveled by people of former times. He would follow it. Following it, he would see an ancient city … complete with parks, groves, & ponds, walled, delightful. … In the same way I saw an ancient path … traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. (SN 12.65)


I saw an ancient path, he said. It was already there. The truth, which is another translation of the Pali word dhamma, isn’t something we make up. It’s something we find, like an overgrown and rarely-used path in the wilderness. That ancient and delightful city is the freedom available in our own minds. 2600 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama found an ancient path and followed it. So can we.



Giving as Practice

Giving as Practice

In this week’s sitting group, someone told a story about her interactions with a homeless man she always saw in front of the local grocery store. The man was dirty and withdrawn, and she found herself comparing him to the homeless person across the street, also a regular, who interacted with people, listened to music, and participated in the world in a way that contrasted with the man at the store. She made an effort to make eye contact instead of turning away, but, despite his outstretched hands, she never offered him anything. She watched the calculations that went through her mind: he was in such a bad state, what could she give him that would make any difference? what if he spent the money on drugs or alcohol, what if she enabled him in some way? I suspect these mental machinations are familiar to anyone who has a place to live and money (any amount) to spend at the grocery store. If you are reading this, that most likely applies to you. Trying to determine how to channel our resources so they do the most good, anticipating the outcome or effect of our gift and deciding whether to give based on that imagined outcome, is so common, and so ingrained, as to seem beyond reproach.

However, what the meditator noticed, after many interactions with the man, is that she wanted to give him something, despite her rationalizations. And when she didn’t, she regretted it. She suffered, because she had suppressed a generous impulse. When the Buddha taught dana, the Pali word usually translated as giving or generosity, he wasn’t thinking primarily of the benefit to the recipient. As with all his instructions, the practice of dana is a training of the mind which leads to freedom. Our own mind, that is — the only one we can train. Every time we heed a generous impulse and give, we strengthen the mind’s tendency toward generosity. We rewire it, for, as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains in his volume of major suttas, In the Buddha’s Words, “giving serves to break down the egocentric frame of mind on the basis of which we habitually interact with others.” By giving, we orient toward a perspective of the world that does not place ourselves at the center — a perspective that accords with reality, with truth.

We do not control outcomes. We can behave skillfully — acting on impulses of generosity, harmlessness, and compassion — not out of a desire to mold the world into our idea of perfection, but to mold the only thing over which we have any control: our own mind. And as our mind is purified, our actions naturally become more skillful. It is said that a stream enterer, one who has tasted enlightenment in an irreversible way, is incapable of breaking the precepts — incapable of harming, stealing, or lying — because his/her mind is sufficiently purified.

Giving is not restricted to money or other material things. We can give time and attention or offer our skills for the benefit of others. One of the most important ways to be generous is by observing the precepts. By protecting our own behavior, we give others the gift of “freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression” (AN 8:39). The gift of safety is rare indeed, and by offering it to others, the Buddha said, the giver “will enjoy immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.” 

Many of my teachers have suggested the practice of acting on every generous impulse. For a month, or a year, whenever the thought arises to give something, just do it, without second-guessing. (Of course, when the trickster in your mind says, fine, go ahead then, give away your house, that’s not the impulse I suggest listening to, but that voice doesn’t sound the same as the voice of dana.) Pay the toll of the driver behind you, give the chips you just bought to the homeless man, give the money to the woman with a child even if you don’t believe her story. Show up for the volunteer cleaning day at the meditation center. Or just put down the phone and listen to your partner/child/sibling when they’re talking. I offer this advice not because I’m great at following it myself, but because I know it works.

May we all reap the benefits of our generosity. May all beings everywhere be happy, safe, free.

Tell the Truth

Tell the Truth

This week in the Eagle Rock meditation group, we talked about Right Speech, the Buddha’s teaching on cultivating skillful speech as part of the path to awakening. In a nutshell, he instructs his monks to use speech that is useful, timely, and kind; to avoid gossip, slander, and idle chatter; and to tell the truth.

I worry about the way the instruction to be “kind” is received today, that we will interpret the word to mean conflict-avoidant and will assume we should never say something that will make another uncomfortable. I do not believe this was the Buddha’s intention, and I think it’s counterproductive to subvert truthfulness in service of “getting along”. The truthful thing is almost always more necessary than the pleasant one. What makes the Buddha’s teaching radical is that he was not concerned with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain; it is a central point that this endeavor is fruitless and bound up in suffering. If we make someone feel bad by telling them something they don’t want to hear, it doesn’t mean that the speech was unskillful.

The Buddha emphasized truthfulness more than the other aspects of right speech, because its place in our practice is deeper and more fundamental than the elimination of, say, idle chatter or gossip. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains this deeper importance beautifully in his slim, sublime volume The Noble Eightfold Path:

It is said that in the course of his long training for enlightenment over many lives, a bodhisatta can break all the moral precepts except the pledge to speak the truth. The reason for this is very profound, and reveals that the commitment to truth has a significance transcending the domain of ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the domains of knowledge and being. Truthful speech provides, in the sphere of interpersonal communication, a parallel to wisdom in the sphere of private understanding. The two are respectively the outward and inward modalities of the same commitment to what is real. Wisdom consists in the realization of truth, and truth (sacca) is not just a verbal proposition but the nature of things as they are. To realize truth our whole being has to be brought into accord with actuality, with things as they are, which requires that in communications with others we respect things as they are by speaking the truth. Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our own inner being and the real nature of phenomena, allowing wisdom to rise up and fathom their real nature. Thus, much more than an ethical principle, devotion to truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on reality rather than illusion, on the truth grasped by wisdom rather than the fantasies woven by desire.


We can know, as internal experience, what is true. And we can position our minds such that we align ourselves with what is true. The action of orienting toward truth when we speak is the same action we take on the cushion when we meet our experience with acceptance and clarity. In both cases, we reaffirm our commitment to truth, a commitment that is essential for wisdom to arise in the mind. We have to invite insight. Although we don’t control when it appears, we do create the conditions that make such appearance favorable, and even possible.

Of course, we should try to be kind, try for speech that is timely and useful, try for speech that sows harmony and not discord. But don’t forget how fundamental to practice is this one instruction: Tell the truth.

(Note: The image is the Vitarka Mudra, representing the discussion and transmission of the Buddha’s teachings — the ultimate in truth-telling.)

The Body of Fear

The Body of Fear

Lori Pond, one of the members of Stillpoint LA’s meditation group, has a new photography show at Gallery 825 in LA entitled Menace. The dark, moody images of animals, many of which have glowing white teeth, asks us to reflect on what scares us and why. What we might notice, looking at images that trigger such a visceral fear response, is just how deep fear runs.

Fear is different from other emotions. In A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield‘s classic book on Buddhist meditation, he suggests that fear underlies all the mind’s contracted states: restlessness, lust, doubt, frustration, etc. In a way, it is more fundamental than happiness or anger or even grief, because it relies on a basic delusion about who we are. Fear lurks underneath other emotions, sustained by the assumption of our “small sense of self” (Jack’s term): “This false or small self grasps our limited body, feelings, and thoughts, and tries to hold and protect them. From this limited sense of self arises deficiency and need, defensive anger, and the barriers we build for protection. We are afraid to open, to change, to live fully….” Fear is the expression of these false selves in need of protection. Jack calls this orientation toward the world the “body of fear”.

The alternative to the body of fear is the part of us — what we might call “wise mind” — that understands that such an orientation of protection is bound up in suffering. The very grasping that the small self takes to be essential is the root of suffering, not the external dangers it perceives.

On the relative level, there is obviously a body that is susceptible to injury, sickness, and violation. By acknowledging the root of our fears, we don’t stop feeding ourselves or taking common-sense precautions to keep our families safe. But the more deeply we examine the false self on which those fears rest and see the suffering inherent in its grasping, the less we are ruled by fear. The less we identify with the small self, the less we suffer, and the better our discernment of what is actually necessary to keep ourselves safe.

As with all aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, the invitation is to notice this root of fear, and its alternative, in our own experience. What I like about Lori’s exhibit is its open-endedness. It invites such noticing, just as the Buddha did, invites us to participate fully in the exploration of our fear. Like a good poem, the exhibit leads us by the hand to the heart of a difficulty, asks an important question, and refuses to answer it. Eye-to-eye with something wild, something unpredictable, we are not given any outs. The photos don’t offer the material comforts of fences or locks or alarms, or even the deeper comforts of faith or love. Instead, the exhibit leaves us there, staring into the face of a dog or a bear, animals made strange and unnerving by light and shading and by our own primal associations. Gazing into those faces, I felt, first, that I was looking at something foreign, something other. But as I forced myself to keep watching, it seemed I was also, somehow, looking at myself.

Compassion: A Heart as Wide as the World

Compassion: A Heart as Wide as the World

For the past several months, Stillpoint LA’s Wednesday night meditation group has been reading and discussing chapters from Joseph Goldstein‘s lovely book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. The book is an in-depth exploration of the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s most detailed teaching on the practice of mindfulness (or sati in Pali, the Buddha’s language). Because the sutta covers so much territory, Joseph’s book is an exploration of much of the Buddha’s core teachings and is useful both for studying the dharma and for its practical advice on meditation. I could go on and on about its benefits, but I’ll save that for another post.

This week we discussed compassion — Chapter 40 of Joseph’s book, if you’d like to read along at home. The Pali term that is translated as compassion is karuna. Karuna is a “divine abode” (brahma vihara in Pali): one of the four sublime, transcendent states of heart and mind, along with friendliness, joy at the happiness of others, and equanimity. It is a position we take with respect to the world, with respect to our experiences, to other people, and to ourselves — a position that is open, vulnerable, undefended, and surrendered. (Yes, four words for the same idea, but the importance of such openness cannot be overstated.) We cultivate “a heart as wide as the world,” as Sharon Salzberg coined in her book of the same name.

With terms like “compassion” that are so familiar to us and carry such definite cultural/religious connotations, it’s often useful to describe what the Buddha did not mean, in order to eliminate misunderstanding. So here it is — what karuna is not, in order to better understand what it is:

  • Karuna is not an emotion. Emotions, even the lovely ones, are entangled mind states. The brahma viharas are the opposite: liberated mind states, free of entanglement, free of attachment. Karuna is not limited by personal preference, while emotions tend to stem from strong preferences.
  • Karuna is not inaction. When we cultivate Buddhist compassion, we are asked to open to the world’s suffering completely and to face it with equanimity. We are asked to accept that great suffering exists. But that does not mean that we cannot work to relieve others’ pain whenever possible. As Joseph writes, “…in situations where it is possible to stop the harmful behavior, we need to take appropriate actions, set proper boundaries, and do whatever is necessary to prevent further harm.” A compassionate response is not inconsistent with action to prevent or end harm. The question is not do I act? but how do I act? What is my motivation? Is it anger and resentment, or compassion and care? The Buddha taught that the motivation behind the action is what determines its karmic consequences. Acting out of anger inhibits our ability to see clearly, and that inhibits our ability to act effectively.
  • Karuna does not condone. A compassionate attitude with respect to a harmful situation acknowledges simply that the situation exists and causes suffering. It doesn’t make a judgement about the skillfulness or unskillfulness of the persons involved. I can be fully compassionate toward those that do great harm (the jailor, the torturer, the rapist), seeing clearly the suffering in their minds as well as the suffering of those they harm, and still work to prevent that harm.
  • Karuna does not operate as us versus them. It is easy to witness the events of the world and conclude that there are categories of people: those who harm and those who are harmed, evil people and good people, mean people and nice people. But every human mind contains the capacity for the greatest harm and the greatest good. As Walt Whitman pointed out, we “contain multitudes;” anyone who has watched their minds closely in meditation would agree. We are all capable of harming and being harmed; every human impulse exists in every human mind. A heart of karuna does not separate the world into us and them.
  • Karuna is not self-referential. Ultimately, a mind filled with compassion is no different than a mind filled with wisdom. As Joseph points out, compassion and wisdom are “expressions of each other. Compassion is the very activity of emptiness of self, … the spontaneous expression of a heart and mind free of self-reference.” Forgetting our own identifications, we are free to see the suffering of others more clearly. Seeing suffering, anger, or fear in our own minds, without identifying with it, we are in a position to clearly see it in others’ minds without judgement.

(Note: The photo is Ammachi, the “hugging guru”, whose life of service is a living example of boundless compassion. That pose, arms extended to receive, is the embodiment of karuna.)