Fail better.

Fail better.

A recent text exchange with my sister sums up my year:

Me : …I did not get an interview for [insert college physics teaching job].

Sis: The one it seemed impossible you would be passed over for?

Me: That’s the one.

Years ago, a less-experienced me was invited to apply for the same position; this time, I didn’t even make the interview cut. I also interviewed twice for the same position at a college that did not offer, although I was the committee’s first choice. I emerged from meeting the president in the final round at yet another college reeling as from a bad dream. In July, I gave a promising job application my all and nailed the interview; I was a finalist, but nope. In August, desperate for work, I passed a pair urine-soaked blue jeans tossed into the grime-caked “landscaping” of the building where I would be teaching. That storied establishment also turned me down.

As my physics employment possibilities waned, my writing career seemed ready to take off. I queried a slew of literary agents about representing my first novel, and over twenty asked to read it, a strong response. Over the next several months, eighteen turned me down, one stopped returning my emails, and one had such a different vision for the novel that I knew she could not represent it. I pulled the book from the last agent’s hands and began another revision. Back to square one.

I keep remembering, with resentment, Beckett’s famous quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Easy for him to say; he clearly succeeded.

The few times I tried discussing my impressive string of failures with friends, I witnessed how hated is that word. You haven’t failed, they assured me. That weird president had it in for you; the other candidate had more experience; an agent match is so personal, so arbitrary. These may be true, but they aren’t helpful. A focus on the reasons obscures the effect. One friend, so desperate to avoid the word, said, “It’s not failure, it’s….[pause to think] rejection.” I watched her realize that wasn’t much better. 

Failure is not a dirty word. It’s nothing more than: you try something, it doesn’t work out. It is the friction between what we want and what we get. It is, basically, the definition of dukkha.

Not able to face the dukkha, I tried instead to comfort myself by pointing to my friends’ explanations about circumstance. Deeper than that, I can point to my lower-class, downwardly-mobile background, exacerbated by abuse, which hobbled my self-esteem and has always made earning money seem like something that happened to other people. I can point to my inclination to disengage from the world, the same tendency that attracts me to Buddhism. And there are the inevitable bumps associated with a career transition from physics to writing. And so on.

But these are all reasons, and reasons are not the foundation for happiness. Understanding my situation is not satisfying me. Not sure what would, I picked up Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. I’ve never gravitated toward the book, not because I don’t believe in radical acceptance, but because I didn’t believe I needed it. I am not particularly hard on myself, and I dealt with my acute self-hatred years ago, in therapy. But Brach made me realize that I just haven’t faced a lot of professional rejection. Historically, I lose more than I win, but I win enough. I went to a fancy school, and that experience still pays prestige dividends twenty years later. I finished a PhD and landed a cush post-doc (more fancy schools). As Brach points out, the “flip side of the trance” of unworthiness, as she dubs that delusion, is pride, the need for the “reassurance of feeling special or superior.” The flip side is harder to see as a problem than the naked shame. But my answers to her diagnostic questions (“Am I critical of myself for having obsessive thoughts?”, “Do I feel disgusted with myself if I eat too much?”…) were almost all yes.

These feelings are part of being in form. The Buddha recognized how the world buffets us via the “eight worldly winds“: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. 

What I need right now in lieu of understanding is stupidly simple, but I cannot remember to do it most of the time: Feel it. Don’t wallow in the mental chatter about why a failure happened (a defense) or what it means (a distraction), just feel it in the body. I love when the teacher Philip Moffitt quotes his teacher, Ajahn Sumedho: “This moment is like this.” Tara Brock’s invitation is the same: “accept the anguish”.

Not getting what I want is like this.

Disappointment is like this.

Humiliation is like this.

Frustratingly, this instruction is not going to get me a secure job, enough money, an agent, an interview with Oprah. It does not lead to praise, fame, gain, and pleasure. But when I do remember to do it, I inch toward happiness. The solution to my happiness cannot rely on ignoring my desires; that will not make them go away (I’ve tried). And it certainly cannot rely on getting what I want; that is not in my control. What is in my control is how I meet it. Failure feels like this. I can feel it and feel it until I recognize: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Incontinence, Violence, Fraud: Dante’s Buddhist Inferno

Incontinence, Violence, Fraud: Dante’s Buddhist Inferno

For several months, I’ve been studying Dante’s Comedia, and I’m struck by the parallel between the Inferno‘s circles of misery and the Buddha’s description of suffering. In Dante’s scheme, the nine levels of hell are grouped into three areas: incontinence, violence, and fraud. Incontinence is lack of self-restraint; in circles 2, 3, and 4, the lustful and gluttonous are buffeted by winds and rain, and hoarders and squanderers roll heavy boulders, endlessly clashing with each other. Deeper down, in the seventh circle, the violent — against themselves, others, and God — are boiled in pitch, transformed into snakes, and repeatedly dismembered. The freezing lowest circles are inhabited by those who have committed fraud: various ilk of liars and traitors who “cut off the bond of love that nature forges” between men.

It’s gruesome stuff, to be sure, but Buddhism, while decidedly more reserved, points to the same categories. The Buddha identified a triad of “defilements” or kilesas, that cloud the mind. Incontinence is the Buddha’s lobha, usually translated as greed or sensual desire. In The Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi describes lobha as “the desire for pleasure and possessions, the drive for survival, the urge to bolster the sense of ego with power, status, and prestige.” Violence parallels dosa, or aversion, which shows itself as “rejection, irritation, condemnation, hatred, enmity, anger, and violence.” Bhikkhu Bodhi calls delusion, or dosa, “mental darkness”; it is fraud, in which the truth is twisted, subverted, or denied.

Through Virgil, Dante (the author) asserts that the most serious sin of all is fraud, explaining that “God finds it more displeasing.” He later equates it to “mad bestiality”; although it is “man’s peculiar vice,” it reduces a human to an animal. The Buddha, too, emphasized the fundamental importance of truthfulness for any liberating path. Delusion underpins all three kilesas. If liberation is clear-seeing, then delusion is the tap root of suffering.

What is so remarkable about Dante is that his medieval Christian lens recognizes the primacy of the sinner’s mental state, just as Buddhism does. Lust feels like being swept around by a storm; sullen rage is like drowning in mud. In Dante’s hell, the sinners spend eternity in the conditions manifest by their mind state. This resonates with the Buddhist idea that our reality is largely created by our state of mind. What’s more, Dante’s sinners often don’t realize how bad they have it. They’re so wedded to their ideas of what constitutes pleasure and their self-righteous blame of others for their pain that they don’t make the connection between their conditions in hell and the conditions of their own minds. We don’t need to die to relate to Dante’s sinners. It is our commonplace experience not to see how much we suffer and to blame conditions outside our minds for our pain, all the while misapprehending our own agency. I think Dante and the Buddha would have gotten along.

Those of us who require a nonpunitive religion might balk at Christianity’s take on sin and hell. Buddhism is remarkably free of notions of punishment: the Buddha simply pointed to the sources of happiness and suffering and encouraged us to find them for ourselves. Hell is here on earth, he seemed to say, in every moment that the mind is swept away by the kilesas. Christianity and Buddhism usually part ways in their difference in focus on this world vs. the next, but Dante even mixes that up. In the frozen depths of the eighth circle, he meets traitors who he knows are still alive. He learns that the sinners’ bodies have been possessed by demons and their souls sent to hell before their bodies have died. The barrier between living and dead — already weakened by Dante’s ability to travel through hell as a living person and Virgil’s ability to interact with him physically (hugging, carrying, etc.) even though he is but a “shade” — is knocked down. Apparently, the living sometimes occupy hell too. This should come as no surprise to anyone, Buddhist or Christian, who has ever looked deeply into their own mind.

The Messy Business of Spiritual Practice

The Messy Business of Spiritual Practice

Recently, in classes and sitting groups, I’ve been quoting the transpersonal psychologist and prolific author Ken Wilber on the place that spiritual practice occupies in our lives. From his book No Boundary:

Real spiritual practice is not something we do for twenty minutes a day, for two hours a day, or for six hours a day. It is not something we do once a day in the morning, or once a week on Sunday. Spiritual practice is not one activity among other human activities; it is the ground of all human activities, their source and their validation. It is a prior commitment to Transcendent Truth lived, breathed, intuited, and practiced twenty-four hours a day.


Their source and their validation. That is, our practice is the source, the ground, from which everything else in our life originates, and the measure by which we evaluate how we spend our time. Meditation is not separate from other activities but integral to them. This orientation towards integration is, in my opinion, the number one sign of a mature spiritual practice.

As moving and wise as this passage is, though, it feels a little too neat. As with most quotable wisdom, it makes the whole endeavor feel just a bit too easy. And so I have also found myself wanting to quote from Wilber’s Grace and Grit, a book about the life and death to an aggressive breast cancer of his wife, Treya Killam Wilber. Grace and Grit is a combination of personal memoir and Wilber’s signature intellectual style, and the mixture elevates both strains. It is also full of Treya’s own words, excerpted from her diary. Both Wilbers were serious practitioners, and the result is a deep and compelling investigation of practice — of life — during a time of terrible difficulty.

The passage that best exemplifies life’s messiness occurs a year and half into Treya’s diagnosis. She has undergone an operation, radiation treatment, and a mastectomy, and is in the middle of chemotherapy. She requires 24-hour care, and Ken has stopped writing, quit three editorial jobs, and stopped meditating. What’s more, they have just moved into an unfinished house at Lake Tahoe, so they are effectively trying to build a house while taking care of Treya. That’s the ground situation. Here’s the scene:

It is 7:00 A.M., a bright, beautiful morning in North Lake Tahoe. Our house is situated about halfway up the mountainous hills that rise dramatically from the most beautiful lake in North America. From every window in our south-facing house you can see the entire lake, the stunning white beaches edging it, the black mountains in the background, covered with snow nearly year round. The lake itself is a color of azure-cobalt blue so intense, so deep, so electric, I wonder if there isn’t some sort of huge power generator hidden somewhere in its depths: This lake doesn’t look like it is just blue, it looks like a switch has been thrown and it has been turned on.

Treya is sleeping quietly. I take a bottle of Absolut vodka from the shelf and I very carefully pour four ounces into a cup. I drink it in one quick gulp. This will last me until exactly noon, when I will have three beers with lunch. Throughout the afternoon, I will drink beer — maybe five, maybe ten. For dinner, a bottle of wine. Brandy through the evening. I will never get drunk. I will never pass out. I will rarely even get tipsy. I will never neglect any medical problems that Treya has, nor will I shirk any fundamental responsibilities. If you meet me, you will not suspect that I have been drinking. I will be alert, smiling, animated. I will do this every day, without fail, for four months. And then I will walk into Andy’s Sporting Goods, on Park Street in South Lake Tahoe, to buy a gun meant to vaporize this entire state of affairs. Because, as they always say, I can simply stand it no longer.


So much for hewing to the path. Wilber’s dedicated spiritual practice seems to be nowhere in sight, much less “the ground of all human activity.”

Wilber does not buy the gun, and those four months turn out to be the low point from which he rises. But I wonder if, even in this time of such darkness, his practice is not also there. He watches himself sink into despair, observes his decisions to cope through alcohol and numbness. He notices, to paraphrase Ajahn Sumedhodarkness is like this.

His story is great reminder that living a conscious life does not exempt us from making bad decisions, from plunging into darkness, even from completely going off the rails. Our spiritual practice will never exempt us from being human. Wilber’s No Boundary passage is still just as essential, just as true, even though we will all go through times of Grit.

The Pleasure Principle

The Pleasure Principle

Many meditation teachers emphasize finding pleasure in our experience, both on and off the cushion. Ajaan Geoff, a monastic teacher from the Thai forest tradition, instructs his students to find pleasure in the breath as a means for increasing concentration. The neuroscientist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson encourages people to notice moments of pleasure throughout their day, noting the brain’s “negativity bias” and how paying attention to positive experiences can rewire it.

Culadasa, a neuroscientist who has practiced in both the Therevadin and Tibetan traditions, describes in The Mind Illuminated how, although every part of the mind desires happiness, its various parts become divided over how to achieve that goal: “One part of the mind may want to meditate while others want to ponder, plan, or fantasize. These different “minds” share the same goal — personal satisfaction and happiness — but because your expectations [about meditation] have been disappointed, they disagree on how best to achieve that happiness.”

Unfortunately, one part of the mind cannot simply force the other parts to concentrate. “The best way to avoid or resolve impatience is to enjoy your practice…. a good start is to consistently focus on the positive rather than the negative aspects of your meditation. Notice when the body is relaxed and comfortable, or when the mind is focused and alert…. Savor a fleeting sensation of physical pleasure, the satisfaction of following a whole breath-cycle, or the sense of accomplishment that comes with just sitting down and making the effort to meditate. As these pleasurable feelings grow, relish and encourage them so they grow stronger still.”

I have largely ignored this advice for most of the fifteen years of my practice. Focusing on pleasure feels like cheating at best, or more fundamentally, like delusion — purposely distorting reality instead of seeing things as they are. The problem with my logic is that it assumes that experience is inherently unpleasant, so that noticing pleasure somehow misses the “real” experience. My doom-seeking mind tends to highlight the negative instead of to, as the song says, accentuate the positive (apparently, as Hanson suggests, my mind is typical).

But the truth is that in every moment there are countless facets of an experience, some of which are pleasant, some unpleasant, some neutral. In meditation we are constantly choosing to bring some aspect(s) of experience to the foreground and let others fade into the background. What these teachers suggest is that it is skillful to allow the satisfying aspects to the fore, as long as we are not suppressing the unsatisfying ones. All facets of our experience are still known in awareness, even if they’re not where we focus. “By making meditation satisfying and enjoyable, the part of the mind that wants to meditate can get the other parts to stop resisting and join in,” Culadasa explains. The outcome is one of the main goals of meditation: unification of mind, which is just the activity of the mind’s various parts harmonizing. This is not liberation — it won’t, by itself, achieve wisdom — but a unified mind is fertile ground for insight. And unification is much easier to achieve if we settle attention on what is pleasant and satisfying at the moment.

(Note: the image is Rene Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James).)

A Lump of Foam: Thoughts on Emptiness

A Lump of Foam: Thoughts on Emptiness

During a recent sitting group discussion on beginner’s mind, while considering a passage from Suzuki Roshi‘s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the conversation turned to emptiness, an idea central to the Zen tradition. In many Zen monasteries the Heart Sutra is chanted at least once a week. In it, Avalokiteshvara tells the Buddha’s disciple Shariputra what he has discovered about the empty nature of phenomena:

“Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness… the same is true of feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”

These five — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness — are the skandas, or “aggregates”, in the usual translation.  They can be thought of as the five aspects of human experience, both physical (form) and mental (the other four). Avalokiteshvara explains that the true nature of all experience is emptiness. And he doesn’t stop with the skandas:

“All phenomena are marked by emptiness. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase.”

These are bold claims. “Birth and cessation” refer to the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence: all conditioned things are born and pass away. “Purity and impurity” refer to the precepts governing our ethical conduct. “Decrease and increase” refer to the idea that practice accrues merit and fortunate circumstances in the future. These are central Buddhist teachings, and Avalokiteshvara is telling Shariputra that, at their heart, they are not opposites, not even different, because they are all empty. The Heart Sutra is both a teaching on emptiness and a teaching on non-duality. It says that the dualistic nature of the Buddha’s teachings is, on a deep level, a fiction. Avalokiteshvara then lists even more: the six sense organs, six sense objects, and six sense consciousnesses; the twelve links of dependent origination; the path, insight, and even enlightenment itself. All empty.

In his commentary to a new translation of the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh explains its importance:

“The insight of prajnaparamita [the perfection of the wisdom of emptiness] is the most liberating insight that helps us overcome all pairs of opposites such as birth and death, being and non-being, defilement and immaculacy, increasing and decreasing, subject and object, and so on, and helps us to get in touch with the true nature of no birth/no death, no being/no non-being….”

The Mahayana tradition, which includes Zen, arose in part in response to the dichotomies emphasized in the Therevada tradition, and thus the Heart Sutra has become one of their central teachings. But the teaching on emptiness was already there in the Therevada canon. The most obvious example I know of is the sutta (SN 22.95) in which the Buddha compares each of the five skandas to a different empty thing:

“Monks, suppose that a large lump of foam were floating down this Ganges River, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him … it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a lump of foam? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any form that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him … it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in form?”

Form is a lump of foam. Likewise, feelings are water bubbles. Perception is a mirage. Thoughts are the heartwood of a banana tree. Consciousness is a magic trick. What substance could there be in any of these?

The teaching on anatta, or “not-self”, is another way that the Buddha pointed to the truth of emptiness:

“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ (SN 22.59)

Form lends itself to a lack of ease, to suffering. And we don’t control it — things arise and pass away without our having any say in it. In his compilation of suttas, In the Buddha’s WordsBhikkhu Bodhi explains why the Buddha gets to nonself by way of impermanence and suffering:

“…[The Buddha] uses the characteristic of impermanence to reveal the characteristic of suffering, and both together to reveal the characteristic of nonself. The suttas take this indirect route to the characteristic of nonself because the selfless nature of things is so subtle that often it cannot be seen except when pointed to by the other two characteristics.”

If the characteristic of nonself, of emptiness, is so hard to see, why go through the trouble? Why try to grock something so esoteric? Bhikkhu Bodhi continues:

“When we recognize that the things we identify as ourself are impermanent and bound up with suffering, we realize that they lack the essential marks of authentic selfhood and we thereby stop identifying with them. The different expositions of the three characteristics all thus eventually converge on the eradication of clinging. They do so by showing, with regard to each aggregate, ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself.'”

When we realize, deeply, that a thing is not ours, we let it go. All traditions agree that the main goal of practice is the eradication of clinging. Awakening is just that, since clinging is the root of suffering. To perceive, even for a moment, the empty nature of our bodies, of trees and wind and houses and cars, of the machinations of our minds and all other minds, is to step a little closer to freedom.

Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

Apropos of the new year, I’ve been thinking about the mental attitude we cultivate in meditation called “beginner’s mind”. Phillip Moffitt described it in Dancing with Life as “empty of preconceived notions about what is supposed to be and expectations as to what it can achieve.” It is the mind of surrender, the mind open and humble and listening. Without a receptive attitude toward experience, we cannot see what is actually there. Preconceived notions and preexisting views cloud our vision. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki (Suzuki Roshi) said:

“The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. … although you may improve some, you’re liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind.

…Our ‘original mind’ includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Moffitt suggests two concrete steps to establishing beginner’s mind. First, “the ego has to give up the idea of its omnipotence. It must accept its own defeat ….” Accepting one’s own defeat may seem a difficult task, until we remember that the ego never was omnipotent in the first place. What we “accept” is simply the truth: we do not control our experiences.

Second, Moffitt instructs, “forsake your desires and ideas about what you will accomplish.” Again, this is an instruction in recognizing our lack of control. The Buddha said that ” the future is always other than you imagined it,” and this is true whether or not something goes as planned. Our ideas about what experience is are never the same as the experience itself. We imagine a night out, or a vacation, or a day on the job, and although everything goes according to schedule, the experience itself is not the same as the narrative we constructed beforehand. To boot, the experience is always better, always more satisfying, than a mental construct of it. The mind’s conjectures, however fanciful, pale in comparison to actual lived experience.

Moffitt reminds us that we control neither the future nor the present. The only control we have is in how we meet the moment. If we bring the openness of beginner’s mind, we are more likely to meet our experiences without resistance, opinion, or greed. We can simply acknowledge, in Ajahn Sumedho‘s words, “This moment is like this”. That is the wisdom of original mind, rich and sufficient within itself.

In meditation, we are always beginners. There is never a time when we have practiced enough that we will know what our experience is without looking at it. What we gain from such close inspection is the truth of the moment, but not because beginner’s mind tries to understand experience, only because it tries to see it. From Emily Carson‘s Something Makes Me Open My Eyes:

“And you know that one day you will understand what you passed through but that you don’t need that day because it is the passing through that will help you and not the understanding.”

We can pass through each moment with an open, surrendered awareness that admits that we don’t know what is here. We can approach each breath with beginner’s mind. Happy New Year.


Some Corner Where No One Will Find You

Some Corner Where No One Will Find You

Physical solitude, exterior silence, and real recollection are all morally necessary for anyone who wants to lead a contemplative life,

wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation. Every spiritual tradition encourages times of solitude, introspection, and prayer or meditation. The Buddha and his monastics spent three months each year in a “rains retreat”, during the time of year, in that climate, that a period of intensive meditation made the most sense.

This is that time in the US. The short days, with much of nature in hibernation, suggests a return to “exterior silence”. To create the right conditions, Thomas Merton had this logistical advice:

Although it is true that this solitude is everywhere, there is a mechanism for finding it that has some reference to actual space, to geography, to physical isolation from the towns and cities of men.

There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.

Formal retreats have created such rooms for us, allowing that essential untethering. Here are are few suggestions for retreats in California, depending on how long you have to sit:

Retreats rejuvenate our practice. They are a balm for our overtaxed minds and nervous systems, and they’re essential to the development of Insight. But they should not be used as confirmation of our dislike of the world.

We do not go into the desert to learn how to escape people, but to learn how to find them,

Merton reminded us. Retreats are not a rejection of the world, but an affirmation that we operate best within it if we take precious time for silence and solitude.

May you find some corner where no one will disturb you. May your practice set you free.




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.