Joyful Effort

I was having a conversation with an artist recently about being frustrated to be “out of the conversation” to not have his art be part of the current scene etc.   Part of the issue of course with being a visual artist is that work is created and if it’s not sold or taken by a museum, when the artist dies, much of it may be left in the trash bin—literally or figuratively.   Of course, to an artist this would be a rather depressing thought, and this is truly understandable.   I reminded this person that museums like the Met have far more art in storage than on display and that in the medieval and the renaissance times, artists weren’t creating art for posterity but for what was needed then. 

As an artist he had no option but to create art regardless of what happens to it after it’s completed.  It’s wonderful to reach a standard where anything you create will be taken up and sold etc, but as in any art form, the number of artists who reach that level is an extremely low per-centage of the number of creative artists in the world and of course “success” often has little to do with the actually talent of the individual.

For this individual the joy of creation seemed to be gone.  Is it possible to just have the joy of effort, to have effortless effort, not tied to a result?   This is the true meaning of Joyful Effort. 

In illustrating right effort (wise effort) the Buddha compared it to tuning lute —if the string is too tight it will break and if the string is too loose there be no sound.   We need just enough effort to have a string that’s in tune.    If we try too hard to achieve something – in other words to have a fixed goal—then we will be frustrated or never satisfied.  If we don’t put in enough effort then there will be no progress along the path.

When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity, your very effort fills you with activity.

            From Hsin Hsin Ming (Faith Mind)—the 3rd Zen Patriarch

 When it comes to the artist finding no joy in creation unless there was a reward—either a showing or creating conversation—then the effort will ending up being weak and there will no motivation to continue.  On the other hand, if there is a gallery event, or showing coming up this will force a different kind of effort.  There may be no joy in the process but there might be joy in the showing—unless of course the work isn’t appreciated.  What happens if the artist just paints (or sculpts, or writes etc) and can simply be with the joy of creation. 

 Of course, at first most people want to have a goal in their meditation—to reduce stress, to get rid of pain, to quiet the mind, to find peace, to wake up, etc, etc.  Which seems reasonable enough, I mean without a goal what’s the point.   Of course, we then assume we know what that goal will feel like once it’s been achieved but do we really know? 

 What is it like to simply be with the joy of meditation—to be with the joy of just sitting the joy of don’t know mind? 

 I have a close friend who in my opinion (and that of many others I respect) is one of the great pianists of the world.  For various reasons related to physical issues, he has never had a major performing career and so spends most of his time just making recordings.  These recordings have somewhat of a market, but he has done little to market himself.  I joke with him often about dying and being one of the greatest pianists few people have ever heard about.  He doesn’t seem to care.  What makes him most happy is to create these recordings.  Of course he’s delighted when they are noticed, but if they weren’t he would still make them.

Just sit.  Have no expectations, let the mind/heart be open and relaxed and be fully present with whatever arises.  Find joy in the knowing.

Body as Mountain, Mind as Sky

The true person is
Not anyone in particular;
But, like the deep blue color
Of the limitless sky,
It is everyone, everywhere in the world.

Dogen, translated by Steven Hein

The Rocky Mountain Eco-Dharma Retreat Center was founded just over two years ago by Johann Robbins and David Loy.  Within a relatively short time, funds were raised to purchase the property and then upgrade the historic structure which provides space for 30 retreatants. There is also space for additional retreatants to camp.   The outpouring of generosity points to the need for such a place of practice. I am truly looking forward to co-leading a retreat with Johann.  

 Just 30 minutes from Boulder, RMERC is a home for spiritual practice and a reconnection with nature.  It includes 183 acres with a river, meadow, forest and is surrounded by National Forest.  The land was set aside as a natural preserve and retreatants are often visited by moose deer, elk, the occasional bear and many hummingbirds!

 Eco-dharma reminds us that we are not separate from nature. We are nature and nature is us.

We have titled the retreat “Body as Mountain, Mind as Sky” lines attributed to the 13th century Zen priest Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen tradition.  The retreat will NOT be a zen retreat, but these lines which also include Heart as the Ocean have always been inspiring to me. In this beautiful setting, surrounded by the awesome beauty of the Rockies as the mountains begin to inhabit us, and the mind expands as the sky we have the opportunity connect with our natural world.    This connection holds the key to appropriate response to whatever challenge moves us in today’s problematic world.


Tyranny of Choice--

I walk into a supermarket or even a farmer’s market and I’m faced with the tyranny of choice.  So many options of what I can buy which of course changes my perception of what I actually need.  Sometimes my reaction is to freeze in confusion or perhaps I’ll purchase something I don’t really need or decide based on what is most pleasing to the eye.

 This tyranny of choice has now seemingly hit the field of meditation.  Similar to the place the yoga world was in several decades ago, meditation, has now worked its way into the mainstream mindset and this is a good thing.

 There are opportunities to learn to meditate popping up all over, particularly in New York.   In fact there are literally “pop-up” meditation sites.   How does one decide where to go?

 Instruction and the Embodiment of the teacher is key!

 The problem these days, is that there is demand for meditation instruction and consequently there is now a market for meditation teacher training.   It’s possible to learn to become a “meditation teacher” with very little practice experience.   

 Meditation instruction is extremely easy.  The practice itself is another matter.  When determining where to go for your initial and follow-up training in meditation, it’s key to look at the background of the teachers who are offering this.  How long have the teachers themselves been practicing, how many weeks of silent retreat have they been on, who do they consider to be their root teachers and are they still studying.  What are the requirements for ongoing training at the institution where they teach.

 If someone is teaching meditation (particularly mindfulness meditation) and has had little or no silent retreat experience, there should be concern.  It is in this experience, that one learns to work with their own challenges.  It is through deep silence and inner work, where the learning happens.

 If a teacher hasn’t done their own work, it’s not possible to help a student through the challenging process of practice.

 What is bringing you to meditation?

 Some people come to meditation because they ‘ve heard it’s a way to calm the mind and want to incorporate this into their daily life. 
Some people come because they are dealing with a very stressful job or life situation.
Some come because they are facing a major trauma
Some come for preventative measures, some for immediate gratification.
Some come simply out of curiosity.
And some actually come for liberation!

It’s important to ask this question of yourself and of course that which brings you in the door may change as the practices are learned.

Meditation is good for almost everyone, but it’s important to find a teacher who understands the process and realize one-size doesn’t fit all.

The greatest meditation teacher was the historical Buddha and through his thousands of teachings it’s clear that he taught differently to different people.

Nothing has changed today except for marketing. An effective teacher needs to be adept at determining what works for a given student.

If you’ve decided that it’s time for you to try meditation, New York Insight may be the right place for you.  It offers an in-depth approach to practice which is based on the original teachings of the Buddha.   There are Buddhist based insight meditation classes and many different mindfulness based classes.   There is a diverse group of teachers and the support from a number of affinity sanghas. 

Turn the tyranny of choice into an opportunity to make the right choice!  Look at what your needs are and whether the offerings at NY Insight will support you fully.

Commit to Not Knowing!

 “ If you have any notion of where you are going, you will never get anywhere.”. --Joan Miro

Do we ever really know where we are going?

The British teacher, writer and founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita states “You always commit yourself to the unknown”.

When we take up the practice of meditation and truly bring these practices into our lives, whether in a Buddhist or a modern mindfulness context it is essential that we truly commit to the unknown.   That moment, we think we know where we are going, is a moment which unavoidably traps us into believing we are going anywhere.

If we put this into the context of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path we can look to Right View—the first factor on the path.   Through the initial stages of right view we have an understanding of the first three noble truths—dukkha (dis-content), the cause of dukkha and the end of dukkha and to the laws of Kamma.  Our view—the road ahead is aimed at the end of dis-content.  We may think that by committing to the path which leads to the end of suffering (Freedom) we are committing to the known.  The habit of mind is likely to lead us into a notion of what Freedom feels like and what will happen once I’m free.  When the mind goes to that place, then freedom becomes impossible.  By opening to the mystery of the unknown, fully committing to this and allowing experience to unfold, the freedom which has always been here comes into the light. 

The second factor of the 8-fold path is right intention—we bring the intention of committing to the unknown.  This is opening to the mystery of life.

In the mundane world, we commit to the unknown more often than we think.    We sit down to read a book we don’t know what will be experienced which is also the case when experience a film or a concert.    When we start a new job, we may know our salary, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen once we start.  These are obvious examples. On the other extreme if we only committed to that which known, life would be unbearably boring and when inevitable change happen people think that their life is over.

Interestingly people often come to meditation wanting to know up front, what to expect and what they will get out of it.    Slowly but surely when experience is allowed to unfold, and we are totally open to any outcome then practice becomes easeful and in the context of the Eightfold Path, we are practicing with Right Effort.

Live your life fully committed to the unknown and let every moment be a surprise—it already is anyway!





Maintaining a Daily Meditation Practice

You’ve just completed a meditation class or come home from your first retreat and naturally there is a concern that you will lose the momentum of your practice.  Maintaining a daily practice is often the biggest concern for new meditators.

One of the important qualities of mindfulness is to “re-collect” so if you re-collect what you’ve gained from meditation so far this can lay the bedrock of right intention and motivate you to keep up a daily practice.   Even with this intention though there are some important keys to keeping up and cultivating your practice.  Here are a few suggestions:

1)    Don’t set too high a standard be realistic given your own schedule and start easy on yourself.  If you make a commitment to practice 45 minutes every morning, but find that you’re only able to do 20 (or less) then the judging mind will call you a failure. Consistency is more important than duration so decide a length which you are comfortable you can regularly achieve.

2)    Set a regular time when you will meditate as this helps create discipline.

3)    Have a space in your home (even if it’s just a corner of your room) that is your meditation space.  Have a cushion or a special chair for your practice.

4)    Try to practice with a group once a week.  If there isn’t a meditation group  one in your area, start one.

5)    Find a meditation buddy—you can check in once a day to hold each other accountable.

6)    Use an APP which has intervals and perhaps helpful guidance. (Insight Timer is a good place to start)

That’s it!  Good luck as you develop your meditation practice.


There was an interesting and sad article in the NY Times a few weeks ago regarding a funeral home in the Bronx mixing up two women’s bodies, and presenting the wrong body at an open casket viewing.

Almost all the adults believed that they were viewing the body of Val-Jean McDonald.  While most of them noticed that she didn’t look as they expected this was attributed  to her cancer treatments.  So the conditions that created the perception were the trust in the funeral home and the belief that because of how she died she wouldn’t look like herself. Of course perhaps the most important condition was the desire to be seeing the body of Val-Jean Mcdonald.   For the most part, people believed their perception and not the fact that it was actually the body of another woman.  Interestingly, the only people who were certain that the body was not Val-Jean McDonalds’s were the children.  In a situation such as this, it would seem that the children would have no strong conditions skewing their perception so they saw what was real.

This was of course, disturbing and sad because at such a time, people put their faith in funeral homes and in this case that faith was clearly mis-placed.   The situation was even worse for the family of the woman who was cremated by accident in that they did not believe in cremation and also ended up having a closed casket (presumably an empty casket) viewing.

Perceptions arise at every moment of experience and perceptions are not always (perhaps rarely) true.  Sometimes they are helpful of course and keep us out of trouble, but usually they are colored by conditions that we consider in themselves to be real.     Moment to moment moods create a lens of perception, what you had for lunch can impact perception, your last experience with a person impacts perception etc.

How often through the day are we mis-guided by our perceptions?   It may be that a prior experience with a colleague clouds our view of who this person is at that moment.  In other words, when we see this person, we are actually seeing our perception of that person based on the last time we saw him or her.  Of course, this may at times be essential if it’s someone who has done us harm we certainly may need to be vigilant, but at the same time we need to recognize what’s happening.

Then there is of course chronic stress that is often a result of the mind’s mis-perceiving a thought for reality and reacting to the thought versus what’s really true.

Mindfulness is certainly the cure for this.  In a Buddhist context, perception and consciousness co-arise.   This follows our contact with an object of awareness—and then the resulting pleasant, unpleasant or neutral experience that arises with that contact.   It is in the moment of perception and consciousness that an action (or reaction) will result.   As our mindfulness strengthens we are more and more aware of this interaction and of the conditions causing a particular reaction and in time reaction becomes appropriate response.  As well, we learn to accept that others are reacting from perceptions so that the anger we may feel from another toward us can become less personal and we can actually develop compassion for this other person.

Now back to the sad case of the mis-placed bodies.   I didn’t get the sense from either family when the truth of the mix-up was discovered that they reacted with anger.  They were certainly upset.  In the case of the family of the woman who should not have been cremated, the man said that he had to walk off his anger and digest what had happened.

There will no doubt be some financial compensation to these families, but I had a sense of forgiveness knowing that it was an honest mistake with no ill intent.  I suspect though, that the family of Val Jean MacDonald has learned something about perception.  

An Urban Meditator's Guide to Renunciation

On retreat recently, I found myself in meditation often having intense internal debates about some of the plot twists in the show “Homeland”.  I was getting very upset with the decisions made by some of the characters.   This was creating an incredible amount of proliferation in the mind and “wasting” valuable minutes of my meditations.  If I was going to proliferate at the very least, couldn’t it be about something that was “real” and from my life.  Proliferating around a fictional TV drama seemed absurd.   Now, at this moment I don’t want to open up the “pandora’s box” around whether things from my life are any more “real” than the fictional show Homeland but it would certainly have been a more practical proliferation.   What was clear was that if I renounced watching shows like Homeland or any number of similar shows, the mind would have been less occupied with this kind of unnecessary baggage.   It would have been one less object of potential proliferation.

The practice of renunciation doesn’t get much airplay in the world of “urban” mindfulness.    For those of us who live in New York restricting our sense pleasures is rather contrary to our day-to-day existence.   Living in a city of strivers where all of us are driven toward success we often find ourselves in a continual goal-oriented state.   This is also a problem in the modern world of mindfulness.  People want to learn meditation practices for very specific reasons and with goals in mind. 

In a Buddhist context, renunciation is one of the 10 Paramitas—Perfections of the Heart—and plays an important role in one’s spiritual development.   In practicing renunciation we are letting go of those things that inhibit our capacity for freedom—meaning our freedom from craving aversion and delusion.   So we discover that in letting certain sense desires go or in renouncing un-healthy relationships or even relaxing around our goals we feel a bit more lightness in our lives.  We have expanded our capacity for Freedom. 

In our media driven environment we have daily opportunities to practice renunciation.   Try not picking up your phone for an hour or while you’re eating. Try to go off-line for the hour before you go to bed. 

When we meditate we are actually practicing renunciation on a number of levels!

First we have cut out at least one if not several sense doors—the door of sight and to a degree the door of sound (and the need to make sounds!).   More importantly we have renounced the need to do.    If in fact if we find ourselves striving to accomplish something in meditation—even the accomplishment of a focused mind, or one of relieving stress--- we need to renounce this.   Just let go of the idea of accomplishing anything.    When we meditate we also renounce our identity.     If we are practicing with others,  and we find ourselves needing to “look” a certain way in meditation, then we are clinging to an identification of a meditator.   Letting go of this, we can relax into our practice. 

Outside of formal practice we might then discover many other things we can renounce.   Try a day of renouncing views!  Just take a day (or at least an hour) and do nothing!

Inevitably this brings up the question of enjoying the delights of life.   As lay practitioners we are not renouncing entertainment, or good food,  or pleasure.  We are simply recognizing the impact these may have on our path toward a more easeful life.  We may discover that we are renouncing certain aspects of our life without even realizing that it’s happened.  It also brings up questions about having goals.   We don't need to renounce the goals but can we renounce clinging to a goal. In my experience when I don't cling to a goal, I'm usually surprised by the final results.   

Will I decide not to watch the next season of Homeland?  Probably, but I’ll make sure to leave enough space between the end of the season and my next retreat!