There is only being with what is; the rest is suffering.

I have been in the position a couple of times to answer "why meditate?" or "what does the practice accomplish?" and I don't think I've been very good at answering it...ever. I think it may be because the answer is so simple: I meditate because I need to foster a discipline of mindfulness; the practice accomplishes the essential qualities of loving kindness, forgiveness, and present-time awareness.

It's no coincidence that all the Buddha's teachings inter-relate. The Buddha only taught two things: 1. suffering and 2. how to end it. Everything else is a means to that end.

I come to most logical realizations through talking to myself. Tonight it was on my drive home. I have been focusing on death here lately; it's something I've never really grasped fully, and it shouldn't be the elephant in the room. I have been really investigating my fear of death and what it really is. Here is what I've found:

I'm going to die.
Here's the first step. It's a sudden realization that we aren't invincible, and it often happens as a result of losing someone close to us. While in high school three guys lost control of their car and drove into a tree, killing two on impact and the other not too long afterward. These weren't extremely close friends of mine, but they were guys I had grown up with and spent a lot of time with throughout the years. It devastated the entire school. We all realized very quickly that it could have been any of us. It forced us to reconsider our lives and the impermanence of it all. I think this is the moment I first really considered myself as impermanent and was forced to examine it at any level.

I have a natural aversion to thinking and examining my death.

It's one thing to know that we'll die one day; it's a completely different affair to consider the moment of our deaths. I have been through many incarnations of this step. You will care once you're dead just as much as you cared before you were alive....the brain that is nervous or scared will not exist...your body will be tired; you will be in a different stage where death isn't as scary....I've contemplated hundreds of angles. It's a slippery slope. We can rationalize and ease our minds as much as we'd like, but it doesn't take away the fact that we are all going to die. It's a consequence of living.

There was a reason why the Buddha started with dukkha.

These avenues I go down in considering the time of my own death are many, and they all result in one thing: suffering. Why? Because at some point it goes beyond contemplating impermanence and transcends into attachment. It's one thing to contemplate one's own death, but it's another to allow yourself to be consumed by it. We must understand the causes of suffering and how we can avoid attachment to these notions.

This is why we practice. There is only being with what is; the rest is suffering.

I've contemplated my death. I know I will die. The conditions that arise with these thoughts are beyond my control, but the attachments to them are not, and they have caused much suffering within me. But the truth is this: I practice mindfulness because one day I will say "I love you" to my daughter for the last time. One of these goodbye kisses will be my last. One day I will set down my guitar never to pick it up again. Is that scary? No; it's exactly what makes this moment the most important moment in existence.

I don't know when I will finish my time here on Earth, but I want to be present for as much of it as possible. That's why I practice how the Buddha taught. I know the most important thing in the world right now are these words I type, and when I finish, the most important thing in the world will be getting up, getting ready for bed, and ensuring that my wife understands through my attention and action that I love her and love our life together. Tomorrow morning it will be the most important moment of my life when I see my daughter for the first time that I truly am present for every moment with her, because one of these moments will be the last one.

Do I practice because I'm going to die? No. I practice because I'm alive. Right here. Right in this moment. That's all there is. That's enough, and it's the most important thing in the world.


A New Breath

Welcome to Strained Mindfulness 2.0. 

It was time for a new look, a new approach, and a new outlook on my part.  I have seen a lot in the past few months, and I'd like to share a few of my insights into my experience.

  • I am having a really tough time with my practice.

I've never been good at the daily meditation thing.  It wasn't something I really began with, and it wasn't something I really ever pushed for.  There was a point at which I stayed strong for a couple of months, but it eventually died off.  Let's just say a zombie got me.

I can think of a thousand reasons not to sit.  I don't have time; I just had a baby; I have other responsibilities.  They can keep coming and coming.  It doesn't change the fact that this practice has done me a lot of good, and it is something I need to consider a great priority in my life.

  • I am realizing just how alone I am in my views
I recently took a trip to LA, and a new friend was gracious enough to take me to the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society for a meditation session and a dharma talk.  This was the first time I had been in a room with other English speakers, and the first time I had ever heard a dharma talk (in person) in English.   

It reminds me of a debate that goes on in the buddhoblogosphere quite often, and one I'd like to chime in on now:  No, a sangha isn't necessary for success as a Buddhist.  But for me, it is something I crave.  It is such a motivation to have people of your age and background sharing in the dharma together. 

The immediate answer is to seek one out, and I'm going to.  But in the meantime, I am realizing my problem of motivation is going to eat me alive.

  • I have a serious ego problem
This is absolutely nothing new, but the farther I investigate myself, the more I realize
     a) how much of an ass I was in high school, and
     b) how much of my mind still revolves around myself, regardless of any logic

It's ridiculous.  Everything I do or say is ego driven.  I cannot allow myself to be genuinely giving or sincere in giving advice or help in anything I do.  I think a major cause of suffering is a genuine lack of humility. 

  • On a completely related note, I can't trust myself
With my ego revealed to me, my age old constant of at least being able to trust myself in any given situation is completely out the window.  Yes, I can make decisions to help everyone, but I cannot truly do anything without feeling as if I am just trying to fuel this "I" I seem to be so obsessed with.

So what do I do now?

I sit. I understand my suffering and I try to find a good way to permeate my past and deal with it.  (It's not called Strained Mindfulness for nothing.) I have decided I need to intensely undergo forgiveness meditations.  It was recommended to me some time ago in a book, and of course I had my own plans, so I am reverting back to what has helped others.  I think I have a lot to deal with in my own past, things I have never forgiven myself for, and I think this practice will lead me in the direction I need to be heading.

It's odd. Things that have happened years ago have shaped my disposition, led me to harbor ill will, and have made me attached to notions and ideas that I've thought to be true but turn out to be illusions.  What a lesson in karma.

I remember hurrying myself out of my grandmother's house the last time I saw her.  Once she died, I could never let go of the regret.  What can I do about it now?  Try to understand impermanence, take advantage of the time I have, and touch my own mortality. Then I let go and forgive myself. Learning to let go of the past and to really forgive myself for not containing the wisdom of the future will really help me let go of future suffering....to really live in the present for what it is.

But anyway, there is work to be done.  It is something I know to be needed.  There is nothing like a good dharma talk, a sutta reading, or just a small piece of wisdom to finally enter your head to start up your practice once again.  And there's also motivation that each time I sit, and every time I learn to live int he present, I am teaching my daughter how to be present. This in itself is motivation to buck up and do what needs to be done.

Sorry I have been absent so long.  I am happy to be writing again.


How To Slay A Zombie

There is a zombie trying to kill you.

Now...let's not flip out here. This is merely a hypothetical zombie. Either way, we need to know what we're up against here. Let's explore.

Zombie...west African origin. Circa 1871. Seems like it was some sort of a snake god. Not what I'm talking about... (For all you geeks, it could possibly be from the Kimbundu word "nzambi" meaning god.)

There's also a possible origin in Louisiana...I'll leave that one alone as well.
I'm talking the original Hollywood zombie. In true squirrel style, here's something to gawk at to prove my point.

Okay...enough beating around the bush...what does this have to do with strained mindfulness? What does this have to do with anything?

I met this zombie a couple of months ago. It's trying to kill my practice. It's trying to kill the practice that should be dear to all of us.

I have heard this discussion before. Does a daily practice really help? Allow this to be my official stance...It makes me feel terrible when I don't sustain a daily practice. I think it is EXTREMELY important. I feel like a better person...a more grounded person...well, a more mindful person.

But then there is this zombie..this slow moving imbecile within my mind that causes me to forget this importance. It causes me to let my practice fall by the wayside.

Think of the classic zombie...it can't focus on anything but what it wants the most..brains. It is the only thing it can fathom. There is nothing else. It does react to pain, but for the most part, it will still come at you, while undergoing extreme pain, in order to find its next victim. Now, rearrange things a little...what are the brains for your zombie?

Is it that extra hour of sleep? Is it the next edition of the Bachelor? What is it that you crave so much that it stands in the way of your practice?

These desires..these infatuations..the Buddha warned us against them. He knew that they could become the zombie in our minds, keeping us from our goals. What a wonderful warning! The Buddha actually summed it up quite nicely in the Padhana sutra:

"Sensual desire is your first army, the second is called discontent, the third is hunger and thirst, the fourth craving, the fifth sluggishness and laziness, the sixth fear, the seventh indecision, and the eighth disparagement of others and stubbornness: gain, fame, honor, prestige wrongly acquired and whoever praises himself and despises others — these, Namuci, are your armies, the Dark One's striking forces. A lazy, cowardly person cannot overcome them, but by conquering them one gains bliss."

These armies...Mara's playground of distractions and deterrents....they are each their own zombie..and every of them is shoved down our throats. Sensual desire - just turn on the television or open a magazine. Discontent - the constant need for everyone to look better or belittle others to gain recognition for themselves. Hunger and thirst - have you had your break today? Sluggishness and laziness - my personal favorite. Fear - what a driving force in the world.. Indecision - we'll talk about that later.

The list goes on and on...we can see all of them at work in our lives and in the lives of everyone we know. They add up. They're right here with you, infesting your life and your mind.

Everyone knows a single (slow, original horror film) zombie isn't scary... it's when they gang up on you. Zombies never come by themselves. If you don't run away now, they will all be coming for you. By that time, it's too late. You're already holed up in your house, where you thought it was safe.....Think again.

So how does one slay a zombie? Here's where the mindfulness comes along. When my alarm wakes me up in the morning, I need to be mindful enough to express to myself the importance of practice, every morning. Use the mindfulness you strive so hard to grasp. Use it to free yourself from these petty armies. Realize that there is no deterrent. There isn't even any attainment. There's nothing to work for. Just a mere realization.

Then you're there. You just have to realize that the zombies kill themselves.

That would make for one crappy movie.


The Case AGAINST Christ

Why didn't Jesus replace the stone from the tomb when he rose from the dead?

Well, he was born in a barn.

One day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that was going on. He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out. So He called one of His best angels and sent the angel to Earth for a while. When she returned she told God, yes it is bad on Earth, 95% is bad and 5% is good.
Well, He thought for a moment and thought maybe He'd better send down a second angel to get another point of view. So God called another angel and sent him to Earth for a time too. When the angel returned he went to God and told him "Yes, the Earth is in decline. 95% is bad and 5% is good." God said this was not good.

So He decided to send e-mail to the 5% that were good. He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.

Do you know what that e-mail said?





Oh, you didn't get one either, huh? Bummer.

So, you fell for it. I don't have anything to say about Jesus. I want, instead, to delve into our unfortunate need for controversy. No matter what the issue is or how much it has nothing to do with us, we still want to be in the middle of it. It's amazing how our culture has been linked to this behaviour.

Let's look, for example, at gossip. Let's leave out the normal day-to-day gossip that is so easy to see...mothers talking about daughters' friends...wives talking about coworkers, husbands talking about bosses...that's easy. Let's make it more general.

John and Kate Plus 8 drew 9.8 million viewers on Memorial Day. People magazine sold 3.6 million copies last year, and that was bad for them! What have we immersed ourselves in?

This talk could get hairy. If we are not allowed to enjoy the latest celebrity gossip, how is that any different than watching a Shakespeare play or going to see a nice musical? These things are ingrained in our society; it can't be all bad.

Well, some of it can be pretty bad.

Thich Nhat Hanh once said that to punch a pillow when one is angry is doing nothing but reinforcing violence. But that is a normal thing in society to do!! We punch pillows instead of people, how peaceful is that? Little do we know that we are teaching ourselves that violence is okay in small doses. Violence is never something to be okay with. It may be necessary to live in certain instances, but it is never okay.

Same goes with gossip. Of course it seems as if the rational thing to do when someone angers you is to go talk about them. It's what society has placed as normal. That doesn't make it right. Don't punch a pillow rather than be mindful. It's not in your best interest.

Attachment. We're attached to this feeling of being correct in every instance. Well, sometimes we are correct, in which case we need to practice humility. Sometimes we are wrong, in which case we need to shut our mouths and learn what needs to be learned from that situation. As a matter of fact, we need to shut our mouths regardless of whether we are right or wrong. We don't learn anything on the pedestal. We only show what we've learned there.

I got this idea from a talk I was having with a good friend on a plane. We were discussing religion, the meaning of life...you know, the easy questions. Myself being Buddhist, and he being an Atheist, the conversation wasn't your normal, Oklahoma based religious discussion. After about an hour long talk, the gentleman sitting next to us spoke up. "Man, this is too deep for me to sleep through," he said. He told us that it was nice that we were reaching out and thinking about these things. We were good people that knew what we were talking about. "Merely speaking from a Christian standpoint," he said, "I think there is a lot in common between what you guys think and what I think."

What happened afterward would have normally sent me on a rampage. The plane landed, we said our goodbyes, and after my friend went to retrieve his bag, the guy shook my hand, pulled me in close, and said, "You know, you should read the book of Mark."

I could have attached myself to my opinions and gotten angry, but instead I thought of how caring this man was being to me. In his belief, he felt as if I were headed down a road to hell, and he was kind enough to offer his advice and what had helped him get where he was.

It's nice to be mindful sometimes.

I think I've rambled off-topic, but I'll try to reel it back in. We need practice being mindful. We need to practice being aware of not only ourselves (as if that isn't hard enough) but also others. Once we can truly be in the moment, we will realize that those around us everyday are our family too. We need to treat them as such.

I was visiting a yoga teacher's myspace page a couple of weeks ago. Under "Favorite TV shows", he wrote something along the lines of, "I'm much too interested in my life to become involved in someone's I'm never going to meet".

What an interesting conclusion! Why tie ourselves into these controversies? Who cares what Brangelina or Miley whatsit's doing this weekend? Nothing along those lines is going to help us. It's merely mindless banter.

Am I saying to boycott these things? No. Just don't become attached to them. Make a new road for this society, one that leads to a higher understanding, rather than a wonderful dinner conversation piece.


Becoming A Buddhist

I just thought I would share with you some ideas that had been brought to me in the days before I became an "official" lay Buddhist, and my take on the ceremony in general.

I had the wonderful oppourtunity to walk with the monk who had been at my monastery before Thich Huyen An had come. He was a very gentle speaking yet grounded man in his faith and beliefs. I had come early for weekly meditation to do a bit of walking meditation beforehand, and he came up to the window and said, "I'm sorry...are you looking for someone?"

I knew we were going to get along perfectly.

There was this teacher figure in my head that I needed in my practice, and I had been a little disappointed in the temple I attend merely because English wasn't widely spoken. There was little oppourtunity for a dharma talk, much less a question-and-answer approach to the practice. I was very relieved to find this young monk to be generous with his answers.

My first question of him was merely the difference between Mahayana and Therevada practice, to which he replied, "there may be many roads to Dallas, but when headed there, you get to Dallas". I figured I needed to be more specific, so I told him of the compassion, forgiveness, and lovingkindness meditations I had encountered through Noah Levine, and I wondered why Mahayana (and more specifically Zen) practitioners felt mindfulness and breath awareness practice was sufficient rather than focusing on specific qualities to manifest. His answer was very simple, but it opened a new respect for Zen practice.

He said, "Think of a household. When you need the light, you flip a switch. When you need a blender, you turn on the blender. When you need the computer, you turn on the computer. When you need the tv, you turn on the tv. It is not a different practice. There is not a generator for each item you need. It is the same generator. This is the same way we view Mahayana practice. We do not need different generators for each problem we have. All exists within the mind. Therefore, train the mind, train every aspect of your life."

What an amazing analogy! Oftentimes, before I began my practice, I wondered what the point was....sitting and staring at a wall can in no way help my life. This is not the way I was raised! Little did I know I was doing myself a great disservice, not allowing myself to truly experience each moment as it came.

Not that I am against any other forms of meditation. I enjoy a good forgiveness meditation just as much as anyone. However, I do believe we should really focus on a good foundation. If we cannot sit with ourselves as we are in the present moment, how can we ever feel confident in bringing up aspects of ourselves that we are not comfortable with?

Anyway, I found that very helpful. As for the ceremony, I have never felt more welcomed in my life. Although most of the service was in Vietnamese and I had to have a monk sitting beside me to translate the master's words for me, the precepts still rang true. I felt connected to everyone there...I truly have a sangha! Moreover, my wife and mother were there to support me. It couldn't have been better. I now can enter the temple a new person...a reincarnation of a past self that was not fully committed to practice. I can say that Ryan Lassiter was infused with wrong view, wrong perception, and so forth. Now, with a dharma name, Chán Trí Tuệ, I am fully committed. I sit not for myself, not for realization, but for the betterment of everyone.

There have been many posts in the buddhoblogosphere pertaining to the effectiveness of a virtual sangha, and the necessity of in-person sanghas. I have stayed out of the conversation merely because I didn't have an opinion. However, I think I have come to a conclusion. I don't believe that virtual sanghas are insufficient. I believe they have just as much merit as any other communities. Most of my progress in study has been due to the on line community. There is just so much information at everyone's fingertips!! There is no reason why a virtual community wouldn't be just as good. I do know, however, that I wouldn't have had the same experience and motivation to practice without being there. That definitely would have been missing. The important part is to keep practicing, not worried about in-home, in-temple, or in-virtual land, but always in the moment, in right effort, and in harmony with the world around us.


A musing or two....

I have recently been thinking a lot about reason....I understand that reason has a great history behind it, and I know that there are many schools of reason, but I'm starting to fully grasp the true nature of a lot of problems.

Reason is utterly subjective.

It's almost ridiculous. I would think that reason would be somewhat of a given...almost a moral code. I guess there is another conclusion one could come to with these thoughts....

I'm getting ahead of myself.

From the beginning....I could assume that there are some things we can all agree on with a shared degree of reason: One should not kill another. Gravity does exist as a force on the Earth. What we perceive and have named "red" is red.

Seems pretty easy, right?

Well, that's fine and good, but there come these topics that seem to follow reason, but people have these odd little quirks with...what are they called...opinions?

For example, it seems as if reason would tell us that all of our citizens have a right to three things: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Okay, that was agreed upon in this country's conception. Life is one of those, correct? Therefore, health is one of those? Am I being reasonable still? These things should not be infringed upon by any system of government, system of belief, or any system whatsoever (a monetary system, perhaps?).

I guess I'm not correct at all. I could start back from the beginning...one should not kill another. Some people are perfectly fine with killing others, as long as their ideals and systems of government are different from our own..

Or religion, for example...I don't find salvation, resurrection, or ultimatums that reasonable, yet some people will stake their lives on it. It's not anything wrong with them. It's merely their reason not lining up with mine. We could go on and on like this.

It's very odd. Back to the killing idea again...when someone is perfectly fine with killing another person, oftentimes that is considered an imbalance in perception....a slight lunacy, if you will.

So perhaps there is a true logic after all...and we are all on varying scales of lunacy.

I like that idea. Sometimes you are completely illogical and crazy, and other times I am. That's all there is to it. Just because you and I see differently doesn't mean we have to disagree. We just have to realize our imbalances and go about our way, trying to find the TRUTH.

How does one go about finding the truth for themselves?

Oh, I don't know...a contemplative practice, perhaps?

I'm simply fascinated by this concept! What I find completely reasonable, others find offensive and life-threatening.


By the way, I would like to throw out a congrats to our president for his recent award. I think it is good to place encouragement where it is needed, regardless of the "reason" of others. Just think: if everyone would have only bad things to say about a president of this fine country, then....
Oh, wait. That has been true for eight years!


Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I think I have come to many realizations over the past months, and I felt like it was time for me to say something again. I'll jump right in.

  • What I have to say is not all that important, and I don't want a bunch of junk being accredited to me.
It's funny. I thought when I started this that I had a lot to say. I knew that I would just be overflowing with interesting ideas and cute anecdotes outlining my path through Buddhism. However, as I fall deeper down the rabbit hole, I am finding my words to be very useless.
Don't get me wrong; I love writing, and I love the comments. They help. There seems to be this intrinsic suffering involved with having a blog. There must always be something new to read. Something exciting! Something thought provoking. Something detailing what it's like to be me right now.
I think this is coming from recent posts in Zen Habits, which outline the benefit and process of making your life a little simpler. Weeding out unnecessary things. It alleviates a lot of suffering, not having to provide post after post...keeping all of you on the edge of your seats every day. Who do I think I am? Carrie Bradshaw?
Also, I find that when I am not really involved emotionally in my writing, I end up filling space. There is an intense problem with that. Space is important. Space begets thought. You don't want your initial point to be digested through pointless banter. It's not beneficial for readers.

  • As I progress in my practice, I am able to see and understand others' suffering easier.
I was very skeptical of sitting at first. My opinions of "new age" practices and sitting in silence were hard to get over. However, as I fall deeper down the rabbit hole, I realize my own suffering. I feel it, I connect, and I let it pass.
What an amazing practice! "Why do I suffer?" "What is causing this terrible feeling?" "How much power does it really have?" These are not only amazing questions, but they offer amazing, shocking, revealing, and sometimes painful answers. My suffering is caused by my attachment to self, my attachment to permanence...all the things that we grow so fond of and then realize they don't really exist. It's life changing.
As I realize my own suffering, it only becomes easier to let it pass, and I can't help but notice others' suffering as well. I know most of us are caught in this sea of confusion, denial, and attachment. It's suffocating us. Rather than run away, (with Gazelle intensity, as Dave would say) we feed it. We throw all of our attention into it, and let all of our time become consumed by this false sense of self....it's saddening.
Whoa Ryan, you're getting a little depressing. Not at all...let me tell you! This is a discovery that I cherish more than....well, a lot of things. Where I would normally lose my temper, go off the deep end, start ranting and raving, ruining others' opinions of me, I find deep understanding and compassion. I know they suffer, and I wish them well. It's a state we are all in, regardless of our paths.
  • Thoughts are not what define you..but your reactions can.
I look back on past mistakes, and I sometimes cringe. How could I have let such things happen? What was I thinking? Well...the truth is, it doesn't matter. As I fall deeper down the rabbit hole, I realize thoughts happen. They arise, and they fall. If you don't believe me, go into a room by yourself, and sit for an hour...count your breaths. One to ten...ten to one...back to ten... They don't stay long, and one thought has no more weight than another.
So before you beat yourself up about the next "terrible thought" you have, remember that it's not a defining quality. Right at this moment, I could be thinking, "Man, Rush Limbaugh listeners should really be put to a public death" (Much love everyone...just an example...) or I could be thinking "I could really go for some hot water and Vietnamese Moon Cake right now"... Where does the definition of me as a person occur? Well...when I said or wrote them really....without the action, i.e. attachment, there is nothing wrong with the thought itself. I can dismiss the lesser as silly and rather menacing, and the latter, at this time, unnecessary and unimportant.
Thought is thought; action is action. I need to spend more time filtering my thought. More than not my thoughts become actions...afterward I feel anything from relieved to inappropriate, or anywhere in between. Why not be a little more mindful about our action. That will drastically change your view on thought.
  • Conflict rarely alleviates suffering, much less settles differences.
I used to be a very confrontational person. It gave me great pleasure to tell anyone when they were wrong and to enlighten them with my intense insight and knowledge. However, as I fall deeper down the rabbit hole, I'm trying to get in touch with the human experience in general. I come from a long personal history of hating people as a rule. I would always spout my babble, "One person is beautiful, insightful, and caring....but more than one person, this idea of "people", ruins everything. It is their nature." I am becoming more and more uneasy in that position. I can't even place my finger on the source of my changing thoughts.
People are just a collection of these persons...these things I find so intriguing...I know people make mistakes, and when you collect mistakes you end up with this huge ball of regret, definitely something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We don't really think about people as a ball of insight, or an accumulation of years of experience....a source of intense wisdom and patience. We've all suffered, and we are all right where we are. The only difference is the actions we take based on these otherwise meaningless thoughts. Karma, anyone?
It doesn't seem as if conflict ever sounds like a good idea to me...It glorifies this attachment to self. What better way to defer non-attachment than to feel as if you know not only your path, but the path of those opposing you? It's a slippery slope, and a rather controversial topic, but there is this grace involved in compassion, and I don't think I have ever witnessed an instance where compassion and understanding wouldn't have made a situation better.

Needless to say, I think quality over quantity is best for me, rather than the norm of the twitter-obsessed nonsense of the age.