gentle and tough

IMG_4008Gentleness is nice and all, but it’s a tough world out there.  We can’t always live in a protected world of soft things, kind people, and the sounds of running water.  There are harsh realities in this world.  Some parents choose to send their children to tough schools for this reason, to acclimate them to the hard side of things.

I’ve heard that in some Inuit societies young children are allowed to handle sharp knives, despite the likelihood of getting cut. The use of knives is such a basic element of everyday life, that learning to handle and respect them early, through experiential education, is the norm.

Without  doubt, one way or another individuals need to come to terms with the hard edges of life– the cold winds, the burdens of everyday duties, not having what we want, harsh words, competition, and the sheer aggression that is an aspect of our society.  For some, that aggression is an everyday reality, a part of their family or school culture, or a presence on the streets they traverse.  How do we educate our children to relate with this part of the world?  What sort of culture do we want to develop around the truth of aggression?

We love our children and we want them to flourish, to succeed, and especially to survive.  We want to keep them safe, but we don’t want to keep them weak.  So what is the best way to teach them to be tough, resilient, and powerful?

In a traditional sense, it is the role of the father lineage to transmit these qualities and introduce the hard world.  In our culture, this transmission has become tremendously confused and perverted.  The qualities of toughness, fearlessness, and the ability to meet our world with power have been  thoroughly mashed together with aggression and egotism.

At the core of our encounter with life is our feeling about ourselves.  Generally we experience aggression as something that points toward a negative feeling, the sense that there is something lacking, inadequate, lesser, or unworthy in us.   This sense of lack is the seed of aggression within us.  Our culture waters this seed in many ways,  through competition– the premise that we could prove our worth by succeeding in comparison to others; materialism– the premise that we could be worthy if we had more; and through intimidation– threats of punishment if we don’t accept our lack of power.  In the world of children and teens, these forces loom large.  They speak through peers, parents, teachers, and media, and result in rage, depression, and apathy.

In order to meet and transform this culture we need to begin from nonaggression, a ground of trust in human beings.  As teachers we must develop this trust personally. Trusting ourselves we have no need to convince others by deception.  Knowing a trust in ourselves that is basic and true, we can trust our students. This is a deep trust, not a calculating one. It doesn’t ask our students to prove they are worthy of it, that’s the territory of aggression. It holds their entire being, which may be full of doubt, depression, anger, and frivolity, in a great embrace of trust and kindness.

Once the poet and Zen master Ryokan was invited to dinner by the parents of a teenage boy who was developing an angry and rebellious disposition. The parents hoped the priest would impart some words of wisdom to the boy and maybe set him straight. The evening progressed, but the parents were disappointed, as Ryokan said not a word to the lad.  As Ryokan prepared to depart, the boy bent to assist the honoured guest with his sandals.  Tying on a sandal the boy felt a drop of moisture on the back of his neck. Looking up he saw the face of Ryokan gazing down at him, smiling slightly, his eyes wet with tears.  After this, though the priest had said nothing to him, the boy’s attitude shifted.

Basic trust is the seed of a different culture, the “culture of no mistake.” This is an environment of basic acceptance and worthiness, in which one need not constantly compensate for an underlying sense of inadequacy.  No one has made a fundamental mistake, therefore we can make relative mistakes, we can be who we are, seeing our shortcomings without feeling guilty.

Learning to relate with aggression in an aggressive, fearful environment is like watering seeds with gasoline. Flames may spring up, not likely flowers.

Gentleness does not produce weakness.  From the ground of nonaggression we can begin to relate with the sharp edges of our world.  With trust in ourselves we can finger a sword’s blade.  We can take an insult.  We can feel cold rain on our face.  We can fuck up and apologize.  We can say, “NO,” when we need to.  We can compete when we want to, and we can turn competition off when it’s not called for.  Knowing the yang, we can keep to the yin.

Everyone needs the culture of no mistake.  We should create it for ourselves at least. If we can share it with another, that’s society.  Some people’s lives are full of aggression.  You may be the only genuine reference point they have.





Awake Effort





The world is awake and we are awake.

Awake is constantly bombarding us, reminding us that our separateness is just a bubble.  For example, you see a yellow flower .. ! .. For an instant you are awake, just there, natural, yet indescribably alive.  This aliveness is already there, we don’t have to create it.  In a sense we are already awake.  Since we are already awake, we don’t actually have to wake up. But still, we often fail to notice that wakeful energy in the midst of ordinary life, so some kind of effort is necessary.  This special effort is the third aspect of practice.

Usually effort is laborious, but in this case, it is not so much a straining sort of effort.  It’s more like letting down our guard and allowing the world in.  There is a sense of being willing to appreciate our life.  Not that we are just going to experience sweetness and pretty flowers all the time.  Appreciation isn’t about blissing out; it is about being willing to experience life itself, however it manifests.  With that sense of appreciation, sudden flashes of amazement take place in which we discover the world beyond our thoughts.

Popping our discursive bubble in this way is humbling.  The world is vast; our fixations are small. It gives us a moment of perspective.  Yet this humbleness is the tiger’s empowerment; we discover a sense of connection to a harmony beyond our conceptual grasp.

As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, we can work with these sudden moments of awake, “and do so with no effort in the effort,” and then our effort becomes self-sustaining.  It arises as an ongoing, spontaneous discipline in our lives.




Flute of Genuineness

As I sit to write this I can feel the cool touch of the keyboard on my palms, the morning sun is playing patterns outside the window and across the floor, one of the neighbour’s chickens is clucking, a cell phone begins chirping like a cricket, my daughter’s foot taps the coffee table while she looks at a book on the couch, I feel the pulse of a little kink in my back, a subtle achy feeling in my shoulder, warmth in my belly,  a thought about teaching tomorrow awakens a little flutter of anticipation in my chest.

As human beings we can not rely on feeling anything in particular, but we can rely on feeling.  Attending to whatever is occurring in our experience, feeling our humanity, is the second aspect of practice.

Feeling is being with ourselves fully, allowing our present experience to blossom or fade as it will.  The texture of life in this moment is a gateway to our human goodness.  It is a way home from the mindless wandering of habitual distraction and fantasy.

In every moment of our lives we have experience arising, including pleasure and pain, sweet and sour, happy and sad, ease and irritation.  Within each ordinary experience and perception, like the kernel within the chaff of discursiveness, is the open, perceptive aspect of our being.  It is our ability to be touched by the world.  It is slightly soft, tender and romantic–like a lonesome flute.  It has a quality of natural trust and fearlessness– it is open to reality as it is.

Feeling our experience is a natural practice of mindfulness, which is sometimes described as bare attention.  Feeling is coming into the present moment. Again and again, in the midst of any activity, we bring our attention to our feelings and perceptions.  However, as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, mindfulness “is more than just paying attention; it is a feeling of deeply caring about our mind, and therefore who we are–not with self-centeredness, but with kindness and love.  In Shambhala one meditates like a mother or father watching a child.”

This approach to mindfulness may differ from some of those in practice today. Feeling involves becoming more intimate with our experience.  Often mindfulness is associated with distance, observation, silencing, and detachment.  For example,

Contemplative practice is also commonly described as enabling a type of detachment from the contents of our consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, and reactions that flow though our minds. Several approaches instruct the practitioner to avoid reactive attachment by just being mindful of whatever thoughts or feelings emerge. This allows us to observe the contents of our consciousness rather than simply being absorbed by them. Such arms-length distance allows us to recognize and therefore potentially interrupt usual patterns of thinking and impulsivity, freeing the mind to notice unexpected insights. For example, instead of just seething with anger, the contemplative mind may allow a little more space between the anger and us. (from Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom, by Tobin Hart)

The difference here may be primarily semantic.  On the other hand, there may be an important difference in practice.  For many, mindfulness definitely involves creating distance from mind’s activity.  This is natural, as most people are drawn to meditation based on feeling aggravated by their mind’s speed, and tired of the drama of their habitual reactions.  Recognizing patterns and learning how to unhook ourselves from thoughts, fantasies and emotions is essential.  But if we set up a division in our being between our quiet, contemplative selves and our discursive, emotional selves, we end up with a deeper struggle.  This dichotomy can also extrapolate into our experience of daily life.

The Shambhala approach presents a subtle shift based on greater trust and care.  Trust means that each element of our experience is basically good.  Care is guarding from mindlessness and fragmentation.  When we feel what is arising we are immersed in it. Rather than being lost in our mental commentary, we go to a deeper aspect of our experience.  And we may discover that even anger, in its essence, is seething with goodness, moving and transforming like clouds, playing around the sun of worthiness.

mom and noel

Castle of Dignity

CTR 2Embodying mindfulness and friendship, whether in formal meditation practice or in our activities, involves our whole being.  There are many teachings, best practices and approaches to working with mindfulness, but in the midst of our chaotic lives, simplicity tends to be the best ally.  There are three aspects of our ordinary existence that serve as gateways back to ourselves, and to the home of our natural being.

First is the body.  Our bodies are an anchor to the present moment.  In this age of speed and information, we tend to be absorbed in concept.  We are “lost in our heads.” Teachers are especially renowned for being this way (ie- the “absent minded professor,” but it’s more like absent-bodied).  Therefore, coming into our bodies is the foundation.  Our bodies are great resources of knowing.  This knowing is non-conceptual, not based on our book knowledge or rational, thinking minds.  For some, this may sound mysterious or fluffy, but if we think of how our mothers comforted us as children, just holding us while we cried, we can remember what non-conceptual knowing is.

Our bodies are like vessels that shape the water of our outlook.  So the technique is to regard our body as a castle of dignity.  We take a posture of upright relaxation, feeling the natural balance and centeredness of our bodies.  Life presents constant challenges and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed, as well as just bad.  Our sense of burden drags us down and we slouch.  We also tend to feel self-conscious and afraid of our vulnerability, which makes us want to fidget or hide or perform, which can be another way of hiding.   Therefore posture is a way of life.  It shapes our intention to be fully open and brave.  Again and again, in the midst of everything, we take a posture that is a natural expression of that human goodness.

As teachers, the posture grounds us in a sense of being that is strong but gentle, and it communicates that feeling to our students.

the gentle path

winter intensives 10 010Fostering gentleness requires mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the gateway to a fuller experience of probably every aspect of life.  In fact, it is the practice of experiencing fully whatever is taking place.  It is doing one thing, rather than doing one thing while daydreaming about many things, or doing one thing but with a lingering uncertainty.  This doesn’t mean we can’t be both busy and mindful.  Eventually that “one thing” might be multi-tasking.

Before doing anything though, mindfulness involves becoming aware of our experience.  It is learning to recognize what is arising in this moment of being human, which includes our anxiety, scattered thoughts, and emotional messiness.  Kindness to ourselves arises from being with ourselves as we are, without judging ourselves as unworthy, even if we discover that we are a bundle of neurotic mindlessness.

We don’t have to figure ourselves out.  Don’t try to unravel the Gordian knot. Just start with what is happening right now, and be with it fully.

serving like a tiger

Facebook_Graffiti_Tiger_by_kevhaoThe Tiger phase of practice has to do with learning to trust in our being, which is gentleness or nonaggression.  It is about the cultivation of contentment, a sense of being full as opposed to insatiably insecure in our body and mind.  If you gaze at a tiger at rest, even in the zoo, it emanates a sense of pure, intense tigerness.  It doesn’t seem to have one iota of preoccupation, wondering if it should be more like a zebra.  It is this fullness of ease with ourselves that forms the foundation for any kind of meaningful personal development, as well as for teaching others.

In order to cultivate this embodied level of gentleness we can begin with an attitude of service.  It’s too early to think about teaching others at this point, but we don’t have to think of this as being something that is just about us.  By learning to practice self-kindness we are making a great offering to others.  We are directly addressing the issue of how we are in the environment we share.

For teachers it’s essential to recognize how important a personal practice is.  As my friend Ethan said–this is one place where trickle down theory actually makes sense.