What the Mind Carries

On September 10, 1950, exactly 65 years ago today, Beat nomad Neal Cassady composed a letter to future Beat chronicler Jack Kerouac. He wrote from the engine of a train and shared with his friend his thoughts about becoming more absorbed by the landscape and the people he saw, noting:

neal-jack-01cNow, eyeball kicks are among the world’s greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moments outlook . . .

One’s mind carries at all times the pressure of its own existence, and remembers previous eyeball views to recall what its previous life has been & feeding on this stuff, carries a heavy understanding of things it is capable of knowing & this knowing is blocked from coming out, because while one’s mind carries one’s life’s past constantly, it also carries before it all day the world which comes in thru the eyeball.” *

It was Cassady who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for stimulating Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, but in 1950 I don’t think either of them knew much about it, and anyway Cassady never got into it like Kerouac did. Nevertheless, Cassady’s thinking in this passage seems to me rather dharmic.

Vision (“eyeball kicks”) is not free from conceptual or abstract thinking and how we think about what we see dictates to a large degree our view in each moment. This is true for the practice of mindfulness as well, because when we meditate we are not completely liberated from our senses.  Not to mention that meditation is “seeing” with the inner eyeball.

Additionally, we are not separated from the past or future while we are in the “present moment.” When discussing Buddhist meditation, particularly mindfulness, we are fond of saying that the aim is to let go of the past and have no anticipation for the future. Certainly, we wish to release our attachment to the past and not obsess about things to come, but actually the past is always present, and in each moment and with each thought we shape the future.

In meditation, we center ourselves in the present by focusing attention upon some object, often our breath. Nyanaponika Thera, in his book The Heart of Buddhism Meditation, wrote

If there is any further interest in the object, or if its impact on the senses is sufficiently strong, closer attention will be directed towards details . . . This will enable the mind to compare the present perception with similar ones recollected from this past . . . This stage marks a very important step in mental development . . . It also shows us the close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (or mindfulness), and will thereby explain why in Pali, the language of the [early] Buddhist scriptures, both these mental functions are expressed by the one word sati.”

[Sati is a Pali word we translate as “mindfulness.”]

We can take this further to say that meditation involves not only the recollection of past perceptions but also past experiences. I think at times some folks are so focused on “letting go,” another phrase we are very fond of, that it becomes escapism.  Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of letting go. Without the past there is no present, so we have to deal with it to develop ourselves. And rather than letting go of sufferings we should embrace them, for without suffering we could never know happiness.

I was making up all kinds of sayings as I went along. I was started on my new life with my new equipment: a regular Don Quixote of tenderness. In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.’”

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

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* Neal Cassady, The First Third, City Lights Books, 1971, 196

Graphic based on the 1952 photo taken by Carolyn Cassady


Mindfulness Can Cure the Dreaded Berry Berry Disease (and Cooties)

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?


I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.


Timeless Reality

Several weeks back I wrote about Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “timeless reality” and compared it to Buddhism’s “present moment.” The more I think about the two terms, the more timeless reality seems a better term for what we are trying to convey about meditation and awakening mind.

We often talk about the present moment as though it were something static, something that abides. As if we could capture the present moment and hold on to it. But we can’t. As soon as the present moment arises, it is gone, replaced by a new present moment.

So, how can we ‘be in the present moment’? How can we abide in something so fleeting? Even to call what we want to experience the ‘now’ still refers to a present that is constantly changing. Which is fine, because I don’t think we want to be in a present moment anyway. We’re really after something else . . .

As I’ve investigated Krishnamurti’s use of the phrase timeless reality, I have found that in some of his writings he is alluding to a sense of eternity. In other writings and talks, he refers to a kind of emptiness, a state of timelessness that has neither a beginning nor ending and is undisturbed by temporal reality – this is what I think we’re after.

shengyen2Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009) was a lineage holder of both the Linji (Rinzai) and Caodong (Soto) Ch’an (Zen) schools, and the founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. In his book, Getting the Buddha Mind, he described this sense of timelessness in a different way:

The mind that is without even one thought is extremely bright and pure, but this doesn’t mean that it is blank. No thought means no characteristics, and blankness itself is a characteristic. In this condition the mind is unmoving, yet perceives everything very clearly. Although wisdom is empty, it is not without a function. What is this function? Without moving it reflects and illuminates everything. It is like the moon shining on water. Although each spot of water reflects a different image of the moon, the moon itself remains the same. But it doesn’t say, ‘I shine.’ It just shines.”


Study says Facebook is a bummer but don’t let it ruin your day.

The LA Times reports that according to new research, “Facebook is a bummer that makes us feel worse about our lives.”

A study was conducted by the University of Michigan and Leuven University in Belgium. You can read the research article here. The researchers examined “how Facebook use influences the two components of subjective well-being: how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives,” and concluded that “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

It really bums me out to learn that using Facebook will bum me out.

Actually, I can’t get no satisfaction with Facebook, ’cause I try and I try . . .  When I’m scanning down my news feed and all of the sudden it hiccups, and new items slide up and I lose my place. I normally log off by the third time this happens, and I am left with a momentary sense of frustration, but then I move on. I figure my average time on Facebook any given day is less than 5 minutes. I don’t think I am a typical FB user.

At any rate, both you and I know that you can’t find lasting happiness in something like Facebook. But, we know also that people look for happiness in the darndest places, and often in the most futile ways. But happiness, or at least some life satisfaction, is really not that hard to find.

Want some happiness right now? Well, when you finish reading this post, sit back from the computer, or lay down your mobile device, and take a few minutes to reflect on what a beautiful day it is. Better yet, go outside, the perfect place to meet a perfect day. Rain or shine, hot or cold, even if you have a ton of problems, it’s a good day.

In his book, Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, Thich Thien-An, the Vietnamese teacher who founded the International Buddhist Meditation Center here in Los Angeles, notes,

The practice of [Buddhism] should not be confined only to periods of sitting in meditation, but should be applied to all the activities of daily life. If we are diligent in cultivating the way, we will find that every day is a good day. There are no bad days at all, not even Friday-the-thirteenth. Whether a day is good or bad depends on the mind.”

The key to realizing the full value of what we call mindfulness is through cultivating a mind of appreciation. Mindfulness should be more than merely having some awareness for the present moment. Awareness by itself is nothing special. If you live in the present moment without any appreciation for it, then you’re missing something truly significant. We should try to discover ways to develop appreciation, not only for the present moment, but mostly importantly, for being alive. That’s what I’ve always thought was meant by this phrase in the Lotus Sutra, “Earnestly desiring to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives.”

I won’t belabor the point. Go. Check out the day and harvest some appreciation for it, and everything around you. Unless you are beyond any hope, that should bring some satisfaction and happiness into your life. But, before you do that, click on the arrow below and listen to a tune by Peggy Lee that will help get you in right frame of mind.



Mindfulness and Growing to Simplicity

We talk about “being in the moment,” the present moment. We call it “mindfulness” What exactly does that mean? Thich Nhat Hahn says,

[Mindfulness means] to be truly present in the moment. When you eat, you know that you are eating. When you walk, you know that you are walking. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness. You eat but you don’t know that you are eating, because your mind is elsewhere.”*

The real mindfulness we’re trying to realize is the mindfulness of daily life, mindfulness while engaged in daily activities. It is the product, the fruit of the mindfulness that we cultivate through meditation practice.

Mindfulness meditation is not about forgetfulness, either. Rather, it’s narrowing our awareness to our breath or some other subject of meditation for a certain period of time. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i wrote, “During meditation, beginners find that not even a single thought arising in the mind will stay for an instant.” We use the breath as a tool to stop the mind from wandering and control the discursive thoughts that prevent us from being truly present in the moment.

Awareness of our breath or being present in the breath develops a deeper, more enduring awareness that we should be able to take with us when we get up from the meditation mat.

SCZCA FaceBook friend put the poster you see to the right on his timeline. It’s from the Santa Cruz Zen Center. I really like this attitude. To chase after attainments, exalted states of mind, stages of accomplishment such as arhatship, even Buddhahood, has always seemed counter-productive to me. It causes people to seize on these objectives and cling to them, when non-seizing, non-clinging is what frees our mind.

I would call the Santa Cruz Zen Center’s approach a wu-wei approach. Wu-wei, or “not-doing,” that I have written about often, is the way of letting things happen naturally. The Buddha said that when mindfulness flows like a steady stream, then mindfulness as a cause for awakening becomes aroused. It happens naturally. There’s no reason to run after it.

Of course, aiming to sit in meditation without any ideas is having a idea, a objective. It is impossible to be without ideas or aims of any kind. However, just as we can narrow our awareness to the breath, we can also narrow our objectives.

But can this approach also be an opportunity for seizing and clinging?

Chih-i also wrote, “You should know that whoever clings to the wu-wei state will never develop the awakening mind, which is free from differentiation.”

Well, whoever clings to anything, period. It’s a bitter irony that we can never be completely free from the trap of conceptual thinking, nor realize total non-attachment. And yet, that’s no reason why we can’t really be present in the moment, the only moment we have, or follow the way of wu-wei, the art of keeping it simple.

From innumerable complexities we must grow to simplicity . . .”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

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* Thich Nhat Hanh, be free where you are, Parallax Press, 2002