Dropping acid was unwise, and even worse once we left the house. Everything grew ugly, empty, soul-sucked. Self-compressing at the broken-glass edge of a parking lot. Somehow love found me. Late afternoon Monopoly, laughing. Much less left to fear.
Somehow we agreed he would shave my head. Arriving in Lhasa the next day, people called Ani, Ani, thinking me a nun. Twenty-third birthday; altitude; anvil-light; empty sky. I threw up. My head exploded. I had never been so happy.
for Marissa Alexander, on her birthday, September 14th, 2013
Working with a partner, take a moment to reflect on the nature of freedom & lack of freedom.
Ask your partner, “What makes you free?”
Ask your partner, “What makes you not-free?”
Show your partner his or her reflection in a mirror.
Show your partner a reflection of the boundless sky in the same mirror.
Same mirror, same truth.
Now, tie a string around your partner’s wrist as a reminder that all human beings are all capable of choosing to incline towards freedom, or away from it, for themselves, and for others; and also as a reminder that millions of people are living in this country behind bars - more (by percentage of the population) than in any other country on earth.
Photograph your partner’s hand with the string. Pause quietly for a moment, ask your partner for a short response to what you have just done, and write it down.
Once the string is tied, the photograph is taken, and the response is written down, switch roles until all present have been through both sides of the ritual.
Then, mail your photographs & responses to Marissa Alexander, as a birthday present. If you also email them to 108namesofnow [at] gmail.com, I will gladly post them here.
To send your photos/responses/letters to Marissa Alexander in prison:
Lowell Correctional Institution
11120 NW Gainesville Rd
Ocala, Florida 34482-1479
For more information about Marissa Alexander, try these links:
- Huffington Post article about her sentencing
- blogspot page
- Support for Marissa Alexander FB group
- (do these seem unsatisfactory to you, on the whole? me too. in fact, this is part of why I let my once-beloved New Yorker subscription expire: disappointment at a publication that devotes so much ink to rich old-farty men making money & rich young-farty men playing lacrosse & so little ink to Marissa Alexander. if you know any journalists, or are one yourself, this is a story that needs careful, in-depth & ongoing telling. tell it! please.)
May all beings be free of suffering.
May all beings know happiness and the roots of happiness.
May all beings live at ease in the well being of their own true nature.
- prison walls
- prison doors
- barred windows
- a man kicks his horse because he can
- a woman hits her child because she can
- a child rips the wings off a butterfly because he can
- hiding in the television all day
- blinds drawn at noon
- dark grey staircase smelling of rubber treads
- throwing away bones in the trash
- declawed cats
- dogs with neuticles
- lean cuisine
- veal calves in plastic cages
- scented toilet paper
- obsessive New Age enemas
- Brazilian waxes
- nair for short shorts
- dance songs with only one beat
- Ferragamo shoes with stupid metal-clad bows
- Vuitton bag with stupid logos everywhere
- Mercedes death-wagon
- Tommy Hilfiger everything, except that one skirt I have
- frat house airs of respectability
- frat house casual whore-shooting gallery
- frat house basement vomitorium, with special drains
- special silences around what happens in the basement
- mass graves under soccer fields
- a church that worries the poor might dirty up the new hall
- stopping to pick up those hikers might be dangerous
- stopping to offer that woman some food might be dangerous
- going to sleep now might be dangerous
- faces numbed out of their lines
- orange tans
- selling out the body’s truth
- pretending something is more important
- pretending someone is more important
- pretending there is a better place after death
- pretending what I believe justifies my cruelty
- pretending you matter less than my goals
- pretending you matter more than my goals
- giving with contempt
- receiving with contempt
- ill-formed drawings that don’t listen
- beautifully-formed drawings that don’t listen
- anonymous note left on the windshield
- anonymous note left on the door to the house
- clinging to anything as a formula for beauty
- clinging to anything as a formula for truth
- I am my body
- I am my mind
- I am the way, the truth and the light
- I am a contemptible wretch
- fake-stone siding, though this can be quite beautiful
- faux-leather, though this can be quite beautiful
- fake-blue contact lenses, though it is conceivable these might be quite beautiful
- flattened occipita of neglected babies
- infected track-marks
- overgrown median with cheetos wrappers and old condoms
- furniture that could easily be fixed, but isn’t
- buying sex from slaves
- buying beautiful clothes made by slaves
- pretending not to know where meat comes from
- Christmas orgy of slave-made goods
- men sit and watch football while women do the dishes
- women casually sacrifice themselves to old ideas
- men casually sacrifice themselves to old ideas
- men and women casually sacrifice their children to old ideas
- governments casually sacrifice everyone but the rich to old ideas
- foie gras
- eating the ortolan whole, with a napkin over your eyes
- a bear-bile pill for the businessman’s hangover
- medical science vivisects animals
- the beauty industry vivisects animals
- the food industry vivisects animals
- longevity, at any cost
- clutter of useless, permanent things
- clutter of old ideas
- children dig for food in a mound of burning trash in Brazil
- my old cell phone is in a mound of burning trash in Ghana, and I feel better
- unwanted births
- uncared-for abortions
- unacknowledged paternity
- irresponsible paternity
- forcing sex on anyone
- blaming the one who has been raped
- refusing responsibility
- turning over authority
- how each new war seems like a festival
- how, later, we forget we ever felt this way
- how, even as we withdraw our attention, we hope our new leaders will take care of things
- mole hairs, though these are a sign of health
- lesions, pox & zits
- puncture wounds
- blunt trauma
- brain tumor that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- mental illness that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- severe pain that erodes the mind’s ability to be with what is
- solitary confinement
- forgetting to let go
- blaming & contracting
- clinging to ego as any form of salvation
- I am threatened, starved, and isolated
- lithe-leaping beauty – a young man jumps off the walls, more or less for joy & because he can
- patterned & repetitive beauty – William Morris paper
- sleek-haired beauty – a long black braid down the back
- sustained beauty – the old ballerina hovers to meet the floor before her, legs spread wide
- steady-growing beauty – the huge old beech tree, roots at least as deep as branches are wide
- animal beauty– a dog’s perfectly-applied eyeliner
- elaborate beauty – a wedding dress of lace, with a satin belt in a bow
- beauty of negative spaces locking into positive spaces – Hokusai
- beauty of ugliness – the taste of durian fruit
- beauty of famous art – participating in loving a painting with many others in the same room, looking
- actors’ beauty onscreen – feeling it is impossible not to wonder at the fact that Penelope Cruz even exists
- actors’ beauty offscreen – and how it is always somehow different
- beauty of old people who have not given up
- beauty of children when they don’t think about it
- beauty of domesticated flowers – how they grow from seed, right there in your garden, even though you know so little
- beauty of wild flowers – how they grow profligately & even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these
- beauty of cold, powerful German cars & glass buildings
- beauty of well-crafted Damascene steel swords
- mountainous beauty – there is nothing useful that can be said about seeing the Himalayas from the plastic window of an airplane
- beauty of the sky at dusk
- beauty of the sky at high altitude
- Himalayan blue poppies
- Prussian blue
- blue glass bottles, whole or broken by the sea
- freaky blue eyes of Irish spotted ponies
- Tibetan clouds, printed on Nepalese sky-blue lokta paper
- the Virgin Mary’s deep blue cloak, with a red shift beneath it
- caput mortuum
- ladies who wear purple every day, including their shoes & nails & amethyst crystals
- purple soil of Utah
- vermilion ink for Chinese stamps
- deepest red of roses
- alizarin crimson
- quinacridone magenta
- cochineal-carmine-red, made of millions of insects
- ripe cherry red
- blood red
- raspberry-dusky red
- pink of John McCracken’s The Absolutely Naked Fragrance
- beet-red risotto
- pink edges of white roses
- scallop-roe orange
- mussel-flesh orange
- gravlax orange
- melon orange
- turmeric-dye yellow-orange
- egg yolk
- cadmium yellow
- naples yellow
- yellow gold torus made by Vikings
- joss paper
- bumblebee covered in pollen
- yellow-green lichen in Yosemite
- jade disc
- Old Holland green-gold paint in a lead tube
- interference green on a dark background
- green eyes in dark-skinned faces
- fern-green in the early spring
- Veronese green
- translucent kelp green on a beach where the winter sun is setting
- alabaster windows
- clear white teeth of young animals
- new paper
- old paper
- skin (pink-and-white)
- skin (blue-black & as dark as skin can be)
- skin (brown with sun & hot places)
- skin (very old and fragile, where you can see through it into the body)
- skin (hairy at the belly and chest)
- skin (smooth at the belly and chest)
- burnished clay black
- black sheep
- brown sheep with black-and-white noses and long tails
- bells ringing noon
- deep bass of the dance club resonating in the body
- bad ideas set to beautiful song
- beauty of empty rooms
- beauty of hidden spaces
- beauty of shared food
- beauty of merciful eyes
- beauty of Zen people in dark robes
- beauty of wedding guests in pink dresses
- beauty of wedding guests in fine houndstooth jackets
- beauty of agreeing to live your life
- beauty of letting go
- beauty of winter afternoon walking meditation, sucking in pellucid green light
- beauty of everything in wave-form
- beauty of everything just as it is
- beauty of realizing this pain is a bridge
- beauty of not-knowing
- beauty of each day’s new litany
Here is how the Buddha describes Right Mindfulness in the Magga Vibhanga Sutta:
"And what, students, is right mindfulness? (i) There is the case where a student remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (ii) She remains focused on feelings in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iii) She remains focused on the mind in & of itself — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. (iv) She remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, aware, & mindful — putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. This, students, is called right mindfulness.
This short paragraph is like the Hartsfield International Airport of Dhamma: from the hub of mindfulness, countless practices for awakening take off in all directions. The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness can seem almost staggering in their detail and abundance. True confession: I found the experience of reading the chapter on Right Mindfulness in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book so exhausting that I had to lay down on the grass in the sunlight at the foot of my chair, and recuperate for thirty minutes. So much to do and to keep track of… If any of you had a similar experience of Mindfulness-Based Stress Induction, do not fear! I will begin this talk by going over a few important overall guidelines to keep in mind as you approach your own practice of mindfulness.
First, the Buddha did not teach that we have to master all of the techniques and facets of mindfulness practice. In fact, he often told his students that sincere and thoroughgoing practice of any one approach was all anyone needed in order to awaken. (He particularly recommended mindfulness of body.) Each practice can lead onward into full understanding. Many different practices are offered because people’s kamma & interests & awarenesses are all so different. The Buddha saw that offering multiple versions of mindfulness cultivation meant opening many different doors to the Deathless. Each teaching is a different hand offered up out of confusion, and the teachings vary to suit many different possible forms of confusion and awakening. In the Mahayana and Tibetan traditions, there are frequent depictions of compassionate deities with a multiple arms, each hand holding a different kind of tool. The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness are like this: for some people, the hand proffering mindfulness of breathing will be the one they clasp as they work through their confusion. For others, the helping hand will be direct contemplation of the nature of desire, or contemplation of impermanence. Most of us will come to clasp a series of hands as our practice progresses. If you think of mindfulness practice as a contradance where all the partners are the Buddha, things feel significantly less intimidating. Trust yourself to sense which partner’s hand fits best in yours, and you will do just fine. Don’t worry about what’s going on elsewhere in the room, and you will dance better with each successive partner.
A second overall guideline to keep in mind is that the Buddha teaches each of the four foundations of mindfulness on its own terms. In the translation I read above, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates this part of the text as “in & of itself.” The original Pali text says “kāye kāyānupassī,” “vedanāsu vedanānupassī,” “citte cittānupassī,” and “dhammesu dhammānupassī” for each of the four foundations of mindfulness: the body on its own terms; feeling on its own terms; mind on its own terms; and mind-objects on their own terms. The point is that mindfulness practice instructs us to become aware of each of the four foundations of mindfulness on terms that are intimately appropriate to them. We learn to speak the native language of each of the realms of body, feeling, mind, and mind-objects, and thus to develop wise, appropriate attention. So, for example, we consider body on its own terms, understanding physical experience in non-verbal, somatic ways, rather than thinking about the body. Actually, in this culture, our preference would be to think about pretty much everything, and leave it at that, unless feelings get too intense, and then we usually attend to those by more thinking & maybe add in some rationalizing. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is an interesting contemplation on what happens when we move what should be a body-based, or at least body-emphasizing activity – eating – into the realms of mind and craving. We forget the wisdom of eating traditional diets and try to think our way out of our craving-based problems – such as obesity & diabetes – by inventing more and more artificial ways of feeding ourselves – using synthetic substances that trick the body by tasting like foods whose nutritious content they lack. Clinging to financial interests adds to craving for pleasant taste sensations, driving the whole processed-food industry to fever pitch. Not-seeing the body on its own terms; not-seeing clinging on its own terms: these (and not “bad fats”) are the true roots of the problems we are currently experiencing around food and diet in the United States.
As another overall guideline we can notice that the Buddha’s teaching emphasizes “putting away greed & distress with reference to the world” as a precondition for all mindfulness practice. I love this expression because it clears the decks so quickly. We can think that we are being good people by occupying our minds with worry, spiritual longing, self-judgment, and righteous indignation, when in fact we are keeping ourselves from the direct, bare awareness we need in order to be mindful in the present moment. I would like to invite each of us to foster and respect an Inner Mop Person to chase away the preoccupations that keep us distracted from meditation & the full experience of our lives in each moment. A few years ago, I went to see HH the Dalai Lama teach in Dharamsala. Very kindly, the Tibetan community had offered tea and biscuits to all 5000 people listening to the teachings. As a result, there was a bit of a mess in the temple aisles, where the tea-pourers had run by carrying their heavy kettles. Along came an old man with a giant mop. Whack! Swoosh! Swack! Sandals & flip-flops & tea-puddles & devout nuns doing prostrations: all gone, swept away. This old man clearing the decks was totally stealing the show, and he knew it. Swack! Nothing left but clear, clean space. We need to be able to attend to our practice, and in order to do that, we need to be able to let go of greed and distress regarding the world. So just do it. When things feel impossible, call on your Inner Mop Person to make some room for practice. It’s not Spiritual Bypassing (which seems to be the current Worst Thing in the Buddhist World) to clear a space for practicing sanity. You deserve it. Your practice depends on it. Swack!
Finally, we can notice the Buddha’s repeated description of the student of Right Mindfulness as “ardent, aware, and mindful.” That’s us! “Ardent” is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pali word chanda – a strong word, connoting excitement, determination, desire, and will. You can have unskillful chanda – in the form of obsessive lust for sense objects, and you can also have skillful chanda – in the form of passionate interest & devotion towards the practice of awakening. The point is that you don’t progress in mindfulness practice by feeling sort of “meh” about the whole thing, or doing it because you feel you ought to, while secretly believing that your true passions lie outside the practice, in some other, safely compartmentalized area of your life.
Believing that there’s any part of your life that is somehow outside the reach of mindfulness is a delusion whose extreme manifestations include the “family values” politician trolling for sex in airport bathrooms. At the other end of the spectrum is Kurukullā, the Red Tara, a Tibetan deity who represents the work of transforming ardent desire for sense objects into ardent desire for awakening. She’s bright red, with fierce, wide-open eyes, and hair standing straight up off her head. She pulls a flowered bow, representing the tension of desire, while dancing on a prostate human form, who represents our limited views of ourselves & our capacities for awakening. Allowing ourselves to be completely awake & on fire can be a scary leap to take. Because Buddhist meditation culture can seem to value being quiet & peaceful & considerate above all else, we can become stuck on a sort of bland nicey-nice level of practice that never really kindles our chanda into action. We need to be willing to engage fully with the practice, to work with lust and anger and revulsion and see how they can be transformed into passionate fuel for mindfulness practice. Are you willing to risk being disapproved-of (if only by yourself) in order to cultivate a practice that really engages you? Are you willing to be ardently honest about your predicament? You need to be.
Body in & of Itself
The first foundation of mindfulness is to abide focused on the body in & of itself, or the body on its own terms. This means entering a felt (rather than conceptualized) experience of body, as we do during walking meditation, body scan meditation, and meditation on the breath. Entering a felt sense of body means leaving behind “I, me & mine” and becoming attuned to physical sensation. We close our eyes and search for the felt boundary between the body and the space surrounding it and feel: unbounded space. We cease interpreting body sensation (“my toe hurts”) and focus instead on knowing what physical sensation is actually like (“throbbing, heat, subsiding”). We let go of thinking about the body as some thing in constant need of restraining, fixing, ignoring, or sprucing up; and we grow to feel the body as a constant flow of experiences, one after another. We come to know the body as a very finely sensitive source of information about the way things are, tracking response to each new moment and situation as it arises. We learn to be aware of bodily postures and processes occurring on their own terms, without the need of any Me to order the body, control it, or cling to it in any way. We learn to relate to our body in a way that is essentially friendly, free of revulsion or attachment.
All of this should be more or less straightforward, but biases within Western culture and Theravadan Buddhist culture interfere in various ways with our ability or even willingness to be mindful of the body on its own terms.
Western religions and intellectual traditions have consistently undervalued body in comparison with spirit, insisting that the two can somehow be separated and ranked. If we believe that what is “spiritual” is somehow superior, disembodied, male, in the sky, and mental, we can implicitly also feel that paying attention to the bodily realm is either a waste of time, or a dangerous flirtation with base elements. We need to let go of this made-up hierarchy in order to experience body, heart, mind, and spirit as different facets of the same continuum of awareness. The Buddha doesn’t teach mindfulness of the body as a beginner’s practice leading up to the good stuff – it is the good stuff.
Distorting objectification of the body can be another obstacle to experiencing body on its own terms. It can be difficult to enter mindfulness of the body if our minds are saturated with pre-existing obsessions about hairiness, baldness, skinniness, fatness, youthfulness, oldness, wrinkliness, pearly-whiteness, hotness, and all the rest. Accepting the body as it is means dropping all those conceptions and simply becoming aware of the body as it is.
In the Theravadan tradition – as in all Buddhist traditions – approaches to the body are colored by the biases of the celibate male monastics who have been in charge of teaching, recording, and transmitting the Buddha’s teaching for thousands of years. While cultivating a sense of gratitude for monastic teaching and preservation of the Dhamma, we also need to be aware of monastic biases and their repercussions. While the Buddha himself may have seen clearly that his students could practice and realize the Dhamma while leading many different kinds of lives – lay and monastic, male and female – his monks have tended to privilege their own practice as the highest, purest, and best, through ignorance of the alternatives, contempt for women and laypeople, fear of sexuality, and need to justify the perceived hardships of monastic life.
With awareness of the differences between celibate monastic practice and our own practice as laypeople, we can bring healthy skepticism to the assertion that “the Buddha teaches that the sexual drive is a manifestation of craving, thus a cause of dukkha that has to be reduced and extricated as a precondition for bringing dukkha to an end.” We can remind ourselves of the Buddha’s declaration (in the Greater Discourse to Vacchagotta) that his lay followers enjoying sensual pleasures are accomplished in the Dhamma. We can consider that sexual appetite is as much a part of the nature of the body as appetite for food, drink, and oxygen. Approaching sexual energy as something to be “extricated” strikes me as perverse from the point of view of lay practitioners living in committed relationships. Our precepts ask us to refrain from sexual misconduct, but not from sex, just as they ask us to refrain from lying and verbal abuse, but not from speech. So, mindfully, we may choose to open to sexual experience as a way of abiding in the body on its own terms, and pay attention to what we find there. Who says wholesome rapture must be confined to the meditation cushion? Celibate monastics certainly do, but we laypeople may happily set about disagreeing with this assumption.
Feelings in & of Themselves
The second foundation of mindfulness invites us to practice with feeling in & of itself, or feeling on its own terms. Here we are dealing with investigation of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sense impressions, in each of the six sense spheres of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Again – we are not thinking about pleasant, unpleasant and neutral – we are attempting to become intimately aware of what each of these experiences is like.
Last weekend, I traveled to the coast of Maine with my friend Heidi and her beloved pug, Rune. We were sharing a hotel room, and the situation was generally quite pleasant until bedtime, when Rune started snoring through his poor little squished-in nose. I have a history of being very clear that snoring falls into the unpleasant-sounds category, and of taking evasive action to avoid having to listen to snorers while I sleep. But there was no way to avoid this little dog’s snoring – no canine sleep apnea machine, no semi-polite request to roll over, no other room to flee to; and furthermore, I knew Rune was suffering from bronchitis. So I placed my attention on the pleasant feelings of my hands resting on my heart and belly, and my body resting on the mattress. I let go of clinging to the idea that I needed to fall asleep, and noticed that while I could still hear the sounds, they didn’t seem so unpleasant anymore. I wasn’t really asleep (some kind of involuntary wakefulness response makes it hard for me to fall asleep in a room where there is snoring), but I was relaxed and peaceful. When thoughts arose, I turned them towards sending metta to Rune, Heidi, and myself. In the morning, I felt rested – far less tired than I would have been after a sleepless night of plotting pugicide.
We have all had similar experiences of dwelling with unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral feelings in and of themselves. The first step seems always to be honest with ourselves about what we feel. If we find ourselves in the middle of a root canal, enjoying the feeling of the dentist’s hands on our face, we note that. If we find ourselves in the middle of a special celebratory dinner, distinctly not liking the taste of the food, we note that. Seeing how unpredictable our feelings are, we let go of trying to engineer pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant ones. We have faith that we can work skillfully with our feelings in whatever situations arise.
Mind & Heart in & of Itself
The third foundation of mindfulness invites us to become aware of mind & heart in & of itself, or mind & heart on its own terms. The difficult-to-translate word in question is citta, and it really does mean both mind and heart, where the two are understood to be inseparable. So again, here we are not thinking about the mood & inclination of the mind & heart – we are developing our awareness of what this is like. We notice a tight, constricted frame of mind for what it is, and so for an exalted state, a bored state, or a restless state. We do not demand that our mind & hearts be always graceful & generous, and we do not beat ourselves up when our hearts feel irritated or resistant. We see how a relaxed heart can receive unpleasant sense data with ease, while a crotchety heart refuses to warm to even the most pleasant of stimuli. Developing a basic friendliness toward mind & heart, we tune in to its fluctuations, opening the possibility of responding skillfully to them.
Mind & Heart Objects in & of Themselves
For those of us who have been waiting for the chance to think & train the discursive mind, here it is! The native language of mind & heart objects is thought. Our well-trained brains leap into action, reflecting on the Dhamma – the hindrances, the Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the enlightenment factors – all the beautiful conceptual framework of the Buddha’s teaching is included in this foundation of mindfulness. We notice what this realm is like, and what it is like to reflect wisely on mind & heart objects. We feel the Buddha’s teaching unfolding in us in an impersonal way, just as we can feel bodily processes unfolding in an impersonal way. It’s not a case of My Tranquility, but rather of tranquility arising as a natural result of skillful causes & conditions. Seeing that awakening arises as a natural consequence of practice, we continue our efforts on the path. We see the Dhamma unfold in our lives in ways we can neither predict nor control, and we give thanks.
May all beings in all realms be well.
May we continue to grow in the Buddha’s way,
for our good & for the good of all beings.