Thursday, May 24, 2012


I had a great time earlier this spring presenting at the FACES Conference in La Jolla, California.  The organizer, Richard Fields, has published a book called A Year of Living Mindfully: 52 Quotes and Weekly Mindfulness Practices, with contributions from many well-known writers, including Jack Kornfield, Daniel Siegel, Tara Brach...and yours truly.  To order the book, you can go to the FACES website: www.FACESCONFERENCES.COM.   My essay follows:

Wander into the Center of the Circle of Wonder

When we first being to practice mindfulness, we are taught to focus on the breath, or on some particular sensory perception, like physical sensations or sounds.  Our attention naturally wanders, and we patiently and firmly bring our wild primate minds back to this specific focus.  We do this over and over, and in doing so we train the mind to return to one point.  Our attentional capacity becomes sharper and clearer, and we find we develop some choice in what we turn to, and what we turn away from. 

But for some of us, at a certain point our practice shifts from this narrow attentional training to a more spacious awareness.   We find that we can sit quietly in the middle of a shifting array of thoughts, emotions and sensory perceptions, without much effort.  The Indian teacher Krishnamurti called this practice "choiceless awareness" and in Zen we call it "shikantaza" or "just sitting."  

The 12th century Chinese Chan (Zen) teacher Hongzhi Zhengjue encourages us to "wander into the center of the circle of wonder."  This is his way of describing what "just sitting" feels like.  The mind, which naturally wanders, can be tamed by the practice of attentional training.  But once it has learned to be still, it is free to do what it loves to do.  Thoughts still occur, emotions pass through the body/mind, sensations come and go, but we don't get caught in any of this passing experience.   We understand that the nature of the mind is to wander.  In this wandering, everything that is encountered is a teaching, a pointing, to a life that can be vividly lived.  And every path we wander leads to the same place: "here."  The realization of the continual return to this moment, this time, this place, is liberating.   A sense of wonder arises, of not knowing, and deeply trusting this feeling of simple presence. 

Mindfulness Practice for the Week:

You can use this quote often to remind you to loosen up your opinions about what you think you're doing, or where you think you're going.  This is a practice that can be done informally, with regular reminders to yourself throughout the day.  Or you can do a formal wandering practice.  Sitting in an upright posture, allow yourself to be with your breath, your body, and all of your sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions.  You can notice how all of these experiences come and go, so long as you don't try to hold on to any one of them.  This is a practice of release from effort, and allows a sense of peace and not knowing to arise naturally. If you have spent most of your time and energy training your mind to focus, you may want to give yourself this gift of wandering.  "Wander into the center of the circle of wonder."  Enjoy your life.

Melissa Myozen Blacker
Boundless Way Temple
Worcester, MA

Sunday, May 13, 2012

No-Self Improvement

A lot of my teaching derives from a combination of  Zen training,  graduate studies and practice of psychotherapy, and  training and teaching of mindfulness-based stress reduction.  And of course, there is my own endlessly repeating life experience of loss and survival.   A central theme for me has been to stay simple -- to work with what arises in the mind, heart and body, and avoid getting caught up in ideas, so common in our culture, of improving the self.   Among the countless books and methods that seek to instruct us in having a better life, there is a small group of guides that describe this simple way of being.  It really is possible to stay with what arises, to meet, open to, and create space around whatever it is,  and then to watch transformation occur and/or find a way to actively meet our situation.

Three books that I've been enjoying lately come from different spiritual traditions, but all have this same theme -- the simple power and naturally transformational quality of  meeting what is.  One is an old favorite, Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  Another has been the most exciting book I've come across is some time:  Soul without Shame, by Byron Brown, a guide to working with your inner judge.  (And come on, you know you have one -- we all do.)  And the most recent book is a a lovely little guide called The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them, by Karuna Clayton.

However you decide to become what you already are, to realize your Buddha nature, there's no time like the present to start.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

When your wooden fire extinguisher is engulfed in flames

The labels on this wonderful photo, sent from a friend of a friend is traveling in China, read: "wooden fire extinguisher" and "irony fire extinguisher."   Someone at my friend's workplace who saw it commented that it's always handy to have an irony extinguisher, especially when your wooden fire extinguisher is engulfed in flames.

 Let me also say that I admire anyone who speaks another language and attempts to learn English. The subtleties are vast, and there is way too much room for misunderstanding.

I have quite a bit more experience with people whose sense of humor and irony, and I'm talking about native speakers of English, appears to be slightly to extremely impaired. I grew up in a family where the spacious quality of ridiculousness was valued highly. If I'd had an irony extinguisher growing up, I might have avoided a great deal of discomfort felt by friends who visited my home and left puzzled and concerned. Of course, as they went out the door, I am ashamed to admit, we were often laughing helplessly, and crying, ironically, with a kind of joy.