Friday Meditation

When: Most Fridays
Who:  Inclusive of beginning and experienced practitioners
Cost:  $20 suggested
Responsibility:  Question, try methods, engage your life
Teacher:  Gail Gustafson
Inquiries:  Email Gail

The class is Buddhist in focus, yet can be applied by anyone with clear intention.  Class includes: step-by-step meditation tools & application to daily life, somatic movement, guided meditation and interactive exercises.  Currently this class has full attendance. If you would like to find out when an opening comes available, please contact Gail.

The Art of Grieving

When my grandmother was alive, grieving was a part of living. People died from influenza, from blizzards, from childbirth, from broken bones… There was a time of mourning, when the person grieving was not expected to do more than experience grief. Today, we have lost connection with this potent emotion. We no longer know how to live this rich, life altering experience of change.

Grief is now a study of science, instead of a natural part of life. As Ken McLeod, Buddhist teacher/translator, pointed out years ago: ‘Grief is now seen as a disease, something that needs “treatment”.’ Additionally, most of us are under the false impression that we know how to keep our emotions hidden. Many professions are based on this premise. Unfortunately, we forget that our first way of knowing is sensory. That does not end when we become adults, it merely becomes second fiddle to speech. Sensations, movement, emotions are all definitely there, easy to see to an aware eye. Yet, when grief arises we work hard to ignore it, bury it or run from it.

Is grief the opposite of happiness? Is it a disease that needs pharmaceutical treatment? If we feel grief, should we simply “open happiness” as a cola company leads us to believe? I remember many years ago, in the late 1970s, there was an advertisement on television. It showed a male gymnast doing his perfect ring event. After his dismount, he smiled with success and drank a cup of coffee. The announcement simply said “Join the coffee generation”. Is coffee really the way to win and avoid the grief of loss? It has worked for many fast drive-through coffee shops.

Joan Didion, in her book “My Year of Magical Thinking” quotes Eric Lindeman’s description of grief from 1944: “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain”. I am struck by how accurate this description is to my own experience. I know this well.

Now, compare it to Wikipedia’s: “multi-faceted response to loss… Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.”

In “When Elephants Weep”, the authors present observations of the responses of animals to death and birth of their own species. One observation is of elephants circling around the body of a deceased elephant while trumpeting, stroking the body, and rhythmically swaying for days. This book received a lot of criticism based on the belief that “mere animals could not possibly know more about emotions than humans”. And yet, we have that Wikipedia description of grief…

Grief is practical. It is natural. When my father died, it was as Eric Lindeman describes above, waves of somatic tension, then wandering that lasted for years. When I lost the use of my right arm, it was mental fatigue plus a keening ripping in my lungs. When many a project or event does not succeed, it is the sighing, emptiness in the abdomen and the combined rhythmic dropping of my hands upon my thighs with the downward tone in my speech. When grief arises, for no reason whatsoever, it is a the slicing pain in my gut, loss of appetite and foggy connection to the world.

Emily Post wrote in 1918 at a time when grief & mourning was integral to life. I am touched by the practical observation she offers. “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain the nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends. …The bereaved must be urged to “sit in a sunny room”, preferably one with an open fire. …A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral. The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming…”

Grief is a part of life. It’s wisdom unfolds gradually, shifting and changing outside of time. Awareness of that which would be normally ignored is increased. Everything is alive, poignant, awake and unconcerned.

Due to its timeless development, we can easily forget that grieving is working its magic. Here is where bringing back an element of mourning can be useful. It can be simple – wearing a black rubber band on your wrist. It is a reminder, so when you feel: ‘tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen…’, you can see the black rubber band and remember: “Oh yes, I am grieving. I need to ‘sit in a sunny room’. I need to air out the house of my mind. I cannot push. I can allow this rich life altering change to unfold.”

©Copyright 2012 Gail H Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs


In the west, at least in our portion of North America, equanimity has become confused with ‘it’s all good’. This is a misunderstanding. Obviously, it is not all good. Take a look around, or inward. Everyone I know is suffering from one thing or another, if not now, a few hours from now, or tomorrow. And if we take a look at the news from around the world, it’s rough out there. Suffering is reliable. It is not, all good, unless one is very, very, numb.

But wait! Isn’t all experience an expression, a manifestation, a play, of mind nature? Yes! When we reach the actual realization of that, rather than just the conceptual understanding, we will be Buddhas. We will be awake. And we will be more aware than ever before of how for most beings, it is not ‘all good’. Beings suffer.

Think of cows, pigs, and chickens; yes, in terms of their DNA spreading and species survival, they have been very successful, but in terms of individual lives, most of these beings live in misery and don’t make it past their 4th month before they become our or our pets’ food. Think of your neighbor, your friend, think of you; all these beings spend most of their time doing repetitive work that is not often interesting, putting up with a truckload of amazingly petty emotional crap – usually their own, increasingly having more and more physical pain, and continually trying to figure out how to make things better, since clearly if things are not better it is their fault because we all have the power to have whatever we want immediately upon wanting it…….

Given that, for most of us, experience is not all-good, and most of us have not yet fully realized our Buddha Natures, how do we live with all this suffering? How do we find our way?

Equanimity, being with what is, is an incredibly useful gift, and tool. Just what might this ‘equanimity’ be?

Consider this definition, paraphrased from Shinzen Young:

Equanimity is not a cooled out, passive or indifferent attitude. Rather, it is not interfering with the operation of the six senses, including the level of preconscious processing. It does not imply that one would fail to take action with respect to external circumstance, nor does it imply passivity or apathy. Equanimity is radical permission to feel. Equanimity is a dropping of internal friction with respect to the flow of these six senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body and the thinking and feeling mind. As a state of radical openness, equanimity is equivalent to love.

Equanimity – being with, experiencing, whatever arises as we live. Deeply experiencing – not shying away, or getting lost in trying to figure out how to fix it or in imagining a ‘better’ reality.

What good is this? This is your life, live it. It may be rough, but at least you’re alive to it, rather than lost in a hazy dream.

Seeking, Wandering, Practicing

While the nature of beings has always been full enlightenment,
Not knowing this, they wander in endless samsara.
For the boundless suffering of sentient beings
May overwhelming compassion be born in my being
.            ~ Trn. Ken McLeod

This stanza, toward the end of Rangjung Dorje’s Aspiration of Mahamudra has pierced my heart for 20 years. This teaching has left me in speechless tears for hours. In fact on one month-long retreat, I did little more than cry and memorize the third Karmapa’s twenty five stanza teaching. What could be more important than this?

Samsara continues to unfold in its usual way. Quickly we can forget what we know is important for the details of samsara. Perhaps it is our nature to get lost in the confused fog of daily life? When practicing on the cushion; simple, uncomplicated. When working in daily life; muddled.

How is your meditation practice when on the cushion and when mixed with daily activity? Can you feel the movement from uncomplicated to growing confusion? The ritual of daily meditation practice does renew commitment & intention. It is a reliable foundation. A clear initiation allows movement to be set up to follow an intentional path. Then in comes the fog of complication. How do you move through the fog without forgetting that commitment?

Recently I was in a place where there were many spiritual seekers all shopping for the best teacher, the best method, the most life changing ‘ah hah’, the quickest shift of energy, the organization with the highest level of practitioners & the most promising results. Where there are spiritual shoppers there are spiritual marketers, each with a different catchy line, name, group, study plan… It was like entering a muddy fast moving river, once caught in the current, difficult to swim to the shore. Look at us! We have a catchy name: Mahakala Radio! What is that? What does it say about our method of teaching, our catchy courses, our retreats?

Even in the muddy current of seeking, if you have developed some ability on the cushion, you can experience the motivation & effects of the movement. Are you are seeking to be seen, to be heard, to learn, to meet like-minded people, to have a deep spiritual experience, or to have someone trustworthy to follow? Consider that seeking is a phrase, not good and not bad. It is simply one phrase in a line of music, in a whole dance. Is this phrase of seeking motivated by your commitment and intention? Does the seeking grip your heart, open your heart or shield your heart? How can you know when to move on from seeking into wandering or practicing?

While the nature of beings has always been full enlightenment,
Not knowing this, they wander in endless samsara.
For the boundless suffering of sentient beings
May overwhelming compassion be born in my being

Another movement phrase is the experience of wandering. One definition of wandering is: walking or moving in a slowly, leisurely, casually or aimless manner. There is this phrase: “All who wander are not lost.” What images & experiences do you associate with the word wandering? In meditation, when mind wanders we are taught to bring it back. Does that mean that a wandering mind is ‘not good’? In mahamudra, when the mind unifies, there is no wander, no tight, yet there is definite vivid unbound rest.

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says, “Do not try to adjust your state of mind; let it be as it is naturally.” Does this mean that we allow the mind to wander & seek this idea and that? In my limited experience, the instruction is closer to: Do not create an artificial state and do not prevent anything from arising.  This is an instruction to not wander and to not stay. It is an instruction to not seek and to not neglect.   It is an instruction that can only be known by practicing. The result is: awake deeply relaxed. That sounds like a contradiction, but it only appears that way in writing. This instruction suggests to you to move from seeking and wandering to practicing.

When I was 24, I spent a year locking myself in a wood floored room for 3-4 hours every morning. My intention was: to move from the inside; allow the movement to unfold without controlling it with my idea-driven mind; be present to what arises & the quality of space. When I have mentioned this to others, they ask me variations on the question: “What were you hoping to gain?” I usually answer with a variation of “Nothing.” The conversation ends there. I never tell them that I did this again when I was 26, 28….

When the waves of gross and subtle thoughts have spontaneously subsided,
The river of unwavering mind naturally abides.
Free from the stains of dullness, sluggishness and conceptualization,
May we be stable in the unmoving ocean of shamatha.

When looking again and again into the unseen mind,
The fact that there is nothings to see is vividly seen as it is.
Cutting through doubts about its nature being existent or nonexistent,
May we unmistakenly recognize our own essence!  

~ Aspiration of Mahamudra, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

What does it mean to be practicing meditation? I suggest that you can only learn this by giving it a try. There are many instructions available.  You who are seeking or wandering read them & take them to heart.  You who are practicing, give them a try.

Milarepa said to his student Paltarbum,
“If you sincerely wish to practice the Dharma, in my tradition you don’t need to change your name. Since one can awaken to buddhahood as either a monk or layperson, you don’t need to shave your hair off or change your dress.” Then he sang this song on meditation guidance in training the mind with four meaningful analogies.

Listen here, you lay girl Paldarbum,
Listen well, you rich and dedicated maiden.

Take this sky as your example,
And train in the meditation state without center or edge.

Take the sun and moon as your example,
And train in the meditation state without increase or decrease.

Take this mountain as your example,
And train in the meditation state without shifting or change.

Take the great ocean as your example,
And train in the meditation state without surface or base.

Take your own mind as the meaning,
And train in the meditation state without worry or doubt.

Teaching her the key points of posture and mind, he set her to practice meditation.

~ Trn. Erik Pema Kunsang

Copyright® Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, April 2016





A Look at Discipline

Everyone I meet follows some kind of Discipline. We practice disciplines such as raising children, following a career path or paying our expenses. Culturally we are meant to believe that the discipline of acquiring objects, peak experiences, and money are most noble. Perhaps you have not thought of these activities as ‘a discipline’? Lets take another look.

Disciplines can be life-long such as maintaining a daily meditation practice or short lived such attending a conference. To follow a discipline is to make a vow. That vow is often unspoken, but if you look closely, you will find out the vows you have internally taken. The vow includes many elements: to show up, to apply limits, to engage optimal conditions, to attend to learning, to be aware globally and specifically to what is harmful or fruitful to the process… A discipline requires us to work deeply with certain habits or behaviors in order to learn a new skill, a new way of living or at the very least to reach a goal. So, if you look closely at a discipline that you have followed, you will find out quite a bit about your relationship to diligence, time, effort, difficulty, truth, rules, technique…

I have found that one of the most important aspects of following a discipline is that interest must come from inside. Others can encourage you, point it out to you, and describe how it may be a fruitful endeavor for you. Others can even take you to that class or inspire you to begin. Nevertheless, after that initial spark, the interest, curiosity, enthusiasm, effort must come from inside. This is not as grand an idea as intention, but rather a small sense that arises. The sense is that this discipline seems very ‘rich’ and you would like to partake of that richness to ‘learn/experience more’. This internal sense is bigger than a hunch, as it has definite non-conceptual sensory-physical energy within it. It is this energetic awakening, to subtlety beyond your mind’s voice, that will provide you with the resilience to follow the discipline, even when faced with the inevitable difficulties of any path. Look at a discipline that you have followed, what is one of the most important aspects in your experience?

I have the fortune to work with high level competitive figure skaters. They train on the ice for easily 5 hours daily, 6 days a week. They train off the ice 2 hours daily, 7 days a week. Three to four times a week, they have sessions with support people such as physical therapists, psychologists, myself, and massage therapists. They move here to work with a coach. They live often without their parents and family. They take college or high school courses. They see choreographers, clothing designers, and boot & blade specialists… Finally they have the competitions, where all that effort culminates in a scored event.

Many of these skaters begin at 8 years of age and are driven in their discipline by familiar patterns of behavior: pleasing any outside person of ‘authority’. This works to a point, until they are faced with inevitable physical, emotional & mental difficulties. A young woman of high school age is currently facing what she sees as overwhelming difficulty. For the past year, she consistently medals in the top three after her short skating program, but while skating her long program she faces overpowering mental, emotional blocks that affect her ability to skate. The result? She finishes in last place. Now, she asks, what should she do? Is her mind correct when it tells her there is something wrong with her? Does she have any worth when the coach is not pleased? How can she still follow this discipline, Now? Who & what can she rely upon to help her modify the methods she has used within her discipline?

This young skater is faced with difficulties in an extremely competitive discipline. However, every day when you follow any discipline you are faced with the similar difficulties. I ask you to connect to the interest inside. How do you reignite the energy to continue when faced with a wall? Do you know how to work with your judgmental, critical mind? Who or what could you rely upon to learn something fruitful for this path, this discipline, right now? No matter what discipline anyone follows, be it parenting, career, or competitive figure skating, we are faced with physical, emotional and mental challenges. This is the nature of disciplines, they require us to look at, understand and perhaps even shift out of the comfortable box we had thought was the limit of whom we were, are and will be. Perhaps following a Discipline is not such a tremendously arduous activity, but a definer of life itself.

I wish for you to explore this word Discipline. Look closely at the disciplines you follow. Find out about your internal interest, right now. Find out what you rely upon for support, education, assistance, encouragement when faced with difficulties. Find out what is harmful or helpful in the process of following your discipline. Apply what you know from Buddhism’s three disciplines: the practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom. Find out about Discipline in your life, so that you can continue, adjust, start afresh or with the great kindness teach another how to discover what is life itself.

Copyright© 2016 Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio

Why start meditation classes?

The fish needs to say,
“Something ain’t right about this
Camel ride –
And I’m Feeling so damn

Most of us come to meditation classes or retreats for exactly what Hafiz points to in this poem.  We get an inkling that something just isn’t right about our lives.  We cannot exactly say what it is that isn’t right.  All the externals may look great, yet the fish on the camel feels that it is not in its natural environment, and it is thirsty.  There is a yearning to connect to something deeper or higher or different.  “Is there something beyond being thirsty on this camel?” This thirst, this niggling feeling, becomes the initiator to start seeking.  What we seek is not yet known.  This is how the path begins & continues; following a feeling and seeking something that will start to quench that thirst.

In my own life, I came to practice through this kind of seeking.  In 1986, I was a dancer -training and auditioning in that competitive world.  I had studied with the “greats” of my time: Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, etc.   I landed a coveted position with a prestigious dance company.  I was filled with the sense that I had “made it”.  In the third week of rehearsals it dawned on me, I was at the top of the world & yet I was “feeling so damn thirsty”. Something wasn’t right.  All the glamor was not touching what I was seeking.

I did something crazy.  I resigned.  I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I could not continue on the camel ride.  I spent many gloomy weeks doing my usual ritual of movement classes.  Technique was no longer fulfilling, other dancers avoided me & my internal critics had a heyday.   Then it dawned on me:  though I did not yet know what I was seeking,  I did have the use of a large old room at a local church in exchange for caring for their alter.  For three hours daily, for one year, I locked myself in the empty room, with the intention to move, listen & engage what I was seeking.

For a year I listened.  Sometimes I was inspired by movement, often I laid on the floor wide awake.  At times my mind drove me crazy and periodically there was complete peace.  After a year, I said goodbye to this practice & sought a teacher who would be able to engage what I now knew & guide me in ways to follow what I yet did not know.  It a took a few years to find such a teacher.  When I found one, my heart spun; like a compass that has finally found north, like a dog, who finally understands that a person’s language means something & the possibility of a whole new world awakens.  And so it has continued for me.  I practice, I reach impasses, I listen, I contemplate the seeking heart and a new teacher appears. This is why many practice meditation, to learn to engage what we seek.  Meditation practice is not about ignoring some part of your life.  It starts like the fish on the camel; recognizing something isn’t quite right.  Then it proceeds to asking your questions, engaging your seeking heart and learning tools to bring this heart into your life.

First, The fish needs to say, “Something ain’t right about this Camel ride – And I’m Feeling so damn Thirsty.” – Hafiz

Copyright© 2015, all rights reserved Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio offers meditation classes in Colorado Springs, online and meditation retreats

How Do We Live With a Joy That is Profound and Subtle?

Can we live free from the dominance of the ever-changing weather of emotions?  Can we live with the quiet joy of life being okay, just as it is?  Perhaps yes, but this passage from Lao Tzu* would suggest it requires a different way of moving through this unfolding process of being:

Tao te Ching 15

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
They penetrated the dark.
You would never know them;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing a stream in winter.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Ephemeral as melting ice.
Simple as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
til the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

Each stanza, each of these lines, is a practice instruction.  We can make use of them that way.

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle
If we let go of the names we give to experience and go beyond settling for  just the ‘headings’ we give to experience, the vividness of each moment begins to speak.  What at first seems subtle, difficult even to notice, becomes profound – the light illuminating a loved one’s face, the bird flying overhead just now, the way the person walking appeared from nowhere, the explosive warning of a dog’s bark.  When we begin to notice, we find that every moment is just so, unlike any other.  The ‘ancient Masters’ trained themselves to experience greater and greater subtlety, to experience the vividness of life, they didn’t settle for concepts that explain life away.  We can do this.

try this practice: during the day when you are walking from here to there, let go of thinking thinking and open to your actual experience – the rhythmic crunch of your feet on gravel, the breeze on your cheeks, the heat of your body, sounds near and far that arise and disappear, the sense of the weight of your arms – notice the ever-changing movement of what comes and goes.  Let go of naming the content.  Let go of being lost in stories.

They penetrated the dark
They penetrated deeply beyond pretending to understand.  Leaving behind the tiny match flame of naming, they open in this profound darkness to the richness and vitality of what actually is.  Our minds name things, but we can let the description vanish in a moment.  We can look at the moon, stars, and sky but see no moon, stars, or sky.  We can hear the wind and far off bird calling but hear no thing.  We can walk as a breeze that comes and goes in the empty night.

try this practice:  notice a sensation inside yourself.  Bring attention to it, gently and easily.  Let your attention saturate the experience of the sensation.  Now describe the sensation, metaphorically or descriptively.  Now let the descriptions go and open, drop into, blend with, the sensation as it is.  Let go of hurrying.

They were careful as someone crossing a stream in winter
How often do we engage the moment with care, sensing our way, testing the ground as we move along, not assuming ‘the ice won’t break’?  When we pay attention we know all of life is vulnerable, every moment like a soap bubble in the wind.  Sensing the ground, sensing the wind, listening deeply to the silence.

try this practice:  walk slowly in the dark, stepping from one foot to the other, pausing on one foot, feel what it is to balance.  Stand in an open space in the dark, close your eyes, let your senses spread out like ripples around you, notice what comes up from inside you.

Alert as a warrior in enemy territory
In contested territory sleepiness is the enemy.  In a world of projected patterns, ours and those of others, wakefulness is anathema to the status quo.  We must be alert to the snares and traps that would pull us in to patterned behavior – if not, we are simply pulled under yet again!

One could substitute ‘wakeful’ for ‘alert’.  Neither ‘alert’ or ‘wakeful’ implies being tense.  We can have relaxed attention, relaxed wakefulness.  Alert to what?  It could be a heightened awareness of the darkness, the space, to what is there; like when entering a dark room or an alley, a deep forest, or a dark entryway.

Alert to nuance, the whole of the situation, relaxed wakefulness with what is unfolding.  Too often we are ignoring without even being aware of it, lost in our projected versions of what is transpiring.  We can relax, and be right where we are, alive to it!

try this practice:  be alert to the nuances of space and movement as you move through the ‘forests’ of your workplace, or the ‘jungle’ of a store – alert to what you feel, muscles and bones and skin, to sound, to the shifting shapes and colors, to internal cues.

Courteous as a guest
Consider what would be different if you acted with courtesy, as if you were a guest in someone else’s home.  Can you be courteous towards other beings, to trees and grasses and ground, to the air, to space, to a process? Courtesy takes us out of the confines of self importance.  Courtesy means assuming others are at least as central to what-is as we believe our selves to be.

try this practice:  go through a small part of a day being courteous to all you meet, even to the moment.  Notice the differences in your experience.

Ephemeral as melting ice
Consider:  we are transitional experience, never beginning, never arriving, never solid, in motion even when still.  We are not things, we are loci of ever-changing experience.  Perhaps this is different than how you usually imagine you ought to be.

try this practice:  this may seem subtle to you, but try it – for a few moments, notice the ever-changing quality of your experience of being.  Notice how each moment is different, you are different, everything keeps changing.

Simple as a block of wood
I have several blocks of clear (clear means it has straight grain and no knots) Douglas fir that I have kept for a long time because they are so simple, and so wonderful! They are dense, solid, and beautifully colored by the years.  They are simply blocks of wood – they are so clearly what they are; they have no pretense to being something else.

Imagine that you are simply awareness. Just for a few moments, forego following the complexity and drama that is our usual fare. Experiences come and go, awareness remains, clear and simple.

try this practice:  for a few moments imagine that you are simply awareness – experience what comes and goes as if it is projected holograms on the perfectly clear three dimensional ‘screen’ of awareness.

Receptive as a valley
I have spent time in a moist river valley in Washington State that is filled with azaleas and rhododendrons that begin to bloom in the Spring, a river that runs deep and wide, logging trucks that come crashing down the road, forests and clear cuts, birds nesting, and people living their lives.  Last Spring mud slides wiped out huge areas – azaleas, river beds, trucks, and whole towns – the valley receives it all.

The open space of a valley is not concerned with what comes and goes.  It receives everything, filling and emptying, neither clinging nor pushing away what comes.

try this practice:  from time to time through your day simply experience what comes and goes, without labeling it good or bad or meaningless.  Experience it; don’t cling to it.

Clear as a glass of water
It is not that The Master is clear, it is that there is no master.  When we look there is no one there, simply a presence, an awareness, a response when the situation calls for it.

try this practice:  for a moment, let your sense of ‘I’ simply be another aspect of the moment.  Be right where you are, with experience coming and going on it’s own – even the experience of ‘I’.

Patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear
Patient enough to be right where we are.  Returning again and again to the stillness of open clarity.  Even as the muddiness of stories and reactions run by, patiently returning to stillness and open clarity.  Gradually the mud settles.  If we jump in and try to speed it up, make it happen it whirls and swirls and away we go again.

try this practice:  on your next inhale, suspend it about half way and open right there;  then continue breathing, open and still.  Allow stories and reactions to come and go.

Remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself
I trained in dance and performance for several years in New York City.  Improvisation was an important part of that training as it taught one to listen to the moment and respond.  One of the most important pieces of advice I was given was:  ‘don’t move until you must move’.  This cut through the fretting, the struggle and extraneous movement created by ‘over thinking’.  Action became simple – move when you must.

Right action arises from our knowing, which is informed by all that we have done and from our perception of the needs of the situation we find ourselves in.  The way forward reveals itself, though we often don’t choose it – all too often our beliefs and fears get in the way of our knowing.  Recall the major movements in your life – for many of us they simply happened, they unfolded naturally.

try this practice:  several times a day, try not acting, not moving, until compelled to.

Doesn’t seek fulfillment / Doesn’t try to be seen
The moment we are in, this one right now, is what is.  We ‘fulfill it’ by simply being in it.  When we seek fulfillment we are acting from needs that originate in the past – needs from the past cannot be met in the present.  This can be hard to fully ‘get’.  No matter what we accomplish, no matter the wonderful experiences we stack up, there will still be something lacking.

Consider:  perhaps there is no one to be fulfilled, no one to seek fulfillment, only patterns and imprints that by their very nature are unfulfilled and cannot ever be fulfilled.  Fulfillment – contentment – can arise, but not out of our seeking to make it so.

Just as there is no one to be fulfilled there is no one to be seen.  Only patterns of need saying ‘please see me’.  No one can see those patterns, they don’t even truly exist.

try this practice:  for a few moments a day, let go of seeking anything or trying to be a certain way.  Perhaps even try being no one, simply a presence.

Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things
If we let go of wishing, we can welcome what is.  The moment becomes vital and alive, just as it is.

The underlying assumption of seeking is that right now is not as it should or could be.  Right now is all there is.  It is always all there is.  If we practice being in the ‘right now’, not expecting a better or different ‘right now’, then the moment becomes vital and can unfold with that vitality.  A different  moment unfolds when it is filled with wanting, a sense of not-having, an expectation that things should be different than they are.

try this practice:  for a few moments a day, let go of seeking anything or wishing for things to be a certain way, and welcome, actually welcome, the moment as it is.  Stand at the doorway of awareness and welcome whatever comes.


We make an agreement to move through life differently than we have been.  We agree, and then we practice this new way.  Slowly, without even knowing it, we find that we are filled with a quiet joy, content to drop into the world as it is.  We find this world is a world of wonders in it’s very ordinariness.


*Most of this translation is from Stephen Mitchell’s “Tao Te Ching”, some is from Red Pine’s “Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching” – both books are wonderful and can be purchased most places books are sold!

©Copyright Jeff Bickford, August 2014  all rights reserved.

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‘Sangha’ is most often used to describe the gathering of  people with whom we practice; most often it is the people we meet weekly, say, at classes.  Sometimes ‘sangha’ expands to include the people we meet on retreat, or even all buddhist practitioners and beyond to anyone dedicating themselves to following a path that will lead them to living awake.

We can think of sangha as a ‘community’ that will support our efforts to live wakefully.

Let’s look further.

Traditionally, the sangha is those who have commited their lives to following a path of awakening, more explicitly, those who have taken ordination.  Monastics have provided the main avenue by which teachings have been passed down through generations.  In that sense, the monastic sangha is the very foundation of the dharma.

We can also look at the sangha as the original bodhisattvas.  The boshisattvas represent compassionate presence in the world; they are not so much individuals as an ongoing response to the pain and suffering of life.  Bodhisattvas are not present in the world for themselves, but to help others become free from suffering.  The bodhisattva sangha represents the ideal of dedicating your life to compassionately responding to what arises in your experience.

So we have sangha as monastics, as the original boddhisattvas, and as the group of people with whom we practice who provide support as we embark upon a different way of experiencing the world.

Let’s go a little deeper.  If we actually look in to our experience of sangha, we realize that in the moment of experiencing, what we see as sangha members is awareness arising as experience that we then name ‘sangha’ in order to refer to the experience.  It’s easier to say ‘sangha’ then ‘several shapes and colors that seem to produce the experience of sound that tends to correspond with thoughts and emotions that arise seemingly inwardly’.

So, sangha is experience; experience that supports our practice of living wakefully.  What if all experience could be our sangha, in the sense that it helped us in our movement towards waking up?   – our partner coming into the kitchen for tea in the morning, the wind outside, the cup we pour the tea into, the people we meet as we go out into the world, including the one tailgating you, the emotions that rise up, the deep seated fear that raises it’s head at seeming random times.

We hang out with these experiences, all the time. What if we began to see them as our sangha, giving us support in our efforts to live wakefully?

We bring together ‘sangha as those that support us in our efforts to live wakefully’, and ‘sangha as all experience’, and step deeper to ‘sangha as unrestricted experience’.  All experience, not just what makes it through our filters.

We do spend a fair amount of time with All Experience.  What if what arises becomes something seen as a support?  What if we let go of restricting experience, filtering it?  What happens then?

When we can be in all of our experience, without restricting it, without the confusion of grabbing on to what we like and pushing what we don’t like away and ignoring everything else, what we do will be more apt to meet the situation. Now sangha becomes the awakened actions that arise from opening to all of our experience.  We move a little bit towards the  bodhisattvas, becoming an ongoing response to the suffering we meet in our world.

Copyright© February 2012  Jeff Bickford, Colorado Springs, CO
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Emptiness and Compassion

Emptiness has had a strong run of late as the ‘real deal’ of buddhist practice.  I’ve certainly spent a good deal of time clearing obstacles and doing practices to move towards recognizing and opening to emptiness.  I’ve found a shimmering vitality, freedom, often warmth and joy, vast spaciousness, and a bright, vivid clarity in the experiences that have unfolded.

Then, some time ago, I began to wonder, ‘where is the depth here?’  Resting in open clarity I’d find myself saying ‘I can’t get down!!’  I don’t feel depth in emptiness, light, or clarity.  There is no dimension, only what might be described as ‘space’.  Space without dimension is quite wonderful, and a bit odd.

In emptiness there is also no weight.  There is no weight because there is nothing there!  This is wonderful, and not the whole picture.  In my experience there is weight, and it is important in many ways.  Perhaps we shouldn’t regard the weight of experience as something that should, or indeed could, be transcended.

Depth implies dropping, there is a ‘down’.  Deep. One starts ‘here’ and drops right into ‘here’, down.  What gives access?  Beauty that reaches sublimity does, whether the movement of a poem or of leaves against a Fall sky.  So does pain or suffering, no matter the source of it.  When I rest with suffering as it arises there is, of a sudden, depth in my experience.  When I drop into that, another aspect of being is revealed.

Depth is dark.  When we bring light to depth it is no longer deep, dimension is gone.  Perhaps depth also has weight, that might be another aspect of the matter.  We grab a large stone and drop to the bottom of the pond, into dark water.  The space of depth is different from the spaciousness of light.  We can open to and into depth.  It is a little scary, maybe awesome.

Compassion puts us in touch with suffering.  It is not just an ability to be with suffering, to be with the difficulty, pain and discomfort of what arises in life – this can smack of heroism, of heroic tragedy.  Compassion creates, leads us to, a window.  Through the window we get in touch with something ‘so deep we cannot fathom it’.

So we have these two,,, aspects of experiencing and ways into experience.  Emptiness, the vivid, vital clarity of the emptiness of experience, of what is; and compassion, dropping into the depths opened by the suffering of experience that is pervasive and can be recognized or ignored.

Simply accessing the empty quality of experience and hanging out in the energy and light and freedom I come in touch with at some point seems incomplete.  Dropping into depth and ignoring or forgetting the empty aspect of experience leads into a darkness lacking in vitality; it is not depth but wallowing.

These two ways can, and do, function together.   Accessing the experience of the emptiness-of-being generates energy and can help to drop into the depth of experience without collapsing into reactions to it.

There is depth and emptiness.  Utterly resonant, mysterious, open, deep.  From here, we can do what situations ask for.  Which may be to simply be.

Copyright© Jeff Bickford, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs, CO

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What is Living Awake?

For certain, I can say what it is not.  It is not what we expect or hope or imagine or fantasize.  We do not get to be simply riding a happy cloud untouched by the world.  It is not survival of one’s self.  It is not justice or truth.  It is none of those things.  It is outside of our mind’s ability to plan, strategize and neatly put things into lists.  What is living awake?

Our friend is what I would call an experienced practitioner, dedicated to study and daily practice, trusting in no thing, and actively choosing to awaken in life.  He is a very gentle person, a farmer. Years ago he was a vegetarian, and when he decided to eat meat, he decided that in order to do that, he needed to make every effort to make sure the animal that provided him with food was well cared for in its life.  So, he specializes in caring for animals at various small farms.

Last week, he was fixing an irrigation line on one of the fields.  Suddenly he heard the pigs screaming for their lives.  He jumped into his truck and drove to where the pigs were grazing.  He saw two large pit bull mix dogs attacking the sows.  Without a second of hesitation, he jumped from his truck, grabbed a shovel, leaped over the fence and began hitting the dogs with the shovel.  Our friend swung with all his strength down upon the backs & heads of the dogs.  Neither did the dogs leave off the pig, nor did they notice they were being struck.  Our friend continued to whack the dogs, as his heart broke in the terrible situation.  The noise of pig screams, dogs snarling & our friend yelling alerted the other farmer from the house.  Finally as the other farmer entered the pen, the dogs broke off and separated at a run from the area.  Our friend turned to the sows to calm them down, reassure them, assess their injuries and their chances of survival.  Once the pigs were settled down, wounds tended, the veterinarian called, our friend called the local humane society and went to look for the dogs.  One of the dogs was nearby.  He gently called to it, kindly encouraged it to come near him.  It approached, wagging its tail, with a silly grin on its muzzle.  He petted the dog, soothed its nerves, cuddled it close and let it sit in his truck next to him.  The dog, with the blood of the sow on its muzzle, relaxed as they waited for the humane society to arrive.

Our friend did not place his own concern for survival in front of saving the sow.  He did not experience hate for the dogs that were attacking the sow.  He did not blindly apply a rule such as refrain from killing.  Instead, he responded to the situation, without being clouded by beliefs and ideals.  Free from fear, he was able to be there completely.

What is living Awake?
This must be close.

©Copyright 2011 Gail H GustafsonMahakala Radio, Colorado Springs, CO, all rights reserved
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