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

Why start meditation classes?

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

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.  www.mahakalaradio.org

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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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Color

 

There seems to be a general idea that western buddhist practitioners should be expressionless, should be above emotions, should be colorless.  It seems to me a limiting view, one that chokes this vital experience we call life and stuffs it in a tidy decorative box.  Perhaps this idea is what created Pandora’s Box, where emotions are stuffed away, suppressed, repressed, hidden from view and masked behind a crocodile smile.   We all know where that leads.

Once I was on retreat & the teacher called attention to what she saw as my inappropriate clothing.  I was sitting in front with colored toesocks.  I experienced embarrassment in front of the group.  I spent the rest of the day sitting in uncomfortable and painful emotional experiences.  It sent me deep into questioning: “was I drawing attention to myself by wearing colored socks as the teacher implied?”, “what should buddhists wear?” and “what was the intention for retreat?”  I went right into the embarrassment, shame, confusion… the whole mess.  I did not try to get rid of it, but instead let it be there, ripping away.  At some point, the whole mess fell apart & I saw things as they were with a sense of clarity & unbound joy.  The result was that I continued to wear my colored clothing, free from conventional concerns.

You see, “living fully awake” implies being alive in the changing dynamics that are energy itself, neither discarding nor grasping at what is and what arises.

“Unpolluted by meditation with intellectual effort
Undisturbed by the winds of everyday affairs,

Not manipulating, letting what is be itself,
May I become skilled in the practice of mind and maintain it.”

Ranjung Dorje the 3rd Karmapa gives us some hints: learn to meditate without intellectual subversion, learn to experience the gales and breezes of life, learn to release rigid control on how “things should be” and let what is be as it is.  Learning to do these requires practice, guidance, courage and consistency.  He speaks nothing of shutting down life, discarding colored socks or preventing emotions from being felt.

May I become skilled in the practice of living in the winds & letting what is be itself.

Copyright© Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, 2012

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Look In

As we practice, we slowly learn to turn our focus
from “them” and toward the heart of the matter, which lies in our view, our beliefs, our own beloved thoughts.  We leave our house of blame and excuse, and enter into a new relationship with that which runs our life.  That is the first step on the path.  We give up “them” & go where our heart knows to look.

We are faced with having to learn how to relate to this crazy wild monkey which is holding the reigns of an unruly dirty elephant.  Are you willing to train?  Do you have any tools?  What kind of training would be most effective?  Where do you start?

I have looked at the elephant in this image of the Stages of Shamatha for years.  What is the elephant?  How does it manifest in life?  The elephant is dark, it is hidden from view & slowly gets clean along the path.  It takes time.  An elephant cannot be rushed with force if you want a friendly relationship with it.  Some years ago I had the fortune to work with an elephant.  What surprised me, was the elephant’s incredible sensitivity to touch.  The very lightest weight of just one finger on its skin resulted in movement throughout its whole body.  I had to modulate my use of light direct pressure in order for the elephant to respond with light touches of his trunk on my shoulder.  In this way, the elephant and I slowly developed a kind heartfelt trust in our mutual intention; to open to the mystery of experience.

The elephant reminds me of this practice question: What is my most beloved thought?  This cannot be discovered through pushing, forcing or any other such nonsense. This is the hidden thought about “me” which is cherished, adorned, protected at all costs.  It is the basis for most actions & consequences, yet it is often not in our awareness, it is in the dark.  It is like a magnet, attracting things that support it and dispelling things that challenge it.  It has become so covered up, that we no longer recognize or even see it.  It is buried yet very acutely active.

When we enthusiastically persevere, practice exposes the elephant, our buried beloved thought.  We thought we only had a monkey to train & now we see we also have an elephant.  Whereas the monkey has been primarily wild, the elephant is primarily sensitive and afraid.  The monkey requires patient attention & the elephant requires light warmth & kindness.  Working with the most beloved thought cannot be rushed if we want to develop a friendly relationship.  It takes time.  This is why the practice of awakening is not for everyone.  It has no quick fixes, no passive modalities, nobody can do it for you or to you.  Yet, for some, even though the monkey is wild & we see it is leading a sensitive dirty elephant, we are not dismayed.   We do not shout out “why me?’, but instead soften into experience and say “this is it”.   When we look in, we trust what arises to be exactly the path of the moment.   In this way, we learn by being in the richness of life.

Copyright© Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, 2011

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On Fish and Camels

First

The fish needs to say,

“Something ain’t right about this

Camel ride –

And I’m Feeling so damn

Thirsty.”

Most of us come to practice meditation 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 glamour 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©Gail Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs, April 2011

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Responsibilities

This is for practitioners to read before attending our meditation classes and our Meditation & Movement retreats.

2018 Responsibilities for Practitioners and Teachers at Mahakala Radio

The responsibilities we ask of ALL our participants are:
1.  Do the meditation practices that are given in the class
2.  Stay within the time-frame of the class
3.  Apply the meditation practice in your life to the best of your ability
4.  Be clear about your intention in participating and return to that daily
5.  Do not misuse your meditation practice, other practitioners or the teacher/student relationship for your emotional needs
6.  Be curious, ask questions, be willing to practice and open to the effects & results
7.  Come to class ready to speak about your sitting & daily life meditation practice during the previous week

Responsible contact with other participants
In some meditation courses, we request in-person participants to contact an online participant at least 1x during the course.   Guidelines will be provided & a sign-up sheet will be distributed for this purpose.  We do not monitor these interactions.  This is a way to meet another practitioner & apply what you are learning.  We expect all participants to show up with respect, kindness and mindfulness.  A list will be sent to you to set up a time with another participant.  We expect you to not misuse the email list or the discussion.

For classes offered online – Responsibilities of our distance participants
1.  Email us at least one time a week, at least three days before the next scheduled meditation class date.  We want to know about your practice, questions/concerns or anything you would like discussed in the next class.
2.  If you have a personal practice concern that needs immediate attention, let us know & we may request to talk in-person.
3.  We offer distant participants one private meditation consultation during the course.  This is to support you as a practitioner & there is no extra fee.  This appointment can be with Jeff or Gail, your choice.

Jeff Bickford and Gail Gustafson have the following responsibilities:
1.  To respond in a timely manner & address what is presented by each individual
2.  To teach what we know through experience
3.  To train practitioners through interactive methods in tools and methods on their path
4.  To point out emotional, physical and mental blocks/patterns & to provide means to address them
5.  To not misuse the teacher/student or the teacher/teacher relationship
6.  To introduce the possibility of living from a different view & finding your way

*A teacher cannot:  do the work for you, save another person, answer your deepest questions

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The Teacher – Student Relationship

We need teachers to guide us in spiritual work, it is far too easy to lose our way or for our practice to get derailed and go nowhere.  Having someone to point out when we are falling into confusion is useful, perhaps essential.

In spiritual practice, a teacher appears in order for learning to take place.  The teacher’s role is to create the conditions for a student to learn what they need to know in order to move towards meeting the intentions that have brought them to practice.  The student’s role is to fully engage what arises in the interaction and bring that into their practice.

A student – teacher relationship is defined by the intention of the relationship – to help the student recognize and move towards their intention in practice. All interactions are defined by this intention, everything else is secondary.  The interaction is not to meet the teacher’s needs, or the needs of the student for companionship, recognition, or acceptance.

A teacher can appear in many guises:  as a spiritual friend who is there to deeply listen and sometimes give feedback to what they hear and observe, as a consultant who gives feedback on a student’s engagement and interaction with a practice process, as a ‘practice teacher’ who gives a series of practices designed to meet the student’s practice intentions.  It can also take the form of an ‘inspiration teacher’ – a teacher who inspires the student on their path but doesn’t interact with the student directly.

The relationship is best realized if it takes the appropriate form to meet the student and their needs.

The student and the teacher are equals, but in this interaction there is a role difference – the student comes to the teacher because there is something they wish to learn and they hope it can learn it from the teacher.  So there is a respect there.  The teacher recognizes that the student has a great deal of life experience and respects what they bring to the interaction.

Both parties in this relationship have responsibilities. If the teacher or student does not abide by them, then the relationship is over.

The student has four primary responsibilities:
1.  Be clear about your intention.  
Recall it daily.
2.  Practice what is taught, as it is given.  
Work on the method as the teacher intended, without changing it.  If you have questions, ask.   Notice the effects of your practice.  Be proactive.
3.  Take the practice into your life and work with it.  Notice the effects.  It is in your life that practice bears fruit.
4.  Be an open vessel
. If we try to add water to a full pitcher, the water will overflow.  You need to have space available in order to learn.

The teacher has four primary responsibilities:
1.  To not misuse the relationship for their own needs,
2.  To teach what they know from their own experience,
3.  To train the student thoroughly in the techniques & tools that are appropriate,
4.  To point out the physical, emotional, and mental patterns that block the student & provide methods for addressing them.

The teacher expects that the student will listen to what is suggested and whole heartedly open to it enough to try it out.  The teacher in turn will respond to the student’s experience when they try out what has been offered, open to their questions, and let the interaction evolve to continue meeting the student’s intentions.

The relationship requires that both student and teacher be as open and clear regarding their experience as each is able to be.

A student needs to be awake and attentive as they check whether this teacher truly meets them.  At the same time this requires a certain amount of commitment, a willingness to fully engage what the teacher suggests in order to find out if it speaks to their intentions in practice.  At no point should a student give up their own discernment, at no point should a student not raise questions when things don’t make sense.

A student may work with several teachers over a period of time, fully engaging the relationship with each one, but after ten years or so they may begin to be able to deeply trust that the student-teacher relationship with a particular teacher is speaking to their intentions in practice and commit to working with that teacher.  This is when practice begins to deepen and mature.

But even then, the student needs to continually check what a teacher suggests or points to against their own experience.  And keep in mind that teachers are human and may become caught up in reactions that can confuse the interaction.  The student never gives up their power or their responsibility to be mindful and as awake as they are able to be.

Jeff Bickford and Gail Gustafson
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Finding a Teacher

Unfortunately, teachers are humans.  I have said this often recently in response to the many varied difficulties between teachers and students that arise in this complex relationship.  With power and protection, teachers can go awry.  With projections and blind devotion, students can go askew.  The teacher and student become lost in the Four Obsessions from Buddhism, perhaps most often in pleasure & power.  Students suffer emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. The teacher suffers in the same way.  Others suffer by developing distrust of all teachers.  It is said to take a minimum of ten years to recover from the kind of confusion and abuse that can appear in this dynamic relationship.

“When the Student is Ready, the Teacher will Appear”.  This saying is tossed about in regard to spiritual teachers.   It sounds great.  However, few of us have any experience working directly with a spiritual teacher.  It can be confusing, as we have no categories that fit this kind of relationship.  This applies whether the teacher is of a movement centered form such as yoga, qi gong or a stillness centered form such as meditation.  Is this a therapist-client relationship?  no.  Is this a parent-child relationship? no.  Is this a friend-friend relationship? no.  The spiritual teacher-student relationship is unique, having elements of other relationships, it is still none of those.  Clarity needs to be brought into this relationship, so that its benefits can bloom without causing harm.

There are three categories that can clarify this relationship.  What is the basis for a spiritual teacher-student relationship?  How do you discern a useful teacher from a harmful one?  What are the responsibilities of this relationship?

My teacher, Ken McLeod, spoke of the teacher-student relationship as is a Shared Aim relationship.  The Aim is the student’s awakening.  It is plain and simple.  Anything beyond that basis is extra.

In the tradition that I practice, ten years is considered a short amount of time to decide upon a teacher.  No matter how long you take, here are a few points that will help the process.

1.  Find out why the teacher is teaching – what is their motivation?
Ask them.  Are they teaching for power, fame, money? Is their intention explicit?  Observe their teaching.  Does their teaching instill hierarchy, create trance, build connections, diminish others…?  Does their teaching align with your intention?  What are this teachers unique gifts?  What are they lacking?

2.  Find out why students work with this teacher
Ask and observe the students.  How does the group behave?  Do they seem special, exclusive, kind…?  How do they describe the teacher?  What is explicitly and implicitly expected of the students?   Do the student’s speak openly?

3.  Find out if the teacher’s practice is in balance
Balance is dynamic, not static.  Are their words & actions in balance?  What methods are taught to balance physical, emotional and mental material?  Is there too much focus on ascent; ‘leaving the physical plane’, ‘attaining higher energy”, or on descent; ‘dismantling blocks’, ‘digging deeper’?

Both parties of a Shared Aim relationship have responsibilities.  If the teacher or student does not abide by them, then the relationship is over.  The student has four primary responsibilities.

1.  Be clear about your intention
Recall it daily.  Too many students abandon their intention when a charismatic teacher provides “a better one”.  Blindly giving up your intention leads to problems, such as; practicing to get something from the teacher – attention, power, sex…

2.  Practice what is taught as it is given
Work on the method as the teacher intended, without changing it.  If you have questions, ask.   Notice the effects.  Be proactive.  If you feel the teacher is asking you to do something unreasonable, secret, or special – watch out!

3.  Apply what is taught in your life
Take the practice into your life and work with it.  Notice the effects.  It is in your life that practice bears fruit.  If you feel something is unbalanced, address it.

4.  Be an open vessel
This requires true maturity, the willingness to look inside and work with the material of your life.  If we try to add water to a full pitcher, the water will overflow.  You need to have some space available in order to learn.  Recall your intention.

5.  Trust
Once you have decided upon a teacher and have studied with them for some time, then you need to trust their guidance.  Follow their suggestions.  Their guidance in your practice will move you to places that are both uncomfortable and sublime.  You need a teacher whom you can trust and with whom you can dive into what is beyond words.  If the teacher’s guidance is not sound, meaning they are abusing ethical behavior and causing harm physically, emotionally or mentally to you or others, then you have a problem.  It is up to you the student to name it as such, as abuse is never okay.

The teacher has four primary responsibilities.  They are: to not misuse the relationship for their own needs, to show the student the possibility of living awake, to train the student thoroughly in the techniques & tools they will need, to point out the physical, emotional, mental patterns that block the student & provide methods for addressing them.

The teacher-student relationship is like weather;  projections form fog, emotional needs cause rain, and mental confusions build thunderstorms.  There are numerous stories of dangers, downfalls & destruction.  It requires commitment, active attention & trust.  Still, the efforts you make working with this type of teacher are worth the time.  This relationship can be a catalyst for deep insight to unfold.  Through it, the mystery of being can open at the center your life and there is no need to look anywhere else.

Copyright© Mahakala Radio May 2018 –  Gail H Gustafson