Notes from 2017 – Stille Nacht

“Stille Nacht” is Silent Night in German. On this night, 102 years ago, millions of young men in Europe lay shivering in trenches in northern France. The finest summer anyone could remember had erupted into the most violent war the world had seen. Longing for home, the German troops began singing Stille Nacht. British soldiers joined in with Silent Night. Before long, soldiers on both sides rose from their trenches to shake hands with “the enemy” and share cigarettes, cookies from home, bottles of wine, and song.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

This is the most moving modern story of Christmas Eve I know. But my subject this evening is not the song but Silence itself. At Solstice time, the earth itself pauses. Religious people of many faiths celebrate different holidays.The external busy-ness of the season stops, at least for a day, but I’ve learned from wise meditation teachers that the inner noise will continue unless we turn toward inner silence with intention.

Awareness of inner stillness and silence is the source of renewal and healing says Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master. “Silence has it’s own language.”

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition tells students who come to him for advice to “Go back home and be quiet. Silence is wiser than our discursive minds.” Tibetan Buddhist practice can be extremely complex, but Anam Thubten gives this simple instruction:

“Meditation is the art of simply sitting in silence. Sitting means just sit, just rest, just let be. Let everything be as it is. When we know how to let everything be as it is, we then we don’t have to try and be some kind of divine terminator attempting to destroy the world of delusion and sorrow. The world of delusion and sorrow is already falling apart and disappearing on its own. It sounds simple but it is also subtle. We just let everything be just as it is. Once we know that, we know everything. We have unlocked the secret to enlightenment. To sit actually means just let everything be as it is, and let the world of ideas, concepts, and sorrow dissolve on its own, which always happens. This is the highest technique.”The Magic of Awareness.

Naturally the hardest part of that instruction is letting myself be as I am – abandoning all the self-improvement projecst, the “Oh, maybe I can blog about this” mentality, and all of that. “Rest,” says Tenzin Wangyal, is nothing less than “the doorway to our true nature.”

More of that in coming episodes. Meanwhile, as a Christmas Eve gift, here is a wonderful rendition of a beautiful Shaker song, by Yo yo Ma and Allison Kraus, a song the places our true nature at the center of this holiday, and all our days…

The power of solitude

Beside the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön is probably the most widely known practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in New York City, she was ordained as a nun in 1974 and has written several popular books on Buddhist practice, including When Things Fall Apart (1996), The Places That Scare You (2001), and Start Where You Are (2004).

In 2006, Bill Moyers talked with Pema Chödrön as part of his Faith and Reason series. Here is the full interview, and below is segment, lasting just under five minutes. Chödrön, who spent a year in silent retreat, says everyone needs periods of solitude in life, even if just a brief time every day. Distraction, she says, is not just our phones and gadgets, but the distracted state of our ordinary minds. Just a little time out from this allows us to re-engage our lives with a “more spacious” awareness, and this makes it profoundly valuable.

I think, therefore

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

The Thinker, Rodin. Public Domain

When I first started to write, in my teens and early 20’s, I was hugely influenced by an eclectic group of American writers that included vocal social critics from the earliest years of the 20th century. People like Theodore Dreiser, who wrote famously clunky prose, but whose An American Tragedy (1925) was a stinging indictment of greed in our culture. Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis depicted the soul-crushing conformity of a milieu we often imagine as small town innocence. But greater than any other influence was Henry Miller, who demonstrated the power of personal essays. His books, like The Air Conditioned Nightmare (1945) shaped my view of our dominant culture.

It was natural that this kind of critique, along with that of more recent writers and essayists like Michael Ventura, should influence  my blogging. But this spring something strange happened. At the start of Lent, though I do not celebrate the season in any formal way, I announced that I would “give up” negative posts for the duration. As expected, the experiment was more interesting than I expected.

"Rodin's thinker?" by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Rodin’s thinker?” by Patricia van Casteren, 2006, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve already blogged about some of my findings, especially the obvious ones, like the preponderance of bad news in all varieties of media. And I knew in advance there would be less to say if I excluded negative themes. What I didn’t expect was to find myself wondering whether it mattered – it’s virtuous to write about things like climate change and income inequality – isn’t it? A very interesting question since I don’t really believe many writers and artists change social ills directly. Maybe Charles Dickens did, or Jacob Riis, with his photos of child labor, but Dreiser didn’t eliminate greed and Miller didn’t break the ruts of conformity. Writers and artists sometimes change individual hearts and minds, but how does that work? That is not a rhetorical question, but something I often wonder about. How does it work?

Perhaps it was this kind of question that moved Phil Ochs, one of the best of the 60’s protests singers, to write, “You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty / Ah, but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.” Maybe it’s what led Henry Miller, in his last years, to write books like, My Bike and Other Friends, and to focus on his watercolors.

Henry Miller paintings

My biggest discovery, while turning away from negative stories during Lent, concerned inner dialog rather than outer events. I’ve attended to this in a focused way in the past at various times, but not for a while. Mindfulness practice appeared on the cover of Time, so it must be gaining fad status, but that does not diminish its worth. It’s an ancient contemplative discipline that involves simply watching the contents of consciousness. Not fixing, fighting, or merging with, but simply observing what flits through awareness (here’s a good introduction to the practice).

I don’t know about anyone else, but I often find a subtle but persistent stream of critical inner narrative on self, others, and events. The narratives tend grow in the darkness yet dissolve when observed, the way shadows disappear when you turn on the light in a room. Observation eventually leads one to suspect that thoughts have no more substance than shadows, and no more inherent reality, and yet they can have profound effects. I suspect we have all had interesting synchronicities, met things in the world corresponding to our inner states. And if one subscribes at all to notions of the effect of collective thoughts, an idea given names like, “tipping point” or “hundredth monkey,” then the contents of consciousness take on a meaning beyond their effect on oneself alone.

I follow the Dalai Lama on Facebook and often note that when he is asked about topical issues like climate change, he always gives a thoughtful answer, the tone of which is invariably, “I am hopeful.” If I learned anything with this Lenten experiment, it is how hard it can be to cultivate a hopeful attitude. I also cannot imagine anything more important. Can there be a more important seed to plant than this one – “I am hopeful?”

Permission to be ourselves

Not long ago, I came upon a post by Zen practitioner, Tomas Qubeck, called “Zen: How to Recalibrate Myself Back to Zero.”  Tomas discusses his love of solitary retreats.  I’m with him on that score, but then he adds an unusual twist – “Just recently I have realized that this ‘zero’ refers to ‘zero purpose’.”

Enso circle.  CC-by-SA-3.0

Enso circle. CC-by-SA-3.0

I know from experience that letting go of purposeful action for any length of time is a very difficult practice.  Why would one even bother?  Tomas observes that an urge to be purposeful often “shows up in my mind, [as] an image or…a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.”  Sometimes busy-ness can be an addiction, he says.

I’ll leave you to read his reflections, which have nothing to do with quitting our jobs, living in caves, or any other oddball decisions his title might suggest if you take it literally.  My own thoughts veered in a different direction.  Thinking of “purposeful action,” reminded me of something I heard Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown say at a day long retreat:

“No matter what you do, your inner authorities will not be pleased.”

I’ve written several posts about Edward Brown.  I enjoy his humor, the deceptively “simple” depth of his insights, as well as the wisdom he gained as a chef and the recipes he shares in his Tassajara Cookbook.  I’ve attended three retreats with him in as many years and jotted down some of his pithy statements.  In Zen, one carries such sayings in the mind, turning them over until fresh meaning emerges.  Here are four others I’ve found valuable.  I often remember them at interesting moments.

What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.

Are you going to be a rule follower, or are you just going to be you?

No one else can give us permission to be who we are.

There is no by-the-book way for you to be you.

As you might guess, Edward Brown, who was trained in traditional Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is charting his own course these days.  If you want to learn more about his style of cooking and Zen, you can visit his home page and and listen to some of his teachings at The Peaceful Sea Sangha website.

This is post #17 in a series of reflections on spirituality and living that fellow blogger, Jason, has been posting every Monday. Each post relates to a letter of the alphabet. Who knew that “Q” could generate such a useful series of thoughts that are both timely and timeless? – Morgan

Living In The Now

This is my seventeenth post in a series, where each Monday (if possible) I will post about a point of reflection or insight that I will use to reflect and meditate on during the week. In order to make it a bit more focused and interesting, I will attempt to do this with topics beginning with letters from A to Z. I have often found that having a specific topic to reflect and/or meditate on during the week really lends itself to interesting insights and growth, because you not only have several days to reflect and meditate on the topic, but you have several days to put any lessons and insights that you discover to work in your every day life. For those that follow me on Twitter (@JasonLivingNow) I will try to write updates as the weekly topics come up during meditations, moments of reflection, or just during everyday…

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What Is Your Innermost Request?

On Saturday, Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown, gave his second all-day retreat of the year for the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group.  Zen is not exactly “my thing,” but like the SBMG as a whole, I’m ecumenical, ready to look for insight wherever I can find it, and I really enjoy Ed Brown.  Zen is actually so free of doctrine that Catholic priests have become advanced practitioners, and Edward Brown is un-doctrinaire even for Zen.  At the start of the retreat, after the hostess introduced him and  listed his “credentials,” Brown said, “Yep, I’m certifiable.”

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

“I’m not going to give you very many instructions,” he said.  “If I do, there’s the danger of wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?'”  This is one of Brown’s constant themes:  no one else can tell you the right way to do Zen or life.  One statement framed both of Brown’s visits this year, a quote from his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:  “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.”  Zen is about “becoming authentically you,” Brown said.

Brown is an accomplished chef and uses lots of cooking metaphors.  One time a group of his students was tasting a dish and one of them asked, “What am I supposed to be tasting?”  To Edward Brown, that a question all of us ask in one form or another:  “What am I supposed to be doing?”  “What am I supposed to be feeling – or experiencing – or thinking?”  “What am I supposed to be writing?”

Understanding the point takes a bit of subtlety; it does not deny that we have an “ordinary” self that must operate in “relative” reality and know how to balance a checkbook, check the oil, boil an egg, or get a job.  Brown was directing remarks to that “unmanifest self,” the “big mind” within us, our Buddha nature.  “It’s the sky not the weather,” he says.  It’s the larger “us,” that can only say, “I am,” not “I am this or I am that.”

Because this silent knowing is so often drowned out by day to day concerns, it often requires a strategy to hear it.  Meditation is one strategy.  Another is learning to ask the right kind of question.  Brown posed one such question:  “What is your inmost request?”  What do we want in our depths?

He did not mean our ordinary wants and needs, however pressing.  He gave an example, saying that for many years, his inmost request was, “I want it to be ok for me to be here.”  Questions like this do not come with fast or easy answers.  There is nothing fast or easy about becoming authentic, especially in a culture that fears real individuals.  If we’re looking for others to tell us what to do, they will be glad to oblige.

Yet failing to ask what we really are and what we truly long for carries a greater risk.  William Stafford, the poet, put it this way:  “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

A Retreat with Anam Thubten Rinpoche

I recently heard the results of a poll that I found surprising: 50% of Americans report having had a “spiritual experience,” but of that group, 80% say they never want to have another. That was exactly the opposite of the 70 or 80 people who gathered on Saturday for a daylong retreat with Anam Thubten Rinpoche, sponsored by the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group.

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

Rinpoche is a Tibetan word meaning, “precious one,” and is usually only applied to those recognized as reincarnations of spiritual leaders or teachers of the past, most famously, the current 14th Dalai Lama.

I first attended a retreat with Anam Thubten in December, 2005 and have been fortunate enough to get to a half-dozen more since then, for his home and teaching center, the  Dharmata Foundation in Point Richmond, CA, is not far away.  In the years since I first heard him, the clarity, resonance, and joy contained in his teachings have brought him greater renown:  his book, No Self, No Problem, originally published by the Dharmata Foundation, has been picked up by Snow Lion Press (a self-publishing success story!), and he was chosen to kick off the ongoing series of online retreats at

In my own efforts to write of the concept of no-self last December, I quoted Anam Thubten for his simple, experiential way of presenting the concept:  “this ‘I’ is a fictitious entity that is always ready to whither away the moment we stop sustaining it.  We don’t have to go to a holy place to experience this.  All we have to do is simply sit and pay attention to our breath, allowing ourselves to let go of all our fantasies and mental images”

It should be clear that any culture like Tibet, that believes in Rinpoches, is not using the concept of “no-self” to tell us we don’t exist or that life does not continue after death.  In Anam Thubten’s vision, “no-self” means an end to the painful illusion of seperation, an end to isolation, an end to living in a friend-or-foe, fight-or-flight world.

Yet although he mentioned this concept, which first drew me to his teachings, on Saturday he had a different focus, “Primordial Mind,” the unconditioned and indefinable base of what we are, prior to concepts, prior to ego, prior to all delusions.  The experience of this spacious mind is surprisingly near if we are willing to let go of fixed concepts, and practice a simple meditation technique, and if we are motivated by devotion, by longing for union with the absolute the way a thirsty man longs for water.

Anam Thubten’s book elaborates the concepts we need to let go  of as well as his favorite meditation practice – the simple but difficult art of learning to relax and let go of effort, even the effort to meditate “well.”  This longing – for God or the guru or Buddha; for oneness, or emptiness or, selflessness, or enlightenment – however we conceive of the ultimate good, is finally a longing for love, he said, and this is what remains when our fixed ideas break down.  In Anam Thubten’s teaching, God is love, or Buddha Nature is love, as it is in the words of many other spiritual masters.

My description is close to being new-agey, which is why Anam Thubten is the teacher and I am not.  He didn’t gloss over the difficulty and struggles involved in a serious spiritual search, and in his quiet and understated way he noted that if one is not receptive, “this talk will be very strange.”

In the end, it is the person of the teacher himself that does the convincing.  Is this person really what he seems – genuinely centered, full of peace and compassion?  I believe Anam Thubten really is a man of peace and joy and I trust his message that what he has found is accessible to anyone willing to look and make the effort.   More information and his teaching schedule can be found at the Dharmata Foundation website,

Dharmata is a word that means, “the way things truly are.”


A busy couple of days:  not only a bit of  furious blogging, but finishing up three separate writing projects and reviewing manuscripts for two critique groups.

This morning I attended the California Writer’s Club monthly breakfast and talked with a retired psychiatrist about what’s broken in our mental health care system (hint:  a drug for all that ails you).

After breakfast I came home, and finding this week’s Time in the mailbox, read one of the lead articles, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?”

After that it was time for final proofing and submission of entries to two of the writing contests I’ve mentioned here.  The submissions are on their way, one electronically, one by snail mail.  I’ll have results (or lack thereof) in June and November respectively.

Finally – finally, it was time to brew a cup of coffee in my new French Press (which I am just starting to master), kick back, and enjoy one of life’s greatest luxuries – SILENCE.

Strangely enough, I realize I can’t really say what silence is. It isn’t just lack of noise; the yard guys came with their leaf-blowers, and though I do not enjoy the sound, it didn’t throw me out of inner stillness today (though it sometimes does).

Silence is not just about lack of thoughts, though it does seem to be about experiencing them as impersonal events, like the weather.

Inner silence is not just about meditation, though paradoxically, I would not have found a way to get there if I had not been looking for it in meditative disciplines for years and years and years.

I didn’t learn to find silence on a meditation cushion, but at work, among the cubicles.  I didn’t find it through some technique, but because I quit smoking and really missed the hourly time-out-from-everything I used to enjoy when I’d step outside every hour for a cigarette.

I missed those time-outs long after the nicotine was out of my system.  I took to going outside every hour for ten minutes, thought at first I just did a lot of inner whining as I watched other people light up.

Then, at some point, it simply happened:  I found my time-out mojo, my inner stillness.  For me, it has to do with listening.

I think anyone can find it, it’s really easy.  What happens when someone says, “Hey, listen, what’s that?”

Silence is what happens!   Thoughts and distractions return soon enough, so you listen again.  Distractions come, listen again.

Maybe sounds work best for me because they are not my dominant sense and I really have to pay attention.  Thinking of attention I remember a Zen story that goes something like this:

A student goes to the master and says, “Sir, what is the key to enlightenment?”

The master says, “Pay attention.”

A few moments later the student says, “I am paying attention.  What is the secret?”

“Pay attention.”

The student begins to get flustered.  “I am paying attention.  Are you going to tell me or not.”

“Yes.  Pay attention.”

You get it, and presumably the student got it eventually too – the doorway into one of life’s greatest luxuries.