dharmablog: Discovering My (No) Self

They say everything happens for a reason. I say they’re wrong. Prolonged chronic pain, for instance, can cause immense suffering with no redeeming trade-off.

But sometimes a door does close in a way that allows another door to open.
I’ve recently begun taking a medication which serves its purpose but has a yucky side effect: I feel more agitated than usual and, as a result, am more tempted to act out.

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dharmablog: Giving Busyness the Business

Every couple of weeks we feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  To read Michael's other dharmablog posts, go here.

I don’t think of meditating as doing nothing. But compared with Tina Brown's self-described "balls-to-the-wall" way of doing business, it just may be.

In a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Brown — former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor and current editor-in-chief of the website The Daily Beast — we learn that “Brown drives her staff at warp speed. "I'm up from 5 a.m., going online and sending BlackBerry messages out from then until I go to bed," she said. "People get used to that. … Kathy O'Hearn from CNN has come over to develop our Web TV. Kathy says, 'Don't come here unless you're balls to the wall!' So now we call it 'B to the W’!"

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dharmablog: That’s Why We Do It

Every couple of weeks we feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  To read Michael's other dharmablog posts, go here.

Multiday meditation retreats produce many deep rewards, but none quite as immediate as that magic moment when you notice that, after endless hours of not doing or saying anything, you’re as high as a stoner at a ‘60s pot party. (One prominent teacher went so far as to tell me, “That’s why we do it.”)

My latest “far-out” flash arrived during a six-day affair at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., when I found myself utterly absorbed in monitoring a lone ant emitting 911 pheromones to the Missing Persons Bureau at the nearest anthill.

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dharmablog: Beginner’s Mind — The Play’s the Thing

Every couple of weeks we feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  To read Michael's other dharmablog posts, go here.

"The goal of [meditation] practice is always to keep our beginner's mind."
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Beginner's mind — that state in which one experiences each moment for just what it is, unmediated by storylines, habits, or judgments — has been on my non-beginner's mind since returning from a recent vacation at the charming coastal town of Cambria, CA. I'm not by nature a nature guy; give me air conditioning and room service any day. But when my significant other and I lucked into the spectacle of dozens of momma elephant seals — exhausted from giving birth — lolling on the beach in various stages of repose, I was transfixed.

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dharmablog: Freeing the Blizzard Within

The received wisdom of the dharma is that when we’re enraged — even if that rage is justified — the best plan is to be mindful of what’s going on in the moment but to refrain from precipitously acting out on those angry feelings.

I’ve worked on this for many years, with rewarding results, not just for me, but also for those around me. I rarely send out the first draft of an angry email and usually don’t react as defensively as I once would have to perceived criticism.

But a couple of weeks ago, the dharma revealed something new.

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dharmablog: What A Difference Five Years Made

Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  This is Michael's fifth "dharmablog" entry.  To get caught up, go read his other posts here.

It was the best of metta, it was the worst of metta…

In the summer of 2005, I attended a seven-day metta retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. The little I knew about metta — a Pali word usually translated as "lovingkindness" for one’s self and others — felt like a non-starter to me.  Compassion for myself?  Please. I went because the retreat happened to fall at a convenient time.

James Baraz, one of the teachers, began by explaining that instead of practicing Vipassana, we would be silently repeating four phrases during every waking moment for the entire seven days. (Some variation of, “may I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at ease.”) The sinking sensation in my stomach reminded me of when I was 10 and was instructed to play the piano in front of an auditorium full of people.

I resolved to stick to good old Vipassana. It would be my little secret. And if I got busted, what could they do to me? Send me more loving-kindness?

Then my competitive streak kicked in, and I decided if everyone else could do metta, so could I.  Worst case, I’d return to Vipassana or run screaming from the magnificent meditation hall. I stuck with the phrases as much as I could, and lo and behold: The experience was sheer torture. Getting through that week was an exercise in pure endurance, like running a marathon with no training and an aching Achilles tendon. Except for the last day, which was fantastic. Because it was over.

This past summer, exactly five years later, I completed the same retreat — same place, food, time of year, most of the same teachers and instruction. But this time, repeating the phrases felt natural — as everything slowed down, I felt as though the prior metta retreat, and the intervening years of regular Vipassana and metta practice — had built up my meditation muscles, like swimming or practicing the piano every day had trained me for those activities. At retreat’s end, I was euphoric; it was as though I’d completed that marathon with energy to spare. Of course, I was also thrilled it was over — I hadn’t changed that much!

I know it’s not a good idea to practice meditation with any particular outcome in mind, but there’s nothing wrong with being mindful of the wonderful changes that accrue from intense practice.  According to Rick Hanson, co-founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplation, focusing on positive mental states creates grooves in the brain that can help reroute a lifetime of zero-sum conditioning.

Our Spirit Rock teacher James Baraz, whose recent book Awakening Joy fleshes out these themes, suggests that noticing and appreciating moments of happiness or joy — even fleeting ones–just a few times a day can, within weeks, cause our everyday minds to incline more towards these states. Imagine the potential of a week’s worth of this kind of focus.

Thanksgiving season can pressure us to “be grateful” and express that gratitude. And science tells us that grateful people are generally more satisfied with life than those who aren't; they even exercise more and sleep better! But real gratitude can’t be forced. Practicing metta is as good a way as any I know of to cultivate authentic gratitude. Because it arises from compassion.

Sigman Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.  He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint.  He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond.  Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.

dharmablog: The Accidental Sitting Group

Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  This is Michael's fourth "dharmablog" entry.  To get caught up, read posts 1, 2, and 3.

If you’ve read a book, taken a class or attended a retreat that deals with mindfulness meditation, chances are you’ve noticed a reduction in your stress levels, and experienced greater clarity and, perhaps, spiritual growth. You may want to build on these benefits by developing your own meditation practice.

But then comes the really tough part: Resisting the temptation to check email every five seconds, refresh that website you just left, update your Facebook profile daily or otherwise fritter (or Twitter) away the hours — anything but sit still!

Fear not: the support you need may be right around the corner.
Five years ago, I was doing my best to enrich my practice by taking advantage of the opportunities provided by InsightLA. But I live in Laurel Canyon, and the trips back and forth to Santa Monica were sometimes more stressful than a bad day at the office.

Trudy encouraged me to connect with Gene, a fellow Canyonite who was looking for someone to sit with. We clicked, and he began coming over every Tuesday evening around 7 to meditate for an hour or so — something I’d never have dreamed of doing on my own. Our conversations were interesting — Gene is a brilliant guy and something of an insight machine — but mostly we just sat.

Over the next six months, several other friends, neighbors and InsightLA-ers dropped in, and before long, we’d turned into a small but mighty group. When InsightLA put our group on their activities list as a kind of East Side outpost, still more folks joined.

Typically, we start with a few questions or comments and then sit for 40 minutes, after which I’ll read something from a favorite author — often a Buddhist, but sometimes not — and we discuss whatever dharma-related issues are on our minds. (Members are also encouraged to bring stuff to read.) We end with a very brief sit.

Feedback from attendees — at least those who come back! — indicates that they feel safe sharing intimacies they might not have revealed even to close friends or loved ones. The energy of the group — a mix of discipline, peer pressure and emotional/spiritual connectedness — helps bring out compassion, humor and empathy.  (This will be explored in a forthcoming blog.) And many find that the collective meditation experience makes it easier — though by no means easy — to establish and keep up a regular practice.

For me, hosting the group has been an extraordinary experience. I’m not a trained teacher, but I know enough to help beginners with the basics. The young daughter of a good friend didn’t think she could sit still for 40 minutes; all I had to do was convince her that she could, and she did.  I can tune up my managerial skills by guiding discussions and keeping them from getting off point. (Okay, I’ll admit it: One time, when an art aficionado returned from a long trip to Italy, we spent a whole discussion period talking about cameras.) And the research I do to prepare the readings — poring over the latest tome by Jack Kornfield or finding a dusty copy of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” the first book I read about meditation — is an education in itself.

In the past year, we’ve held several one-day mini-retreats, patterned after InsightLA’s day-longs. Sometimes only a handful of members attend, which provides a unique opportunity for extended practice with a small group.

InsightLA also sponsors several other groups around the city. (Check out the list here.) There are no fees for attending, but participants are given the chance to make a donation to InsightLA.

Another benefit of neighborhood meditation groups: They can provide a connection to your micro-community. In Nichols Canyon, for instance, a group emerged from neighborhood email blasts.

Recent brain research indicates that the astonishing success of Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t so much about a belief in a higher power or the Twelve Steps, but resides more in the power of the safe group dynamic. You can be the catalyst for just such a group — or just join one.  It might make the difference between wanting to practice regularly and actually doing so.

Next time: Let’s get metta-physical

Sigman blog photo Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.  He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint.  He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond.  Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.

dharmablog: Finding Sangha

Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  This is Michael's third  "dharmablog" entry.  Click here to read posts 1 and 2.

I met Trudy Goodman in early 2005 after attending my first Spirit Rock retreat (read all about it in my last dharmablog post.) A Spirit Rock teacher had recommended Trudy — a leading Buddhist meditation teacher who’d recently moved to Santa Monica after years of successful practice in the Cambridge area — as the go-to person in L.A. to help me learn more about Vipassana and deepen my practice.

I was 55, with no job, no girlfriend and no clue. (Yes, I’d gotten fixed up a million times and tried Internet dating, but while that produced much hilarity, a relationship had not been forthcoming.)

Trudy was confident that the dharma was the way to go, countering my skepticism by noting that Buddhist meditation had worked pretty well for billions of folks for over 2500 years.

Then I moved to Atlanta for nine days.

Out of nowhere, I’d been offered a job as publisher of Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s alternative newsweekly, and I acceptance on the spot in a moment of delusional euphoria. I’d been publisher of LA Weekly for many years, and was sure I could handle the job. And since I’d dated just about every single single woman in L.A. at least once, I figured I’d resume my search for the perfect companion in an untapped city.

I flew to Atlanta two days after agreeing to take the job, and showed up for work the following morning. On my first day I rammed into the first Noble Truth — that there is suffering — when it turned out that being the boss didn’t come with sufficient clout to garner me a key to my new office. Three days and many more absurdities later — e.g. an all-staff meeting to debate how many beers employees could drink on any given shift (zero was not an option), it began to dawn on me to that I might have to replace my newly-adopted narrative, “Successful Publisher Wows Atlanta, Girls flock to Eligible Bacheltor!” with something closer to, “Erstwhile Publisher, Still Girlfriendless, Flees Job From Hell.” 

On my fourth day, craving for career satisfaction was replaced by aversion to disaster when I discovered that Creative Loafing was living up to its name by taking on so much debt that its future was all but hopeless.
 
I somehow endured until my eighth day, when, with a clarity I never would have possessed without my meditation practice, I grokked that the first Noble Truth doesn’t mean we’re meant to inflict suffering on ourselves.

I quit the job and beelined back to L.A., appreciating the town, and my house, more than ever. I resumed working with Trudy, whose psychological background and insights separate her from other Buddhist teachers I’ve known.

She encouraged me to experience each meditation session not as “good” or “bad,” but rather as a chance to experience whatever was happening in each moment — torture or joy, anger or regret, grasping or calmness. And sure enough my view of myself as a terrible meditator softened. (Don’t get me wrong: I never stopped believing I was terrible at meditation — still do — but I did develop a healthier relationship to my terribleness.)

Over the next couple of months, it became clear that though I’d meditated faithfully for several years and gone to a few retreats, I needed sangha, a Pali word often translated as "community with common goal, vision or purpose.” Trudy’s nascent InsightLA organization turned out to be a great place to find sangha. I had the opportunity to help out a bit on the business/marketing end and to attend a number of InsightLA classes and one-day retreats.

The short retreats were daunting at first. One time I sat all day next to a former LA Weekly colleague who I don’t think liked me because I’d fired her supervisor some ten years before. I watched my emotions careen from fear to guilt to self-righteous anger, and alternately craved and dreaded the end of the retreat, when my former co-worker and I would have to talk — or not. In the event, we exchanged friendly words, and I saw for the umpteenth time how much energy we expend spinning out painful fantasies. Another time, I sat between two friends — we’d saved seats, like in high school. Though we barely spoke, there’s no question our mutual connections deepened.

Before long, I was part of a community of like-minded seekers who shared the challenges and rewards of the dharma. Part of our bond, of course, was that we all remained attached to our belief that we were terrible meditators.

Next time: Starting my Tuesday night meditation group

Sigman blog photo Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.  He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint.  He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond.  Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.

dharmablog: Too Much of Nothing?

Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  Read on for Michael's second  "dharmablog" entry about his first residential retreat experience.  Click here to read his first post, about his initial introduction to meditation practice.

"Oh, when there's too much of nothing,
No one has control"
–Bob Dylan

Twas the night before retreat/And all through my head/Drops of excitement/Met oceans of dread
–Michael Sigman

As I packed comfortable sweats, running shoes and anti-anxiety meds on the eve of my first extended meditation retreat, I checked voice- and email more than once, holding on to the slim hope the whole thing would be cancelled so I could enjoy a real vacation with a clear conscience. No such luck.

I’d been practicing meditation on my own for several years, but was terrified about the prospect of sitting eight to 10 hours per day for five consecutive days. Worse, for the duration of what the folks in charge dubbed, without irony, a “short” retreat, there would be no reading, writing, TV, cell phones or music. The kicker? No talking. They called it “silence,” but to me it loomed more like high school detention.

Arriving to the awesome beauty of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA — the majestic woods, gentle deer, preening wild turkeys and sunbathing lizards — only made things more tortuous. I figured if I couldn’t appreciate it, surely (a) it was my fault and therefore (b) I was a terrible candidate for spiritual growth. I’m a mechanical moron, so when I was assigned a “yogi job” operating a dishwashing machine I had visions of losing a digit or two. The urge to grab my car keys and beeline it back home was thwarted only because admitting defeat would have been too humiliating.

The rundown of our schedule posted at the entrance to Sprit Rock’s magnificent meditation hall was similar to that for summer camp minus the swimming, softball and DDT anti-mosquito attacks.  Sitting still and doing nothing was the main activity. Going nowhere — walking back and forth across a room — was also prominently featured. Sleeping, at least for me, would make only a cameo appearance, leaving that much more time for doing nothing.

The simple but far from easy instruction from the three smart, generous teachers — watch my mind, and when it wandered, go back and watch it some more — was awful, harrowing and thrilling. Awful because it seemed that every negative thought and gut-wrenching emotion I’d ever had returned for long visits before yielding to another parcel of misery. Harrowing because five days of silence felt as daunting as scaling mountains, camping in remote deserts, rafting down rapids or plumbing the depths of the sea.  And thrilling because, with the help of dharma talks and other advice from the teachers and the silent solidarity of 75 or so other retreatants, I experienced a cumulative sense of accomplishment, nourishment and, yes, small “e” enlightenment.

For a while, I thought I was going nuts. I spent a whole day obsessing over a nasty thing a former boss had said years before. But eventually, I came to understood that my sanity-challenged thoughts arose unbidden and needn’t represent anything more than ambient noise.

And who gets to decide who’s nuts, anyway? As the great and hilarious Spirit Rock teacher Wes Nisker points out, what we’d call schizophrenia today was normal an evolutionary blink of an eye ago, when it was a given that people’s thoughts weren’t their own but arrived via special delivery directly from the gods.

Getting into the car with a couple of other retreatants for the ride back to the SF airport, I felt a surge of joy. I’d completed my first marathon, learned more about myself than I ever thought possible sans psychedelics and felt so stoned I was awestruck by the selection of apples in the mammoth supermarket where we stopped for a snack. My sense of satisfaction grew when my carmates shared that they had bent the rules: One snuck in a block of chocolate, another read a mystery novel. When I admitted I’d checked messages — but only twice! — I thought Nirvana might be within reach.

Returning home to life’s inevitable setbacks, of course, was far from exhilarating. It took several years before I grokked that exhilaration is the near enemy of true joy.

At the end of the retreat, I asked a teacher how I might pursue the Spirit Rock teachings in L.A. She recommended “this amazing person in Santa Monica, Trudy Goodman,” and Trudy’s fledgling InsightLA organization.

Next time: Finding sangha with Trudy and InsightLA. The power of the group: neurons — and people — that fire together, wire together.

Sigman blog photo Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.  He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint.  He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond.  Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.

dharmablog: Worry & Wonder in Y2K

Every couple of weeks we'll feature a new post by Michael Sigman, sangha member and blogger extraordinaire.  Read on for Michael's first "dharmablog" entry about his introduction to meditation practice.

I’ve longed to meditate since I was in college, but it took several decades and a couple of Type-A’s — a record-biz honcho and a Hollywood screenwriter — to get me started.

As the 20th Century drew to a close, I was mega-anxious just about all the time. When I wasn’t working long hours as publisher of two newspapers — LA Weekly and OC Weekly — I worried about work. At home, I worried in my sleep.

I’d read a meditation book or two and tried sitting a few times on my own, but the effort to empty my mind — what I thought meditation was all about — was a cruel joke. What was cruel about it? My mind was already overflowing with worry, and trying to empty the worry gave me a whole new failure to worry about: My complete inability to meditate.

At a New Year’s Eve party a few hours before Y2K — remember how life as we knew it was going to end on January 1, 2000 because all the world’s computers would go berserk? — I ran into Jeff, a Type-A friend and music-business muckety-muck.  He was excited about something — his latest superstar discovery, I assumed.  But in fact, he was bursting with enthusiasm about the life-changing benefits of meditation practice. “I never miss a day,” he said with classic Type-A pride. I figured if Jeff could do it, so could I.

New Year’s Day 2000 dawned and, lo and behold, the world still existed. Airplanes had not fallen from the sky; traffic signals still blinked on and off in sequence. I called Stanley, a friend since we shared a bunk at Camp Lenox in the Berkshires when we were 11. A successful screenwriter and long-time meditator, Stanley felt I needed a teacher and introduced me to John at the Shambhala Center in West Hollywood. (This was before the center moved to its spiritually convergent but geographically daunting location in Eagle Rock.)  My first session with John lasted all of 15 minutes and boiled down to this: sit still, breathe and watch my thoughts go by.

In the spirit of Freud, who said neurotics do the work of civilization, I put my neurosis to work, sitting every single day just like Jeff.  Forty minutes in the morning, 20 in the evening. Every minute of practice felt like torture. Since there were no distractions, my already skyrocketing anxiety levels only increased as my mind spun out story after story of imminent disaster.  But almost immediately, I noticed I was sleeping better and had more moments of clarity. The cost-benefit analysis — more suffering for one hour, less suffering for the other 23 — was, as we say in business, a triple-net positive.

I continued practicing, continued hating it and the benefits continued to accumulate. My mind was anything but empty when I sat, so I called John and asked what I was doing wrong. He said, “Nothing. Just keep sitting — it will get easier.” I did keep sitting, but it didn’t get easier.

Soon, at the suggestion of a friend, I attended my first meditation retreat. A weekend in the desert with a self-proclaimed guru — whose young acolytes wandered around with clip-boards signing people up for "renunciation" as though it were a volleyball tournament –- wasn’t helpful.

Then another friend turned me on to the magnificent Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA, just north of San Francisco.  And that’s where it all really started.

Next time: The breakthrough: How Spirit Rock led me to Vipassana, Trudy Goodman and InsightLA.

Michael sigman pic Michael Sigman, who hosts the InsightLA Tuesday night sitting group, is a writer, editor, publisher, media consultant and president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.  He was publisher of both the OC and LA Weekly, a music journalist and editor-in-chief of Record World, and he supervised LA Weekly Books, a St. Martin’s Press imprint.  He is the author of the biography of his father, songwriter, Carl Sigman, and is currently working on a biopic about music legend, John Hammond.  Michael writes a weekly blog on the Huffington Post. Michael Sigman graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Philosophy, from Bucknell University in 1971.