A History Of Circling

“Circling” is a powerfully liberating and connecting authentic relating practice that has been exponentially growing in popularity, worldwide. As circling has reached wider, people have gotten interested in its roots and history. As a part of an epic Facebook discussion thread on the subject, I wrote a post to clarify my memories of the beginning days of Circling and its evolution since then. I especially focused my writings on the early relationships between some of the major founding figures.

Bamboo In The Wind

I think that most people who pick up spiritual practice are looking for more peace and stillness; we want our movements, thinking, and speaking to be easeful, unforced, non-compulsive, and perhaps even almost effortless. A common image in Zen poetry is of bamboo swaying in the wind. One explanation for this is that bamboo swaying in the wind moves – but it moves in an unforced and easy way.

Eulogy For Prince

To me, “The Meaning of Prince” was that I saw him as an unexcelled paragon of the courage of letting his artistic soul shine the way it wanted and needed to, of being who he authentically truly was, of following his inner guide, regardless of what was the safe, acceptable, or practical thing to do.

Marriage, Commitment, and Trust

For most of my life, I’ve felt that a wedding ceremony should be a reflection of the fact that two people are basically “as good as married” already, and that a healthy commitment grows out of already existing intimacy and trust. But lately I’ve noticed that at least a few couples that I watched get married within two months of meeting each other, and that I doubted would last long, are still going strong years later. Sometimes, it seems, commitment creates intimacy and trust.

Why Large-Scale Spectator Sports Are Valuable To Everyone

Some people seem to think that large-scale organized spectator sports needlessly create competitiveness, violence, and aggression, and that they are a waste of money, energy, and attention that could be better spent on “real” life. But large-scale organized spectator sports are vastly cheaper and healthier than the alternative ways that people act out their territorial aggressions.

Why Not Join Us?

In 2009 I spent a couple weeks at the Wat Pahnnanna Chat monastery, in the austere and celibate Thai Forest Tradition. Most of the long-term monks seemed distant, unavailable for conversation, and even emotionally cold. I had friendly chats with one guy, though, an old Sri Lankan monk, who had kind eyes and always seemed warm and open. One morning we had the following exchange:

Longer Attention Span

As we know, our modern electronic internet/social networking/cell phone culture is stimulating, entertaining, and short-attention-span-ish, but accomplishments that fulfill us the most take patience, focus, and a long attention span. A quote that I just saw and like, from “The Organized Mind” by Daniel Levitin : “As already noted, the Internet has helped some of…

Mindful Driving

The technique that I have found most useful for meditation while driving is to simply be present and focused on the sense impressions of the act of driving – to see what is going on around us, to keep our ears open for the sounds of traffic, and to be aware of the bodily feeling of sitting in a car seat holding a steering wheel. We can developing an all-round awareness of what is to our sides and behind us as well as in front, inside our cars and outside, repeatedly releasing wandering thoughts so as to bring ourselves back to the richness of the present moment.

Lessons I’ve Learned From Rock Climbing

I’ve noticed that it feels unmistakably more fun and satisfying to challenge myself, to get out and go climbing, to get on some routes that are edgy and difficult for me, and then to be skillful, brave, and persevering, and do what it takes to get all the way to the top. This is, of course, similar to many other areas of life: we don’t have to take on challenges, and we don’t have to succeed at them – but it sure does seem to feel better to win than not to play.

Interpersonal Meditation

Many of us with a desire to be truly emotionally close with other people eventually come to the conclusion that interpersonal relating can either be under control, safe, and artificial, or it can be raw, real, and genuine. A corollary of this is that there is no way around the anxiety that comes from being truly close with people – being intimate involves making space for a certain amount of anxiety without trying to manage it or make it go away.

What I Say To Friends Who Are Grieving

I imagine that most people would agree that it is often difficult to find appropriate words of condolence when a friend is grieving. I personally do not want to say to a grieving friend that I hope that they feel better soon, because I think that it is healthy for a human psyche to go through a period of pain when it has lost someone or something that it cares about. I believe that people often say “feel better soon” because they are uncomfortable in the presence of another person’s pain, and that that phrase can sometimes feel like an unpleasant pressure put on a grieving person to have it all put back together sooner than would be otherwise natural for them.

The Ceremony Of Meditation

Fifteen years ago, I felt unsettled after reading a transcription of a talk given by one of my Zen teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The piece was entitled “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen”.

I felt fine about Tenshin Roshi expressing the common Zen teaching that full liberation (and “oneness with the universe”) is not something that we can simply capture or do through our own intentions or efforts, but that we can align with our true place in the cosmos by sitting meditation (called “zazen” in Japanese Zen). What this piece said that I had not heard before, and disliked reading, was the idea that the true meaning of meditation is only realized within the context of a “ceremony”.

A Couple Lessons From My Research Career

I spent five years in the nineties as part of research teams studying how to improve drug and alcohol treatment. My job was to manage and clean the data, and to do statistical analysis

In my first job after university, I worked on a team that examined “proximal outcomes” for recovery, both for twelve step programs and cognitive behavioral therapy. The idea was, each modality of treatment program suggests various activities for people to do if they want to get sober – but which of these many activities are actually most effective in helping people to stay clean?

Karma and No-Self

A friend emailed me yesterday, and asked “If the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (which holds that the self is an illusion) is true, who is it that is accumulating karma? I’m genuinely puzzled by this, especially as it pertains to the concept of re-incarnation and the Atman (two seemingly incongruent concepts to anatta).”

My friend was asking about karma, which is the idea that we are the inheritors of the results of our actions – in other words, the idea that what we sow, we reap. A common example of karma: if we eat healthily, exercise, and get enough sleep, we will probably be relatively physically healthy, and, if we don’t, we won’t. Simple enough.]

Morality Part I: Moral Rules

A friend of mine posted on Facebook a graphic making fun of religious notions of morality as “handed down from God”. I responded: I think a lot of atheistic objections to religion are a reaction to a simple-minded concept of the Divine. Yes, many people do indeed think of Divinity as an all-powerful Man with a White Beard who has a bunch of rules, a bunch of demands, and a quick temper. But that vision does not fit with the more sublime and subtle Divinity that, for example, the deep spiritual mystics and sages throughout the millennia have talked about experiencing.

The California Vipassana Center

The California Vipassana Center (more formally known as ” Dhamma Mahavana”, or “Great Forest of Buddhist Teachings”) is a large meditation center in the wooded near Fresno, in central California. It is the place where I did my first intensive meditation retreat (in 1994), and I have sat two more there since then (in 1996 and 2003). The CVC is also the place where many of my friends have done their first (and only) meditation retreats. “To do a Vipassana” is a phrase that I hear fairly often, and it means to do a ten-day retreat at the CVC, or one of it’s affiliated meditation centers.

Structure Of Making Formal Interpersonal Commitments

There have been many times in my personal growth career when I have made an interpersonal behavioral commitment to another person, and many more times that I have accepted them from others. I have most often participated in making commitments during men’s teams work and in the coaching training that I took. Making structured formal interpersonal commitments has, at times, been a powerful tool for helping me to help my life to be more powerful, intentional, healthy, and clear.

Meditating at the Sogen-ji Zen Temple in Japan

I just spent about a week staying and practicing Buddhism at the Sōgen-ji Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Okayama City, Japan. Sōgen-ji is known for its long-time abbot, Shodo Harada Roshi, who many people have told me is one of the few great living Zen masters. I had heard of Shodo Harada Roshi for years before my visit, since he is the longtime teacher of my teacher Ryoshin Paul Haller (the abbot of the SF Zen Center), and of Soryu Forall (the Dharma heir of my teacher Shinzen Young). Harada Roshi also apparently has written a few books and offers yearly retreats at the One Drop Zendo on Whidbey Island in Washington State near Seattle, which some of my Zen friends have apparently attended.

Experiencing India

People warned me before I got to India. They said: traffic is insane, Indians drive along constantly honking, everything is dirty, cows wander on the streets, men pee along city streets, people throw trash down anywhere and everywhere, it’s such a mix of people and cultires, it’s the land of extremes. They said, it’s an assault on the senses – a barrage of colors, beauty and ugliness, words, music, sounds, smells. Not much works efficiently, logically, predictably. People told me: nothing can prepare you. So, I took all their words to heart, and was ready for too much.

Quotes By Guy Sengstock

I have entered many deep, rich, alive spaces over the years listening to my friend Guy Sengstock speak during the workshops he teaches. I have been regularly amazed by his spiritual clarity, how he naturally attunes to the deep way of things.

Here are some written quotes by him that leave me feeling open, inspired, and clarified after I read them:

Buddhist Practices For Dealing With Addictions

In Buddhism, it is taught that, ultimately, liberation comes though insight. It’s difficult for me to explain what “insight” means in this context, but I suppose in simple terms you could call it, seeing existence as it truly is. The traditional teaching, though, is that deep insight usually requires a concentrated focused mind, and that developing concentration usually requires a foundation of ethical behavior.

Recommendations For Yoga Intensives In India

A few folks have asked me to let them know what I find out about long long-term yoga training opportunities while here in India. I haven’t done as many yoga intensives as I fantasized I would, but I do think that I have however learned good stuff about what the yoga opportunities are here – by taking retreats, and also taking individual classes, talking to yoga teachers and students, staying at ashrams, and reading things online

Travelling To Asia For Spiritual Practice

I realize that many of my reasons for coming here to Asia for a year of travel were not conscious to me before I got here. As many of my friends know, however, the biggest conscious motivation for my journey was to experience “spiritual practice” (mostly Buddhism, but yoga/Hinduism too) in the old countries. I mean, it stands to reason that, if one wants the authentic, deep, true experience, one heads to the point of origin – amirite?

Music And The Mind

“Melodies which run through one’s mind … may give the analyst a clue to the secret life of emotions that every once of us lives … In this inward signing, the voice of an unknown self conveys not only passing moods and impulses, but sometimes a disavowed or denied wish, a longing and a drive we do not like to otherwise admit to ourselves … Whatever secret message it carries, the incidental music accompanying our conscious thinking is never accidental” — Theodor Reik, in “The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music

“If”, by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

Meditating At The Bodhi Zendo Monastery In India

I just finished a refreshing five-day meditation retreat the Bodhi Zendo monastery in south India. It felt wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful to be there – Bodhi Zendo is, I think, one of the most tranquil and pleasant places I have been in my life. My time there was certainly a refreshing and quiet contrast with the chaotic overwhelm that for me has often characterized traveling in India.

India Travels: The Bodhi Tree, The Sri Ramana Ashram, and the Arunachaleswarar Temple

My last night in North India, after three weeks there, was an emotional one. I was in Bodhgaya, a town best known as the spot where Buddha yes THE Buddha attained full liberation/enlightenment, after he sat all night under a tree in the middle of the open field. Modern Bodhgaya is no longer that serene, 2,500 years later. Instead, it has paved streets full of the typical busy Indian overwhelm that I have become familiar with – jostling noisy crowds of people vehicles and cows, people constantly coming up wanting me to buy something, crumbly buildings and homes, and even snaggle-toothed beggars wearing dirty rags and holding outstretched hands (which is actually a rare sight for me in India).

India Travels: The Ancient Ghats of Varanasi and the Dhamekh Stupa in Saranath

Varanasi (formerly known as “Benares”) is situated along the banks of the Ganges river, in North India. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, older than most of the major world religions, and the oldest in India. Mark Twain apparently said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Wikipedia also says that it is the holiest city in the Hindu and Jain religions, is the spiritual capital of India, and is often referred to as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”, “the city of learning”, and “the oldest living city on earth”.

Meditating At Wat Ram Poeng In Thailand

I just spent a few weeks at Wat Ram Poeng, a temple two miles southwest of Chiang Mai that features an English-language meditation program. Perhaps it is less accurate to say that Wat Ram Poeng “features an English-language meditation program”, and it is more accurate to say that they provide space for foreigners to meditate. Almost all of what I did during my time there was meditate by myself, eight to fourteen hours a day, inside the simple, clean, comfortable, and pleasant little room they provided me with. I alternated sitting meditation, mostly on the bed, with equal lengths of time doing walking meditation, slowly pacing back and forth the length of the room.

Meditating At Wat Suan Mokkh International Meditation Hermitage In Thailand

After my retreat at Wat Pah Nanachat, I rode trains for a couple days to get to Wat Suan Mokkh International Meditation Hermitage, and sit a ten day meditation retreat there. Suan Mokkh is a meditation center located on the long narrow peninsula that extends from Bangkok south to Malaysia. Similarly to Wat Pah Nanachat and Ajahn Chah, the Suan Mokkh IMH was founded by one of the more famous twentieth century Thai Buddhist masters (in this case, Buddhadasa Bikkhu) as a place for Westerners who wanted to study with him but could not understand the language at his Thai-language monastery.

Meditating At Wat Pah Nanachat Monastery in Thailand

I just finished a two week stay at Wat Pah Nanachat monastery, here in Thailand. Quoting Wikipedia, Wat Pah Nanachat (spelled วัดป่านานาชาติ in Thai, and meaning “International Forest Monastery”) is situated in a small forest in north-east Thailand about ten miles outside of the city of Ubon Rachathani. The eminent Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah established the monastery in 1975 to serve as a training community for the many Europeans, Americans, and other non-Thais who were pursuing study with him along traditional Thai Forest monastic lines at his famous Thai-Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery. Wat Pah Nanachat’s monks, novices and postulants include a wide range of nationalities, but the primary language of communication and instruction is English.

Meditating At The Dragon Mountain Zen Temple In Colorado

Six years ago, at Tassajara, I had a delightful, far-ranging, deep conversation with an SFZC alumni priest named Steve Allen. As the conversation ended, he invited me to come practice with him and his partner Angelique at their little hermitage on the side of a mountain in Crestone, Colorado. I set an intention then to go and visit them; keeping in mind my search for a Buddhist practice that resonates with my deepest intentions, I wondered if his style of Zen might match with my own.

Meditating At The Bodhi Manda Zen Center In New Mexico

Bodhi Manda monastery sits, with a bar on one side and a Catholic convent on the other, along the rural highway that runs though the villiage of Jemez Springs. The monastery is a complex of maybe seven large buildings, most of them dating back to the mid-twentieth century, back when the compound apparently served as a chill-out for misbehaving Catholic priests. The solidly constructed, venerable edifices are surrounded by a beautiful treasure trove of gardens, statues, bird feeders, ponds, creeks, and trees. When I was not hustling around being busy, it felt wonderful and peaceful to be on the grounds.

Quotations

The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.
— Paul Tillich

It is flat-out strange that something – that anything – is happening at all. There was nothing, then a Big Bang, then here we all are. This is extremely weird.
— Ken Wilber

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Pondering Zen Community

The return of the light. These days, as we leave the Zendo (meditation hall) after the dinner ceremony ends, we walk into daylight. It's sometimes even warm, too – like, warm enough to wear just a long underwear shirt, or even just a t shirt, under the thick layers of our ceremonial meditation robes. The afternoons are mostly hot, dry, and bright. Mornings, a few blooming trees shower the air and ground with a swirl of pink and white pedals. Birds are singing, bugs are orbiting and swarming, green things are sprouting. There is even sometimes a hint of a warm breeze at four in the morning, as we hustle through the lamp-lit blackness to the first period morning meditation. I am enjoying it all.

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Performing The Ceremonies

Tomorrow we begin a nine day sesshin (meditation intensive), so I am sitting down here in my cozy little dorm room, with the afternoon sun warm outside my window, to finish this letter, before the wall of silence falls. Reading over my last letter, I think that when I started compiling notes to write it, I was in a place of crystalline purity, clarity, infinity, depth, vast open space – a feeling of freedom and expansiveness that had been building over the previous two months. It was like, This is IT

The Dream

Heading back to the city after three months of simple stillness in the monastery, I was staring out the car window at the passing gas stations and shopping malls, at all the billboards and the neon. I turned to the Zen priest driving me, and said, “It all seems like a dream.” He shot back, “What makes you think that it isn’t”?

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Committing to Lay Ordination

These letters are funny things. They generally feel good and healthy to write – writing them seems to put a seal on my experiences here, like an epilogue to a book, a desert to a meal, a shavasana to a yoga session. Also, somehow, I can’t explain how, I usually get a clear intuition about what things to write about in them, and what not.

But, I wonder, what is it that motivates me to write : is it to connect and share myself with people, or is it to try to share (teach) something liberating uplifting and inspiring with people – and, if either, which people. Or am I writing this for myself, and, if so, is it my future self (to remind myself of what I learn and experience here), or is it for my present self (to help move the energy through as I experience things here, like a diary, or a conversation with a friend where you get something off your chest). I also wonder how much to just bluntly share what’s happening, no matter how raw and freaky it is, or how much is it better to wait until I have worked through things more and I can write in a more neatly packaged form – with an inspiring uplifting moral to the story, and maybe looking better in the process.

Tassajara Zen Monastery: Learning From Kitchen Work

The group for this retreat has a little over forty monks in it, which fewer than the sixty to eighty who were here when I have been here for ninety-day retreats in the past. This means that all groups of monks (the work crews, the meal serving crews, the kitchen crew, etc) are on a smaller scale. We’ve had a number of people coming and going, which is fine, but I also find that I liked better the tighter container that I experienced in past years (i.e., where everyone who is here at all is here no less than the full three months).

Meditation Retreat Poem

In August 2005, I sat a ten day vipassana meditation intensive at the Tibetan Buddhist center Vajrapani, in the hills of Santa Cruz, with my teacher Gil Fronsdal. In the evening of the last of the ten days, all the meditators gathered by the center’s stupa (pictures above) for an acknowledgment ceremony that actually turned into something of a talent show. People sang songs and did some comedy, but mostly people recited impromtu poetry they had just composed about their days sitting in silence on the retreat. Today, I came across the poem I came up with that night, and wanted to share it here. For people who have been on sitting retreats, the experience may sound familiar.

Podcast Interview Transcript

Today’s guest is Adam Coutts, a meditation teacher and practitioner who has worked with hundreds of individuals and groups to guide them to discover the experience of meditative awareness and to customize a spiritual practice that fits their personality and into their lives. So, join us as we enjoy the power and simplicity of meditation and the profound peace and bliss that comes from learning to rest in awareness and consciousness itself.

Love Remains At The Heart Of Things

“What I’m about to tell you is very real – I’m telling you the truth – I’m telling you what’s really so for those people: their inability to respond, their bound-upedness, is the highest expression of love which they are able to muster. About this I know the answer: they have a capacity for love, like yours or like mine, which is absolute. The only thing bound up in their life is the expression of that capacity. So, what you’re getting is a bound expression of an absolute love for you.”

Looking For Patterns Of Happiness And Unhappiness

Recently I did some thinking and writing about the texture of the time that I have been an adult, the ebb and flow of happiness in the twenty-five years since I graduated high school. I started listing, what were all the months and years of greatest growth, expansion, opening, and generally good things; in other words, what activities, experiences, and factors seemed to correlate with my life coming more alive. What I came up with were:

Truth

So what is it to be a “true person”? One of the simplest definitions of what is “Truth” (and perhaps pointing to the “truth that will set you free”) is that we are being truthful when we do what we say and we say what we do. We can tell the truth at least to ourselves, and maybe even to others too. Living in truth, there is a harmony between our words and our actions. Buddhists would go one step further, and say that truth is expressed when there is a harmony between our “beingness”, what we really are, with what we say and what we do – in a sense, when they are the same.

Hooking Up

  I have read that there is scientific-evolutionary-biological evidence that homo sapiens were not meant to be completely monogamous. For example, they’ve found that only a small percentage of sperm actually are able to impregnate an egg; the function of more than half of sperm is actually to destroy any other males’ seed that may…

Dating, Sexuality, and Buddhist Teachings

I once read a book on sex that suggested that healthy sex has at least three aspects: respect, honesty, and consent. Within that framework, the book suggested, do whatever your dirty li’l minds come up with. That definition made a positive impression on me. And now, years later, having developed in my Buddhist practice, I like those three as good guidelines for a basic foundation of “right sexuality” that fits with the modern world that I live in.

Committing To Living In Monasteries And To Traveling To Asia

Going to university in Santa Cruz, though, I got all into psychospiritual growth – Buddhist meditation, psychology and therapy, hatha yoga, twelve step programs, communication skills and processing, Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass, holotropic breathwork, sweat lodges, encounter groups, men’s circles – and workshops, endless workshops. Exploring, deepening, and expanding the psyche felt more real and more compelling to me than making art or music. In this world, where there’s politics people, travel people, money-making people, creative people, hipster people, sports people – I found that I am a psychospirtual growth person.

Not Two, Not One

The molecules on the outer edge of “you”, say the ones on the edge of the cell membranes of the cells that are on the outer edge of your eye, are just as enmeshed, electron-swapping-wise, with the molecules in the air around you as they are with the molecules further back in the cell wall. In other words, it is scientifically impossible to say where “you” end and “your environment” begins – from this perspective, it all seems to be one interconnected whole.

The Brahma Viharas

The Brahma Viharas

One core teaching of classic Buddhism is “the Brahma Viharas”. The first on the list is “metta” or “maitri”, which translates as “loving kindness”. The second is karuna, compassion. The third is “mudita”, sympathetic joy. The final one is “Upekka”, equanimity, an evenness of emotionality.