One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Friday, November 6, 2020

"Mindfulness is Not a Part-Time Job," a talk by Issan Dorsey

 A Dharma talk given by Issan Dorsey-roshi

Originally posted on 1/13/2012


This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in January of 1995, four years and five months after his death from AIDS.



From Allen Ginsberg's collection

Someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you always working on something?” Yes, we are always working on something, but hopefully it’s not up here in our heads, filled with words to obscure it. I was talking with a friend recently about the phrase, “coming to reside in your breath-mind,” and working with the phrase, and how useful it is to me. I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard it before, and was just now beginning to work with it. I realized that I actually just heard it deeply.


This has been with me since I first started practicing. It’s a whole way of working with your mindand I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope you won’t have to wait for 20 years before you begin to hear how to work with this thing called mind in [your] zazen meditation.


Now, people who come to practice, immediately sit much easier than they did when I first began to sit at Sokoji Temple years ago. I remember everyone sitting with their legs bent up. They’d sit for five minutes, then they’d lie down and moan. But now people come and it’s like we already did that part for them. It’s as if we have a shared body that has already gone through that preliminary stuff, and people are already able to experience some aspect of zazen practice and how we practice together.


We have to be willing to explore and experiment. First we have to have a sense of humor and a willingness to explore and experiment with our lives and our uncomfortableness. We know that sometimes we can sit for a few minutes, or even a few days, and at some point it gets pretty uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable for us not to invite our thoughts to tea, and reside in our breath-mind.


“Don’t invite your thoughts to tea” is an expression of Suzuki-roshi’s which I’ve always found useful. You know these are just words, and we have to remember that every human concept is just delusion. Still, we use words and provisionally talk about our experience. Lately I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I’m thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is attacking so many of us now ends up being in the brain. So is there some way for us to experience that? I don’t know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have anyway? It’s called delusion. Mind is always creating confusion, joy and pain, like and don’t like, and depression. But there is also a “background mind.” That is what my friend and I have been discussing.


Sometimes when I’m talking about uncomfortableness, I talk about the five fears. One of the five fears is the fear of unusual states of mind. How can we come to have appreciation and respect for this fear and not just some resistance, so that we can enter our fear, allowing these new areas of uncomfortableness? When we can enter each of these new spaces, we can begin to look at truthfulness.


Why do we have to sit? Really there’s no reason to sit. If we’re completely sincere, then there’s no reason to sit. I’m not completely sincere so I have to keep sitting to check. Even if we’re involved with unskillful actions, the one quality we should strive for is truthfulness. Truthfulness takes a total commitment to see all aspects of ourselves and our unskillfulness. If we can embrace the totality of ourselves, we can embrace the totality of others and of the world. Our tendency is to think about things before we do them. Even when we see a beautiful flower, we say, “Oh what a beautiful flower.” “Beautiful flower” is extra. Just look at the flower with no trace.


Suzuki-roshi wrote, “When we practice zazen, our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrating on what we are doing.” This is because when we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a simple, clear mind, we have no shadows and our activity is strong and straightforward.


So, even with zazen practice, it gets so complicated. We’re dissecting every aspect of what’s going on, reviewing and comparing. How do we keep it simple and straightforward? How do we come to know this basic truth of practice and Buddhism? The teaching and the rules can and should change according to the situation and the people we’re practicing with, but the secret of practice cannot be changed. It’s always truth.


We teach ourselves and encourage ourselves by creating this space, the meditation hall, so we can begin looking at our mind. “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” “Where is your breath-mind?” I used to say, allow this kind of mind to arise. But now I’m saying create background-mind.


This practice is simple: watch your breaths and don’t invite your thoughts to tea. But not inviting your thoughts to tea doesn’t mean to get rid of thinking. That is discrimination. So, there’s no reason to get rid of thoughts, but rather to have some blank, non-interfering relationship with them. Don’t make your mind blank, but rather have some blank relationship with the thoughts. Begin to see the space behind and around the thoughts, and shift the seat of your identity out of your thoughts and come to reside in your breath-mind. We develop our intention to reside in our breath-mind by first bringing our intention to “breath as mind,” and then by shifting the seat of our identity from our thoughts to our breath.


This all ties in with how we use this space, this laboratory. We should have a willingness to explore with our lives, and this is our laboratory right herehow we use the meditation hall and how we use what happens outside of it. Mindfulness is not a part time job.



If you want to see more about the life and teaching of this remarkable man, please visit my page: "The Record of Issan."

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss," by Phil Whalen & Ken Ireland

Phil with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa

Bowing, Boring and Bliss


I recall one talk about “Bowing” by Zenshin Phil Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center. Damn I loved his talks. He was without a doubt one of the most literate men ever to don the robes of a Zen priest anywhere, at any time. And if you want to challenge me, I’ll be suiting up on the Dalai Lama’s debate ground up here in McLeod Ganj. 


But first things firstI was going to try to record the talk, but was my usual bumbling self with electronic equipment, and couldn’t get the machine working in good time. Being his usual patient-self, he yelled at me, saying that we didn’t have all day and, anyway some things were just not meant to be recorded. Sometimes words are purposefully impermanent. It was not like he was going to recite some goddamn hidden, secret sutra for the last time before he croaked.


So I lost the talk, but I am going to do my best to reconstruct it from the basic “B’s” as I remember them.


He began by saying that if he really wanted to write a bestseller, his publisher would insist that he come up with a title like the “The 10 Recondite Rules for Clean Buddhist Living” or something like that. So let’s give it a try: “The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss.”  Perhaps Phil’s publisher was onto something. More than 20 years have passed, and I still remember long sections of his talk (it’s also true that as with many teachers, he returned again and again to his favorite topics like an old horse headed back to the barn).


When he was in Japan, in the monasteries and temples there, everyone bowed three times. People just always bowed three times. But for those who couldn’t count, he said, before he just sat down to begin his talk, he bowed nine times. We all bow nine times at Zen Center, why is that? Well he said, when the first students began to gather around Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, they went to him one day and complained, “Roshi we love you but we’re Americans and we don’t like all this bowing. We don’t understand it. So why are we doing it?” And the Roshi said with a smile, “Oh so you don't like bowing three times? Good. Perfect. I think we should bow nine times. Better that way, More practice.”


So we bow nine times. Better that way. Practice.


Phil then told an anecdotal story about some legendary old Japanese teacher way out in the middle-of-nowhere backcountry who was revered for the callous on his forehead. He explained himself: one of his first teachers had scolded him for being stubborn and told him bowing would be a good practice. So he began bowing. He never stopped. He discovered that the body is stubborn and the mind is stubborn. He said that he would stop when he stopped being stubborn. So he just kept bowing and thus the calloused forehead. In one way or another, we’re all like that.


Then he said that Zen students actually have it very easy. In Tibet all the new monks bow 100,000 times before they do anything. It’s called Ngondro, and it involves the whole body, not just your forehead, hands, arms, knees and feet touching the floor but your whole body flat out, like you were a swimming fish, and it’s so strenuous that it takes a lot of effort to reel back and bounce back up. Do that a hundred thousand times. I’m told that it’s a purifying exercise. But it’s not done with some idea of repentance like Christian pilgrims bowing every three feet along the Camino de Santiago. It’s done because we practice meditation with every bit of ourselves, wholeheartedly, fully, without reservation, holding nothing back. 


And then he said that anyone who’s lived in Asia knows that bowing is just good manners. It’s a sign of respect. You tilt your body down, your eyes are not focused on the face of the person you’re greeting, your whole body is lower. Of course you’re going to bow lower to a king or abbot. There’s a whole book of bowing etiquette: you bow very slightly to someone who’s your equal, but your bow is lower when you greet your parent or someone who’s older out of respect. That’s why we bow to our teachers in a formal situation. We’re showing respect and love. And we show it by using our whole body and mind. Our mind bows down, and for maybe an instant, we’re slightly less arrogant. We have to throw every bit of being into the bow.


But the most important thing, and here is a place where I actually have Phil’s own words, from his notebooks from Tassajara, we have to make it our own. In the rule infested monastery or practice center, we ask ourselves are we “bowing to rules rather than using them? We must contrive to be Buddhas & patriarchs rather than students who are good at following schedules (and bowing).”


But you’ll notice, he said, we follow a certain order in the zendowe bow to the cushion, then everyone else in the room, and we sit. How strange, bowing to the cushion. We’re not bowing to a Buddha, or a person. You can think of it anyway you want to. Sometimes I like to  think that I am bowing to the practice, but that is really way too abstract. Sometimes I do it just automatically, without thinking much of anything. But in any case, we just do it. It’s probably not important what you think about.


Now we get to the B for boring.


We sit and almost immediately after we learn to sit with only slight discomfort and our bodies become both more relaxed and more alert, we get bored. We all have our own experiences, but I’ll tell the world, I get bored.


But then the mind, it’s like fiddling with a bungled up ball of twine, if you try to untangle it when you’re frustrated or angry, the knots are just going to get tighter. You’ll be looking for a knife (He laughed). I’ve pictured the mind as a bag of worms or a net of living anchovies. But you get the point, it’s a conundrum, it’s a mess. It may be filled with ghosts or paranoia or algebraic equations. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s just there, all tangled up. 


So there’s this big mess of thread sitting in your mind, and you just begin to play with it, without much purpose, no rhyme or reason. You tug a bit here and notice a bit that’s a bit looser over there, but you’re relaxed and maybe you follow the thread to a knot that looks tight but on closer inspection, it loosens up and falls away. And maybe after a while there’s just a whole mess of lovely threads in front of you, and though you really don’t fully grasp how it happened, there it is.


Then the bell rings. 


I’ll end by quoting Mr. Robert Bly who tells us to follow our bliss. Of course Mr. James Campbell has also told us to follow our bliss, and he did it on the Public Television Station so it must be something worth doing. But I was watching Bly talk about it on the TV and found him quite interesting, if not persuasivebecause bliss is not something I can buy, like the gummy bears I get at the Walgreens. It’s just there. 


Some very fussy Buddhists might describe it as a fruit of meditation. If you hang out long enough, it’s just there because it’s always been there, but you wake up, or you open your eyes, or you open your heart. I’ll agree that it’s just there, and it really doesn’t matter how it got there. But this it does share with the gummy bears: when you taste it, you know that it’s a gummy bear.


And sometimes it might feel like something is lost in the process. Bly quoted a poem by Antonio Machado which I quite like.

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

The wind said, “In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses. ”

[Machado said,] “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead … ”

The wind said, “Then, I’ll take the withered petals, and the yellow leaves, ”

and the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

I think that’s enough for today. Keep bowing. Thank you.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Many Voices, a Note from Jon Joseph Roshi


by Jon Joseph Roshi

Jon has allowed me to repost his commentary on the koan "Little Jade." 

I will attest that the monsoon has finally let up. Thank you, Jon.

Nora Reza


A treasury official retired and came home to Sichuan where he sought out Wuzu to learn about Zen. Wuzu said, "When you were young, did you read a poem which went something like:

 

“She calls to her maid,

‘Little Jade!’

not because she wants something

but just so her lover will hear her voice."

 

The official said, "Yes, I read it."

Wuzu said, "That is very near to Zen."

   ~ PZI Miscellaneous Koans; Entangling Vines, Case 98, Notes

 

This is too rich a story-koan to leave its many parts unvisited, so I would like to sit with it again this week. The above exchange is deeply touching for me: a mistress of the house is calling to her lover through her maid, Little Jade. It is very near to Zen, says the teacher Wuzu. I have a warm memory of this koan, when a few years ago, at St Dorothy’s Rest, a moldering century-old building deep in a redwood forest, we were holding a week-long retreat. I walked into the kitchen to help with cooking, and found my retreat roommate, a former Jesuit novitiate, rooting and clanging through the industrial pots. He was calling out, “Little Jade! Little Jade! Where are you, Little Jade?” At that retreat, unbidden, he gave me a pair of new white socks, which I still have, though they now have holes in the toes.

 

It was all the more unsettling and heart rending, then, to read my Little-Jade friend’s recent blog posts on revisiting his first major love encounter as a gay man. What he thought was a friendship of growing mutual love and respect, turned out to be forced sex and rape, a pattern of emotional abuse that lasted for a quarter century. “I can find no silver lining in the story of my abusive relationship with B, but even if there were one, the relationship was so muddy that I don’t know where to begin to look,” begins his blog.

 

So how to resolve, for him, the many decades-long pain that recently revisited him? “It is my ghost,” he wrote me from Dharamshala, in India, where he now lives. An acquaintance of his and follower of the same psychic-spiritual school from those days, wrote that she herself was able to put her shadow behind her by “obliterating the traces of her parents’ negative influence" in a daily ritual of stamping out her family’s memories. She suggested my Little-Jade friend try the same. “Only time can judge its effectiveness,” my friend writes sardonically.

 

Last night I checked in with him via WhatsApp. McLeod Ganj, like all of India, is under stay-at-home orders; the dark downpour of the monsoon has not let up for weeks. “How are you doing?” I asked my Little-Jade friend, who is alone in his small apartment all day long. We talked about the dark nature of his posts, and laughed about Little Jade in the kitchen years ago. Despite the need, he felt, to write of his experience, he does know that “the Little Jade poem has been written more than once,” and that “it comes in more than one voice.” The variations of the Little Jade poem have allowed him to fall into some deeply satisfying love relationships in his life, he says. “I now write my own Little-Jade poem.”  I sent him Tony Hoagland’s piece, A Color of the Sky, one of my favorites (fragment below):

 

Last night I dreamed of X again.

like a stain on my subconscious sheets.

Years ago she penetrated me

but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,

I never got her out,

but now I’m glad.

 

I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.

I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.

What I thought was an injustice

turned out to be a color of the sky.

 

Perhaps the rain will let up soon. That would be very near to Zen.


___________________________


P. S. Here are two links to the the writing Jon refers to: 

This Victim Refuses Silence

A Very Personal Question: Can I Forgive Bob Hoffman?


Monday, July 20, 2020

Ignatius and the "Discernment of Spirits" in a different light

McLeod Ganj, July 20, 2020


In a cave in northern Spain between 1522 and 1524, Ignatius of Loyola had a series of spiritual experiences that changed his life as well as created a spiritual revolution. As a direct result of his mystical awakening, he, along with 7 of his “companions,” went on to found the Society of Jesus. One of these men, Francis Xavier, came to India in 1542. His body is still venerated to this day in the basilica in Goa that bears his name.


If one thing stands out about the early exploits of the Jesuits, it is their decisive action which they attributed to following the plan that God had for them. To uncover God’s Will they used a spiritual technique that Ignatius developed in his retreat at Manresa: “The Discernment of Spirits.” 


Now that I’ve paid my respects to Father Ignatius, let me look at the actual process of what he called “The Discernment”  to see if there is a way for someone who does not hold to the religious tenets of Christianity to use his methodology--yes, even a person with a more rational mind set to access more information about his or her decision making process to come to a workable decision about a course of action. I suggest that using the methodology of Ignatius might allow us to listen to our deepest emotions without allowing them to hijack our decision making process.


Ignatius lays out two sets of 14 “rules” for making a choice. I have tried to remain faithful to the spirit of Ignatius while simplifying them. I’ve also bypassed Ignatius’s insistence on conformity with the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church.


Ignatius invites us to weigh what he calls “Consolation” and “Desolation” regarding a specific course of action over a period of time. Ignatius believed that the forces of good and evil are at war inside you. They try to sway you. Our job in prayer is to observe the battle, to sort out the emotions and eventually to allow the correct decision to emerge.


I’ve used the word emotions here, and I think that discerning what our deepest emotions are telling us might be a useful way to look at what Ignatius calls “spirits.” Consolation indicates a feeling of peace and contentment, while desolation points to upset, even revulsion, perhaps even the feelings we might normally associate with depression. When we feel at peace, “consoled,” we are aware that we are on the right path, but when we feel uneasy, we sense that we are treading a path that leads to uncertainty or even harm, emotional or physical. 


However, our past experience has educated us, colored our emotions and conditioned us to behave in a certain way. We are aware of some of this conditioning but a great deal remains unconscious. A note of caution here: we are not engaging on a course of psychotherapy, and while it may be useful to uncover and deal with the emotional undercurrents of our past, I think that in ordinary circumstances, weighing what our emotions tell us about a course of action does not require this level of analysis. 


Allowing our deep emotional responses to inform our decision does however require a kind of detachment. And in order for this process to unfold, Ignatius recommends that we not jump into a major decision impulsively. Rather he would like us to weigh what I’m going to call our inner movements. Allowing our deepest emotional instincts to have a voice in our decision making, might be closer to what’s called in modern psychology “emotional intelligence.”


Let me give an example. Let’s suppose that I have a friend with whom I’m deeply in love. I think we can all agree that love is an extremely powerful emotion, one that can dictate our actions in both positive and negative ways. My friend tells me that he has to move to another city for a long period and that our relationship will have to endure that separation. This seems at first to be a circumstance beyond my personal control.


But suddenly the thought crosses my mind: I will just follow him or her. The motivation is love. What could possibly go wrong? Lots. But there’s also the possibility that the move might also open the gate to new rich experiences and a wonderful new side to our relationship.


So now let’s set aside some thoughtful time to “discern the spirits,” to weigh the emotional impulses that are driving the decision and see if we can sort them out. A lot of people would counsel “weighing the pro’s and con’s.” The process might include making lists with the both positive and negative consequences: shifting house, disruption of our normal daily routine, work and financial realities, readjusting close personal ties. Of course, make a list. Evaluate each possibility.


But Ignatius would, I think, ask us to take another step. Let’s say for the sake of the example, that most of the practical issues could be easily resolved, that the actual shifting were possible, that money would not be an issue, that family and friends support the decision, but we are still undecided. He would ask us to take the decision to prayer and seek a deeper answer. 


What might this look like, even for a non-religious person, who would like to explore the possibilities of the move in a deeper way? First we would formulate the proposition: “I will move to another city to be with this person I am in love with.” And then with our mind as quiet as possible, we allow the feelings and emotions to arise, without judging them. I cannot predict what might happen in an individual case, but let’s just take an obvious one: The overwhelming emotion is to simply pick up and move. But that’s followed by what seems to be an equally overwhelming fear that things might go wrong, that the added strain would distort my relationship and my friend would reject me. It’s possible. 


A series of emotions arise, and they are a jumble. But somehow, if we are able to neither reject or push them away, over a period of time, they begin to sort themselves, and the picture becomes more clear. Perhaps we decide to move, or perhaps we decide to stay, but in either case, it comes with much stronger determination that we have tapped a deep source of inner strength to follow through and take whatever steps are required to fulfill our plan.


I think that Father Ignatius would be pleased that his inspiration allowed us to open up new possibilities in our own life even if dismayed that we have decided to remain agnostic with regard to his theological claims.








Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Examen of Saint Ignatius

The Spiritual Exercises and the Examen



I have combined three posts about Ignatian prayer, and what Ignatius calls ‘the Particular Examen.’ Please read them as a series of connected reflections.


The woman who inspired the last entry, "This May be Heresy," Annemarie Marino, died on May 20, 2006. I will always remember her quick mind and generous heart. We had wonderful conversations. Please add your prayers to mine that she has found peace and her heart's desire.


I invite anyone who reads this and wants to comment or share something about their experience using the Ignatian examen to leave a comment or contact me. If you are interested you can also check out the wide selection of books, articles, and websites that Morgan Zo-Callahan and I put together, An Ignatian Bibliography.











But let’s begin by outlining the Steps in Making the Ignatian Examen


1. We begin by quieting ourselves. Become aware of the simple goodness of the universe, the gifts of life and love. Be thankful. Recall that without faith, the eye of love, the human world seems too evil for good to exist.


2. Look deep within to see clearly, to understand accurately, and to respond generously to what is occurring in our daily history.


3. Review in memory the history of the day (week, month, etc.) in order to be shown concrete instances of our ‘chief characteristic,’ as well as instances of presence and guidance and, perhaps, of the activity and influence of the chief characteristic. These can be detected by paying attention to strong feelings we experienced that may have accompanied or arisen from situations and encounters.


4. Evaluate these instances in which we have either collaborated with deep inner guidance or yielded to the influence of evil in some way. Express gratitude and regret.


5. Plan and decide how to collaborate more effectively with your own inner guidance and how to avoid or overcome the negative influence of the chief characteristic in the future.


I would like to hear from you if you want to share anything you have discovered using the examen.



THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2006

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius


I have been a practitioner of Buddhist meditation for more than 30 years. But this is not my first experience with intensive meditation practice.


I entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, on August 15th 1966. After a few months to acclimate to the schedule of getting up at 5:25 and bed at 9:30, we first year novices “did” the 30-day retreat. For a full month, the whole community was totally focused on the discipline of the Exercises in its strictest form, as strict as the discipline in any zen hall: total silence, 7 hours of contemplation very day, an unwavering order of meditation, invocations and most importantly, in retrospect, the examen.


The bell that alerted us to prayer, or mass, or spiritual reading, or the daily conferences with the Master of novices, was not a beautiful, clear temple bell. Rather it had the urgency of the alarm that gets firemen out of bed in the middle of the night. We were not to be monks dedicated to a life of prayer within exclusionary monastic walls. We were being trained to pray hard and work hard for the Kingdom of God.


After we took religious vows, every year we dedicated 8 days to the exercises. These were the heady days that followed Vatican II, so the strict retreat format, the fire and brimstone of the 1st week, for example, had fallen into disfavor.


Now 40 years later it is hard to believe that the Exercises had such a visceral effect, creating a feeling for the Transcendent in the way that they did. I remember reading Joyce’s description of the preacher sermon on Hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was a teenager, but Joyce was right on the mark. Fr. T. J. C. O’Callaghan may have lacked the dramatic flare of Joyce’s retreat master, but he posed the fiery world of the unforgivable, using the same script that, combined with a retreat environment created by the 80 men who shared the life of the novitiate, the silence, the liturgies, the homilies, the food, and the penances, geared to the meditations of 4 weeks of the Exercises.


I remained in the Society until 1976. But 5 years before I left, I began to realize that rigidity of religious life, in the traditional form, was not going to be a happy fit with my personality. Leaving religious life was a difficult choice; I had been very happy studying theology and exploring the religious practice of the Jesuits. I wanted to show the same respect for my choice to abandon the Society as my choice to make religious vows. And so I undertook the Exercises again in a form called the 19th annotation. In place of 30 days of seclusion and intense prayer, I dedicated an hour every day for almost a year and, with a director, followed the order of prayer and meditation that Ignatius set within the four ‘weeks’. I was already practicing both zazen and vipassana meditation by then, and though I didn’t consciously try to blend the two practices, that is in fact exactly what I was doing.


I cannot cut myself off from the life giving roots in the Exercises. For most successful Jesuits, the Exercises have been grafted into their bones. I was not immune—it can even happen in 10 years. I have begun some reflections and writing about the real links between meditation practice and Ignatian discipline. Yes, it has to be called a discipline.


The Examen


Recently I have been focusing my inner exploration on the Examen as presented in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. In the early 16th century, the Examen was a real breakthrough in the pedagogy of prayer. Human beings were most certainly capable of self-examination before Ignatius, and, through the ritual of confession and expiation, and Christians found inner peace and clarity in their lives. But as a method of prayer, Ignatius recommended three short periods a day to examine your inner landscape in a focused way, and then refocus according to an intention that you have set for yourself. Some commentators have even credited him with starting the development of what we in the West now call the “self”–that particular set of inner motivations and proclivities that govern our lives.


Most people I speak with assume that “talking with God” is the most natural of any communication. I don’t believe this assumption is even close to the truth. For Christians it would mean that the results of Original Sin magically disappear with baptism or conversion. This is not supported by most of the evidence that we can gather from the experience of most Christian mystics, saints. It certainly flies in the face of most Eastern teachings regarding humankind’s sleeping, inattentive, deluded state.


I recently saw some clips from a TV documentary called “Camp Jesus” which focused on a fundamentalist summer camp for children. After an adult woman who was leading a prayer group made the rather startling accusation that Harry Potter should be in Hell, there was an interview with a young boy who preached and said that he regularly talked with God about his future. When the camera switched to his father's encouraging words, and I began to listen to him, an evangelical preacher, I felt that a strong, irrefutable case could be made that these “godly” conversations were nothing more than interiorization of subtle and overt parental messages, prejudices, on the same level as the ridiculous damnation of Harry Potter. The kid was destined, sadly, to be just like his dad.


Or in the words of one Jesuit master: “Our capacity to deceive ourselves is infinite!”


How do we know that our own channels are not jammed with well-intentioned instruction (at best), prejudice, obfuscation? Does God actually speak to us at all? If this is a real possibility, then perhaps practicing and working with the Examen and what Ignatius called the “Discernment of Spirits” does point to a breakthrough in prayer.


Of course prayer has to be learned and taught, and how it is taught changes. We learn about love as we live out our lives; we share and try to teach our children from our experience. This learning cannot happen in a vacuum: my friend Daniel Shurman refers back to this phrase from Episcopalian liturgy: what is the Spirit saying to the Church? We are always listening and learning, both from the Source of All That Is and from one another.


Sometime in 1997 I met a priest in the Episcopal diocese of northern California who was promoting a form of weekly prayer group for business people based, she said, on the Ignatian ‘Examen.’ At the time I was exploring the possibility of doing a small meditation group downtown after work. I contacted her and she invited me to attend one of her groups. Besides her wonderful head of red hair, I found several points for wonder and reflection: her commitment to bring prayer to the business world, and my initial impression that this form of Examen was both different from what I had learned and practiced in the Society and still had a strong Ignatian flavor.


I will examine my inner record as carefully as I can, and describe how we prayed together. We began with a short reading from scripture, and then after a few moments of silence and an invitation for anyone to share their private concerns and intentions, the conversation quickly shifted to the events of the day and personal reflections about what would be a “faithful” response. One participant, the most senior in age and status, redirected the conversation if it strayed from the core message announced in the gospel, as if there were an agenda for the business at hand. With sandwiches and the time to walk back to their respective offices subtracted, perhaps 30 minutes remained for conversation and reflection.


I feel that there was something that had the genuine feel of Ignatius, the discerning of God in the world, the immediacy of the inquiry, and the imperative to be in action. But there was little or no self-examination. There was, as I recall, not even an invitation to begin any introspection. The reflections seemed quite analytical. But the major break with the Ignatian Examen was that this only tangentially touched on an individual confronting him or herself.


In the next post, I will talk about the Examen, the role of intention and examining one’s inner motivations, plus the crossover to the practice of vispassana meditation--thinking with all of you, your whole body, including your memories, dreams and emotions.


This may be heresy, but does it work?


Rather than beginning with any predetermined notion of how an individual works in harmony with him or herself, their communities and the universe—following a set of rules or conventions about behavior and love and faith—I wonder where the Ignatius' Examination of Conscience (the examen) might lead if just regarded as a rigorous way to focus an inner search.


I hesitate to edit Ignatius, and only do so as an experiment. I do not wish to make him into an atheist or a secret non-theistic Buddhist master. But, in my view, his Exercises sprang from inner experience in prayer and meditation, and, I want to test if they can stand apart from any particular theological doctrine, or what becomes of them when they are allowed to stand in a more neutral context.


I have followed a few of the current explorations and adaptations among directors of the Exercises. Some modern Jesuits now refer to the examen as “an examination of consciousness.” I have to admit that when I first started to practice vispassana meditation in the early 70’s, I wrote to my superior saying something to the effect, “if this in not what Ignatius had in mind, it is what he should have meant, whether or not he did.” Today I take seriously that Ignatius, in every iteration of the Exercises, used the word “conscience.”


Conscience, I think, is closer to the ordinary English usage “compunction” than it is to “consciousness” which, after Be Here Now, has nuances closer to the experience of the expansive vastness sometimes experienced in Buddhist meditation. Compunction has more the twinge of regret or conscience—those places where we notice something’s off. If you are not judgmental or harshly critical of yourself, the mind more easily focuses and ventures where it would rather not go, but does not equal “consciousness.” I think that Ignatius would be happier if we save feelings vastness for the Contemplatio of the 4th week.


In response to the request of a woman who visits me for conversations about meditation, I made some simple edits to Ignatius’s instructions for the Particular Examen, an exercise that he recommends, to begin, three times a day while doing spiritual exercises, and then for the rest of life! I just removed any reference to a deity, or to any external guidance. In some places I have left the words “faith,” “love,” “grace,” “presence,” “guidance,” and “goodness,” not as absolutes but rather focus points for an inner exploration. Look for faith and presence in our own lived experience, for example, instead of returning to old sermons about how we should behave and what we must do to be good. I also presume that the practitioner has some direction and is examining him or herself for what Ignatius might call our “chief characteristic,” our greatest obstacle to living in freedom and love.


If you want to undertake this exercise, Ignatius recommends three distinct periods a day, upon rising, before the mid-day meal, and upon retiring. In the morning, as your day is not yet filled with conscious and unconscious actions, you set your mind aright to reflect, remembering what you are going to look for if you have identified a ‘chief characteristic.’



"Mindfulness is Not a Part-Time Job," a talk by Issan Dorsey

  A Dharma talk given by Issan Dorsey-roshi Originally posted on 1/13/2012 This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fe...