Howie Cohn Cenacle Retreat-1/27/17-1/29/17 Review – 5/22/2017


Three questions to ask during meditation:

  1. Is there awareness? (Am I aware?)
  2. What is the object of awareness? (What am I aware of?)
  3. What is the attitude? (Do I have reactive resistance or calm acceptance?)

Humans have the capacity to transform the 3 poisons of greed, aversion and delusion into love, discernment and clarity by staying with what is uncomfortable and by investigating its impermanent selfless nature, instead of escaping into busyness and distractions.

Amy Krause Rosenthal, a former NY Times reporter wrote an article called Sweet Nothing: A child’s typical response to “What did you do in school today?” is “Nothing.” An adult’s typical response to “How are you doing?” is “Busy.” We are attached to “becoming” more perfect and seldom accept ourselves just as we are. We tend to personalize issues that are really collective.

Reggie Ray teaches with Malidoma Patrice Somé about Emotions and Community, reminding us that nothing exists apart from relationships and conditions. Modern disembodiment leads to isolation, disconnection and narcissism. In Somé’s African village, physical or mental illness of an individual are dealt with by the entire community, because everyone is affected. Embodiment leads to sensitivity and compassion for all others incarnated in sentient form.

Tanha refers to the unslakable thirst of Samsara. Our busyness and craving for becoming continuously postpones gratification. The Dalai Lama notes, “Man lives as if he is never going to die and then dies without having lived.” We have a communal habit of frenzied activity to become other than what we are. The challenge is to stop and FEEL the tension in order to let it go. One sage wrote, “We perceive our malady only when the cure begins.”

3 pillars of Buddhism:

Dana– is a gift from the heart in a river of generosity, which has supported lineages of teachers and monastics. We must create a modern culture of giving rather than the secular mindfulness movement’s custom of fees for service.

Sila-ethical cleanliness

Bhavana-spiritual cultivation, contemplation, and development of the heart-mind

Regard your life with kindness. Wes Nisker jokes, “You are not your fault!” We share the common human experience of stress and suffering: we all don’t get what we want, we get what we don’t want, and we suffer from sickness, aging and death. None of that is our fault. The elements of earth, air, water and fire that make up our bodies gradually disintegrate no matter what we do. Howie reminds us, “Whatever you are experiencing now is the right experience” and “wherever you go, you are right where you are.” What if this is as good as it gets? Let’s not miss things just as they are. The end of suffering is to let go and let be. With practice, we can create habits of love, good will and generosity to benefit all we meet.

Opening to life’s reality is a gift of love to those who are suffering. HH the Dalai Lama perceived sadness in the faces of a visiting couple and said tenderly, “Sad.” The man and woman responded tearfully, telling him about the recent suicide of their child. Without any platitudes, the Dalai Lama laid his hands on their heads and simply repeated compassionately, “Sad.”

Besides compassion, we need humor as we face our human foibles. George Carlin proposes reversing the life cycle to end with an orgasm. Larry Miller writes about aging, pointing out that children say, “I’m 4 and ½.” Teens claim, “I’m almost 16 and I can’t wait to become 21.” But then our verbs change as we try to slow down the process: “I turned 30, I’m pushing 40, I reached 50, I made it to 60, and I hit 70.” In the 80s and 90s, we measure time in hours until the 100th birthday. Then we revert to childhood, “I’m 100 and ½.” As Alan Watts commented, “We don’t make music to reach the end of the composition.”

When we meditate, we practice moment-by-moment, transforming hindrances into illumination. We can move beyond concepts of “body” and “body parts.” Noting contact points where the feet touch the floor, the rear touches the seat or pillow, the lips touch each other, and the eyelids touch the eyeballs, we hover long enough at these contact points until melting into a direct experience of pure sensation.

Howie counsels, “There is no need to correct or to undo. Consciousness is self-correcting. Stop trying to be a meditator. Simply be mindful. Without mindfulness, we are lost.” The Buddha taught, “One moment of mindfulness is more valuable than thousands of good works.” According to Howie, “Every moment is an opportunity for wonder. We take for granted our ability to sense the world through our six senses. Thought is to mind as sound is to the ear and sight is to the eye. Just like the other five senses, thoughts can be perceived as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Let go of the content of thoughts, and note how they affect body sensations and emotions. Thoughts will self-liberate, if we neither resist what seems unpleasant nor cling to what seems pleasant. In general there is too much thinking! Just be kind to yourself and others.

Walking is a concept. We can notice sensations where the foot meets the ground and allow those sensations to open beyond the concepts of “feet,” ‘ground,” and “myself as walker.”

During the retreat, we practiced increasing our NPMs (Noticings Per Minute).

Several of us noticed a noisy, squawking peacock perched high in the branches of a tall pine tree. His long tail was trailing downward beneath his plump body. What a show!

Howie commented, “Humanity entails reconciling relative ‘selfing’ with absolute transcendence. ‘Unpleasant’ arises as a conditioned response to mental formations or emotions. When mindfulness purifies chains of reactivity and dramatic stories about oneself, what seemed ‘unpleasant’ may morph into ‘pleasant.’ Although mindfulness can be used with clear intention, it is usually the selfless result of planting mindful seeds over and over again.

While meditating, we notice experiences and our stories about them. The result is non-conceptual, intelligent knowing. Howie jokes, “We are trying to get out of the construction business!” Anything that we name is only an approximation. With bare attention, we use intentional labeling of only six sense doors: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, toughing, and thinking. The label simply points to what is real. Native Americans believe that what you name loses its power. Gradually the label fades away so that we are at one with experiences and free from concepts.

As James Audubon commented, “There is a difference between a bird and the field guidebook’s description of it.” We are beyond description. Ever-present wakefulness is available whenever we tune into the vast nature of awareness. When we practice meditation diligently, two factors of concentration—aiming and sustaining—eventually transform into effortless presence, joy and rapture. Awareness is not inside our head looking outward—it is limitless, formless and sky-like.

Maha-sati means unconditioned, open, “home base” awareness that knows it’s aware. Sati means being in a state of lucid awareness. As we practice meditation, we learn how to be alone and together directly and immediately in real time, with simple, aware presence. We see how craving for sense pleasures, for becoming or even for not becoming creates tension and suffering. We let go of the delusion that our natural essence is not satisfactory. We recognize that our view or version of the self is based on past conditioning and on a perfectionist story that is insecure.

The truth is, we are all shaped by beginning-less circumstances. We are in constant relationship with everything. We have the mistaken belief that, “I am the one wave that is flawed and separate from the ocean, and I need to find my way back someday to the ocean.” But in any moment we can connect to being part of the flow of life. Due to our limiting self-view, we believe erroneously that we are measurable and vulnerable to others’ praise and blame. With enough experience, we learn how easily inflation can flip to deflation. Noticing or awareness of self-view is not vulnerable to circumstances. Can we notice our insecurities lovingly and tenderly without adding judgments and criticisms? Through practice, we develop a capacity to love ourselves when we fall into a state of “mistaken identity,” thinking that we’re not enough or that we’re too much.

We learn that there is no security in identity. We are different in relationship with each person we meet. Our body’s form is insecure and vulnerable to sickness, aging and death. Exercise and careful diets do not protect us from the undependability of youth, health and life. Our moods and emotions are fleeting, no matter how hard we try to hold onto them. All is changeable, impermanent and vulnerable. It is wise to be loving, tender and compassionate for the shared human condition that is beyond our control.

Sri Nisargadatta taught, “Approach yourself with love…. Make loving yourself perfect. Give yourself infinity.” Howie reminds us that in any moment, we can come home and reclaim our heritage. With no view of the self, we are at peace.