Spiritual Practice

A Thousand Secrets

K. With, Horyuji-Kura, Bodhisattvis. Scanned from "Hara The Vital Center of Man."

“A thousand secrets are hidden in simply sitting still.” — Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

A few weeks ago, my good friend Walt recommended Hara: The Vital Center of Man by the German diplomat, psychotherapist, and Zen master, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim on this post. For anyone interested in practices for developing attention through body awareness it is essential reading. I couldn’t praise the book highly enough.  Not only is it clear and practical, it opens up a way of practice that I find initiatory and life affirming.

Dürckheim offers a bold and vital introduction on how to work with hara but before he begins he offers this important distinction about spiritual practice in general:

“…practice does not generate the experience of Being but only prepares the way for it. The grace which may flower from this experience is not the product of a doing but of a permitting of what fundamentally is, of what the aspirant himself is by reason of his participation in the Great Being within his own being. Practice therefore means ultimately just this: learning to let the in-dwelling reality of Being emerge.”

A pioneer in this field of integrating the body, mind and feeling, Dürckheim does an exceptional job in making the ancient zen practices of hara accessible. He urges us to avoid clinging to the partial that only upsets the whole. He shows us how to put our trust  in the fundamental rhythms of life, and to let go of fears that prevent us from allowing “it” to breathe. Our tensions, he observes “are caused by nothing but I and its fears for its Own existence,” and warns that the “practice of deep relaxation can be significant and efficacious only when it is carried out in full awareness of its inner meaning and not merely for the relief of bodily symptoms.”

Nope, it’s not a self-help program. Studying and practicing the ideas in this book doesn’t lend itself well to finding solid answers but leads to a deeper questioning, a revitalization of one’s practice, and hopefully under-standing.

I don’t want to give too much of the book’s contents away, but I will share one of many instructions Dürckheim suggests for reintegrating one’s compartmentalized being into a simple, coordinated and unified whole. Over the last few weeks, the following excerpt has served as a a kind of revelation for me, a gentle reminder to try to have contact with the inner life that continually calls to  from the center of our being:

“…drop the shoulders, release the lower belly and put some strength in it. For this it is sufficient to say “I am, I feel myself down here, a little below the navel.” It would seem so easy to follow these instructions, but not only is it far more difficult than we suppose to effect a change in the bodily center of gravity but long practice is needed before it becomes habitual. Indeed to learn to feel oneself constantly down there is tantamount to overcoming the unconscious dominance of the I, and to feel oneself permanently rooted in a much deep region. This new placing of the whole center of gravity comes to full fruition only after years of practice. Yet, as with all spiritual exercises, everything is contained in the very first lesson. But the beginner cannot realize this.”


Andrew Wyeth, "Off at Sea," 1972.

Andrew Wyeth, Off at Sea, 1972.

The sun returns, pushing away the grey sky in forgiveness painted blue. Long shadows appear over the deck and the green of a small ficus tree is illuminated. The wind that rattled the stray beer cans is quiet now; leaving the neighbourhood eerily silent and waiting. She gives herself to the television in the next room. He sits on a once white plastic deck chair. He stops, smokes, takes a long sip of coffee—a break from the stream of words. It’s a late Sunday afternoon near the end of summer. He can smell the sourness in the air of autumn approaching. He can taste the acridness, the oranges, the reds, and the rusty browns. He feels the warmth on his skin, tickling the hairs, now golden on his arms. Looking up, he sees the birds dart among the rooftops, gathering together, and a moment later, dispersing again. The sun light settles gently over the trees. He asks himself if he has ever truly seen his backyard before—to have this direct impression of it, without his luggage of words. Has he ever listened to its orchestra of wind and trees? It is as though, behind all the seemingly ordinariness, something struggles to shine through.

Thoughts and Plans

Holly Lynton | "Mean Ceiling," May 2004. C-print 17"x23"

Holly Lynton | Mean Ceiling, May 2004. C-print 17″x23″

“It’s a lovely morning.”

Her breath escaped from her lips carrying the scent of a half forgotten dream.
I opened my eyes and took in the sunlight that softened the walls of the bedroom.
“It is,” I said, putting my arm around her waist, and pulling her closer.

We lay there together. I stared into the curve of her back. She stared into the whiteness of the wall. Both of us focused.

“What would you like to do today?” I asked. She released a soft sigh that hung in the air like a question.


“How about I go get us some coffee?” I said.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“A little after ten.”

Still sleepy, I stumbled out of bed and reached for my glasses. My jeans and t-shirt lay stale and abandoned on the floor.
“Hurry back love.”
“I will,” I said, putting on my jeans.

With my head muddled and confused, I stepped out into the new morning. I listened to the soft murmur of a city still asleep and to the churning of my thoughts that bubbled up from mysterious places.

The air was cool and quiet, embracing the backyard in a cloak of mist and fog. It was like a dance, this new day arising. It felt as if all the possibilities, if I could entertain them just for a moment, would swell up and blow me over like wind and waves. I would even say it was peaceful.

I was in the narrow alley behind our house when I had an indescribable feeling that somehow something was missing. Instinctively I felt my back pocket for my wallet. “No, it’s there.”

Just as the light poked through a patch of fog and illuminated the grey stones of the building that faced the alley, I suddenly sensed something of another quality, like a breeze from nowhere. It felt like an invitation to just settle into the moment, into things just as they are. Everything was more vibrant and alive. Then a car door slammed, just once, and this small opening in this new day closed. I was overtaken by thoughts. By plans.  I tried to find that moment again, groping after it like a fat man in a marathon.

“I’m going to try to remember myself. I’m going to try to be here now, in this moment.”

I took a thoughtful, but exaggerated breath, and tried to bring my sleep soaked body into my feeble awareness.

“I have feet, legs and hands,” I said to myself as I tried to become aware of them.

I watched my thoughts appear and then, receiving no attention, drop away, back to their mysterious origin. I felt like a boat wandering aimlessly, tossing and turning over dark deep waters. For a moment, I realized that this is probably how I am most mornings, running through the random and the ridiculous.

A few moments later, I found myself at the local coffee shop, transfixed in front of several shelves of delicious looking pastries. The caramel covered chocolate brownies in particular, drew out a weakness in me.

Then in the low hum of morning conversations, soft jazz music and the clinking and clattering of cups, I remembered that I had forgotten all about trying to remember myself; to be here now.
”Maybe I should skip the brownies for today as a punishment,” I thought.

“Can I help you?” the young woman behind the counter asked
“Yeah, can I have two medium coffees and two of those amazing chocolate brownies?”
“Sure,” she said smiling gently.
She turned to get the coffee as I stood there fumbling over my wallet.
“Excuse me,” I said.

The woman placed the paper cups of steaming fresh black coffee in front of me.
“Yes?” she asked, picking up silver tongs and approaching the pastry case.
“Do you have any bad habits?” I asked.
She looked thoughtful for a moment and then she let out a quiet laugh, her face flushed.
“Umm, yeah I do,” she said, “I never live my life in the moment, y’know, like right now even though I try really hard to.”

A few seconds passed between us. It felt as though a door had opened, like an invitation to a deeper mystery. We stood there in the silence, simply looking into each others eyes. We were relating to each other, somehow. There was no need for words.

Then, a door slammed, and I returned to the white noise, the fluorescent lights, and to my thoughts, and plans.

“Yeah, I have that habit too,” I said finally, smiling with her.

I walked out of the coffee shop with the sounds of soft jazz music, the morning conversations and the clinking and clattering of cups fading behind me.

It was just before eleven.♦


Mark Rothko, Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960

Mark Rothko, Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see the Abstract Expressionist show at the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto. The highlights for me were the shadowy hues of rich purple and maroon canvases from Rothko’s later career. I stood in front of three of these massive paintings that hung in the low light. As I watched the colors vibrate around the edges, I noticed that there was a definite inner response. Although I could not label it, it was a kind of call, invoking a feeling of mystery, and inviting contemplation, silence and reflection. There was a here-I am-and-in this place kind of feeling. I avoided interfering with the process by thinking about it; I just presented myself, and allowed the impression to cut more deeply. It occurred to me that I was receiving a gift. A reminder, that every moment is an opportunity to enter more deeply into the soft silence that lays waiting, behind the surface of our lives.

Mark Rothko once wrote: “When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same, it is a time of tons of verbiage activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”

May you find numerous pockets of silence this summer.

Without Beginning Or End

Jeanne de Salzmann

Jeanne de Salzmann

For thousand of years the human brain has been conditioned to act from the center to the periphery and from the periphery to the center by a continuous movement, going out and coming back. How could this movement ever stop? If it ceases, an energy will appear that is without limit, without cause, without beginning or end. To come to this, it is first necessary to make order -to clean house- a task that requires complete attention. The body must become very sensitive and the mind completely empty, without any desire. Understanding comes not by an effort to acquire or become, but only when the spirit is still.

Our true nature, an unknown that cannot be named because it has no form, can be sensed in the stop between two thoughts or two perceptions. These movements of stop constitute an opening to a Presence that is without end, eternal. Ordinarily we cannot believe in this because we think anything without form is not real. So we let pass the possibility of experiencing Being.

Our fear of being nothing is what pushes us to fill the void, to wish to acquire or become. And this fear, conscious or not, leads to the destruction of our possibility to be. We cannot get rid of it by an act of will or by any effort to free ourselves. Opposing one desire with another can only engender resistance, and understanding will not come from resistance. We can be liberated from this fear only by vigilance, by becoming conscious of it. We must see clearly through the contradictory desires with which we live. It is not a question of concentrating on a single desire, but of freeing oneself from the conflict engendered by avidity. With the dissolution of this conflict comes tranquility. Reality can appear.

The highest form of intelligence is meditation, an intense vigilance that liberates the mind from its reactions, and this alone, without any willful intervention, produces a state of tranquillity. This requires an extraordinary energy, which can only appear when there is no conflict in us, when all the ideas have completely disappeared, all belief, hope and fear. Than it is not contemplation that arises, but a state of attention in which there is no longer a sense of ”I,” someone present to participate in the experience, to identify with it. So there is no experience. Understanding this at the deepest level is important for one who wishes to know what truth is, what God is, what is beyond the constructions of the human mind.

In this state of vigilance, I do nothing, but I am present. The mind is in a state of attention in which there is lucidity, a clear observation without choice of all that one thinks, all that one feels, all that one does. The mind concentrates without boundaries. This state creates tranquility, and when the mind is perfectly quiet, without any illusions, ”something” comes into existence, not constructed by the mind, that cannot be expressed in words.

—From The Reality of Being, by Jeanne de Salzmann, Shambhala, 2010., pp.320.

To Be Bothered


What does it mean to live within, and how do we approach this in the midst of the movement of life? What is taking place in me now within this vessel? Are there tensions in my body? What is the taste of my emotional state right now? How about the thoughts that are passing through? I need to be in question about this continually as a way of practice. A capacity that need to be cultivated that can separate from all of my functions, be it thought, emotions, or bodily tensions to see them more objectively. This is extremely difficult because for one reason, I forget. I am swept away by the movement of life and secondly, I see that I normally live in a continual state of reaction. Because all of my energy is being taken to external things, there is no room for this quiet inner contemplation. I have no emotional energy invested in it, so I remain indifferent to the possibility of a radically different sense of being alive, of another order of things.  How do I resist being passively pulled out by all of these forces? Can I allow this body to be inhabited by a presence that is stronger than all of that?

Ray Bradbury once wrote: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” I think he addresses an extremely important question here. I see that I am not bothered enough, for is often in unusual circumstances or when things don’t go according to my expectations that an opportunity can present itself. For a moment there is an interruption in my usual routines and habits. Suffering can provide a shock that can awaken us to something much larger and unknown than the small cramped world of “I, me, and mine.” But what is required of me?

I need to stand in front of myself as I am, without trying to escape it. I need to mobilize the whole of myself, not just my head a-thinking in me. It is only through acceptance and this silent watchfulness that something can be transformed.  In those moments, I can be in question. I can awaken to the fact that I am not just my habits and conditioning. Perhaps a feeling of gratitude can be awakened and I can have a sense of what it really means to be alive.

Image: A Buddhist priest prays for the souls of the victims still not found in the rubble, Yamada, Japan from The New York Times: Photo of the Day.


Here is a remarkable clip of a Zen Monk from the Documentary “Baraka” released in 1991. What is it in us that can perceive stillness or silence, particularly in the midst of activity?

Something Else



When the mind is very quiet,
completely still,
when there is not a movement
of thought and therefore no experience,
no observer, then that very stillness
has its own creative understanding.

In that stillness the mind is
transformed into something else.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

William Segal, Gentry

Gentry Magazine Cover Issue 11

Gentry Magazine Cover Issue 11

William Segal embodied a threefold life, that of a relentless spiritual seeker, an artist and a successful entrepreneur. In the 1950’s he published an exceptional men’s magazine called Gentry. The magazines were super-expensive to produce with actual swatches of fabric pasted in and art prints to complement the articles” (Image via)

More scans of Gentry on Flickr.

Here are two remarkable quotes by Segal:

“When one is still and listens, one begins to be in touch with a mysterious element that is within each of us, which can transform and shape us and can help to transform the world.” — William Segal (from his obituary in the New York Times).

“We can’t say why we search, except that there seems to be an innate need, in each human being, to know who one is, what we’re here for, how to live more poetically.” — William Segal, in the amazing film by Ken Burns, Seeing, Searching, and Being.

You can also find more posts about him here.