Cultivating Mindfulness (and huckleberries :)

fresh picked huckleberries

What does it mean to be mindful?  How do we water the seed of mindfulness in order to bring about ease and joy for ourselves?  Mindfulness is the quality of our relationship with ourselves and the interaction we have with our surroundings.  It is the practice that we bring off of our meditation cushion and into our daily lives.  It is an interweaving of attention and intention.  There are many ways to nourish our little mindfulness seed into a well established plant in our internal garden.  In our watering can, meditation is a big drop of water but not everyone resonates with sitting meditation and that’s OK :)

Another way mindfulness can be cultivated is by doing any activity with all of our attention.  A few days ago my step-son Jaden and I went out huckleberry picking with my good friend Amy.  We spent about 3 hours in the woods honing our berry radar and meandering from bush to bush.  Those little plum colored berries sure know how to blend in!  While berry picking my attention was devoted almost entirely to the activity at hand.  It was a natural process.  Afterwards, I realized that berry picking was a practice in cultivating mindfulness.  Anything I do that presses pause on my monkey mind and brings me fully into the present moment waters the seed of mindfulness.

There are a multitude of things that can bring about our relationship with the present moment and they will differ from person to person.  I like to clean (you heard it right, I like to clean) and when I get into my cleaning mode I am attentive and my busy brain stops thinking and planning and scheduling.  Taking good care of my home becomes a mindfulness practice.  It happens naturally, almost without effort.

There are activities we do that bring about our focus naturally and those we can do intentionally to nourish our capacity to create more mindfulness in our everyday life.  Anything we do can be an opportunity to wake up to ourselves in the present moment from wood working to cooking to biking to drinking a cup of tea.  Mindfulness is the tool we use to create our relationship with the present moment and reconnect to the beauty that is all around and within us.  And we can start right now, wherever we are.

Outdoor Day of Mindfulness

Yesterday we had an outdoor half day of mindfulness in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area in town with our local Be Here Now sangha (spiritual community).   It was a beautiful, bright Sunday.  The trees were thick with fragrance, the sky was full of blues and the energy of joy and gratitude was in abundance.  We met at the trailhead at noon, there were 8 of us and 1 fuzzy dog friend.  We took a 25 minute leisurely stroll to a nice secluded spot by the river and in order to start cultivating the collective energy of mindfulness we walked in silence.  When we walk in silence we have the opportunity to connect with our surroundings, our steps and our breath.  Before we started on the trail I invited everyone to choose one area in particular to focus our energy of mindfulness on as we hiked – some examples I gave were to connect with our feet, notice colors or sounds, stay with our breathing or feel how are body moves.  There are so many different ways to practice mindfulness that it can be helpful to connect deeply with one aspect at a time so as not to get overwhelmed or too dispersed.

For my mindfulness exercise I chose to practice connecting with the surrounding trees as I walked.  I took notice of their textured, reddened bark and their long, deep green needles.  I looked deeply and saw how their towering beauty gifted me an expanding perspective, gently ladling me out of my own container and into the wider flow of life like a stream emptying into the ocean.

When we got to the river we sat down on the rocky beach and after we went around the circle and offered a personal gratitude in relation to the food we had each brought we started our lunch in silence.  After about 10 minutes a bell was sounded and we transitioned into talking.  Blending silence, which is the communication we cultivate with ourselves, with socializing, which is the communication we cultivate with others, is an important part of any group day of practice or retreat.  Silence and non-silence go together, they lean on one another like day and night.

Mindful eating by Rattlesnake Creek

After we finished lunch and spent some time chatting we walked to a nearby shaded grassy area up from the river bank where we sat in meditation for 20 minutes followed by a stretching circle where we went around and each offered a movement to share with the group.  Bringing fluidity to the body is important, when we sit still for too long we become stiff and tense.  Our bodies like to move and it makes them happier and more at ease.  We then spent an hour in an open sharing circle where topics about accepting and not putting expectations onto others, creating our own happiness and connecting with community circulated around like a soft breeze.  Sharing our human experiences and listening deeply to those of others is a powerful community builder and tool for transformation.  When we can connect with the fact that we are both the same and different from one another we begin to walk on the middle path of practice.

At around 3:00pm we ended our afternoon with our regular sangha closing circle of joining hands and sharing about things or people we are grateful for and putting loved ones or ourselves into the circle for healing.  It was a nice, simple afternoon filled with sunshine, rest, and practicing to Be Here Now joyfully together.

When we can slow down, breathe deeply, and wake up to ourselves in this moment and how we are relating to life’s ebb and flow our experience becomes like a flower, fresh and beautiful.  Taking the time to practice mindfulness whether it’s a week long retreat, a few hours or a few minutes nourishes our capacity to take good care of ourselves which in turn takes good care of our ripples outwards.

Embracing the Weather

Greenough, MT

Inevitably talk of the weather ensues pretty much in any type of situation – at the grocery store checkout line, on the phone with a friend or relative, at social gatherings, and the list goes on and on.  In the winter it’s, “burr, cold enough for ya out there?” in the spring it’s, “man, all this rain’s a bummer eh?” in the summer it’s “geese, I can’t stand this heat, it’s pretty bad out there isn’t it?” and in the fall it’s, “the summer’s always over too soon, ain’t that always the way?”  Our human western collective can often be counted on for holding crazy tight onto our points of view and then putting them onto others as though there were only one way of thinking.

One of my practices is to embrace the weather regardless of what is happening in the sky.  This is not to say the weather doesn’t effect my mental and emotional landscape but that I try not to get consumed by what is not only out of my influence but more importantly is a necessary and natural unfolding of the web of life.  We need the rain, the heat, the snow, the clouds, the sun, we need the seasons in all of their differing splendor.

I am often at a loss for what to say when someone comments about the weather and tries to get me to agree with their way of experiencing it.  In an attempt to respond in a short, polite and authentic way to this common exchange without simply agreeing to someone’s perspective (which tends to be negative) I have been offering responses like, “Actually, I think it’s quite nice outside,” or “Oh, I think it’s just great weather out today.”

I have been seeing more and more how the pessimistic side of myself shows up in my everyday living, the side that looks at what’s wrong with things, people, myself, rather than what’s right with them.  It’s this side that I am trying to nurture and cultivate a new path with in this small step in regards to my relationship with the weather.  When I nourish my appreciation for the weather regardless of its attire I am also nourishing my capacity to embrace and care for my own internal weather, one cloudy day at a time.

Taking Refuge

Plum Village
Photo by Elisabeth Seland

What does it mean to take refuge In the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha?  In a storm, when the winds are wailing and spinning gray full clouds pouring a hard cursed rain, our natural instinct is to seek shelter, to get out of the weather for dryness and safety.  It is the same for taking refuge in the practice of love and understanding.  The buddha is our inherent wisdom, the dharma is the practice of joy and the sangha is our extended self.  To take refuge in them is also to take refuge in ourselves.

I’m in a strong life current where holding on for dear life has become how I make it through the day.  Sometimes all I can do is keep breathing, focusing on the strong inhale of emotion, the exhale of not being swept down river, if only in this very moment of time.  I take refuge in music, in sunshine, in my breath and I keep holding on to the practice of how working with challenges doesn’t mean to forget or diminish our own suffering but to not forget all of the good stuff too.

Inspired by Bob Dylan’s song Shelter from the Storm:

I was wrapped up in anguish struggling to stay afloat

The Buddha within called to me sweetly like the shore to a boat astray

Worn out to my fingertips, entangled and forlorn

“Come in” he said “I’ll give you, shelter from the storm.”

With a Shutter, A Sigh and a Breath

Statue from Plum Village, Upper Hamlet

I miss the embrace of Plum Village, the ease and joy and safety of monastery, practice centered living.  I miss kind hearted, thoughtful people, and my afternoon naps.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been going through a lot of turmoil.  I learned from a card sent in the mail that a close friend has chosen to walk away from our longterm friendship.  My husband and I are going through  challenges.  And financially we are struggling a great deal.  Last summer I was extremely depressed and detached due to a few difficult situations piling on top of one another in close proximity of time, which had they been staggered I would’ve worked through without being swept under by the emotional current.  I feel the same current licking at my heels now.

I am determined to stay grounded in my practice, to feel and embrace my emotions without being carried away.  Strong emotions come and go like waves on the open blue-gray sea – just as the waves are not separate from the water, anger, sorrow, loneliness are not separate from life.  It’s easy to think that life shouldn’t involve pain and suffering, that it should be without hardship and difficulty.  But this is unrealistic thinking.  When I fight against life unfolding I fight against myself.

In my efforts to cultivate joy and strengthen the seeds of well being within myself during this challenging time I have been getting outside and connecting with nature, soaking up the sun, talking with friends, planning an upcoming outdoor day of mindfulness, taking refuge in my sangha, writing, and practicing gentleness as I experience strong emotions like anger, sadness, betrayal and loss.  Last summer has shown me what happens when I don’t take responsibility for my own self-care, my own happiness.  My reality really is up to me.

On Sunday I felt myself sink down under the murky turbulent tides of depression.  I drew the layered curtains, shutting out the bright sun and clear skies as I lay in bed under the guise of exhaustion and needing well earned rest.  As morning turned to early afternoon I realized that the line between rest and wallowing had become thin and chalky, that I needed to take action and pick myself up out of the muck.  And I did.  I made the bed, got dressed, and opened the curtains to let in the light.  Transformation doesn’t often happen in leaps and bounds, it happens in small, diligent steps towards a greater understanding and deeper compassion of ourselves.  This moment, this breath, this is it.