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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Just Say No to New Year’s Resolutions

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OK – don’t get me wrong, I think setting up well-grounded goals to walk towards can be very beneficial.  However, the popular end of the year ritual of making new year’s resolutions tends to fall less into the category of tangible goals and more akin to sitting down to eat a big meal.  There you are with a vast array of foods awaiting your fork and you proceed to eat and eat and eat way more than is needed or heathy, thereby making yourself sick, yet again.  It’s the ol’ your eyes are bigger than your stomach shtick.

It can be the same for making new year’s resolutions.  It is a loftly premise to look at the next 365 days with the idea of making major changes all in the name of self-improvement.  The old addage: go big or go home very seldomly serves us on any transformational journey and yet that is what I feel we are clutching to, albeit unconciously.  In the western world we don’t like to go slowly, we don’t like to simplify, we don’t like to take our time to stop and smell the roses.  And we sure as hell don’t want to do any small acts.  We want bigger, stronger, faster, more and more and more.

So while we are star gazing into the next 12 months at some un-fixed time on the horizon resolving to lose weight, stop smoking, drink less, be more successful, take up a language and spend more time with our friends what, may I gently ask, are we doing right now?

When did we first start thinking that tomorrow, next week, next month, next year is more sufficient of a time to think about than right now?  What is it we’re doing right now?  Are we using our new year’s resolutions, the way we do many other things in our life, to escape the here and now?  Isn’t the only moment we can be truly alive happening right…now?

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Wanting more background and statistics I looked into new year’s resolutions a little bit.  What I came across was not surprising.  According to a 2007 study from the University of Bristol, comprising of 3,000 people, they found that 88% of those who made new year’s resolutions fail, depsite the fact that 52% of the participants were confident of success at the beginning (from wikipedia).  Here are some more numbers I found (on theweek.com): After just 1 week only 75% of pepole are maintaining their resolution(s), after 2 weeks it dips to 71%, after one month it’s 64% and after six months it drops to 46%.  Regardless of the high failure rate come January still 45% of Americans make at least one resolution each year.  Hmmm.

I dug up some quotes too:

“New Year’s Day:  Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”  ~Mark Twain

“Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community.  Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.”  ~Mark Twain

“I made no resolutions for the New Year.  The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.”  ~Anaïs Nin

“Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

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Here’s what I think – we need to pay closer attention to the so called “small” matters of life.  There are two main challenges surrounding small matters that I can see clearly: 1. We underestimate the small acts we can do for ourselves, our loved ones, those around us and the earth.  We take for granted this very precious moment under our feet.  2. On the flip side it’s usually the small stuff that we get tripped up on and get bent out of shape over.  Someone ate my muffin!  Dammit!  What ever will I do now!!  I think the two are not separate but indeed very much connected.  Oftentimes we become hyper-aware or hyper-sensitive of the actions that we ourselves are lacking motivation in – hence, there’s a mirror wherever we go.

When we take good care of the present moment we are also taking good care of the past and the future.  When we can learn to embrace the very here and now we are already on the path of transformation.

With one final quote I will sign off until this moment spills into the next moment when I long to write much like the sun longs to rise each day, as an involuntary and abundantly joyful expression of self:

“Perhaps the only way we will be able to see the full spectrum of ourselves clearly is to look into every small pocket of time that unfolds, every small relationship we develop, even if it lasts for only 5 minutes in the grocery store check-out line, and every small action, task, exchange of words and thought that arises in the company of 1 or more people or when we reside alone in the dark.”     – Chan Dieu Hoa

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Everyday Practice

 

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Week 6 – Online Winter Retreat

Week 6 – Online winter retreat, presented by Deer Park Monastery.  To follow along copy and paste this in your browser, there are talks, questions and readings posted every week: http://deerparkmonastery.org/teachings/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013

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Reflection Questions

1) As I become more grounded in body and mind, what “hindrances” am I aware of most strongly through my day? Are there some that are more predominant for me than others?

Brother Phap Hai (the monk who offers the talks associated with each week of the online winter retreat) spoke of the four hindrances: Running (after things), ill-will towards others, ourselves and our practice, sloth, restlessness & remorse (not feeling good enough), skeptical doubt (cynicism – stepping back instead of stepping forward).  I’m not sure if the question is asking in regards to these hindrances offered in the talk or a more broadened approach including any number of hindrances so I’ll speak to both.

From the hindrances offered above I would say that ill-will towards others stands out the most to me.  This is difficult to admit.  The ill-will comes in the form of judgements mostly directed at those closest to me, or those that treat me poorly.  I also see the want for a quick fix button to be a large hindrance in my life.  Reaching quickly sometimes for caffeine or sugar or netflix to satiate a need for energy or comfort or to disassociate with a certain state of mind or emotion.

2) What does socially engaged Buddhism mean to me? In the wake of a tragedy such as Newtown, what meaningful steps can I/ we take?

It means to be involved in the world around us, to be connected in equal parts to both the suffering and joy that is happening each day.  The tragedy in Newtown was heart breaking and terribly sad and it is also not an isolated incident – even that same day a man burst into a school classroom in China with a knife and a student was arrested for threatening acts of harm against a school in another U.S state.  I think it is important to see clearly that there is fear, anger, loneliness and deep suffering all around us.  Every day people are dying due to war, suicide and starvation.  Every day women are raped.  Every day there are terrible acts of violence committed against ourselves and others around the world.

Too often we are out of balance.  It is easy to get overly absorbed in the suffering that exists.  It is also easy to get overly absorbed in the denial of the suffering that exists.  The balance is found by blending both the joy and the suffering that exist in life.  They are both a natural part of life.  A meaningful step we can take is to practice balancing ourselves so that we do not turn away from the suffering nor turn away from the joy.  We can learn to face both equally.

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I once heard a dharma teacher speak about suffering saying that we all know how to suffer, we have that one down.  And it’s true.  We all know full well how to suffer.  What many of us don’t know how to do is bask in the joy that abounds in every moment.  There is joy all around us.  This is not wishful thinking, as Thay might say.  This is a deep practice.  Cultivating joy is a transformational act.   Smiling is a transformational act.  Thay says, “Smiling is very important.  If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace.”  To me this statement is extremely powerful coming from a zen master.  Two meaningful steps we can take is not to underestimate our own capacity to experience joy and to not underestimate the simple acts we can do to bring joy into the world.  A famous quote by Mother Teresa says, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.”  We need to do more small things with great love.

I also firmly believe that one of the most important things we can do is cultivate our true presence to offer to ourselves, our loved ones and those around us.  Practicing deep breathing, cultivating mindfulness and learning to look with the eyes of love and understanding are not simply nice things to do, they are deeply crucial elements to our awakening and the well being of ourselves and our planet.

Suggested Practices

Let us continue to establish ourselves deeply in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. You may like to cycle through the Foundations a few times over the next two weeks: focusing on one establishment for a few days, and then moving on to another.

Have a wonderful two weeks of connection, of receiving and of giving.

 

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Living It Up

It is my viewpoint that there are basic components to well being.  Nutrition, movement and deep breathing are the basic elements for creating physical well being – and drinking lots of water too!  Cultivating compassion, understanding, joy, community, self-awareness, worldly awareness and flowing along with life instead of against it are the basic elements for creating mental, emotional and spiritual well being.  There are many ways to put into motion these basic ingredients to living a well balanced lifestyle.  We need to find what works for us and what doesn’t.  There is no one prescription for everyone to follow.

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We would all do well to practice looking deeply into the simple truth that we are all the same and we are all different.  We are not only the same, we are not only different, we are BOTH the same AND different.  Just as the in breath cannot exist without the out breath we cannot all be the same without all being different.  The two are not separate, they go together.

It is my sense that this is a hard notion to understand.  Let us picture a forest.  When we enter into a forest, surrounded by vegetation and greenery, it can be very easy to think that every tree looks the same.  Perhaps we might even find ourselves getting lost amongst the trees with the idea that since everything looks like everything else we will never find our way out and just keep circling around and around.  But if we take the time to slow down and look more closely at the trees we will see they are each very different.  While they share the same basic conditions for survival: sunlight, air, earth and water, and even look very similar to one another they are each an individual entity.  We are much the same way.

We all exist in the forest of humanity sharing feelings, emotions, thoughts, concerns and have the same basic needs of food, water, shelter and love.  We share a common root system and are fed by the same sun and earth.  And we are all different as well.  My happiness will look different from your happiness, and that’s not only OK, it’s how it was meant to be!  Our differences are what make our environment rich, diverse and absolutely, unfathomably beautiful beyond measure.

Let us embrace ourselves, right here in this moment, both equally for how we are unique and how we are the same.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2012 in Everyday Practice

 

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Week 5 – Online Winter Retreat

Week 5 – Online winter retreat, presented by Deer Park Monastery.  To follow along copy and paste this in your browser, there are talks, questions and readings posted every week: http://deerparkmonastery.org/teachings/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013

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Reflection Questions

1) Looking back over my own journey of practice, what were the moments, situations or people that were my noble messengers?

When the buddha traveled outside of the royal palace he grew up in he met four different people, four noble messengers that helped his awakening, someone who was old, sick, dead, and a spiritual practitioner.  Looking back over my path of practice from the beginning the first thing that comes to mind for me was a book I picked up on a friend’s counter.  That book started my awakening.  It was an SLAA book, Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous.  I was 18 years old at the time.  And to my surprise I related to the book on many levels.  I started realizing how much of my self-worth was wrapped up in needing to be in a relationship and it was very startling and very difficult to start unwrapping the habit energies I had acquired already at such a young age.  I was open to this particular practice only because of the work I did with SLAA.  And so when a different friend gave me Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh to read I was ready to receive the teachings offered in it.

Another noble messenger was my injury in 2005 that led to the chronic nerve disease RSD.  Now at 33 years old I still continue to deal with chronic pain every day.  Most moments through the day I am in physical pain.  And while that can spark much sympathy from people and when people find out they feel sorry for me and badly for what I must go through I have come into relationship with my disease in a way that I have much gratitude for.  It did not start out that way, of course, but over time with the great support of my practice I was able to transform my disease from a terrible enemy into a friend.  My RSD continues to guide me in many ways and is a great teacher on the path.

2) What, for me, does it mean to take refuge in the Sangha?

To take refuge in the sangha means to trust in the community.  To trust the community with my real human experience, to take both my joys and struggles to my sangha and lay them down.

3) What for me does it mean to take refuge in myself?

The other night I was unexpectedly confronted by someone at my house who was quite upset with me, among with many many other things and people.  They were quite ungrounded and angry.  Many things were being said by this person that were simply untrue but there was nothing I could say that was helpful, there was very little I could do.  In that moment I came back to my in-breath and out-breath and sat down in a solid meditation pose on my kitchen chair and practiced to listen as best as I was able to, both to what was being said and what was being left un-said.  While I was being verbally attacked I breathed and listened deeply.  That to me is an illustration of taking refuge in myself.  After they left I could feel tears brimming in my eyes and I was aware that I had a choice.  I could be swept down the river of that person’s turbulent emotions and take them on or I could take refuge in myself by staying in the here and now, by staying with my breathing.  I chose the latter.  And that choice is one of the fruits of the practice.

4) What does it mean to look at my Sangha as my body? Just as a body, my Sangha has needs – how do I respond to those?

In having founded the sangha I sit with 10 years ago I very much see the correlation between the Be Here Now sangha and my own practice.  As it has grown and expanded so has my own practice and vice versa.  Be Here Now and I are interconnected.  It is impossible to separate the two.  I care for the sangha just as I would a close friend and enjoy listening to people’s needs and feedback about what is working or not working.  To see the sangha as a living organism is very helpful and is needed to continue to grow and blossom as a community.

Suggested Practices

1) Following along with the teaching in this weeks’ podcast we are invited into the practice of mindfulness of the body in the body this week- in terms of the four main positions of the body as well as to become aware of the different parts of our body.

2) Let us make time this week for total relaxation – either a minute here and there throughout the day, or in the evening before going to bed. Maybe both!

 

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Week 4 – Online Winter Retreat

Week 4 – Online winter retreat, presented by Deer Park Monastery.  To follow along copy and paste this in your browser, there are talks, questions and readings posted every week: http://deerparkmonastery.org/teachings/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013

I’m still lagging behind in the set course of the winter retreat, but that’s OK :)

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Reflection Questions

1) Reflecting on my practice, how is it a gift- to myself, my dear ones, my Sangha?

I see that one of the biggest fruits of my practice is to cultivate presence.  When I am present with myself I can be present for someone else and for my sangha.  Presence is a gift.  Our true presence is the greatest gift we can offer to someone else.

2) From my practice of stopping and coming back to my senses during the past week- what themes have emerged? Have I noticed that I tend to be more aware of sounds, or smells, or tastes, or sights, or sensations? What are some of the more consistent themes that have been running through my thoughts this past week?

When I practice stopping the first sense that I notice is my hearing.  I hear the sounds of traffic or the people around me or whatever else is going on.  The consistent themes I’ve been noticing lately have been related to coming back to my true home in the here and now and being an island unto myself.  I am coming into relationship with the deeper capacity within myself to not be swept away by the goings on around me or the emotions of others.  It is a deep well within us all to be able to root ourselves firmly in the here and now and not be swept away or overcome by differing forms of negativity or unskillfulness.

3) Reflecting back over my mandala of practice for this winter (Study, practice, work, play)- what have I found easy and what have I found challenging? What do I resist most?

I have been sitting at least once a week on my own outside of sangha and that feels like a nice step in my practice.  Work and play are the areas I am very strong in and this is still the same.  Study, as I mentioned earlier in one of the retreat reflection exercises, is what I resist the most.  But over the last few weeks I’ve been  listening to the talks associated with the winter retreat, reading articles written by Thay and the monastics, and also watching or listening to dharma talks by Thay and I see all of this in the realm of study.

And since my 5 day juice fast I’ve stayed off of candy bars which is wonderful!  I’ve had other sweets but my addiction lies in chocolate bars so not having had them since Thanksgiving is a big thing for me.  The juice fast really helped me to get back to healthy eating.  Healthy eating and lessening unskillful habits can be a very difficult practice.  It feels nice to be making a little bit of progress in letting go of my strong habit energy towards sugar.

Suggested Practices

This coming week, building on the practice of coming back to my senses, throughout the day we are invited to walk through the door of becoming more aware of the three roots in our conscious- the seeking, grasping mind, aversion and not seeing things as they are. Throughout this coming week, in your stopping practice, notice and smile to the stories that you tell yourself about the experiences that you are having. What interpretations are you making? At the end of the week, it may be helpful to go back over the themes that we noticed during the week and see if they still resonate with us, or whether a few days later, we see the situation quite differently.

Have fun!

 

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Stress

Life involves stress.  To think otherwise is like pretending that the earth is flat, it just isn’t so.  To understand that life involves suffering is the first of the four nobel truths.  Simply to know that there is suffering, for example: stress, is not enough.  We must understand what it means.  Knowing that suffering exists involves the intellect while understanding involves our heart, our whole being.  It is easy to say, “Yeah, yeah, stress exists, ” when we aren’t in the midst of it.  But then as soon as stress enters our life we think, “Ahhhh, life isn’t supposed to be like this!”

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When we cultivate understanding that suffering really is a part of life and not something that is separate or wrong we begin to step fully into the here and now and embrace our true human nature.  We may not realize it but most of us spend a majority of our time wishing our present moment was different.  We’d rather be doing something else, be somewhere else, be with someone else, and most of all be someone else other than who we are.  We waste a lot of time and energy swimming against the current of life’s natural flow.  To go with the flow does not mean to be unaffected by or apathetic to life’s unfolding, it means that we can practice not to get caught by it.

What does it mean to be caught by our suffering?  I’ll use a personal story to help illustrate.  When I first started practicing meditation and sitting with a sangha (spiritual community) my husband Mike and I were living in our old Ford van and working on the east coast.  Once a week we would sit with a sangha and practice sitting and walking meditation, coming back to our breathing and slowing down.  We were both very new to the practice of mindfulness and meditation.  We really enjoyed the group and looked forward to attending each week.

One day after work I walked to the public library just down the road, where it was common for me to wait for Mike to get off work and pick me up.  It was a sangha night and I had been craving the group all week long.  As it was getting close to the time when Mike would arrive to pick me up I stopped my browsing and reading inside of the library and went to wait on a bench outside.  As a side note, I’m one of those people whose idea of arriving on time means getting there 10 minutes early.  After about 15 minutes of waiting outside I went to check the time in the library.  It was then that I began to get a little irritated that he hadn’t shown up yet.  Back outside I went to watch the road for him.  A few more minutes drifted by and I went to check the time again.  Frustration set in.  We were going to be late to sangha if he didn’t show up soon!  When I went back outside I started pacing on the sidewalk around the parking lot.  With every passing car that wasn’t my husband I grew more and more anxious.  I started muttering to myself in low tones though clenched teeth, “I can’t BELIEVE he’s late!  This is fuckin’ ridiculous!  Where the hell is he?”  My whole body was locked in a ball of tightness, my forehead was scrunched and my breath came and went in shallow spurts.  I was all sorts of angry!

Once again I made the jaunt, now with terse, hurried steps, to check the time.  After making the unchanging assessment that yes he was still late I went back outside and plopped down on a wooden bench in desperation.  In woe and exhaustion I wearily slumped back on the bench with a soft thunk and my face tilted upwards.  Just then, as if it were written in the sky, the words, “Just enjoy me,” came to the forefront of my mind.  Just enjoy me!  I took it as a message from the present moment as though it were calling to me through the heavy weight of stress and anger.

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With those words I gently smiled and became aware that it was a beautiful spring day.  I noticed the sunshine, the blue sky, the birds and the trees.  Until then I hadn’t been aware of any of it.  I started doing some slow walking meditation in the grass and came back to my breathing in and breathing out.  I stopped waiting and started enjoying.  I became aware of the fact that all of my huffing and puffing and cursing under my breath did absolutely nothing to get my husband to show up any quicker.  And while it may not seem like a big revelation at the time, in the heat of my anger, it was a bright light shining in the dark.

When Mike finally did show up, much too late for us to even attempt to make it to sangha, I opened the van door, smiled and said, “Thank you for being late.”  And I meant it.  In that moment it was clear to me that had I remained caught by my anger my first words to him would’ve been very very different.

It was my first real life encounter with the practice of mindfulness.  And it opened my eyes to the power of cultivating my relationship to the present moment.  I saw how my meditation practice that I was generating on the cushion at sangha translated into mindfulness in my daily life off the cushion.  I didn’t need to go to sangha to practice.  I could practice wherever I was, in any moment.

When I was at the library I received a glimpse into the teaching of how when we are able to fully embrace the here and now we can learn to let go of the need for the present moment to be anything other than what it is.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2012 in Everyday Practice

 

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Week 3 – Online Winter Retreat

Week 3 – Online winter retreat, presented by Deer Park Monastery.  (To follow along copy and paste this in your browser, there are talks and readings posted every week: http://deerparkmonastery.org/teachings/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013)

Thay's Calligraphy

Thay’s Calligraphy

Reflection Questions

1.) What do I enjoy about my practice?

I enjoy being connected more fully – with myself, my surroundings and others.  I enjoy coming back to my breathing and becoming grounded in the present moment.  And I enjoy the fruits of my practice – things like responding more clearly to situations when they arise, embracing strong emotions, knowing how to cultivate joy in there here and now and being able to offer my true presence.

2.) What is it experientially that gives me confidence in the Buddha’s teaching?  What transformations have I seen?

The teachings make sense to me.  I was attracted to this practice because the teachings made sense and when I began to practice and bring them into my daily life I saw benefits right away.  I have confidence in the teachings because I have seen how they cultivate a calming presence in my life and because they represent a path that brings me back to my true home, the present moment.

The transformations I have seen in my life due to this practice are plentiful.  I am able to embrace life on life’s terms rather than constantly struggling against it and wishing it were different.  I am able to sit and be still – I can calm my body and mind and return to the here and now.  I am better equipped with tools to be fully human and offer that humanness to my community.  I am better able to hold challenges and not get swept away by them and I am better able to accept myself just as I am.  And I can be fully present for my loved ones.  The list goes on and on…

3.) What does it mean to offer someone non-fear?  To offer them the dharma?  What does it mean to offer them to myself?

What I see as offering non-fear is to embrace someone else in the spirit of non-judgement, understanding and compassion.  To offer non-fear is to listen deeply and to look with the eyes of love.  To offer the dharma is to offer my true presence.  When I breathe deeply and connect with myself in the here and now and become grounded in the joy and beauty that is within and around me in each moment I am sharing the dharma.  And this too is what it means to offer it to myself.  Embracing myself just as I am right now is the greatest gift I can offer myself.

Suggested Practices

One of the core practices of Plum Village is the practice of stopping. Create opportunities for stopping this week. When you come back to your breath, you may like to bring awareness to your senses: what you are hearing, what you are seeing, what you are sensing in your body and so on. Notice whether there are any patterns that emerge. Which of the senses are you naturally drawn to, or us most apparent to you?

 

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