Half Full


I am reminded again and again about the importance of seeing life as a glass half-full instead of half empty and this past week was no exception.  Over the last seven days I’ve especially encountered many different types of challenging life situations, most of them having to do with other people’s journeys and not my own.  When we find ourselves caught up in worrying and complaining our collective perspective has been lost.  We need only open our eyes, ears, and hearts to those around us to see that we are not only not alone in our daily struggles but we also aren’t looking at the whole picture of life.

This past Monday our local dharma teacher attended our Monday night sangha.  We have two sanghas that meet at the same center in the same tradition on different evenings here in town and our local teacher usually sits on Tuesdays so it was a treat to have him join us.  During the sharing circle someone asked for feedback in regards to self-love and acceptance and how to go about cultivating that for themselves.  Our local dharma teacher then shared about how when we’re working on self-acceptance we’re also working on acceptance of others and vice versa.  He said that the best way he knew to start cultivating self-acceptance is to work on accepting others.

I really connected with what he said and it got me thinking more about our view of not only others but also of the world around us.  How we look at others is how we look at ourselves.  How we look at life’s daily unfolding indicates also how we live our lives.  If we have a difficult time accepting and being around most people and are constantly judging, blaming, and getting irritated by others then we cannot possibly have much acceptance for ourselves either.  How we interact with the world is a good mirror to how we’re fairing on the inside.  If we spend much of our time complaining, looking more towards the negative than the positive, worrying, stressing, and consumed in other types of mental anguish how can we possibly fully enjoy life in any given moment?

Cultivating a mindfulness practice isn’t about changing the course of life’s events it’s about learning how to flow with them as they happen.  Most often we are swimming against the current of life futilely fighting as it unfolds.  We expend a lot of precious energy trying to make life go the way it’s “supposed” to and the way we planned for it to go.  And when things don’t happen that way, which is extremely often, we suffer.  A person who practices to make happiness a habit isn’t one who doesn’t experience challenges it’s one who embraces those challenges as part of life.

Practicing Joy, Part 3 (of 3)


These three parts of practicing joy aren’t necessarily in order of importance they are simply in order of what came to mind when thinking about my own experiences in regards to cultivating joy.  For this third and final installment I would like to focus of gratitude.

Gratitude is an element of joy and joy, in turn, is an element of gratitude.  Without an everyday practice of gratitude we are not investing our time in connecting with all of the many, many people, places, and things that are wonderful, plentiful, and add so much value and benefit to our lives.  When we take for granted how many things are going well in our everyday lives and how good we really have it and instead place our precious time in complaining about what isn’t going our way or working out the way we wanted not only is our seed of gratitude very small but most likely so too is our seed of joy.

You might notice that those who regularly complain and focus on what isn’t going well seem to always have the worse luck and the most drama going on which never seems to lull.  The more they are negative the more they encounter negativity.  Which makes sense!  We find what we seek in the world.  There is also a tendency for these same people to be problem seekers rather than solution finders.  If we have given up hope in the good of others (those who regularly complain are often doing so about other people) we will find ourselves surrounded with those in which will further our views.  The practice of gratitude strengthens our versatility, adaptability, and acceptance of how life unfolds.  If our basic needs are met (food, shelter, clothing) and we experience more suffering than joy on a regular basis, which is very common, our life perspective is being limited to only that in which isn’t going the way we planned  – we need to cultivate more gratitude!

To be consumed in regrets about the past or worries about the future is to be disconnected from the here and now.  It is not the unfolding of life that causes our difficulties it is the attachments we ourselves create to those events.  The practice of gratitude widens our world view and helps us to connect with the present moment.  If we do not yet understand that there truly are things to be grateful for in every moment, regardless of what else is going on, then we need to continue looking deeply into our habit energies and our interactions with the world. For many of us we are not yet shining the light on the whole picture if we do not think that we are surrounded by a myriad of things to hold dear and precious.

There will always be things to dislike, there will always be situations that makes us uncomfortable, there will always be things that happen that we don’t want to happen, there will always be life unfolding the way it will.  There will also always be beauty, there will always be goodness occurring, there will always be things to be grateful for.  If we only spend our time thinking that life isn’t supposed to be this way we are wasting precious time.  We need to make the practice of gratitude important, because it is.  If we are not rooted in gratitude then it will be impossible to develop true and lasting joy.

The Zen Master and the Toy Bird

2013TUS_WebsiteEarlier tonight I participated in a local story telling event called Tell Us Something that is put together every few months here in town.  Anyone is welcome to tell a story and basically all you have to do is email the folks who put these gatherings together beforehand and ask to be signed up.  There’s no auditioning and the only requirements are that it has to be a true personal story and when you perform your piece you can’t have any notes with you.  Each event also has a theme for which your story must be based on and tonight’s was Perception – a great buddhist topic eh?

By sheer happenstance I wound up being the only female signed up to go on stage tonight to tell a story.  The venue was at a local bar that had been recently renovated called the Top Hat and the place was packed when I arrived.  I was pretty nervous and while I had questioned whether having friends there would be supportive or cause me to be more nervous I did let some folks know about it and announced it at my sangha last night.  A nice showing of sangha friends came out for which I was very grateful for.  There were 12 of us story tellers that went on tonight and we were each given 10 minutes to fill.  The host sets up a count down timer and then sounds a small gong at the 9-minute mark to indicate that you need to wrap your story up and he had to go on stage once to get a story teller off the mic who just kept rambling long after the gong was sounded.  But other than that everyone pretty much kept at or around 10 minutes, although for some it was harder to do than others.

I’m not a natural story teller.  But over the last couple of years or so I’ve been actively and intentionally working on creatively sharing with others.  I play music and sing and I do some spoken word as well.  And of course I love to write.  I’ve been skillfully pushing myself towards sharing more and more and working on letting go of my shyness and fear around doing so.  It’s been a wonderful process.  So this story telling adventure tonight was another big beautiful step in the direction of getting out of my comfort zone and sharing creatively with others.

Lotus flower in New Hamlet

Lotus flower in New Hamlet, Plum Village

The story I worked up was an experience I had from the 21-day retreat at Plum Village that my husband and I attended last summer (which is what originally kicked off my starting this blog).  After some microphone adjustments were made, due to my small 5’2″ height in comparison to all of the tall dudes that went before me, here’s the story that I shared about perception:

So, I am what you might call a buddhist practitioner and in our tradition we have a saying that goes: Where there is perception, there is deception, and along those lines I have this little story to offer.

Last year my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a 21-day meditation retreat at our root monastery in the south of France called Plum Village which is also where our root teacher resides, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s often referred to as Thay by his students.  And Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay is a Vietnamese buddhist monk who has written many, many books and hundreds of poems and has led, and continues to lead, retreats all over the world.  So my husband and I went to this retreat and stayed in Plum Village and it was our first trip overseas.  And Plum Village is also home to many monks and nuns in our tradition and serves as a practice center for lay people as well, meaning folks who aren’t monks and nuns, with retreats and events led throughout the year in many different languages.  Now, Plum Village is set up into three main hamlets, upper, lower and new hamlet and they are all on different tracts of land that aren’t connected.  So upper and lower hamlet are a 45 minute walk apart and new hamlet was a 20 minute bus ride away.  This particular retreat attracted around 800 people from all over the world and we were divided up among these hamlets for our lodging.

On one particular day towards the end of the retreat we had a celebration day and we were celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Plum Village.  So all of us in lower and upper hamlets were bused to new hamlet where Thay gave a teaching, called a dharma talk, and then afterwards we had the opportunity to do some outdoor walking meditation, which is very slow and held in silence.  And we went around the pond at new hamlet where the first lotus flowers of the season were in bloom, which were quite spectacular.  After the walk we had lunch and then the celebratory event was held in which there was a gallery exhibit set up and some wonderful artisan cupcakes, which I assumed came from a local parisian bakery because of how fine crafted and intricate they were.  And then there were these performances that were put together by some of the monastics.

So as the performances were getting ready I grabbed a seat on the grass, as it was an outdoor venue, by these cool, old stone buddha statues.  And as everyone started sitting down my new friend and one of my roommates Clara, from the Netherlands, came to sit with me.  And she and I wound up with not only a great vantage point of the performance area but also of Thay who was seated not far from us in the grass (facing to our right side) and most of the retreatants were sitting or standing behind him.  And to see Thay so closely was a treat because to me one of the marks of a truly wonderful and wise teacher is one who is always teaching with their presence and doesn’t need to be saying anything.  To simply watch him interact with his environment and the way he sits and moves is so beautiful to see so it was a gift to have such a clear, unobstructed sight of him, which wasn’t often easy to have during the course of the retreat with so many others around.

The first performance offered was given by some of the nuns who were acting out one of Thay’s poems that he had written.  And over their monastic robes they had adorned them with other fabrics and feathers and some were dressed as trees and others as birds.  As they acted out this poem so sweetly and gracefully over the speakers that had been set up came this nice, melodic, soft sounding oriental type of music.  And once in a while over the music came this shrill bird call that drifted in at very odd seemingly displaced times.  At first I thought to myself, “Hmmm, that’s a strange noise,” and then I let it go.  But as it kept happening I started getting irritated with it and formed this inner dialogue with myself saying things like, “Didn’t they do a run through of this before the performance to know that that noise doesn’t sound good,” and , “Why don’t they stop doing that, it’s just awful!”

After a few minutes of mild irritation and distraction by this bird call my friend Clara nudges me and says, “Thay’s making that noise.”  And I turned to her with a puzzled expression wondering what the heck she was talking about and she continued, “That bird noise, that’s Thay!”  And I thought to myself, “How in the world could he be making that noise?  It doesn’t make any sense.”  Then she whispered, “Watch him.”  So I turn my attention to him wondering what in the world I was looking for and after a couple of minutes I see him reach down to this little toy bird sitting in the grass beside him that was set up next to a microphone.  Then Thay patted the bird and out came the bird call over the speakers.  And on his face alighted this beautiful, sweet smile and from it I got such a sense of joy and ease and lightness and also a hint of mischief, that a Zen Master can sometimes have, as if to say, “Ha ha, no one knows I’m making this bird noise.”  And in that moment my relationship to this bird call changed right away, like the flip of a switch and I went from being irritated and distracted to encountering this deep teaching.  Right then I became aware of how distracted I had allowed myself to get, because I wasn’t aware of that at the time.  Here I was on a bright sunny blue June day in the freakin’ south of France at this monastery with a Zen Master sitting just 30 feet away and I was allowing a bird call, of all things, to carry me away from the present moment.

This was a deep teaching and one that I hope to continue to carry with me moment by moment into the future as I continue on my path of practice.  Because when I stop and take the time to look deeply I see how often I think I have everything figured out – I know why this person is doing that and why this situation is going like that and I think I have it all figured out when I really have no idea.  Thay is fond of saying that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect and that figure is so astronomical to me that I can’t quite wrap my brain around it but I’m working on it.  Because again, when I take the time to look deeply I can start to understand how often I create my own suffering based on my perceptions and how intertwined perception and deception really are – they go together and much like the in-breath and the out-breath cannot be separated.


A picture of Thay I found online

Practicing Joy, Part 2 (of 3)


Part two in practicing joy is simple (although most likely not easy) – we have to do it!  We actually have to physically practice joy.  Just as if we were to go and learn how to play the piano, to paint, to play tennis, how to fly fish, or crochet we have to put in the time necessary to master the art of joyful living.

We would not expect to sit down to learn how to play the piano and become masterful in a matter of minutes.  We have to put the time and effort into learning.  We have to be patient.  It is like this too with the cultivation of joy.  As I spoke about in Part 1 before my very difficult summer a couple of years ago I was under the impression (albeit subconsciously) that joy was something that just happened when the conditions were right, such as when it was sunny outside, my husband went along with what I wanted to do, my bills were paid, I had chocolate, etc.  Joy wasn’t something I was an active participant in.  So step 1 1/2 might very well be to change how you view joy and ask yourself the question: Am I responsible for my own joy and happiness or do I depend upon others and the right conditions to arise in order to feel joyful?

How do we practice joy?  What does that mean?  It means that we make time to do the things that create for us an authentic sense of connection.  It might be a connection to ourselves, to others, to the world, or to the present moment, but most especially it would foster our connection to feelings of gratitude, joy, and happiness.  We need to make time for the things that we enjoy doing.  Too often we prioritize things in which are of the least value, such as watching tv, texting, surfing the net, and facebooking, or a complete waste of time all together, such as worrying about the future or complaining about the past.  And it’s important to remember that what brings happiness to one person will be different for another.  There are as many ways to practice joy as there are stars in the sky.

Just like with anything else the more time we devote to the practice of joy the more skilled we get in cultivating it in our daily lives.  The more we practice the more we keep practicing!  We cannot realistically expect to become well skilled at anything overnight.  While it may be easy to think to ourselves that we just aren’t good at something and should throw in the towel when we aren’t progressing the way we think we should this is often an example of impatience and ego getting in the way.  We need to not be in such a hurry and remember that with great skill comes great effort, diligence, and time applied.

While we may not be aware of it most of us make plenty of time to practice suffering, we are very skilled at it, masterful even.  We need to make the time to water seeds of joy.  At first it might feel fake or phony, we may even feel silly or undeserving of joy.  And just as there would be an awkward time period in the first days and weeks of learning how to play the piano we need to keep going if we are to learn and grow and transform.  We need to keep tickling those ivories if we are to play beautiful music.  The music will come forth if we nurture it.