I had set aside last Sunday as a personal day of mindfulness but I wound up feeling under the weather so I rescheduled for today. All week I kept this day free of plans and to-do lists. It felt strange to set up a day of mindfulness on a Thursday instead of a weekend day, when allowing myself the space to slow down feels more natural and acceptable. Although I don’t have a full time job I still consider Monday through Friday to be work days and I use them as such. It was a good opportunity to step into those feelings of discomfort and claim this big Thursday work day as a day of practice.
To me, a personal day of mindfulness means slowing down, practicing to offer my full attention to everything that I’m doing while I’m doing it, and quieting down – for a whole day. It’s a day of gratitude and intention. A day of turning off the external chatter of my music and computer – not checking email or making phone calls. A day to practice enjoying each step and each breath. A day of coming back home to myself in the present moment, over and over again, with love and gentleness.
I began my day by watching a dharma talk given by Thay during the recent Deer Park retreat in CA (to check out his talks go to: http://tnhaudio.org/). Here are some of the notes I took while listening (the words in bold are what stood out to me personally during the talk):
The Buddha encouraged his monks to practice solitude, but this didn’t mean to drop out of society and disengage. One monk misunderstood the teaching and did everything by himself. He went on alms rounds by himself, sat by himself, ate by himself, and walked by himself. When the other monks told the Buddha of this the Buddha then gave the teaching of The Better Way to Live Alone. To live alone means to not have a second person in you. Maybe that second person is the object of your craving or desire. To live alone is to be completely satisfied with the here and now – you are not looking for anything else. You understand that happiness and joy are present in the here and now. Even if you go to the mountain alone but you are still searching or longing for something you are not alone.
Here are some things (in no particular order) I like to keep in mind on a general basis to help me stay grounded:
1. Don’t take things so seriously.
2. Don’t take things so personally.
3. Life is absolutely beautiful!
4. I am not separate from anyone or anything else.
5. Don’t over complicate things.
6. Don’t over think things.
7. I have so much to be grateful for!
8. Everything is impermanent.
9. Life flows like a river.
10. My happiness is entirely up to me.
11. Life is only available in the present moment.
This is part 2 of 2.
Deep listening is the ability to listen without judging or reacting. To be able to focus our full attention on someone when they are talking is a great gift. Oftentimes we are only partially listening when someone is talking due to internal or external distractions or waiting to offer our input, experience, or advice. It is easy to interrupt and talk over others. Deep listening involves allowing space and slowing down. Allowing space for the other person to express themselves and to feel heard and understood – slowing down enough to be able to offer our full presence.
For the last 5 weeks I’ve been teaching a class I call MIndfulness Matters through our adult learning center here in town. I’ve been teaching these class series for the last 4 years or so. I focus on a different element of mindfulness each week and this week’s topic is mindful speech and deep listening. In order to help prepare I thought I would write out some of my thoughts and subject matter here.
The greatest gift we can offer someone is our true and full presence and two of the most important tools that we can cultivate in order to do this are mindful speech and deep listening. Mindful speech is the use of words that help inspire self-confidence, joy, inclusiveness, and connection. Deep listening is the ability to listen in such a way where we are free of judgement and a need to react.
If we don’t know how to practice mindful speech and deep listening towards ourselves we will only be so effective when we direct these skill sets towards others. Many of us have a very negative internal dialogue that is directed at ourselves. This internal voice is often operating on an unconscious level and can be very active throughout the day. A few common examples of negative self-talk include statements like, “I can’t believe I just did that, I’m so stupid!” or “I look awful today, I’m so fat.” or “Gosh, what is wrong with me today, I can’t do anything right.”
In June of 2012 after getting home from the 21-day retreat in Plum Village in southern France I faced a large stack of mail. Not looking forward to the task of sorting through it I found a card sized envelope from a dear friend amidst the bills and junk mail and decided to open it first. I was delighted to see a good piece of mail in the sea of paper! The card had a lovely flower on the front and I remember smiling. As I started to read the card my smile soon disappeared. My very close friend of the past few years had written to tell me she no longer wanted to be in a friendship with me.
I was terribly confused and had no idea what had happened to make her take this drastic action. I must’ve read the card over and over 10 times the day I opened it. My confusion very soon turned to anger. Not only had she ended our friendship in a pretty little card but she had sent it while I was out of the country, and at the time she lived only 8 blocks away from me. I felt extremely disrespected by what I felt was a very cowardly and immature thing to do. In the matter of moments I went from looking forward to seeing a dear friend and sharing my retreat experience with her to literally never wanting to see her again. I was hurt, sad, confused, and angry.
I wrote her a letter back telling her how I felt and ended it by saying that when I tried to strip away all of the strong emotions I was feeling I could see clearly that I would miss her. I hadn’t heard from her since then until last Thursday when, before departing for our local fall retreat, in yet another stack of mail, I found a small square envelope with her handwriting on it. I wasn’t expecting to hear from her and yet I wasn’t surprised either. I took a couple of deep breaths and opened the letter. In it she wrote about how she wished she had done things differently and how she didn’t mean to cause harm. She hoped that I could find forgiveness in my heart.
While on retreat during one of our afternoon discussion groups I was reflecting on my first few retreat experiences years ago. The first few retreats I attended were difficult. I was constantly irritated by one thing or another and it was not uncommon for me to be crying about things I didn’t even fully understand. My past would surface at unexpected moments and oftentimes I was filled with internal heaviness and sorrow. For reasons I don’t recall, but am wonderfully grateful for, I kept going to retreats. I suspect it had to do with knowing that despite the challenges I was facing deep down I understood it was part of the transformation process that needed to happen.
I don’t know how many retreats I’ve been on now and it really doesn’t matter. What I do know is that I am filled with an immense gratitude and reverence for life and I fully credit this beautiful mindfulness practice for that. Sometimes we need to trust that our inner guide will take us where we need to go, even when it seems we have no idea where the heck we’re heading.
Nature art on the lake
With the facility we use for our local retreats now being situated on the Flathead Lake we were surrounded with a profound beauty emanating through the large body of water surrounded by mountains and also through the woods around the property. Engaging with nature embraces a deep longing for connection that I think we all share as a human body. Stepping out into nature, into the elements, feeling the wind on our face, the earth beneath our feet – this is of great benefit to the spirit.
(In case you like factual info about stuff: Flathead Lake is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi in the contiguous U.S. It spans about 30 miles long and 16 miles wide. On average it sits at 164 ft. deep with a maximum of 370 feet deep, which makes it deeper than the Yellow Sea or the Persian Gulf. It is also one of the cleanest lakes in the populated world for it’s size and type.)