This past Monday marked the start of a new class series I’m teaching entitled Being Here Now. I just recently taught a 6-week series by the same name that ended last week. Essentially this is the same class with different students, although this one is an 8-week series. Since I had to reformat a bit in order to add two more weeks worth of material I decided to elongate the instructions for sitting meditation and also allow more time to go over the practice of deep breathing, which is what I’ll be doing for our next class – both are very simple but not at all easy to execute. This post will be my brainstorming platform of what I’ll be covering in next week’s class.
Sitting meditation is one of the largest tools that we can use and develop in terms of building a strong foundation for becoming more mindful in our daily lives. Sitting meditation allows us the opportunity to practice simply being with our genuine experience as it’s unfolding, without trying to manipulate, judge, or distract ourselves. The “aim” of sitting meditation is to be with our sitting, to be with our breathing. That’s it. As I said, simple but not easy. Note: I put the word aim in quotation marks because we want to be careful not to set any specific goals or purpose during our sitting meditation, as this can be a pitfall to practice. We do however want to be clear as to the intent behind our desire to cultivate a sitting meditation routine. The act of sitting meditation, over time, will allow us to create more spaciousness in our lives. It can teach us to learn how to slow down in order to experience and appreciate all of the wonders of life that reside within and around us in any given moment. This development of spaciousness is also crucial if we have a desire to live more happily and joyfully with less stress and anxiety. If we want to improve our quality of life we must learn how to start slowing down, at least a tiny little bit. This doesn’t mean we necessarily have to stop doing the things we’re doing physically – for many of us this slowing down involves our internal mental activity more than our physical output of energy. Sitting meditation puts us in touch with our mental landscape so that we can start seeing the habits and patterns that fuel and propel us forward, which is a necessary component in creating effective change.
Sparked by my last post about busyness I started thinking about the many different hats I wear. I went online to search out an image to use to accompany this post and found that most of what came up when I typed in “many hats images” were pictures of stressed out, confused, upset, or otherwise saddened faces sporting a myriad of different hats atop their head. Since that wasn’t the look I was going for I made my own (see above, ta da!). The act of wearing many different hats is akin to the nature of busyness in that it doesn’t have to induce a negative state of being, unless we choose to relate to it that way. There is a way to accept and embrace a so-called busy life and the wearing of different hats as simply part of what it means to be human and alive.
Much of the strife we have is self-created and occurs when we’re fighting against something that’s happening rather than learning how to go with the flow of what’s unfolding. We spend a lot of time getting tripped up in the thinking that certain things aren’t supposed to be happening and are interruptions to our carefully laid out plans. The thing is, however, that everything that has ever and will ever happen is part of life inherently – simply because, well, it’s happening.
I like to think of the many hats that I wear to be a joyful undertaking. I like to think of how wonderful it is that I am afforded the opportunities, abilities, time, energy, and motivation to do all of the things that I do. I don’t see it as a burden to wear the hats I wear, I see it as a privilege and honor. The more hats I get to wear the greater potential I have to connect with a variety of people, places, experiences, ideas, and influences. The more situations I interact with the more possibilities I have to strengthen and deepen my mindfulness practice. Please understand, I’m not saying everyone should wear as many hats as they can or that it’s not possible to buckle under the weight of taking too much on – there’s certainly a balance to find here and it will be different for each and every one of us.
I don’t like the word busy. Its a hollow word that has lost meaning for me. While it’s true that my life (along with just about everyone else’s) could classify under the dictionary definition of busy, which is to be actively and attentively engaged in work or a pastime, I don’t enjoy using this word in response to questions like How are you? or How was your day? I try not to use the word busy to describe any part of my day or life. To me the word busy has been culturally redefined and is now designated to a state of mental and physical being that has become seemingly “out of our control.” We take on this burdensome tone when talking about our busyness as though someone else has thrust all of these things onto our plate and we were powerless to do anything about it. We’re all various degrees of busy: crazy busy, super busy, plain ol’ busy, pretty busy, oh-my-god busy, and so on. I get it. We’re ALL busy. But what does that really mean? How is telling people how busy we are an accurate depiction of what we’re really doing with our time and energy?
We use busyness as an excuse to get out of things we don’t want to do, as the reasoning for why we forgot something important, and as a blanket statement to sum up our weekend or week or month or year. But what are we really saying when we use the word busy? Perhaps we insert that word in places where something else would be more fitting, more connective, more authentic to our actual experience. Perhaps we use that word as a reflex and don’t really know why we’re using it at all. Perhaps we really do feel like our life is out of our control and busy is the only word that makes sense.
Sunset last Friday night in Missoula
With the beauty of autumn unfolding here in the Rocky Mountains of Montana I’ve been thinking about the fertile opportunities that transitions offer us. I was imagining what it would be like if there were no autumn season here. What if we jumped overnight from summer to winter? Yikes! Or what if babies grew up in a matter of days rather than a matter of years? Double yikes!
Sometimes transitions can allow us the chance to ease into the impermanent nature of things. They can be a time of richness and spaciousness. They can also be challenging and at times very difficult. Moving from one thing to another thing often takes a period of transition time in between. And this in-between time can often involve inner feelings of both harmony and dis-harmony happening together at the same time.
Whether we’re going from summer to fall, moving from one town to another, parenting an ever-changing, growing child, entering a new phase of adulthood, or starting over in a new job or relationship things take time to adjust to. We are not static beings living in a fixed environment. We are always changing. Our surroundings are always changing. Our loved ones are always changing.
When I realized a few days ago that today would be a solo day for me I decided to have a 1/2 day of mindfulness to and for myself (which wound up being from about 10:00am-2:30pm). With my stepson at his mom’s, my husband out on a paintball adventure with friends, and my having no set plans or scheduled to-do’s I had the wonderful opportunity of an open, free day.
You may wonder, “What is a day of mindfulness?” In the Plum Village tradition (led by Thich Nhat Hanh) the monasteries, at least the ones here in the states, typically offer 2 days of mindfulness each week, which are open and free for people to attend. They are a day, or rather 1/2 a day because they tend to go from 9:00am-1:00pm, of intentional community practice and often include listening to a dharma talk, having dharma sharing in small groups, outdoor walking meditation, and sharing a silent meal together. We are encouraged as OI members (Order of Interbeing. which is another name of Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) to practice a certain amount of days of mindfulness throughout the year as part of the ordination vow we take. There are many ways in which we can create our own day of mindfulness. For me it involves slowing down, discontinuing certain things such as using the computer or listening to music (which I do A LOT), and setting an intention to do and enjoy one thing at a time. I’ve recently started reading Brother Phap Hai’s book that just came out called Nothing To It. A day or two ago I was reading a part in the introduction where he talks about the practice of Lazy Days, which are part of the Plum Village tradition. Lazy Days are practiced at our monasteries and usually occur once a week, often on Mondays. They are a day of no scheduled activities other than meals, not even morning sitting meditation. Phap Hai writes about Lazy Days in this way:
Laziness is one of the hardest things for people in our modern society all over the world to practice. We think we’re being “lazy,” but we spend all our time watching TV and reading books and writing emails and catching up on errands and paying that bill and seeing this or that person. Laziness, in the Plum Village practice, means to allow the world to be as it is and to allow each moment to unfold just as it unfolds: to experience beauty, as I am right now, of the morning sun coming up; to watch the sky changing; to see the wind blowing in the leaves.
I very much liked his description of a Lazy Day so I decided to blend its spirit, as Phap Hai offered, with the energy of a day of mindfulness and see what unfolded.
An image I put together as a handout for my class on the topic of mindful eating
As part of the mindfulness and meditation series I’ve been teaching our next class will be, in part, about mindful eating. So once again I’m taking to my blog to write out some ideas as to what I’ll say in regards to this topic.
Just as there is no one right way to be mindful about anything really, there is no one right way to practice mindful eating. In any given moment we have the opportunity to direct our attention in a myriad of different ways that would all classify under the umbrella of mindfulness (hence the image I put together above :). For instance, when we sit down to eat a meal we could practice mindfulness by looking deeply into the food in front of us. We could become inquisitive and ponder questions about where our food came from and do our best to imagine all of the causes and conditions that went into its creation. We could use our mindfulness to get in touch with the energy inherit in our food and how it wouldn’t be possible without the sun, soil, and water. We could tune into our senses taking special notice of the textures, smells, taste, feel, and colors. We could connect with our gratitude for the gift of food we are afforded, knowing that many people will not have enough to eat today. Or we could practice by slowing down and putting our undivided attention on the process of eating, instead of hurrying through a meal or multi-tasking while eating. And if we spent our meal time simply practicing to enjoy our food and have a pleasant time while eating that would certainly be a wonderful way to water our seeds of mindfulness as well.
I’m currently in the process of teaching a weekly class series I’ve entitled Being Here Now through our local adult learning center. Next week we’ll be focusing on the teaching of cultivating connection and joy. So I’m using this blog post as an opportunity to help prepare my talk and flesh out some ideas. I actually gave this talk yesterday but wanted to post these notes all the same, in case they prove useful to anyone.
Here’s what I wound up saying (roughly):
Over the past three weeks we’ve talked about what mindfulness is, practiced sitting and walking meditation together, discussed the logistics and importance of deep breathing, and last week we had a guided deep relaxation. As I mentioned last week all of what we’ve been going over are tools that we can use to help create some spaciousness in our lives and learn how to start slowing down. If we have a want to live more connected in the present moment with ease we need to first learn how to slow down, at least a little bit – and we need tools in order to do that. Once we start slowing down and are able to interrupt the state of auto pilot we often find ourselves operating on we can then use that opening of space to practice cultivating the art of joy.
We can use the analogy of a garden. All of us have our own garden full of the same kinds of seeds. Seeds of happiness, joy, ease, contentment, patience, understanding, love, and so on – and also seeds of anger, anxiety, loneliness, sorrow, impatience, regret, stress, and so on. And there is a wealth of influences we have that determine what seeds get watered within us: the people around us, the media we consume, conversations we have, the types of food we eat, our daily environment, etc. If we find that we are often overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, difficult emotions, busyness, or find that we are often irritated or frustrated by seemingly small things on an ongoing basis it may be an indication that our seeds of joy need to be watered and strengthened so that the fruits of joy can grow and flourish in our everyday lives. While on one hand it is largely the people, places, and things outside of us that affect which of our seeds gets watered on the other hand it’s our responsibility to determine where and how to invest our energy and with whom to spend our time. We are the gardeners of the seeds inherit to us and it’s up to us to figure out what’s being watered beneficially and what’s being watered that maybe isn’t very helpful to us.
Last September my friend Jennifer and I started collecting change in order to do something fun with it together. After some deliberation we decided to put our funds towards buying local flowers and passing them out for free to people as a random act of kindness (RAK). Between the two of us we collected about $90 in coins over the last year. My stepson Jaden joined us too and we had a three-man Random Acts of Kindness Brigade and set out yesterday at our local Farmer’s Market downtown. We had a great time!
We had some unexpected results as well in performing our RAK. I realized after our first round of buying flowers and handing them out to passers by that I was shying away from offering them to men. So when we stocked up with our 2nd armful of flowers to pass out I was set on targeting men to give them to. I saw a man sitting at a booth selling his art work and I went and offered him a bouquet. He gratefully accepted and then invited me to take one of his wonderful pictures (as seen in the above photo). A kindness in turn!
We also walked by a Downtown Ambassador who worked for the city and had a mobile cart with free info about Missoula, maps, bus schedules, and that sort of thing. He saw our signs and decided to give us a few free carousel ride tickets, which Jaden then passed out to a few kids on the street.
I wanted to share about an experience I had recently on our local fall retreat last weekend that served as a good reminder about how it’s never helpful or beneficial when I get caught in comparing myself to others. While I practice not to use words such as always or never I think in this case it stands true: it’s never helpful to self-compare.
On Saturday evening during the retreat instead of eating dinner with the rest of our community those of us who were OI members (ordained practitioners within Thich Nhat Nhan’s Order of Interbing) were asked to eat together, along with our visiting dharma teacher Terry Cortez-Vega, downstairs from the main dining area. We had some business to attend to after spending a few minutes in silence during our practice of eating meditation. Normally all of our meals during our local retreats are held in silence and we’re invited to practice eating meditation during them. Oftentimes during our retreats eating meditation instructions look something like this: After you take a bite of food put your fork down and chew slowly, savoring your food, until the taste has diminished. Then pick up your fork and take your next bite.
While I used to be an incredibly fast eater when I was young, to the point of having unspoken contests with my cousins to see who could finish first, I no longer consider myself an overly quick eater. Even so, the instructions offered above have never spoken to me. It’s much to sluggish and un-enjoyable for me to eat that slowly. I’m simply not a fan of putting my fork down after every bite and chewing each one long enough to lose its flavor. That’s not to say things can’t change. Perhaps one day I’ll connect with this level of slow eating. There have been many other elements of the practice and things we’ve done on retreats that I used to really dislike but have changed my tune on over the years. But for right now I alter the practice of eating meditation to suit what works for me and I have the greatest of confidence that that is precisely what we are encouraged to do in our mindfulness tradition. We do what works for us.