For the past few years I’ve been replacing the idea of New Year’s resolutions, which I’ve never cared for, with the development of new mindfulness exercises. I’m currently working with a number of new mindfulness practices to incorporate into my daily and weekly routine, which started at the beginning of the year. It’s worth mentioning, however, that typically I wouldn’t encourage the cultivation of so many new practices all at once, unless a practitioner has invested time in building a strong, diligent foundation in mindfulness, as trying to take on too much too fast is an easy undertaking, and an easy undoing of our stability.
My new practices include:
– Saying a short verse to myself upon waking up each morning
– Uni-tasking while brushing my teeth (verses multi-tasking)
– Saying a personalized closing verse to myself after breakfast each morning
– Jotting down observations I make in a small notebook when I’m in my car at red lights, or in other such instances where I’m stopped and waiting (at the bank, for instance)
– Mindful Morning Saturdays, where I devote the hours of 5:00-8:00am as a concentrated time to practice mindfulness (I read passages in our chanting book, do sitting meditation and three touchings of the earth, practice the 16 Qi Gong stick exercise routine, practice mindful eating of my breakfast, and watch a portion of a Dharma talk video online)
– Paying special attention to my preferences: what they are, how they show up in my life, looking deeply into whether they are helpful or harmful
When I was on retreat at Deer Park Monastery this past January, I started becoming acutely aware of my preferences. Of how and when they would manifest, of how I would feel based on what was being presented, in whatever moment I found myself in. We all have preferences. For those of us who live in relative affluence our preferences are what, in large part, sculpt and guide our lifestyles, decisions, words, and actions. Preferences are not inherently a bad thing, however, they can quickly become obstacles that we allow to stand in our way of developing real joy, happiness, connection, and liberation.
I’m discovering new ways of working with my own particular preferences, now that my awareness of them is becoming stronger. Awareness is pretty much always the first, and in my opinion the most important, step to take in any new endeavor. Without awareness, there’s nothing that needs tending to. If we don’t know what our habit energies are, how can we possibly know what work there is to be done?!
I’m a very scheduled type of person, meaning that schedules and routines work really well for me. I operate well on having a set time to wake up and go to bed, of eating the same breakfast and a similar lunch every day, of having a set time to do my sitting meditation each morning, and so on (I even wear the same type of outfit everyday – though I realize, of course, this is an especially unique presentation of how I personally show up and would not appeal to most people). I function best when I have a schedule to follow. My habit energies are such that when I allow myself to become lazy or to deviate from certain routines, I will eventually find myself leaning towards patterns of behavior that are unskillful and un-supportive of my overall wellness (not eating properly, not getting enough sleep…). In these instances I find my preferences to be important, valuable, and nourishing, because they water seeds of joy and ease. In situations where I notice that my preferences are causing me to feel anxious, stressful, impatient, or frustrated I know that this is a clear indication that I am getting stuck in the mire of my own internal knots of how I want things to be – an indication that I have work to do.
One of my new favorite quotes from the Buddha states: “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”
And there’s always more work to do. There will always be more work to do (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually). Another one of my favorite quotes, from Suzuki Roshi, states: “Each of you is perfect the way you are, and you can use a little improvement.” Both things are true. We are perfect, as is. And there is more work we can do in the ongoing self-awareness/self-transformation department. A challenging insight to embody and actualize in our daily life is that both of these expressions of self are EQUALLY important to cultivate. Both are necessary for our continued growth and spiritual development. We need to be in touch with our basic goodness (our inherent perfection, if you will – though I very much dislike the word “perfect”, as it contains so much baggage and misunderstandings) and at the same time we need to be in touch with what our work is that needs to be done – and we need to actually do it.
Four nights ago, when my husband, teenage stepson, and I were at the tail-end of visiting my mom and stepdad in southern Arizona, I experienced an opportunity to practice working with my very strong preferences of wanting both food and sleep (which seemed extra challenging, as the one required me to, ya know, be awake). We had scheduled ourselves to partake in a ghost tour at the historic Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ. It was about an hour and half drive, and we left in time to grab dinner before the tour was slated to start. However, as is often the case, life had other plans for us and we acquired a flat tire on our way there, which gobbled up our time for being able to eat, no pun intended. We then found that all of the eateries in Tombstone were closed by the time the tour was over, leaving us to take to the road in order to head back to my mom and stepdad’s house. By the time we started the hour and half drive home it was around 8:30pm, which was about 3 hours past my usual dinner time and 30 minutes past my usual in-bed time. So I was wrapped in a double-whammy: hunger and exhaustion. To add further challenge, my pain levels, associated with my chronic nerve condition, were kicked up due to the fact that the almost 2-hour long tour required a large degree of standing, which is the hardest position for me to perform. It’s a vicious cycle to have all three at once: hunger, exhaustion, and physical pain. They feed one another in a terrible looping fashion. When I’m hungry I get grumpy and when I’m grumpy my pain levels get elevated – when I’m tired my pain levels get elevated – when my pain levels start increasing, when standing for instance, my energy gets drained quickly.
So that night, on what seemed like the longest drive ever, my work was to become aware of my growing preferences for food and sleep and to buoy my internal landscape by anchoring myself in my breathing, so as not to get swept away in my feelings of pain, hardship, and agitation. It’s really easy to experience mindlessness, separation, impatience, frustration, anger, despair, and to create drama – it takes work to develop awareness, ease, joy, happiness, contentment, and connection. And it’s called work, indeed, because it’s not easy, it takes the performing of actions that we often don’t want to do. But the more we do the work, the easier the work becomes, and this is good news. What’s even better news is that as the work becomes easier, we start actively looking for opportunities to do our work, because we discover how important it is. And, while it may seem impossible, the work becomes enjoyable, because it allows us to continue growing and strengthening – which feels darn good.