Four Elements of Lay Life

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what the foundational elements of my life are, as a lay practitioner in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition. A while back, I watched a Dharma talk online from a monastic Sister where she spoke of the founding principles of monastic life at the monasteries in our tradition and I think, if I remember right, what I’ve landed on is similar to what she shared.

I’ve identified four elements – and to be clear, theses are ones I’ve simply recognized are true and in play for myself personally, this is not any sort of official list adopted by anyone other than myself.

Nicole’s Four Foundational Elements of Lay Practice Life

  1. Practice (includes Dharma study)
  2. Work
  3. Rest
  4. Play (includes music/art/creative expression)

For me, it’s helpful to understand clearly what my foundational elements are as a lay practitioner so that I know what my priorities are and in what direction I want to be spending my time and limited energy. Life is about balance. And for me it’s about balancing these four elements, often on a daily basis.

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Am I Sure?

wake up to

On Saturday, August 10th, a short article I wrote for the Community of Faith column ran in the Missoulian. Here it is, in its entirety:

In our Buddhist based practice, the Plum Village tradition led by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, we are encouraged to practice with the question: Am I sure? Let’s say, for example, that I am confronted with someone whose way of engaging with the world is quite contrary to my own and I think to myself: Gosh, that person is crazy. In times such as these, my practice is to ask myself: Am I sure? Am I sure that I know full well what that person is going through and where they are coming from? Am I sure that I know what’s fueling their behavior or approach to a particular situation? Am I sure this person is crazy? The answer, on all counts, is clear. Of course not! I often have little to no idea of the causes and conditions that are propelling someone else’s thoughts, speech, and/or actions. My reactionary judgments that arise, in any given situation, are not at all an accurate and full accounting of what’s actually taking place.

It’s so very easy for me to think I know something when in truth I really have no idea at all, especially when it comes to assessing someone else’s character or behavior. Using the Am I sure? question affords me the opportunity to create space in between what’s happening externally and the thoughts/speech/actions that I engage in as a result. It allows me to move from reacting to responding.

Recently, I attended a local outdoor concert where a homeless resident of Missoula came on the scene and proceeded to disrupt the event by yelling violently, both to herself and to the band that was playing. In response to her behavior, there was a critical and disrespectful approach taken with her. In short order, I realized that I was likely the only one on hand that saw the immensity of distress present in this homeless woman. Others seemed only to be focused on how inappropriate and rude she was being, in an otherwise peaceful gathering. Had the other event-goers at the time been reflecting on the Am I sure? question, perhaps it would’ve become clear that the homeless woman was likely suffering deeply from the results of untreated mental illness, versus intentionally trying to cause harm and upset of a personal nature.

Thich Nhat Hanh adds further that if when we ask our self the question Am I sure? the answer is: Yes! that we should ask the question again.

I have great affection for this wisdom teaching and I use this practice question often in my daily life. I have found that it helps to keep me angled in the direction of understanding, compassion, and kindness, which are three foundational tenets of human connection.

Nicole Dunn is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition and serves as the director of the Open Way Mindfulness Center and the program director of the Be Here Now Sangha.

For original article in the Missoulian, click here.

Generosity

The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, we are committed to cultivating generosity in our way of thinking, speaking, and acting. We will practice loving kindness by working for the happiness of people, animals, plants, and minerals, and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. We are determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. We will respect the property of others, but will try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

In Thay’s commentary on the Thirteenth Mindfulness Training in the book Interbeing, he states:

This training is closely linked with the Fourth (Awareness of Suffering), the Fifth (Simple, Healthy Living), the Eleventh (Right Livelihood), and the Twelfth (Reverence for Life). In order to understand this mindfulness training deeply, we need to meditate on those four other trainings.

– pg. 49, third edition, 1998.

I just started reflecting on this training this week, along with a friend of mine who is an OI aspirant I am helping to mentor. We’ve been making our slow way through all of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, spending two-weeks on each training. Reading and reflecting on each one and watching associated Dharma talks by the Plum Village monastics on youtube. It’s been a lovely practice spending concentrated, quality time with each of the trainings.

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New study about mindfulness apps

There I was in my car, on the way to visit a hospice patient yesterday morning, when I stumbled across a DJ on the radio talking about meditation. He was chatting up the findings of a recent study about mindfulness apps and cell phone games, declaring, in his own words, that participants in the study who meditated felt worse the more they meditated, whereas the game players felt better and more relaxed. His conclusion: playing games on your cell phone will leave you feeling relaxed and meditation is over-rated.

Um…what?

I decided to look up the study. Not only am I disappointed with the DJ’s account of the study but I am also unimpressed with the study itself, as it fails to take into account actual meditation/mindfulness practitioners. The study focuses instead on newbies to mindfulness and gives them only an app by which to learn from and practice with.

To be clear, I have nothing against cell phone games. However, I also find little benefit in playing the comparison game, as in: Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress, new study shows, which is the name of an article I found when looking up the study.

In my view, there can be benefits to using the mindfulness apps and there can be benefits of playing cell phone games. Why they need to be compared and judged better/worse, I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I am a big proponent of teaching & using mindfulness in a secular fashion – even though for me personally it’s a spiritual path – there are ways to approach mindfulness that can be more harmful than helpful, when it comes to laypeople wielding it around with little understanding and experience. There is such a thing as over-secularizing, where mindfulness is stripped down to the fast-food approach to living. When mindfulness is used as a gimmick to reduce stress in acute situations, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of potential for benefit.

To experience the fruits of mindfulness and/or meditation – such as ease and relaxation – it must become an active, engaged, and ongoing practice. When comparing mindfulness apps to digital games to see which has the power to relax more people after work, it makes total sense to me that the participants felt more stress relief after playing a game. People who are approaching mindfulness or meditation with a quick-fix mentality are going to be disheartened with it in short order. There’s a reason most people do not stick with meditation as a mainstay in their daily lives. It’s freakin hard. And it takes a number of things that most of us are not very interested or invested in, such as: patience, self-reflection, diligence, will-power, openness, and an ability to be with our own self, without distracting or distancing our attention from the here and now.

Most of us have no idea how to spend time with our self. We’re not comfortable in our own skin. And if we’re not comfortable in our own skin, then of course being tossed into a mindfulness app just for the sake of a study has the great potential to produce a less than ideal outcome.

Mindfulness and the practice of meditation is not a quick-fix sort of deal. It’s not even a long-term fix sort of deal. Mindfulness and meditation aren’t about fixing what’s “broken” in our lives. The daily practices of mindfulness and the practice of sitting meditation are about being with what is happening in the here and now – and once we can be with it, then we can start the work of understanding, accepting, and embracing.

Please do not make the same mistake as the morning shock jock made on our local radio station yesterday, concluding that meditation is bunk. If you’re truly interested in enfolding meditation or mindfulness into your life, it’s worth finding a sangha or a qualified teacher or, at the least, highly respected books or online resources in which to learn and get support from.

There’s nothing wrong with approaching mindfulness in a secular fashion, using it as a possible tool to reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm, just be sure you’re not looking for quick-fix solutions to long-term or ongoing challenges, as that has a high likelihood for being a recipe for disaster.

Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life

This morning, while reading Thay’s commentary on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings sutra, in his book Awakening of the Heart, I came upon the Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life. I enjoyed this teaching right away and found it  deeply nourishing, so I thought I’d share it here.

Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Awakening of the Heart

“Here are eleven guidelines for daily life, based on the insights found in the sutra: (The Eight Realizations of the Great Beings):

  1. While meditating on the body, do not hope or pray to be exempt from sickness.  Without sickness, desires and passions can easily arise.
  2. While acting in society, do not hope or pray not to have any difficulties.  Without difficulties, arrogance can easily arise.
  3. While meditating on the mind, do not hope or pray not to encounter hindrances.  Without hindrances, present knowledge will not be challenged or broadened.
  4. While working, do not hope or pray not to encounter obstacles.  Without obstacles, the vow to help others will not deepen.
  5. While developing a plan, do not hope or pray to achieve success easily.  With easy success, arrogance can easily arise.
  6. While interacting with others, do not hope or pray to gain personal profit.  With the hope for personal gain, the spiritual nature of the encounter is diminished.
  7. While speaking with others, do not hope or pray not to be disagreed with.  Without disagreement, self-righteousness can flourish.
  8. While helping others, do not hope or pray to be paid.  With the hope of remuneration, the act of helping others will not be pure.
  9. If you see personal profit in an action, do not participate in it.  Even minimal participation will stir up desires and passions.
  10. When wrongly accused, do not attempt to exonerate yourself.   Attempting to defend yourself will create needless anger and animosity.
  11. The Buddha spoke of sickness and suffering as effective medicines.  Times of difficulties and accidents are also times of freedom and realization.  Obstacles can be a form of liberation.  The Buddha reminded us that the army of evil can be the guards of the Dharma.  Difficulties are required for success.  The person who mistreats one can be one’s good friend.  One’s enemies are as an orchard or garden.  The act of doing someone a favor can be as base as the act of casting away a pair of old shoes.  The abandonment of material possessions can be wealth and being wrongly accused can be the source of strength to work for justice.”

3 encounters that triggered my “this isn’t right” button

I came across this poster for sale at a local store in Polson, Montana on Thursday (see above).

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What an important and lovely verse to carry with us on our path of developing values and in our tool bag of practices. Too often, we set our life up to be happy, to be content, to be full of gratitude later on, at some undisclosed date in the future. We hinge our happiness on acquiring something or someone or some experience that isn’t happening in the here and now. What if instead of tomorrow or next week or next year being the best time we can envision, it was today? Game changer.

Over the past two days, I’ve had three encounters with strangers that prompted this writing I penned this morning:

Rally kindness,
even when it’s counter-intuitive –
especially when it’s counter-intuitive.

Rally kindness when you don’t feel like it;
when a situation seemingly calls for its opposite;
when it’s hard as hell to do it.

Rally kindness,
in body, speech, mind,
and in spirit.

Rally kindness so that it becomes
the lens through which you see the world;
so that it becomes the soles of your shoes
and the air you breathe, in and out.

If we choose not to rally kindness –
and yes, it is a choice –
amid challenging times with difficult people,
we will never stand a chance
of growing a garden of love and inclusiveness,
to cover the world over.

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Go Kind

This post is me attempting to relay a case and point in the most skillful way possible. And as I am actively investigating the importance of understanding the differences between INTENTION and IMPACT, I put value in not sharing too much in the way of specific details here, so as to do my best to protect the identity of the particular person I’ll be highlighting because even though my intention is good, I’m aware I may still create a negative impact on this individual or those who know of this local band/singer.

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a locally held outdoor event with live music. As the first band started to play their first song, a woman came on the scene from stage left. From her looks, energy, and swagger, it appeared highly likely that she was a homeless resident of Missoula. She was also yelling violently to herself as she approached. She then proceeded to yell obscenities at the band up close.

Now, to me it was clear to anyone paying an even modicum amount of attention, that this woman was mentally un-well, sadly unbalanced, and suffering greatly. However, I realized in short order that I might very well be the only one on site that saw the unfolding situation this way.

During the song, as the woman was front and center yelling at the band, the lead singer called out sternly over the mic: “Can someone get this f***ing lady out of here?!” As I considered a possible action I myself could take to help diffuse the situation, she wound up moving along on her own accord and that was that.

When the song ended, the front man/lead singer gave us an account of what transpired between them and the woman. He told us what she was saying and how she was yelling specifically at him. His takeaway was that she clearly didn’t like him. He also said something to the effect of how everyone was welcome at the event but that we were all gathering in peace and love and that woman was not acting in accordance with the vibe being created and had to go. Before striking up their next song, he said: “We’re just gonna keep singing and spreading the love.”

I thought to myself: Hmm. Interesting. So, not only did he take the random woman’s yelling as a personal affront to his character but he also saw fit to curse at her, criticize her publicly, and then declare that he’s invested in spreading the love?

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