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.

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Beginner’s Guidance

Last week at our local sangha, affectionately named Be Here Now (BHN), we offered a beginner’s guide to the practice, as part of our regular evening’s format.

Here’s what our format was and what we covered:

  • Start: 7:30pm
  • Introduction to sitting meditation, 5-10 min (Nicole)
  • Guided sitting meditation, 10 min (Amy)
  • Intro to walking meditation, 2-3 min (Amy)
  • Walking meditation, 10 min
  • History of BHN & Introduction to our practice tradition, 5 min (Nicole)
  • Secular vs. spiritual practice, 5 min (Nicole)
  • Introduce and explain the usage of the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, 5-10 min (Linds)
  • Intro to sharing circle (Nicole)
  • Open sharing circle
  • Closing circle
  • End: 8:45pm

My prep notes:

Introduction to Sitting Meditation:

To listen to the audio file of this first portion of our evening, please click here.

Here in a few minutes, Amy is going to lead us in a guided seated meditation session and offer us some instruction during our sit tonight – but before we do that, I’d like to offer a little bit of instruction on posture for sitting meditation. Here at BHN we like to emphasize physical comfort when we sit and we like to encourage folks to simply sit in any way they feel works for them. And while that is still the case, I’d like to offer some additional guidance for those of us who may be looking to delve more into the development of a sitting meditation practice. If we resonate with the practice of sitting meditation and really want to enfold it into our daily/weekly routine, posture is an important component to address. When we sit in meditation, it’s encouraged that we sit upright and solid but not “at attention.” So we’re looking to find that balance where we can be both upright and relaxed; not stiff or rigid or locked in place. To sit upright, we want to have three points of contact. If we’re sitting on a cushion, that means our sit bones on the zafu (round cushion) and both knees on the zabutan (square mat) – and if our knees don’t touch the mat, then we want to support them with other small pillows or blankets, as we don’t want our knees to hover. If we’re sitting in a chair, that means our sit bones on the chair and both feet flat on the floor – and we want to have our backs not leaning against the chairback. So in both cases, we want to sit on the front 1/3 of our cushion or chair, if we’re physically able. And of course if you need back support then please use it. It’s also important to mention that our cushions and chairs are sans inferiority/superiority complex, so they happily reside together in the sangha. There is no better or less better seating apparatus when it comes to cushions and chairs, they are on the same sitting field. So please don’t get caught in the false view that sitting on a cushion will usher you someplace that a chair cannot.

Our eyes can be open or closed and our hands can be relaxed in our lap or on our knees. If our eyes are closed, we want to try to relax all the muscles around each eye and in our face. If our eyes are open, we can keep our gaze pointing downward, about 2-3 feet in front of us. We want to try to keep our shoulders relaxed and not scrunched up and tight.

Developing proper posture when sitting in meditation supports us in a couple of key ways. When we sit upright, with both solidity and relaxation, it allows our belly to have the space it needs to fully expand and contract, which is necessary in order for us to breathe deeply from our diaphragm. This sort of posturing also helps us to start training the mind to quiet and settle down. It’s much easier to still the body than it is to still the mind. And in order to start working on stilling the mind, we need to cultivate some discipline and support in our physical body. If our body is too loose and too relaxed, our mind will have a much harder time in becoming settled and concentrated. If our posture is lazy, our mind will be lazy too. So we start in our body, developing good posture for meditation, and over time – slowly slowly – our mental chatter will start to settle down.

When we first start sitting in meditation, it’s very common to feel as though our mental chatter actually picks up when we sit down on the cushion. But really what’s happening is that we are creating enough stillness to put on conscious display how active our minds really are. So it’s not that our minds are becoming more active necessarily, it’s simply a matter of noticing it in a way that we’re not used to.

Our root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (often referred to as Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese) says that we must learn the correct spirit of sitting. In an interview with what was formally called Shambhala Sun magazine, Thay offered that sitting should be pleasant and that we must learn how to sit without fighting (January 2012). So when we sit, we practice to simply sit and enjoy our sitting 100%. To be gentle and kind with our self in body and mind. If we sit in such a way where it feels like hard, taxing labor, Thay goes so far as to say that we are wasting our time in meditation. He said: the problem isn’t whether to sit or not to sit, but how to sit.

So how do we sit? What are we doing when we’re in meditation? Well, to start, what we are NOT doing is trying to wrestle our mental chattering into submission. And if we have the goal of sitting without the presence of any mental chatter – if we think having zero thoughts is a thing – we’re in trouble, because that’s impossible. We’re human and mental chattering is part of the deal. What we’re looking to do instead during sitting meditation is to redirect our focus and attention onto something else other than the spinnings of our thoughts. So our practice is simple but not at all easy: it’s to notice when our mind is trailing off into the past or future and to gently, with kindness, invite it to reconnect with the sensations of our breathing or the sensations of our body and sensory experience. And when it wanders off again, which it will, we practice to notice and return again. Notice and return, notice and return. This is the practice of sitting meditation. It’s a mental training ground. And it takes practice. It takes ongoing, diligent, continual practice. Our mind is a muscle and the practice of sitting meditation is rather akin to going to the gym to strengthen our physical muscles.

So, now we will segway into practicing all of this together as a sangha (which means spiritual community in Buddhism), and Amy will offer us some guidance along the way.

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Nourishing Happiness

This has been one of my very favorite passages to read from our Plum Village chanting book as of late and I wanted to share it. A big thank you to my friends at the Still Water Sangha in Minnesota for posting this on their blog, so I didn’t have to type it all out myself :)

Nourishing Happiness

Excerpt from “Chanting from the Heart” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Sitting here in this moment, protected by the Sangha,
my happiness is clear and alive.
What a great fortune to have been born a human,
to encounter the Dharma,
to be in harmony of others,
and to water the Mind of Love
in this beautiful garden of practice.

The energies of the Sangha and mindfulness trainings
are protecting and helping me not make mistakes
or be swept along in darkness by unwholesome seeds.
With kind spiritual friends, I am on the path of goodness,
illuminated by the light of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Although seeds of suffering are still in me
in the form of afflictions and habit energies,
mindfulness is also there, helping me touch
what is most wonderful within and around me.

I can still enjoy mindfulness of the six senses:
my eyes look peacefully upon the clear blue sky,
my ears listen with wonder to the songs of birds,
my nose smells the rich scent of sandalwood,
my tongue tastes the nectar of the Dharma,
my posture is upright, stable and relaxed,
and my mind is one with my body.

If there were not a World-Honored One,
if there were not the wonderful Dharma,
if there were not a harmonious Sangha,
I would not be so fortunate
to enjoy this Dharma happiness today.

My resources for practice are my own peace and joy.
I vow to cultivate and nourish them with daily mindfulness.
For my ancestors, family, future generations,
and the whole of humanity, I vow to practice well.

In my society I know that there are countless people suffering,
drowned in sensual pleasure, jealousy, and hatred.
I am determined to take care of my own mental formations,
to learn the art of deep listening and using loving speech
in order to encourage communication and understanding
and to be able to accept and love.

Practicing the actions of a bodhisattva,
I vow to look with eyes of love and a heart of understanding.
I vow to listen with a clear mind and ears of compassion,
bringing peace and joy unto the lives of others,
to lighten and alleviate the suffering of living beings.

I am aware that ignorance and wrong perceptions
can turn this world into a fiery hell.

I vow to walk always upon the path of transformation,
producing understanding and loving kindness.
I will be able to cultivate a garden of awakening.

Although there are birth, sickness, old age, and death,
now I have a path of practice, I have nothing more to fear.
It is a great happiness to be alive in the Sangha
with the practice of mindfulness trainings and concentration,
to live every moment in stability and freedom
to take part in the work of relieving others’ suffering,
the career of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

In each precious moment, I am filled with deep gratitude.
I bow before the World-Honored One.
Please bear witness to my wholehearted gratitude,
embracing all beings with arms of great compassion.

 

Kshitigarbha

We invoke your name, Kshitigarbha. We aspire to learn your way of being present where there is darkness, suffering, oppression, and despair, so we can bring light, hope, relief, and liberation to those places. We are determined not to forget about or abandon those in desperate situations. We will do our best to establish contact with those who cannot find a way out of their suffering, those whose cries for help, justice, equality, and human rights are not being heard. We know that hell can be found in many places on Earth. We will do our best not to contribute to creating more hells on Earth, and to help transform the hells that already exist. We will practice in order to realize the qualities of perseverance and stability, so that, like the Earth, we can always be supportive and faithful to those in need.

________

3/26

The first thing that comes up for me around this verse is that as practitioners, we must be deeply in touch with our own self, in order to determine where our balance is in regards to being in touch with those who suffer. Learning and practicing to take good care of our self must be the first priority. If we attempt to try to be in touch with the suffering of others but are personally experiencing an imbalance of mind/body/spirit, it would not be beneficial to the other person or to our self. I think this is implied in this verse, however it is not directly addressed or spoken to.

There are many ways to be in touch with those who suffer. As the Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, entitled: Awareness of Suffering, states: …We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact and using telephone, electronic, audiovisual, and other means, to be with those who suffer…

For my own practice of staying in touch with the suffering of others, I volunteer with hospice and meet with patients every week; I intentionally watch documentaries that are centered around heart-heavy topics or that highlight hardship stories; I read news articles that are especially challenging and difficult to read, centered around trauma, mental illness, and matters concerning inequality; and I currently have a pen pal in prison who I stay in close contact with via letters. And, I am careful not to engage in such documentaries/news stories when I am not feeling well-balanced and stable in mind and heart. So I practice to stay in close relationship with myself, as some days I need to focus more on self-care and wellness vs. being in touch with the suffering of someone else. So for me it’s important to routinely and continually check in with myself, so that I know what I have to offer and when. It’s very easy to over-extend myself in this regard – and to put tending to others above my own self-care.

________

3/28

One of my guiding life mottos that I remind myself often of is: There is only so much time in the day. In relation to this verse on being present where there is darkness, it means that I must be careful not to get caught thinking that I need to step into ALL the darkness, ALL the ares of oppression, suffering, and despair. I used to have a world savior complex back in my teens and early 20’s – activism-minded – and I am not interested in reverting back to that.

I also find it really helpful to keep fresh in mind how wonderful it is that we have a world filled with so many people who gravitate towards different areas of need. I am only one person – and there’s both a lot I can do and only so much I can do. We all dig the well in different spots – and thank goodness for that.

________

3/31

1. How would you summarize this verse in your own words?

We aspire to do our best not to turn a blind eye towards matters of suffering and to keep our own practice strong, in order to be of support to others.

2. What do you see as being your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to the qualities of this Bodhisattva?

Strength: I feel as though I do pretty well in practicing to stay in touch with matters concerning suffering while also keeping an eye on my own balance, so as not to over-extend myself. For the most part I know what my limits are. Weakness: Sometimes I try to offer support to friends who are really struggling but I do so with an energy of “I’m going to save them!” and it isn’t what is most beneficial to them – or to me. People who are suffering may not be ready to transform and heal, no matter how much I may want to help them. Sometimes I can push too much. I recently watched a talk by a doctor as part of an online wellness summit and he said that his motto is to help only those who are swimming towards him, verses trying to go after all the people he saw and felt were struggling but ultimately weren’t ready to start healing. He said when he used to do that, it was a waste of time and energy, for him and the other person. I can still get stuck in trying to help those who aren’t swimming towards me.

3. What is something you’ve gleaned by reflecting on this Bodhisattva this past week?

What came up for me was the reminder of how important it is to 1. Be in close relationship with myself in order to know where my limits are in regards to delving into matters of injustice, suffering, and the desperate situations of others, so as not to lose myself and become overwhelmed and 2. To diligently dig the well in the places I can and know that I cannot dig all the wells in all the places; to draw from the Serenity Prayer: to accept the things I cannot change, have the courage to change the things that I can, and develop the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Samantabhadra

Recap:

This post is part of a 5-week series in relation to the Five Bodhisattvas and a Reflection Group I put together and am part of with a few sangha friends of mine.

Bodhisattva literally means “enlightened being.” The Plum Village chant book defines it as such: One committed to enlightening oneself and others so that all may be liberated from suffering.

In our practice tradition, we are especially urged not to regard the bodhisattva’s as external separate entities but more as qualities in which to actively cultivate within our own self, for the benefit of all beings. While the Bodhisattva’s are mentioned as actual human beings – and disciples of the Buddha – in the sutras, we are encouraged to see them as representing skill-sets and capabilities in which to hone and sharpen in our own life.

We read and reflect on one bodhisattva at a time for one full week and then answer three reflection questions each Sunday, which we email out to the group of participants.

These are the bodhisattvas in the order most commonly encountered in our tradition:

Avalokiteshvara: Bodhi. of Great Compassion
Manjushri: Bodhi. of Great Understanding
Samantabhadra: Bodhi. of Great Action
Kshitigarbha: Bodhi. of Great Aspiration
Sadaparibhuta: Bodhi. of Never Disparaging

This last week was week #3.

Here is the verse, my journal entries, and my answers to our group reflection questions for Samantabhadra:

_______

We invoke your name, Samantabhadra. We aspire to practice your vow to act with the eyes and heart of compassion, to bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon. We know that the happiness of others is our own happiness, and we aspire to practice joy on the path of service. We know that every word, every look, every action, and every smile can bring happiness to others. We know that if we practice wholeheartedly, we ourselves may become an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for our loved ones and for all species.

_______

3/20

This is the bodhisattva I resonate with personally the most. This is the bodhisattva of Great Action, and I often refer to myself humorously as a Woman of Action.

There are so many lovely lines in the verse – and I find the especially lovely because I’ve personally encountered and experienced them in my life. I am someone who puts great emphasis on practicing joy on the path of service. And in doing so, I’ve seen firsthand how true it is that the happiness of others is my own happiness; how every word/look/action/smile can bring happiness to others; and how when I practice wholeheartedly, I am able to becomes an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for others.

For me, cultivating joyful-based actions is my highest and most important aspiration on my path of practice. When I set my compass in this direction, I see clearly the ripple effects that occur as a result, everywhere I go.

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Rituals

Immensely inspired by a video interview I watched this morning, as part of a free Wellness Summit happening online right now, entitled: How to Set Yourself Free From Pain & Misery, with Dr. Sean Stephenson, I was called to craft this post focused on my own personal daily rituals.

In Dr. Stephenson’s interview, he said: I have 16 rituals and if I don’t do at least 4 of them every day, my insecurities will eat me alive.

He said a lot more that’s worth mentioning – I took over 5 pages of notes during the 60-minute video! – but there is much greater value for you, my friends, in watching it yourself (click on link above). It is one of the very best mindfulness-based talks I have ever seen.

So rather than using this post to relay all of my notes, I will instead focus on sharing my daily rituals, which isn’t new for me to do here on my blog but has perhaps been a little while since last I did.

 

Nicole’s DAILY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Waking up early enough to enjoy a period of time connecting with myself, amid the graces of quietude and slowness

Writing (if even only a little bit)

Sitting meditation

Gratitude practice (which I created myself and involves certain verses I say each morning, along with prostrations to the earth)

Saying a connection/gratitude verse before I eat each meal

Watering my seed of joy, with intentional skillful effort

Guarding well my sensory input (TV/films, music, books, magazines, conversations, social media, news…)

Resting (which for me typically comes in the form of taking a nap every day; even on the days I work, as soon as I get home around 4:00, the first thing I do is lay down to take a short nap before preparing dinner)

Maintain consistency with when I eat each meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Wake up at the same time every day (5:00am) and go to bed around the same time each night (between 9-10pm)

 

Nicole’s WEEKLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend sangha every Monday night

Participate in my self-crafted Mindful Morning Saturday practice

Watch a Dharma talk and/or mindfulness-based teaching video online

Spend time dancing and exercising

Devoting one morning (usually Sundays) to Lazy Morning practice

 

Nicole’s YEARLY Rituals (for Self-Care and Cultivating Ease, Joy, and Solidity)

Attend our two locally held and organized mindfulness retreats with my extended Montana sangha family

Prioritize solo sojourns

Spend extended, concentrated time on personal retreat (or amid other practice-related spells of personal quietude)

Attend local days of mindfulness and special practice events hosted by our sister sanghas as much as possible

 

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Manjushri

We invoke your name, Manjushri. We aspire to learn your way, which is to be still and to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people. We will look with all our attention and openheartedness. We will look with unprejudiced eyes. We will look without judging or reacting. We will look deeply so that we will be able to see and understand the roots of suffering, the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. We will practice your way of using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, thus freeing ourselves and other species.

– from the Plum Village Chanting & Recitation book

_______

3/12

There is similar language in this verse as there was in the last verse on Avalokiteshvara, but instead of saying “listen” it says “look.” This makes sense, as Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion and Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Great Understanding. Compassion and understanding are closely related.

Perhaps to listen is with the heart and to look is with the mind. Both parts are necessary to create the whole picture of self, and to come into full relationship with the world.

It’s easy to regard these Bodhisattva verse teachings as pertaining to our actions relating to other people but it’s also important to apply these to our self. When I am able to look at myself with unprejudiced eyes and without judging or reacting, it is only then that I can truly offer those same curtesy’s to others.

How I treat myself inwardly translates directly to how I treat others externally. There is no separation.

_______

3/14

…the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. When I am in touch with nature of impermanence and selflessness (which is another way of saying: interbeing), which underpins all of life in every situation, then I am able to see and understand more clearly the roots of my own suffering. Most – if not all – suffering stems from seeing things/people/self as permanent/fixed in place and/or seeing things/people/self as being separate/disconnected entities.

How much time and energy do we expend in wishing that a particular moment was other than as it is?! Probably a lot.

Part of this verse involves a profound understanding of how everything is part of life – nothing and no one is separate. That goes for: bad days, inclement weather, feeling hurt by someone, stubbing our toe, anger, heartbreak, stress, a flat tire, that gal we don’t like who works at our grocery store, that politician we wish weren’t in office, and so on. Using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, involves cultivating the art of full acceptance of what is going on, verses getting caught in wishing things/people to be different to the extent that it causes us to fight against the reality of what’s unfolding around us.

_______

3/15

To understand deeply means to have insight penetrate through our surface knowings and our intellectual processing. Just as we must get out of our own way in order to listen deeply, we must do the same in order to look deeply.

We must get out of the way of our ego and limiting notions and social constructs of thought, in order to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people.

_______

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