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The Same & Different

I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of recognizing and holding both elements of sameness & non-sameness, when it comes to our relationships and interactions with others. Too often, we’re stuck in operating from the perspective of either one OR the other, rather than being able to blend both together. In other words, we either think: Yes, we’re all the same! We all have the same woes and struggles and the same desire to be happy. There is no separation. Or, we think: I’m right and that dude’s wrong! I’m like this and that person is like that and we’re on opposite/opposing sides, we are sooo different.

I feel as though this is a tricky topic to address. Many of the teachings foundational to mindfulness, or the Buddha, are of a rather complex nature and extremely easy to misunderstand or misinterpret. One of the biggest factors in this complexity is our western mindset. Our common cultural tendencies for goal-setting, intellectual processing, needing to see results, and our propensity for ego development, mental dispersion, and emotional disconnect. All of that is to say: This post might be a bit of a schlog to read, for a few different reasons.

I’m reminded of a great quote from Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. I love this insight and try to keep it in mind when writing, giving a talk, offering a consult, or helping to lead or guide a group. This post, however, may wind up being a clear indication that I need to further my understanding :)

Let’s see if I can whittle it down: If we think we are all ONLY the same, we lose sight of the variety of experiences, causes, and conditions that impact and affect others. If we think we are all ONLY different, we lose sight of our shared humanity, and reduce greatly our capacity for developing understanding and compassion. Hmm. That actually turned out pretty well as a simplified account of my own thoughts around this particular subject.

Non-duality is rather a tangled mess for our western minds to wrap themselves around. To deeply understand that life rarely, if ever, consists of a “this” or “that” arrangement takes a fair amount of time and practice, in order to untangle our thick web of misperceptions. We have a wealth of strongly held notions in regards to the many pairs of duality that we often get so stuck and mired down in: right/wrong, good/bad, yes/no, republican/democrat, happy/sad, same/different. In reality, the truth of life’s very essence most often resides in a mixture of both dualistic pairs happening at the same time. Rather than a situation or occurrence fitting neatly into the box labeled “right” or “wrong” the chances are more likely that it could fit into both boxes, simultaneously.

Ah, the great confusing beauty of the teachings around non-duality!

 
 

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This is what I look like sometimes

I just took this pic of myself about 30-minutes ago. It’s hard for me to imagine how this pic might look to you, whether you know me personally or not – maybe nothing looks amiss at all. But, to me, this pic is a visual message of how my nerve disease, CRPS, shows up for me sometimes, like today. I can see my illness, exhaustion, and poor state of health today in my face – largely in my eyes. Our eyes are the window to the soul, as the saying goes.

I just watched a 2016 documentary called Gleason, which tells the story about former NFL player Steve Gleason’s diagnosis, progression, and life with ALS. It is an extraordinarily well-done film and I would highly recommend it. After watching it, I was inspired to take this pic of myself and post it here, as a way of highlighting that this is what I look like sometimes. Some days I am bed ridden. Some days I’d rather have the energy and ability to be outside enjoying the sunshine, like today, but I don’t. Some days my pain levels are higher than my mental capacity to physically rally myself – though it is rare for me, anymore, to experience a day when my pain levels are higher than my mental capacity to spiritually and emotionally rally myself.

Physically my body may be weak and sore today. But in learning the art of resting (yes, it is an art for sure), I am able to do so much awesome and amazing stuff in my life, during the days that I am afforded more energy and better health.

The documentary showcased for me the possible benefits and power of sharing our story, which is something I still struggle with, personally. As a writer and a mindfulness practitioner, I am still uncertain as to whether documenting and getting involved in advocacy work is the direction that speaks to me, in regards to being someone who lives with chronic pain and illness. What is clear to me, is the importance of showing and sharing about all the sides of ourselves. To be authentically who we are, in our own skin. So on that note, this pic is what I look like sometimes.

Things that are helpful for me to keep in mind:

  • No one totally is as they appear.
  • We’re all human – we all have our challenges and heartaches and strife.
  • We all judge books by their cover – and we’re all always wrong about our assessment.
 

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Middle Way

A few days ago I received a message on Facebook, notifying me that a friend of mine had mentioned me in a comment. When I clicked through, to find out what it was regarding, I read the following post, from a local wilderness group:

With warmer weather already here, or just around the corner, this is a good reminder from Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“Some people stack rocks…as a form of meditation. Some do it and call it art. More often than not, it makes for a neat Instagram picture and is never thought of again.

But what you may not realize is that stacking river rocks is doing serious damage to the delicate river ecosystem. And it’s not just cairns, the same goes for moving rocks and creating dams to make chutes or pools in a stream for tubing. Aquatic plants and animals make their homes on, under, and around these rocks. Some of the 68 species of fish in the park build their nests in small cavities under rocks. When people move the rocks, the nest is destroyed and the eggs and young fish die.”

#KeepItWild

My friend, knowing of my love for building cairns, then commented on this post with: Nicole Dunn uh-oh!

For a few minutes I thought about whether it would be worth my replying to her comment, or if it was better to simply let it go and not say anything. I decided I did want to voice my opinion, so here’s what I posted in response:

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Will Meditation Change My Life?

Spurred by the feature article in the current May 2017 edition of Lion’s Roar magazine, entitled How to Meditate Like the Buddha, which highlights eleven leading Buddhist teachers answers to common questions, I thought I would try my hand at answering one of the questions that were posed. Here goes:

Q: Will Meditating Change My Life?

A: (in my own words)

Yes. And no. (Classic Zen response, right?)

In the sense that meditation has the capacity to open new mental pathways, expand our perspective, and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, yes, meditation has the very real potential to change our lives in a variety of beneficial ways. To be clear, though, it will only change our lives to the degree in which we actively, diligently, and appropriately practice it.

However, meditation will not change anything in the Being Human department. We will continue to interface with everything related to our human manifestation, regardless of how much cushion time we log: aging, illness, death, sorrow, loss, anger, standing in line FOREVER at the grocery store, tax season, paying bills, challenging co-workers, world politics, and so on.

While the physical happenings around us won’t change, what CAN change is our relationship to them – our inner experience and attitude, the way in which we interact mentally and emotionally with those physical happenings. Developing a meditation practice allows us to create spaciousness, stillness, and quietude in the otherwise extremely full, cluttered, and chaotic atmosphere of our mind’s landscape. And from this creation of space, we have the opportunity to respond with more ease, understanding, and compassion in our everyday lives – which changes everything.

 

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A Fruit of the Practice

Two nights ago, I was reminded about one of the fruits that has unfolded as a result of my practice of cultivating mindfulness and joy: the ability and capacity to remain mentally at ease, upright, and stable in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Despite feeling a bit overloaded with organizational and schedule related tasks of late, I agreed to volunteer for an evening school-related function at a local art gallery, as part of my stepson’s involvement in the literary magazine program at his high school. On Monday night his literary mag teacher sent out a long and heartfelt email, sharing about her recent health struggles that will soon send her to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, along with her first and sole ask for parent support to help pull off their largest fundraiser of the year, which would be happening in 3 nights time. After learning about her health struggles, and other personal challenges she shared about in the email, and considering the late notice that would likely render many parents unable to help out, I decided to pitch in to help a little more than I usually would.

I volunteered to make and bring both an appetizer and dessert item, enough to feed 20 people (as requested), and I also offered to help set up at the event beforehand. This resulted in prepping and baking for 5-hours, until 9:30 at night, after working a full day at my nanny job on Wednesday, followed by going directly to the event for set up the next day, after another full day of work. Since we were rather short-handed, I stepped in to help manage and maintain the food tables throughout the event, as well, and stayed until the end to help with clean up. So, for a second day in a row, I immediately followed my 7-hour work day with another 5-hour set of active tasks. This would be a lot for many people, regardless of health status. However, with the added element of living with chronic pain, due to a nerve condition, 12-hour days for me are most often out of the question – my schedule of 7-hour work days twice a week are enough to put me in bed as soon as I get home at 4:00pm. I do have the capability, however, to pull it off when I need to, once in a while, knowing that my pain levels will be elevated for a few days afterwards in response and I’ll need to adjust my activities and schedule accordingly, in order to rest and recuperate my energy.

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Reactions Matter

Just recently, my husband, teenage stepson and I traveled to see my mom and stepdad in southern Arizona over spring break. Here’s a Facebook post I crafted the day after we were set to fly out of Missoula:

Have you ever gone to the airport only to discover that your home-printed boarding passes don’t scan at the security check-point and when you go the ticket counter to have them re-printed get told that your plane has been delayed two hours, so you decide to wait rather than have the same friend who just dropped you off come back to get you, only to find that a two hour delay really means 3 1/2, and when your plane finally does come in it turns out that it was making some weird noises on the way there and has to be checked out by a mechanic who will take about an hour to drive in from town to look it over, who determines the craft is unfit for air travel and will require a second specialized mechanic who they’ll have to fly in (hopefully on a more sound jet) so your flight, which was supposed to leave at 8:00pm, gets cancelled after waiting in the airport for 5 hours? Yeah, me neither.

I had written this post as a funny commentary, but instead people clicked the tearful-faced icon under the “like” options, indicating that they were saddened on our behalf. Then, when we finally arrived in Arizona, some of my mom’s friends that we met, who had heard tale of our flight ordeal, also seemed to be mildly upset on our behalf. But the thing of it was: we weren’t negatively phased by it at all! It was other people who were bothered by our flight delay and cancellation, not us. This got me to thinking about the importance of monitoring our physical reactions to external situations that arise. It’s very easy to put our own thoughts and feelings onto other people by way of how we react when hearing certain information or news being shared. And what we don’t often realize is that our reactions can fuel unskillful results.

For example:

Katie: Gosh, I’ve had a hard day. I got a flat tire on my way to work and then I was reprimanded for something that wasn’t even my fault – and then when I got home my new puppy had made a mess of the kitchen.

Julie: Oh, that’s awful! You poor thing! What terrible news! I’m sooo sorry to hear that!

Katie: Yeah, it was a pretty bad day. I can’t wait to put it out of its misery!

There’s a common tendency, from Julie’s reaction, to not only have unskillfully validated but exacerbated Katie’s hard day, in a negative fashion. While Katie may have simply wanted to share about her hard day with a close friend, Julie’s heightened, dramatic reaction may lead to Katie feeling even worse after their interaction – as a sort of woe-is-me situation gets fostered.

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Mindful Morning Saturdays

In the interest of buoying my new practice of Mindful Morning Saturdays (MMS), through the art of sharing my experience in written form, this is yet another installment to help me along.

This morning I especially enjoyed reading the Discourse on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, as part of my MMS sutra readings. The sutra starts: Wholeheartedly, day and night, disciples of the Awakened One should recite and meditate on the Eight Realizations discovered by the Great Beings. It then lists them in the order shown above and goes into short detail about each one. The concluding sentence of the sutra states: If disciples of the Buddha recite and meditate on these Eight Realizations, they will put an end to countless misunderstandings and difficulties and progress toward enlightenment, leaving behind the world of birth and death, dwelling forever in peace.

The Sixth Realization especially stood out to me. It seemed different than the other Realizations and it got my internal gears moving. Here’s the whole paragraph from the sutra:

The Sixth Realization is the awareness that poverty creates hatred and anger, which creates a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and actions. When practicing generosity, bodhisattvas* consider everyone – friends and enemies alike – to be equal. They do not condemn anyone’s past wrongdoings or hate even those presently causing harm.

* Bodhisattva: Literally “enlightened being,” one committed to enlightening oneself and others so that all may be liberated from suffering.

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