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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I Think We’ve Got It Backwards

Okay. So, what I’m about to post here has taken me almost a year to flesh out and wrap my brain around. Here goes.

In our Buddhist practice tradition, we have this teaching: This is because that is. Short-handing it, it means: Everything happens for a reason, based on a myriad of causes and conditions. On a similar note, I see as though we have two large components of life backwards, and one leads to the other.

The first thing we commonly have backwards:

A) We often see and regard ourselves as being separate/independent/unique in times when we would do well to strengthen our ability to look with the eyes of interbeing and get in touch with our similarities, shared humanity, and true sense of connection.

and

B) We often see and regard ourselves as being the same in times when we would do well to cultivate a deeper understanding of our individuality.

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And because of this first thing we commonly have backwards, it leads to this second thing we commonly have backwards:

C) We try to lone-wolf it in times when we would do well to lean on our loved ones for care, support, and nourishment.

and

D) We rely on others in times when we would do well to cultivate and/or strengthen our sovereignty.

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So, D is because of B and C is because of A. This is because that is.

I realize this might be confusing, like I said: it’s taken me a year to flesh this out. Here are some practical examples that will hopefully help a bit (with corresponding letters that match with the points above):

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I WAS Built for Routine

I just came across this meme on Twitter. Gosh, I just love following Tiny Buddha.

With this quote, however, I was left thinking: Yes! I totally agree…except for the first part about not being built for routine.

Routine works super well for me. I am an extremely regimented person and find great comfort, support, and nourishment in upholding my daily habits, schedule, and regular constitutions.

Last weekend, I was watching a Dharma talk on Youtube given by Sister Tu Nghiem in the Plum Village tradition. She said:

“The lifestyle that Thay created for us at Plum Village involves balancing four aspects of our daily life: mindfulness practices, study, service to the community, and play – and I’ve added relaxation, and maybe that’s a way of playing also.”

She said that following a schedule gives them solidity and that by living with this balance they have more inner peace and freedom from stress and worry. She then referenced a Brother’s recent metaphor of how their schedule is like the spinal column – it’s the backbone providing stability and yet it is also flexible. Changes happen. And yet when changes happen, everything is held together.

I resonate very much with what she shared. Personally, I’ve experienced a number of people who seem terribly resistant to developing routines and schedules. It tends to be that these people also have trouble committing to making plans and confirming their attendance at events and gatherings. Often, they also have a habit of being chronically late to things that have a set start time. I think there are a few factors at play here. One being that they’ve deemed it uncool and/or lame to set up and maintain a schedule – and partly this is due to a perpetual immaturity that pervades our western societal landscape.

This isn’t to say everyone is built for routines and schedules and should get on board with such things. Different things work for different people and this is super important to keep in mind. There’s no one mold that works for all of us – and thank goodness for that!

I think what makes the above meme a little bit troublesome is that it implies there isn’t a way to have both realities happen simultaneously: one that involves routine AND one that involves skinny dipping and sleeping under the stars and 2am conversations that shatter your walls.

This meme is also a little judgy. There’s a subtle biting undertone to it. One can have a routine and also not be into trite conversations or working in an office. One can work in an office and sleep under the stars. And there’s nothing wrong with being content whilst working in a building. There’s all sorts of mix and match ways we can be content in this one splendid life we’ve been given. There’s no one rule book to follow that results in a happy life.

And if we’re not into fake smiles and surface small talk, that’s cool. If it’s something we’re bothered by and find to be a standard mode of operation then we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to affect change and do something about it.

I think this meme, while well intended, misses the mark and potentially waters the seed of cynicism in an already quite cynical counter culture. Because the thing is, stuffy buildings and fake smiles and routines are real. They are part of life. And ultimately, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things.

With our thoughts we make the world, and these we have the power to change at any time. It’s not what’s happening around us that causes our dissatisfaction, it’s how we regard it and relate to it.

Balance

Practice to let your feelings be as they are,

verses fighting or suppressing them –

but practice also not to let them run the show.

Balance.

 

Practice to stay in touch with the woes and ills on the global front,

verses averting your eyes and ears and heart –

but practice also to stay in touch with the joys, beauty, and goodness that abound.

Balance.

 

Practice to care well for yourself,

verses losing yourself in dispersion –

but practice also to extend outwards to others.

To loved ones and the underprivileged alike.

Balance.

 

 

Creating Balance

I gave a talk at the Open Sky Sangha in Kalispell, Montana last night, Thursday June 14th. (Open Sky is one of the sister groups of my home sangha Be Here Now.) Below is what I wrote out ahead of time, to help me prepare for the talk. If you’d prefer to listen to the audio recording, vs. reading it, you can venture here:

http://www.openway.org/content/creating-balance-practice-talk-nicole-dunn

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Title: Creating Balance

Subtitle: Cultivating self-care while also staying active and engaged in the world

Last month, for the week leading up to and including Memorial Day weekend, I went on a solo sojourn and stayed in the Mission Lookout Tower, which is just outside of Swan Lake. So, for 5 nights and 6 days, I situated myself 40-feet up off the ground in a 15X15 glass nest perch in the pines, with a 2-3 foot wide wrap-around deck, which afforded me sweeping views of the Swan Range to the east and the Mission mountains to the west.

I reserved this recent solo stay at Mission Lookout back in November, because I knew that come mid-late May, I’d be in need of some time of restoration and refueling of my energy tanks – and boy was I right! Prior to heading to the tower, my energy was sorely waning and I was feeling over-extended and organizationally meetinged-out. I recorded my debut spoken word album and had a release party and performance in March; I was one of the directors of our statewide spring retreat in April; and was in charge of our big annual community yard sale fundraiser at our mindfulness center in Missoula two weeks after the retreat – on top of working part time as a nanny, being a weekly hospice volunteer, taking care of my family household, having a regular writing regiment, and so on. And this isn’t anything special or unique – we all have a myriad of things that we tend to on an ongoing basis.

No matter how glad we may be to invest our energy into all the different things that we do, there comes a time that in order to continue doing those things, we will need to find, create, and make important the art of resting and self-care, lest we become completely and utterly exhausted and kaput. So, developing a relationship with cultivating our own sense of balance between being active in the world and learning how to rest and replenish is not just something nice to do, it’s vitally important to our ability to continue beautifully into the future – to keep actively practicing in our spiritual mindfulness tradition and in all of the endeavors we participate in: work, school, family life, social life, home upkeep, traveling, volunteering, recreation, hobbies/interests, etc. We extend ourselves out and about in so many ways and we can liken ourselves to a car: our gas tank can only take us so far before we need to refuel. If we have more energy going out than that which is coming in, we will find ourselves eventually broken down and stranded on the side of the road. And this is a position that is all too commonplace in our culture. We are a nation of doers. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

The hitch in the giddy-up is that we are not well-acquainted with how to ongoingly restore ourselves. We don’t prioritize – alongside of: work, family, friends, and so on – the practices of stopping, resting, nourishing, and healing.

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Sometimes, Things are Just Hard

It’s easy to sometimes regard the practice of mindfulness and/or meditation as being some kind of magical elixir (especially by new practitioners), as though we could (and should) use them to cure us of our woes and ailments – that somehow if we are mindful enough and meditate enough, we’ll be able to fix whatever it is we feel needs fixing. But, the truth is, sometimes, things are just hard. Having a mindfulness practice and sitting in meditation can strengthen our ability to stay present, balanced, and well-grounded in our own experience of whatever is unfolding – which can be invaluably beneficial – but, in the end, neither mindfulness or meditation can alleviate the causes and conditions of struggle, pain, sorrow, and so on. Our relationship with life can change, but life itself will always entail a certain degree of suffering, difficulty, challenge, and heartache.

What I’m trying to highlight here, is that it’s important not to use the practices of mindfulness and meditation to form some kind of emotional smoke-screen to hide or otherwise distort the simple and very real truth that sometimes life is just hard. And, in my experience, there is a strange and great relief in coming to this understanding. There is a powerful release in being able to simply state, with clear intent, that things are just hard sometimes – without trying to explain further or apologize or rationalize or sugar-coat something for someone else’s perceived benefit. Sometimes, things are just hard. End of sentence.

I recently watched a TED talk given by Susan Kaiser Greenland on the ABC’s of Attention, Balance, and Compassion. In her talk she stated that mindfulness isn’t about changing or fixing, it’s about understanding and being aware. And on one of her slides, it stated: Wisdom comes not from being perfect but from being present. I think we can get carried away and swept up in the false notion of perfection when it comes to a lot of things. But perfection is a relative construct – and I would go so far as to call it a farce.

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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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