“There is no such thing as an insignificant moment.” – Chan Dieu Hoa
This is me preparing for another teaching-style talk at my local sangha Be Here Now. So, while it may not be the most riveting post for you to read, my much-appreciated friends, it does offer me a great platform and outlet in which to figure out what it is I’d like to say – and I am reminded of the ending statement I recently heard from Hemingway’s acceptance speech from 1954 for winning the Nobel Prize: “…A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” Of course, my motivation lies in writing about it in order to speak about it, but I am nourished by this statement just the same.
I’ll also be giving this talk jointly with my husband Mike, which we’ve been doing once a year for the past 2-3 years. We’ve entitled it: You are what you think and we’ll be offering it on Monday night, October 23rd.
On an introductory note, for those of you sticking around to read this through :), the topic for this talk was spurred by coming to the realization of how a lack of self-acceptance is one of the largest obstacles on the path of healing, growth, transformation, and well-being. In having been attending a meditation group virtually every week for the past 15 years, where we have an open sharing circle built into our format, it’s become very clear to me just how much people give themselves a hard time about ALL kinds of things. But it’s only recently been an insight of mine that this is in fact one of the greatest roadblocks we face in regards to living more mindfully and skillfully, with more ease and balance.
My husband will be talking first, for about 20-minutes, and plans on focusing his segment on highlighting what a thought and a view are and what the differences are between them. The idea being that our long-held views are what shape our thoughts, and our thoughts are what fuel our words and actions. Most of us are not well in touch with what our views are – our deeply held beliefs that have shaped us and continue to shape us. A guiding quote for us is one from Thich Nhat Hanh:
Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to spiritual growth. – TNH
For my portion of the talk I plan on opening with a psychological exercise that I recently learned, which will prompt folks to get in touch with how they talk to themselves internally while in the process of doing it.
As for what I’ll say, here goes:
If it were as easy as just stopping giving ourselves a hard time we would’ve all done that by now. Most of us know when it is we’re being hard on ourselves or beating ourselves up over something. So just stopping this particular habit is most likely not a realistic thing to expect to have happen. And the reasons are 1. We’ve been practicing this internal dialog for probably our whole lives, so it’s deeply ingrained and thus will take time to transform and 2. Because when we get stuck in our intellect it keeps us from developing the necessary actions it takes to embody whatever it is we’re looking to work on in regards to our own growth and well-being. So just because we know something in our mind intellectually doesn’t mean it translates into an embodied experience, which is what’s necessary in order for us to progress on our path. Knowing is not enough – knowing is a critical first step, but we need to pair knowing with doing, in order for transformation and healing to take place.
The Seven Trainings in Diversity
Written by Larry Yang in “Friends on the Path”, by Thich Nhat Hanh, compiled by Jack Lawlor, published in 2002.
The practice of these trainings is an opportunity to begin the journey towards narrowing the experience of separation. As humans, we all participate in the harmful behaviors that these trainings are addressing. We all have been the perpetrator and victim, at one time or another. These trainings are for all of us, not just for any particular group or community.
The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh were an invaluable inspiration and nourishment of these trainings in diversity. Thich Nhat Hanh has written: “Many of today’s problems did not exist at the time of the Buddha. Therefore, we have to look deeply together in order to develop the insights that will help us and our children find better ways to live wholesome, happy, and healing lives.” This encouragement and suggestion becomes especially important with issues of diversity.
The invitation offered is to begin by transforming a piece of oppression, rather than being intimidated by the vastness of its suffering. The concept of “practice” presents itself as an incremental and cumulative process. The practice of diversity is also such a process. The hope is that this process can invite us into taking important steps in transforming our experience with oppression in deep and meaningful way.
(This intro was shortened from one that Larry Yang wrote himself)
1. Aware of the suffering caused by imposing one’s own opinions or cultural beliefs upon another human being, I undertake the training to refrain from forcing others, in any way – through authority, threat, financial incentive, or indoctrination – to adopt my own belief system. I commit to respecting every human being’s right to be different, while working towards the elimination of sufferings of all beings.
2. Aware of the suffering caused by invalidating or denying another person’s experience, I undertake the trainings to refrain from making assumptions or judging harshly any beliefs and attitudes that are different or not understandable from my own. I commit to being open minded and accepting of other points of view, and I commit to meeting each perceived difference in another person with kindness, respect, and a willingness to learn more about their worldview.
3. Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one’s own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the work, integrity, and happiness of any human being. Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to teaching each person that comes into my consciousness with the same loving kindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by intentional or unintentional acts of rejection, exclusion, avoidance, or indifference towards people who are culturally, physically, sexually, or economically different from me, I undertake the training to refrain from isolating myself to people of similar backgrounds as myself and from being only with people who make me feel comfortable. I commit to searching out ways to diversify my relationships and increase my sensitivity towards people of different cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, genders, and economic means.
5. Aware of the suffering caused by the often unseen nature of privilege, and the ability of privilege to benefit a select population over others, I undertake the training to refrain from exploiting any person or group, in any way including economically, sexually, intellectually, or culturally. I commit to examine with wisdom and clear comprehension the ways that I have privilege in order to determine skillful ways of using privilege for the benefit of all beings, and I commit to the practice of generosity in all aspects of my life and towards all human beings, regardless of cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual age, physical, or economic differences.
6. Aware of the suffering caused to myself and others by fear and anger during conflict or disagreement, I undertake the training to refrain from reacting defensively, using harmful speech because I feel injured, or using language or cognitive argument to justify my sense of rightness. I commit to communicate and express myself mindfully, speaking truthfully from my heart with patience and compassion. I commit to practice genuine and deep listening to all sides of a dispute, and to remain in contact with my highest intentions of recognizing the Buddha nature within all beings.
7. Aware of the suffering caused by the ignorance of misinformation and the lack of information that aggravate fixed views, stereotypes, the stigmatizing of a human being as ‘other’, and the marginalization of cultural groups, I undertake the training to educate myself about other cultural attitudes, worldviews, ethnic traditions, and life experiences outside of my own. I commit to be curious with humility and openness, to recognize with compassion the experience of suffering in all beings, and to practice sympathetic joy when encountering the many different cultural expressions of happiness and celebration around the world.
Preparation for a teaching talk I gave last night at my local sangha, Be Here Now, entitled: Back to the Basics, Why Mindfulness Matters:
To listen to the audio file of the actual talk I gave last night: http://www.openway.org/content/back-basics-why-mindfulness-matters-nicole-dunn
Rather than waiting until the end of this talk to offer my solidifying words of summary, of which I hope will be of service and value, I’d like to start off with them instead: Mindfulness matters because life matters. We have only this one life span of 20 or 30 or 50 or 70 or 90 years. If we do not cultivate mindfulness, it is easy for our lives to pass by very quickly – for our lives to be full of suffering, anger, sorrow, and envy. It is easy for us to take our lives for granted, to be unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Without mindfulness, it is easy to spend our whole lives caught in the past and/or consumed by the future. Mindfulness is the friend that shows us that another way of living is possible.
To help illustrate this, I’d like to share my first experience with mindfulness in an applied context – my first practical encounter that wasn’t based in intellectual knowledge or theory. (In order to shorthand it, the version of this story, which I’m including here, is taken from the book I’ve written and am working on getting published.)
My first real-life experience of what the heck mindfulness was came in early 2002. I was 22-years old and my husband, Mike, and I had started attending a meditation group in the tradition of Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. At the time, we were living on the East Coast in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. We were trying to save money in order to move back to Missoula, Montana, where Mike grew up and he and I met and married. I was working for a preschool and after school program and Mike was working at U-Haul. Between us, we shared one vehicle: our trusty, old Ford Econoline van, affectionately named Humphrey. (We lived in Humphrey for a year after we got married and he took us faithfully on the long and lovely road up to Alaska and back). Mike would drop me off at work; I would walk to the library down the road when I was finished; and Mike would pick me up there when he was done with his shift. On one particular day, I went to the library to wait for Mike after work, as usual. I was really looking forward to meditation that night. Although we had only been attending the weekly group for a short time, I quickly took to it and found it refreshing and grounding in ways I could not, at the time, fully understand.
After ten minutes of standing outside the library and waiting for Mike, I began to wonder what time it was, so I went back into the library to check. (It’s important to mention that my idea of arriving on time to anything means getting there about ten minutes early). Once I saw the clock, I began to get a little irritated. I didn’t want to be late to meditation. I went back outside and anxiously scanned the road for any sign of Humphrey. After ten more minutes, I went to check the time again and then proceeded to get very impatient; elevating from irritated to frustrated. I stomped back outside and paced back and forth along the sidewalk, thinking to myself: Where the hell is he? We’re going to be late! Another ten minutes went by and back in I went, to check the time, as if that would somehow help matters. After my third venture inside, my irritation, which had turned to frustration, grew to anger. I was pissed off! I stormed back outside muttered profanities to myself as I paced rapidly and kept a militant eye on the road. We were going to be late to meditation for sure!!!
In the midst of my internal fuming and cursing, I sat down on a bench. In exasperation, I exhaled heavily and slumped against the wooden slats, my head tilted back, face pointing upwards to the sky. In a seemingly cliché moment, I received a message, as though it were etched in the clouds overhead. The words thundered down: Just enjoy me. Those words resonated inside of me, loud and gentle and clear. The present moment had sent me a message. In that instant, I became aware of how embittered I had become while waiting; how tense my body and mind were. I was aware of how futile all of my pacing and checking of the time and angry mutterings really were – and, though it seems painfully clear to me now, I realized just then, that my ranting and raving wasn’t going to make him arrive any sooner. During my 20-minute escalation, I had no idea how stressed out and irrational I had become. With the words, just enjoy me, the light of mindfulness shone through my thick fog of anger.
I got up from the bench and suddenly realized what a beautiful spring day it was. The sky was magnificently blue and the afternoon sun was warm and welcoming. I did some slow walking meditation and admired the budding trees and green grass. I shifted my gaze, from anxiously watching the road, to my immediate surroundings and I practiced getting in touch with my breathing. When I calmed down, I was then able to look more deeply into why my husband might be late. I mean, it was unlikely that he chose not to pick me up on time. I saw clearly that he was probably helping a customer and was unable to leave on time. I stopped waiting for my husband to arrive and instead practiced enjoying the day. That made all the difference. The time I had spent waiting felt like an agonizing eternity (not to mention exhausting), even though it was only about 20-30 minutes, while the same amount of time I spent enjoying was refreshing, energizing, and liberating.
When he did finally arrive, much too late to go to meditation, I greeted him with a smile and said, “Thank you for being late.” And I truly meant it. I was very aware, in that moment, that had I not had the transformation I did, my first words to him would’ve been very, very different and the evening would’ve been ruined because of my anger-fueled words and actions. It was my first practical encounter with the power of mindfulness and I was so very grateful for the real-world translation.
As a high school graduation present, from my mom’s boss at the time, I was given a time capsule (pictured above). I swiftly took to filling it with mementos from my childhood and it is now one of my most favorite and cherished belongings. Fortunately, my mom held onto this time capsule tin for me through my wanderings around the country when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Had she not done so, who knows what might have happened to it. It’s likely that it would’ve wound up with the same fate as my high school year book, which I unfortunately did not leave with my mom when I moved 2,500 miles away to Montana, at age 19. My high school year book, equipped with penned statements from scads of friends and my picture, tied for first place with another girl from my class, featured for having been voted by our peers as Most Environmental, sits in a landfill beneath tons of rotting debris. Somewhere in Alaska, I think. Having pitched it in a misled rebellious state, only achievable by young adults, I now deeply regret having thrown it away and occasionally try to google about how I might be able to order a reprinted copy.
Ever since my mom passed the time capsule back into my possession a year or so ago I’ve wanted to start this tradition with my stepson Jaden. Inspiration struck when deciding what to get him for his 17th birthday (which is tomorrow, November 8th). It took a surprisingly long time to find the sized tin I was looking for. Eventually I had to settle on ordering a tin chock full of three kinds of popcorn. Since Jaden doesn’t like popcorn his dad and I had to eat it ourselves – insert pretend sad face here. In the now empty smiley-faced 2-gallon tin, I gathered up an assortment of starter items for his new time capsule (pictured below): a brick we recently acquired from his 100-year-old elementary school down the street that was just recently torn down, the handbill from the play he was in 2 weeks ago, literary journal he helped to put together during his sophomore year, music poster from Flight of the Conchords, Star Wars button, favorite childhood stuffed frogs, the certificate he acquired after formally receiving the Two Promises at a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat in 2011, and a variety of other little things. There’s also room for him to add additional items as he sees fit.
Over the past few months I’ve taken to saying two simple words, which I just realized basically serve as a practice gatha, or mindfulness verse. The words are: New plan!
For instance, when I encounter road construction in town that disrupts my chosen route, I say out loud to myself, “New plan!” and I veer happily off in a new, unanticipated direction. Or, let’s say my day of self-scheduled to-do’s winds up getting derailed on account of stifling neck pain (which was the case for me on Monday) – guess what? New plan! Self-care was in order that day, so I set aside my to-do’s and tended well to my physical body instead.
Our day-to-day lives often require a steady dose of “New plan!” to navigate the many unexpected situations that arise. Sometimes we handle changes well – and sometimes we don’t. When I say, “New plan!” it helps me to switch gears and allows me to better go with the flow. While it’s only two simple words, they hold a lot of power and sway over whatever moment I find myself in, as they help to remind me that I always have a choice as to how to respond. I think that saying this gatha out loud is important, as it helps to give verbal attention to what’s unfolding. Additionally, I say this gatha in an upbeat, friendly, exclamatory fashion, which I think is important to its use and function.
“New plan!” is more than a couple of words we utter in a moment of haste, it’s a state of mind we can cultivate to help guide us through the uncharted pathways of a new day.
I offer this new gatha for your use, should you find it helpful. The next time something unexpected occurs, try saying, “New plan!” and see what happens. Perhaps it will offer some valuable momentum, as it has for me, in continuing forward on a previously unplanned path.
P.S Oh, and keep me posted as to whether or not it works for you – I’d love to know if it’s helpful for others, too :)
In any other context, aside from when referring to the band Nirvana (which I love), I don’t care for the word nirvana. Years of false societal conditioning have led me to paint this highly ridiculous concept of what nirvana means. When I come across the word nirvana, I imagine this pie-in-the-sky, ephemeral land where nothing bad ever happens, that one either enters after they die or when they become enlightened (which is another word I don’t care for). I imagine nirvana to be some kind of other-worldly place, where unicorns trot around and there’s never a cloud in the sky.
In actuality, nirvana means: the extinction of notions.
I’ve been working on this topic of nirvana for a teaching based talk that I am giving tonight at my local sangha, Be Here Now, which will be a joint talk with my husband Mike. He and I have been offering these joint talks now, once a year, since 2014. They afford us the opportunity to collaborate on Buddhist based teachings, which is something we’re invested in together as a couple. I find it especially enjoyable to work together with him given that he and I have different strong suits in how we think about, approach, and incorporate the practice into our lives. From a Buddhist psychology perspective, Mike is more skilled at approaching things from the ultimate dimension, whereas I am more skilled at approaching from the historical dimension. As both are equally important, our ability to join forces then has the potential to speak on a variety of levels to a wider variety of people. In short, the ultimate dimension is often referred to as being like the ocean (or the undercurrent which guides and propels life), with the historical dimension being like the waves (which is us, on an individual level) – while we are each a wave, we are also the ocean, comprised of the same water (or life force/energy) which connects us all.
(UPDATED POST: Here’s a link to the audio file from this talk that Mike & I gave on Monday evening, October 17th. http://www.openway.org/content/joint-talk-nirvana-mike-nicole)
When I think of what nirvana actually means, the extinction of notions, it helps me to connect more with this word when I come across it, instead of shirking away from it as some fictitious concept. However, we want to be careful not to get caught in the form of this teaching. Meaning, it would not be a wise goal to set for ourselves to become completely free of all notions, stories, judgments, and thoughts at some undisclosed time in the far off future. This isn’t realistic. Instead, we must use our own intelligence and discernment process to find ways of enfolding the teaching of nirvana into our everyday life, moment by moment.
How do we do this? How do we incorporate nirvana as a practice? What came up for me around this was to explain nirvana as follows:
Nirvana is an action based on the culmination of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.