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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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Waiting is the Hardest Part

Last night, I participated in an interfaith concert event called Tangible Hope, which was put together by the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC). Every year we have an interfaith summit event, but this was the first year is was turned into a concert at the Wilma Theater.

It was a wonderfully diverse concert, starting with bagpipes and ending with a Christian rock band, with a hand bell ensemble, community choir, and local singer/songwriter sandwiched in between. Included in the mix were also a couple of speakers and two storytellers, which is where I came in.

After weeks of preparation and a workshop session with our local storytelling pro Marc Moss, who runs Tell Us Something here in Missoula, here’s what I came up with along the topic theme of Tangible Hope:

In the fall of 2002, when I was 23 years old, I started a weekly meditation group called Be Here Now, based in the Buddhist tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And for the first 8-years, I was the sole facilitator of the group. Flash-forward to present day, we are now over 15 years old and have grown from a small meditation group into an active, vibrant, and relatively large sangha. And in Buddhism, the word sangha means: spiritual community. In our tradition, sangha is one of the most important and highly emphasized components that we are called to develop and strengthen in our daily lives. Sangha is an action verb; and it’s a quality of heartfulness that propels us in the direction of cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood. And for me, when I practice to fully embody the spirit of sangha, I’m also able to encounter it wherever I go.

As an example: I remember a time a few years ago when I was standing in a long security line at the LAX airport. I had just spent 4-weeks on a retreat at Deer Park monastery, which is based in our tradition located in southern CA, so I went from this beautiful, sequestered and quiet environment to a place that was decidedly quite different: LAX. And as I was standing in that security line a wonderful insight arose, which was that I didn’t feel as though I had left a lovely setting with my extended sangha friends and was now tossed into a hectic and unpleasant environment filled with grumpy strangers; I felt as though I had simply transitioned from one sangha to another – from my monastery sangha to my air traveling sangha. This insight allowed me to interact with the space and the people around me in a different way – a way that was more open, friendly, caring, and kind. So, when I look and operate through the lens of sangha I experience it wherever I go, all around me because I carry it with me and I actively create it.

Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that sangha is more than a community, it’s a deep spiritual practice. So, it involves relationship building, spending time together, learning how to communicate and negotiate with various personalities and ways of doing things – it involves interacting with everyone around us in a way that promotes love and connection. And oftentimes the work of sangha building, of community and relationship building, is not easy. I’m reminded of our very first Be Here Now council meeting, which took place in November of 2010. There were 7 of us in attendance and it was the first time we were delving into the group becoming more of a collective endeavor, vs. just me holding down the fort. People shared a wealth of feedback and input mostly centered around all the changes they wanted to see have made; things we weren’t doing that we should be doing, things we were doing that we shouldn’t be doing, format adjustments, and so on. And what I recall most about this first meeting is getting home afterwards and breaking down crying. I was so overwhelmed, wondering how we would be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas and changes they wanted to see made and I was filled with worry that the simplicity and loveliness of our group was going to be lost. So, while it took some time to adjust and find our way together as a council and we had some growing pains, it was also the most beneficial thing we could’ve done to help ensure the health and vibrancy and stability of our group. So while it’s often challenging to do this work of sangha building, it’s also incredibly important that we do it.

And I’m so very grateful to be part of a tradition that ushers us in this direction and that we have the great fortune to be partners with the MIC in this regard, so that we can extend our capacity for sangha building outwards to include our interfaith sangha, which then ripples out to include our citywide Missoula sangha, our statewide Montana sangha, our nationwide American sangha, and our global worldwide sangha. Because the good news is: we’re all in this together, truly, there is no separation. And for this reality – and the opportunity that we have to be part of this interfaith collaborative – I am filled with joy and appreciation, because it’s this work that will allow us to continue beautifully into the future.

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Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day dear friends!

I wanted to share an interview talk that Thay gave in December of 2011 at Plum Village (link below). He offers a lovely and powerful teaching about care, stewardship, and connection to the Earth in this interview. Watching this video, allowing it to penetrate into our hearts and minds, is perhaps the very best way I can think of to celebrate Earth Day this year.

The video is 27:39 in length and I would highly recommend watching it in its entirety.

From the video:

“Not to cut the tree, not to pollute the water, that is not enough. I think all activists have to adopt a spiritual practice in order to help them suffer less, to nourish the happiness in them, and to handle the suffering in them so that they will be effective in trying to help the world, the people. With anger and frustration, you cannot do much, you might make the situation worse…The healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth…”

“Our century should be a century of spirituality, whether we can survive or not depends on it.”
Earth-day
 
 

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Interfaith Work & Sangha Building

I’m currently reaching maximum saturation levels in terms of my usage of time spent on writing projects, events planning, managing meetings and gatherings, and attending a variety of other functions. I’m in the boat right now of practicing to say no when it comes to the question as to whether or not to take something else on – AND it’s going well, too, I might add.

Factoring into all the many lovely things I’ve chosen to do with my time is to: tell a story on stage at the Wilma Theater here in town on May 5th, as part of an interfaith concert and celebration event called Tangible Hope, submit an article to be considered for publication in the Mindfulness Bell for their sangha building issue (slated to come out in the fall), and write a short piece for the Community of Faith section in our local newspaper (for their May 12th edition).

Is interfaith work and sangha building different? Ultimately, no, I think not. When I look and engage through the lens of sangha building, I see clearly that sangha exists wherever I go. It’s all around me. Whether in the setting of my home sangha of Be Here Now or my larger Plum Village family, or my growing relationships and partnerships with local pastors and interfaith members as part of the Missoula Interfaith Collaborative (MIC), which I serve to represent our communities of Be Here Now and Open Way with, sangha is an action verb; it’s a quality of heartfulness that propels me in the direction of cultivating brotherhood and sisterhood.

From the story I plan on telling as part of the Tangible Hope concert event:

I remember a time a few years ago when I was standing in a long security line at the LAX airport – I had just spent a month on a retreat at a monastery in our tradition in southern CA, so I went from this beautiful, sequestered and quiet environment to a place that was decidedly quite different. As I was standing in the security line, I had the wonderful insight that I didn’t feel as though I had left a lovely setting with my extended sangha and was now tossed into a hectic and unpleasant environment with grumpy strangers; I had simply transitioned from one sangha to another: from my monastery sangha into my air traveling sangha! This insight allowed me to interact with the space and the people around me in a different way – a way that was more open, friendly, caring, and kind. So, when I look and operate through the lens of sangha I experience it wherever I go, all around me – I carry it with me and I actively create it.

If we are truly invested in building sangha – aka spiritual community – then we must practice to envelop it fully into our lives and not relegate it to just our own beloved circles consisting of those whom we share most closely and are most comfortable with. The true spirit of sangha building must be all inclusive; this is the only way we can serve as agents of change in the world and continue beautifully into the future.

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Masks

Last night, I attended our First Friday art walk downtown, where a plethora of coffee shops, stores, and offices host showings of local artists work, which takes place on the first Friday of every month. One installment especially stood out to me at the Dana Gallery, where a series of masks were on display that had been made by young people of all ages residing at the Watson’s Children’s Shelter here in town. Accompanying each mask was a one-line description and the age and gender of the person who’d crafted it. Here are the ones I jotted down on location:

“My masks show that people only see part of who I really am. If people saw all of me they wouldn’t want to be friends with me.”         13-year-old girl

“My mask is a unicorn, crying rainbows.” 9-year-old girl

“My mask is wearing a mask. It says you can’t trust people even if they say you can.” 14-year-old boy

“My mask is crying rainbows because I’m supposed to be happy, but I’m sad.” 4-year-old boy

“My mask only covers my eyes. I don’t think people should cover up who they are.” 12-year-old girl

“My mask is a superhero. I wish I had superhero powers so I could protect people.” 10-year-old boy

“I don’t want to talk about my mask.” 3-year-old girl

“My mask has blood on it. And the black is meth and drugs.” 9-year-old boy

I thought the premise of these masks paired well with a meme I came across yesterday on twitter (pictured above).

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3:36am Revelation

 

I’ve found that revelations are something that need to happen over and over and over – and over and over again. They aren’t a one time deal. We like to think revelations are a one time deal – that all it takes is one moment of clarity or realization or spark of insight and huzzah!, we’ll forever enfold that particular tid bit into our consciousness and put it into active play in our lives forever more. But that is decidedly not how it works.

I woke up around 3am today, earlier than usual, though my usual has been on the shift ever since coming back from retreat at Deer Park Monastery in January. At 3:36am, I penned this in my journal:

I have the delightful challenge of being someone who loves to organize events and also someone who loves doing things around town in a variety of fashions. The challenging part comes from there only being so much time in the span of a day. And the challenge also comes from having to rein myself in from time to time – like, say, nowish for instance. I have a plethora of events, meetings, and scheduled items on my calendar from now through June – and each one is something I want to be doing with my time. But aye, there’s the rub! That’s how it happens: exhaustion, running over-heated from moment to moment. I’m also aware of how the ability to be fully present greatly aids in the endeavor of not running out of steam. I can expend A LOT of energy – needlessly – by keeping my to-do list operating in the backdrop of my mental landscape. So the more I am fully present with whatever it is I’m doing, the more energy I have to devote into being able to do the things I enjoy and having it be sustainable, verses depleting. Gosh I love writing, it allows me cut right to the chase of things!

My 3:36am revelation can be solidified in a quote I just came across yesterday on twitter:

Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom.

— Henepola Gunaratana

Developing the power of presence – uniting the mind and the body together; not getting lost in thoughts about the past or the future or worries in the present – allows us to preserve our energy and invest it in other more productive ways. Mindfulness, when practiced diligently, has the capacity to give us more time. It can teach us how to reallocate our energy so that we are continually re-fueling and nourishing ourselves amid the seas and swells of life’s happenings, instead of getting burnt out, stressed out, and overwhelmed.

I’m someone who talks to herself a lot throughout the day. I even give myself advice – and it’s usually really good advice too, by the way. Lately I’ve been reminding myself: Okay Nicole, now look. You have taken on a lot of stuff again. You should really slow your roll and stop agreeing to do stuff and saying yes to organizing and attending events. You have a lot coming up. And then I counter myself by saying: I know, I know. But…it’s all great stuff! There’s so much great stuff to do and stuff I want to do and…. And so it goes.

What I’m rediscovering though – re-revelating, if you will – is that while it’s true that I have a lot of plans and events and meetings and things I’m organizing and attending coming up, it’s actually not too much. While I’ve been feeling the pull of my schedule and judging it to be too much, it’s actually more a matter of my mental gears running in the background that’s making it seem like too much, when it reality it isn’t. It’s an “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” sort of scenario – only in the reverse.

We all have a wealth of stuff going on – that’s life. And it’s often not that we need to DO less, it’s that we need to practice THINKING less, PROCESSING less, WORRYING less, STRESSING less. Mindfulness can give us the tools we need to keep doing all the things we enjoy doing, all the things we choose to prioritize in our daily/weekly/monthly/yearly schedule by saving the mental energy we so uselessly expend on matters that are either outside of our influence or simply a complete and total waste of time. I can drain my energy battery hella quick simply by over-thinking about what I have coming up and all the things I need to do tomorrow and the next day and the next day.

So, my newly forming dialog with myself is looking something like this: Okay Nicole. You have a lot of great stuff coming up, isn’t that delightful?! But right now you’re ______ (fill in the blank: eating, driving, writing, sipping tea…), so how about you just be all in right where you are with what you’re doing. And then I’m all like: Good call, Nicole. Good call.

Be Here Now as a working life motto is not just about the physicality of your presence. Be Here Now means to be wherever you are mentally and emotionally, too. It means to be all in with your whole being. Whether I’m working on managing logistics for our upcoming spring family retreat at the end of the month, arranging a public talk for our visiting Dharma teacher, working on PR materials for my friend Jeff and I to land gigs together around town, working on an article or bit of writing for one thing or another, running a meeting, or attending a conference, the energy of mindfulness is one that can travel into any and all situations. And thank goodness for that!

Mindfulness helps me to keep my feet well-grounded. It helps me to generate the qualities of ease and joy and deep connection from moment to ever-changing moment. Mindfulness enables me to live a good life. And it reminds me, over and over and over again, to keep coming back to the very here and now – the only place life is truly available.

 

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March for Our Lives

Today, I practiced silent walking meditation amid hundreds of Missoulians brandishing signs in support of what wound up being a global march, in the wake of increasing gun violence in our schools.

Instead of a sign, I held my pocket-sized Buddha. Instead of joining in the chants of “No more silence, end gun violence,” I practiced deep, mindful breathing. The art of change-work can (and must) take place on a multitude of different levels.

We need those who can rally a march, who join in the chants, who can speak from the heart over a microphone, who are called to running for political offices, who donate money and time and their web talents – and we also need people who can remain calm and stable in the fray. We’re all needed. We all have something to offer. We’re all in this together.

 

Article from Lion’s Roar mag: Buddhists supporting March for Our Lives share their photos and messages:

https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhists-supporting-march-for-our-lives-share-their-photos-and-messages/?utm_content=buffer4e0f9&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

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