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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Am I Sure?

wake up to

On Saturday, August 10th, a short article I wrote for the Community of Faith column ran in the Missoulian. Here it is, in its entirety:

In our Buddhist based practice, the Plum Village tradition led by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, we are encouraged to practice with the question: Am I sure? Let’s say, for example, that I am confronted with someone whose way of engaging with the world is quite contrary to my own and I think to myself: Gosh, that person is crazy. In times such as these, my practice is to ask myself: Am I sure? Am I sure that I know full well what that person is going through and where they are coming from? Am I sure that I know what’s fueling their behavior or approach to a particular situation? Am I sure this person is crazy? The answer, on all counts, is clear. Of course not! I often have little to no idea of the causes and conditions that are propelling someone else’s thoughts, speech, and/or actions. My reactionary judgments that arise, in any given situation, are not at all an accurate and full accounting of what’s actually taking place.

It’s so very easy for me to think I know something when in truth I really have no idea at all, especially when it comes to assessing someone else’s character or behavior. Using the Am I sure? question affords me the opportunity to create space in between what’s happening externally and the thoughts/speech/actions that I engage in as a result. It allows me to move from reacting to responding.

Recently, I attended a local outdoor concert where a homeless resident of Missoula came on the scene and proceeded to disrupt the event by yelling violently, both to herself and to the band that was playing. In response to her behavior, there was a critical and disrespectful approach taken with her. In short order, I realized that I was likely the only one on hand that saw the immensity of distress present in this homeless woman. Others seemed only to be focused on how inappropriate and rude she was being, in an otherwise peaceful gathering. Had the other event-goers at the time been reflecting on the Am I sure? question, perhaps it would’ve become clear that the homeless woman was likely suffering deeply from the results of untreated mental illness, versus intentionally trying to cause harm and upset of a personal nature.

Thich Nhat Hanh adds further that if when we ask our self the question Am I sure? the answer is: Yes! that we should ask the question again.

I have great affection for this wisdom teaching and I use this practice question often in my daily life. I have found that it helps to keep me angled in the direction of understanding, compassion, and kindness, which are three foundational tenets of human connection.

Nicole Dunn is an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition and serves as the director of the Open Way Mindfulness Center and the program director of the Be Here Now Sangha.

For original article in the Missoulian, click here.

Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life

This morning, while reading Thay’s commentary on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings sutra, in his book Awakening of the Heart, I came upon the Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life. I enjoyed this teaching right away and found it  deeply nourishing, so I thought I’d share it here.

Eleven Guidelines for Daily Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Awakening of the Heart

“Here are eleven guidelines for daily life, based on the insights found in the sutra: (The Eight Realizations of the Great Beings):

  1. While meditating on the body, do not hope or pray to be exempt from sickness.  Without sickness, desires and passions can easily arise.
  2. While acting in society, do not hope or pray not to have any difficulties.  Without difficulties, arrogance can easily arise.
  3. While meditating on the mind, do not hope or pray not to encounter hindrances.  Without hindrances, present knowledge will not be challenged or broadened.
  4. While working, do not hope or pray not to encounter obstacles.  Without obstacles, the vow to help others will not deepen.
  5. While developing a plan, do not hope or pray to achieve success easily.  With easy success, arrogance can easily arise.
  6. While interacting with others, do not hope or pray to gain personal profit.  With the hope for personal gain, the spiritual nature of the encounter is diminished.
  7. While speaking with others, do not hope or pray not to be disagreed with.  Without disagreement, self-righteousness can flourish.
  8. While helping others, do not hope or pray to be paid.  With the hope of remuneration, the act of helping others will not be pure.
  9. If you see personal profit in an action, do not participate in it.  Even minimal participation will stir up desires and passions.
  10. When wrongly accused, do not attempt to exonerate yourself.   Attempting to defend yourself will create needless anger and animosity.
  11. The Buddha spoke of sickness and suffering as effective medicines.  Times of difficulties and accidents are also times of freedom and realization.  Obstacles can be a form of liberation.  The Buddha reminded us that the army of evil can be the guards of the Dharma.  Difficulties are required for success.  The person who mistreats one can be one’s good friend.  One’s enemies are as an orchard or garden.  The act of doing someone a favor can be as base as the act of casting away a pair of old shoes.  The abandonment of material possessions can be wealth and being wrongly accused can be the source of strength to work for justice.”

I Heart the Woods

Penned on 7/20:

I’m contemplating morning today at 5,000 feet, by diving headlong into a gloriously warm and crackling fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. It was cold last night. The kind of cold that I still don’t entirely see coming in the July of summer, even though I consider myself an official Montanan, now that I’ve lived here a drop over half my life; even though I checked the weather before venturing out here and knew full well to expect temps in the high 30’s at night; even though we came well prepared, gear wise. Still, knowing it will be cold and experiencing it are two very different animals.

 

 

Continue reading

Serving with Grace

Last weekend, we enjoyed our local spring family retreat up on the Flathead Lake with our Montana sangha family. Twice a year, we organize local 3-day residential retreats: one in the spring and one in the fall. And each spring is a family retreat, where we invite children to attend alongside their parents. This year we had 59 adults and 25 young people, aged 3-15, for a total of 84 people.

Each spring, I serve as co-director on the retreat planning team. I also head up the children’s programming with my good friend Amy, so essentially I am on two different branches for organizing the retreat. We have one team for: managing all of the logistics with the camp facility we use, registration, and organizing the schedule for the adults and program elements with our visiting teacher(s) and another team for planning the kids programs that we offer.

Knowing I serve in this co-director capacity each spring, friends often ask me if these spring retreats are an actual retreat for me. My reply this year has been: Not in the classic sense of the word, no. These retreats for me are a rich opportunity to engage with work as spiritual and joyful practice.

I’ve recently started reading this book:

Serving with grace is a deep aspiration for me on the path of practice. And to speak to my full aspiration, I would add: serving with grace and kindness.

Supporting our young people and their parents to come on retreat; to be in touch with the nature and landscape of the lake and the surrounding woods; to be in touch with the Dharma and the Sangha is a great joy and a true calling for me. It’s also exhausting work too. But gosh, I have no qualms about getting worn out temporarily from undertaking such a lovely endeavor. Sometimes, putting all of our physical fuel into something can fill up the heart tank and gear us up for the next thing that comes along. The physical tank is easy to refill: food, rest, movement. But keeping the heart tank full, that’s where the real work happens.

 

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.

Continue reading

Fun Zen Circle Project

In preparation for our upcoming spring family retreat with our Montana sangha family, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh – for which I am serving as co-director – I worked on this fun project this morning. Ensos! An enso is a zen circle and is said to symbolize a number of different things: openness, awareness, strength, the universe. Enso’s can be created open or closed and are typically fashioned in one brush stroke.

Since our upcoming retreat will be a family retreat and we’ll have kids present, we thought it would be fun this year to create a small optional activity that we could simply leave out on a table in the main gathering area that all ages could engage in, if they so chose.

As I was brainstorming a simple community activity, I came across a post in my Twitter feed from the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico that offered inspiration:

The tweet that accompanied this picture said something along the lines of having folks there at Upaya fill out an enso with their aspiration for their own practice during the retreat. So I took this idea and tweaked it a bit.

I made a total of 70 enso’s on small multi-colored squares of paper, using a calligraphy brush and some tempera paints I had on hand. Then I made a sample one posted with instructions that I’ll leave on the table, along with markers and some oil pastels:

This wound up being great fun to do this morning :)

I contemplated whether to put out paints and brushes for people to make their own enso’s but decided with the number of people we have attending and so many kids that it would best to keep the activity less involved/potentially messy. My plan is to collect all of the well wishes created and string them together in a collage for display. So stay tuned to see the final product!