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On Friendship

Art piece I commissioned from my stepson’s girlfriend Sierra (it’s her own design). To me, it’s the perfect wordless expression of the practice of cultivating joy – I just love it! It also depicts the power of what a good friendship has the potential to do: alight our inner landscape.

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I just started reading a new book that has me thinking about friendships: Ethan Nichtern’s The Dharma of “The Princess Bride.” It’s appropriately well timed, as my bearings have been shifting in this area, especially over the last year. I’ve been recently angling myself in the direction of pondering such questions as: Who are the people I want to spend my time with? What qualities do I find important in a friend? What are the different avenues of friendships and how do they compliment and/or contrast one another?

In light of my inner musings, I appreciated this passage from the book that I read just today:

“My teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has repeatedly made the same case: it matters whom you invite into your personal sphere. He calls it “hanging out with the right crowd.” He’s not talking about the cool kids. He’s talking about associating with those people who help you wake up…In fact, a Buddhist definition for best friend could simply be the person who helps you bring out your “best” qualities: mindfulness, generosity, patience, confidence, and creativity. The best friends are the ones who support your awakening, and whose awakening you in turn support.”

from The Dharma of “The Princess Bride” by Ethan Nichtern

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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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Soaking Wet & Still Smiling

Last night, my husband and I went to see Bon Iver at our local still newish outdoor amphitheater, located just outside of town in Bonner, Montana. It rained the whole…entire…time. Did I mention it was at an outdoor amphitheater? The last time I was that wet with my clothes on, I had volunteered at a mud run event and then chose to walk the course when my shift was over. I’d gotten moderately muddied up while traversing the course but my grand finale soaking-through came when swimming across a relatively deep muddy water pit at the end.

In comparing these two soaking-wet-with-clothes-on experiences, a notable distinction is that for one of them it was my choice and for the other it totally wasn’t. One was outside of my control. And that makes a HUGE difference, by the way. In terms of how we approach and energetically receive an experience, control has everything to do with it.

We arrived to the venue early. With grass seats and never having been to the amphitheater before, we wanted to stake out a good spot and do our best to ensure prime viewing. This meant, however, that we were soaked through well-before the concert was even set to start. In this semi-arid part of the country, it’s not often that we get a rain that lasts for hours on end without pause. But that’s sure what happened last night! The rain increased and decreased in heftiness and vigor, but it rained truly the whole time we were there. For three hours, we sat holed up in our Crazy Creek chairs atop small mats, raincoats, and blue tarp, slowly becoming more saturated as time went on. I read it was a sold out show. And with a capacity of 4,000, it meant we were in good company.

Since umbrellas weren’t allowed (as they would obstruct the view of those behind you), I enjoyed seeing what creative solutions people came up with to shield themselves from the wet weather. We were like a sea of huddled masses, ghosts, lagoon creatures, and woodland survivalists in our assortment of blankets, ponchos, rain gear, plastic sheeting, and cloaks. It was comforting, and somehow made the experience more tolerable, to feel the friendly camaraderie of being in it together, wrapped up in rain-shielding materials.

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The River Is High

The Clark Fork River is high, here in Missoula Montana. Swelling and spilling over its bank high. Flood stage high. Whole trees and mobile homes being carried downstream high.

Yesterday, I grabbed a shovel and some work gloves and headed to the staging area on 3rd Street to help fill sandbags. It was the same shovel I used to help during the in-town avalanche cleanup efforts here in town a few years ago. I know because it was still marked with duct tape – a way to distinguish it from the rest.

Dozens upon dozens of folks came out to take part in the volunteer efforts. Some volunteers even drove into town from over an hour away. I spent 5 1/2 hours at the sandbag station, with a 30-minute hiatus to fetch dinner for Mike & Jaden. I ate in the car on my way back to resume the second part of my shift, then left for the day just before 8:00pm.

While filling, moving, and stacking sandbags, I spoke with a woman who’d just returned from army training the previous day; I tag-teamed a few bags with a middle-school boy, who was apologetic every time he spilled some of the sand he was trying to get into the bag I was holding open for him, despite my friendly efforts to tell him it was par for the course in filling sandbags; I overheard an older woman tell a fellow shoveler that she was recently diagnosed with an extremely rare disease that will likely render her blind within the next 3-years; I joked around with a couple of guys as we all worked side-by-side atop the big mound of sand, as though we were victorious hikers who’d staked claim to a mountain peak; I enjoyed the synergy generated between myself and a young 20-something year-old trainer from the Bitterroot, as I passed down my filled bags to him, from my eventually lone and dwindling perch situated at the top of the heap; and my heart warmed at the short break we all took around 7:00pm to sing Happy Birthday to a 10-year-old girl, who insisted that she didn’t want to do anything to celebrate her birthday other than help fill sandbags.

Gosh I just love this town.

Today, my body is terribly sore. My hands are stiff and aching. And my ring-finger on my left hand is numb. It’s not ideal timing to be in such a painful physical state, as I’m in charge of our big community yard sale fundraiser at our local meditation center on Saturday, and I have a full day of sorting and prepping the sea of donations we’ve collected over the last 2 months tomorrow. AND, I’m quite sure that there’s no where else I would’ve rather been yesterday afternoon and evening.

My aches and pains will subside – and they’re a small price to pay in comparison to those who’s houses are being threatened or held in limbo by the rising river.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2018 in Community

 

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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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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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Mindful Speech on Social Media

My husband Mike and I just finished watching the documentary Jim & Andy, the Great Beyond about Jim Carrey’s role in Man on the Moon, where he played the comedian Andy Kaufman. It was so fantastic and Buddhist inspired that we googled the phrase: Is Jim Carrey a Buddhist. In doing so, we came across this article – on the nature of being human, having, and then healing, from depression, and letting go of our ideas of self – with accompanying short video, which was so lovely and inspiring that I wanted to share it (I would also super recommend watching the doc mentioned above): https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/11/jim-carrey-explains-depression-in-the-best-way-ive-ever-heard/

In my zeal to want to support people in helping to reduce the collective and crippling stigma around matters concerning mental illness, I posted the above quote and link on our Be Here Now Community facebook page. While we have a fairly hefty following, considering we’re a small Montana-based mindfulness group, which clocks in at over 6,700 page likes, we don’t often get many comments on our posts, which I tend to fashion on the daily. But within short order, this particular post received this comment:

If I was as ignorant as this moron I would be depressed too!

Hmm. Welp. What is the most skillful action to take here, I pondered? The options seemed pretty clear. I could either leave the comment and do nothing. I could erase the comment. Or I could fashion a response, knowing that my reply, while written to the commenter, would be more intended to reach our followers and perhaps serve as a teaching moment in regards to how to respond with mindful, loving speech to hater-types on social media. Upon consulting with my husband, we quickly decided that erasing it, while easy to do, would be squelching the potential for dialog, and potentially keep people from feeling as though our community is a place where they can be heard and accepted, regardless of their views and whether or not we all agree with one another (which is an unrealistic impossibility anyway!). Simply leaving it untended to seemed to be the least skillful action to take – so crafting a response it was!

Here’s what I said in reply:

Hello _(insert person’s name here)__, while this is not typically the sort of comment we like to support, as skillful and loving speech is something we put great value on as a practice, every one is very much entitled to their own opinions, so we’d prefer not to simply erase it. On behalf of our community, with all due respect – truly – our views and ideas of others are incomplete and pitted with misunderstandings. We cannot presume to know anyone well, even those who are closest to us, as we see them through the lenses of our own experiences. May your day and night be well and to your liking. With Care, Nicole Dunn, Be Here Now program director.

NOTE: I originally signed the post as Be Here Now Community, in the interest of wanting to protect myself a bit from being potentially receiving personal backlash, but I quickly edited it and put my name instead, as it felt cleaner and more true to who I am as someone who puts great importance on showing up as authentically as possible.

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