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Virtues

 

Come and settle beside me.

Though, truth be told, I don’t enjoy your company.

I wish you weren’t here, sticking around,
a reminder of old habit energies I long to not be haunted by.

I wish I could move on from being held in your presence.

I mean, part of me feels strongly about there being more pressing matters to tend to,
verses babysitting your tendencies, holding your hand.

Still, I’m trying.

I’m trying not to resent and regret the sight of you.

Trying not to get lost in feelings of shame.

And, goodness knows, it’s not easy.

This above snippet of verse is something I penned in my journal early this morning. I had set my alarm for 4:00am but awoke naturally at 3:00am. After a few minutes of attempting to get back to sleep, I decided it wasn’t happening and just got up.

I’ve been processing some internal static. Trying my best to befriend it, instead of what I want to do, which is to dropkick it far away, so that it lands somewhere out of sight and out of mind. Old habit energies, old patterns of thought and behavior have been sifting into my mind and heartscape as of late. It’s terribly uncomfortable. Though, I’m appreciating that it’s further teaching me the ways of humility: Ben Franklin’s 13th virtue.

Franklin’s list above, that he fashioned in 1726 when we has 20-years-old, is quite remarkable, considering his age.

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Posted by on December 14, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Daily Rituals

Benjamin Franklin’s ideal daily routine, from his autobiography

Given this schedule snippet, I think ol’ Ben Franklin and I could’ve been friends. Last night, my friend Jeff lent me a book he thought I’d enjoy, called Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, by Mason Currey. The image above is pictured alongside the title page at the start of the book, and right away I thought to myself: This is gonna be a good read.

I read the intro and the first 15 pages this morning and was hooked. Over 160 of the greatest philosophers, writers, composers and artists are featured in this collection of Daily Rituals. And I could relate right away with the author’s musings in the intro, which I took as a good sign of things to come. He writes:

 

My underlying concerns in the book are issues that I struggle with in my own life: How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day? And when there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give things up (sleep, income, a clean house), or can you learn to condense activities, to do more in less time…More broadly, are comfort and creativity incompatible, or is the opposite true: Is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?

…The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism.

And my favorite line from the intro:

A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

With the catalyst and accelerate of going to Deer Park Monastery every January for the past 4 years, to spend a few weeks on retreat, I’ve parlayed myself into something I’d been wanting for a long while: a consistent and diligent routine, primarily to help me develop a writing schedule that I could stick with. As someone on disability, who works a job-job just one day a week, I have a lot of unstructured time on my hands. But, as I am also someone who is highly organized and manages, plans, and hosts a wealth of different things, I perform optimally when I come up with a schedule to follow.

Every day I am balancing my passion for writing with my to-do list associated with being the director of a mindfulness community center, serving in my capacity as a spiritual leader to my cherished sangha, and being a grateful home-maker, helping to take care of my household and the people who reside within its humble walls. There’s also the delightful element of cultivating friendships, which is a great joy for me that I prioritize in my life. And last – but actually first in the priorities department – comes the relationship that I build and strengthen with my own self and my mindfulness practice. So, these are ALL part of my every day balance: writing, to-do list on the mindfulness center/sangha front, to-do list on the home front, staying in close contact with friends, and staying in close connection with myself. And in all sincerity, I do each of these things with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Each element nourishes me in different ways. AND, I actively practice to keep it that way. How we live is a matter of choice – it really is – and I choose to fuel up my joy and gratitude tanks on the daily.

While it doesn’t speak to everyone, of course, having daily rituals and a schedule works really well for me. Lately, I’ve been stepping into sharing about this side of myself more, which can be challenging, as there’s a tendency for others to either feel bad for not having such a regimented accounting of their own time or for them to be rather incredulous about the nature of how I craft my daily routine. What?! they’ll say, you get up every day at 5am?! That’s crazy! And then I’m all like: Is it? I mean, on some level I get that it’s not super common and comes as a surprise to hear, but on another level I’d rather not draw unnecessary attention to myself and have to field people’s shock-and-awe response.

But, as I’ve been working towards sharing more and more about myself, in regards to both creative and mundane matters – in the last year especially – this new read I’ve just started offers a wonderful writing prompt for me to embark upon. So this is me, embarking upon it.

I wrote this in my leather-bound journal early this morning:

Just as the sun needs to trade places with the moon in order to construct the most suitable conditions for life-dwelling, so too does my desire for solitude and stillness sit in balance with the nourishment and inspiration I richly receive from being in the direct and precious company of others. Like the in-breath and out-breath, I require both solo and collaborative time, in order to thrive.

 

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Posted by on December 13, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Not Eating the Cookie

44. Train in the three difficulties.

Commentary

The three difficulties (or the three difficult practices) are:

  1. To recognize your neurosis as neurosis,
  2. then not to do the habitual thing, but to do something different to interrupt the neurotic habit, and
  3. to make this practice a way of life.

– from Always Maintain a Joyful Mind by Pema Chodron

Last week, I made 6-dozen chocolate chip cookies – 4 as a contribution for a hospice function and 2 for my boys, Mike and Jaden (husband & stepson, respectively). (I mean really, is there anything more heartless than volunteering to bake cookies for an event and then telling the people you reside alongside with: Sorry guys, I know the house smells delicious and all but these cookies are all spoken for.) As my home bakery got up and running, there were cookies on every available surface, strewn about the kitchen, as far as the eye could see. And my practice in that moment was to not eat the cookies. And it wasn’t easy. But, as I’ve been training in the skilled art of not eating the cookie, for the past 3-4 years now, it wasn’t as hard as it used to be.

Four years ago, I would’ve thought it madness, an impossibility of colossal proportion, to not eat the cookie. After all, cookies – and chocolate in general and most other things full of sugar – are the express culmination of all things good and decent in the world. But now that I’ve been training, even though it is still trying at times, I’m starting to enter a new realm that I’ve heard tale about, but scoffed at and sloughed off as being sheer and total nonsense and lunacy. The realm of not only not eating the cookie but delighting in not eating the cookie. And much of the time, this realm includes not even being tempted to eat the cookie, as its allure has greatly diminished over time.

They don’t call to me like they once did – or, maybe it’s that I’ve learned to tune them out. Ah, yes. That’s it. I now declare, triumphantly: Let the cookies call all they want! I’m not picking up!

I’m now imagining our landline ringing. Bring bring, bring bring. I go to check the caller i.d and there, displayed in bold letters taking up the whole of the phone screen, is one word: COOKIES. If it had been when I first started working on my sugar addiction, I would’ve burst into a cold sweat upon seeing that COOKIES were calling. But now, I’m all like: Leave a message after the beep, COOKIES. But don’t hold your breath waiting for me to call back! And the COOKIES are all like: Nicole, was it something we said?! We miss you. Don’t you miss us?! And then I’m all like: Boom! Nope!

It’s important to mention that my ability to not eat a single cookie when surrounded by 6-dozen in various stages of preparation in the kitchen, is the equivalent of the sugar Olympics, when it comes to the sport of not eating the cookie. I would not advise anyone to start here. I needed to do some serious training to get where I am now. Trying to break the cycle of sugar addiction while surrounded by a sea of cookies is like learning how to swim by just jumping in the deep end and seeing how it goes. In short: it won’t be pretty. There will be flailing about – and most likely, it will end by either you or someone in close proximity uttering these words in distress: Man down!

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Posted by on December 11, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Awkward & Uncomfortable

The more we practice to observe, accept, and embrace discomfort, the more grounded, connected, understanding, and resilient we can become as a result. Grounded in the present moment; connected to our breath and body; understanding of our own inner and outer landscapes; and resilient amid the swells of change.

As soon as we’re born, we start acting out when we’re confronted with discomfort – and for the first few months it serves a crucial function. We cry and carry on in order to communicate that we’re hungry or tired or cold or that our diaper needs changing. But it seems this sets the stage for a lifetime of detrimental behaviors accrued for the sole purpose of avoiding or managing discomfort. We would do well as parents, family members, and caretakers of young children to work on not over-manicuring the environment and experiences of our little ones. As soon as a baby starts to develop other ways of communicating – which doesn’t take long, just a few months – we can start teaching skills of mindful speech and deep listening, tools for self-care, and coping mechanisms for weathering physical and emotional discomfort. The more meticulously we try to groom the lives of our young children, attempting to keep at bay any modicum of discomfort, the more we rob them of the opportunity to practice training in the art of building strong and healthy relationships with themselves in the present moment.

We are not taught how to interact with discomfort. We are only taught how to avoid it or cover it up. I believe that most, maybe even all, detrimental/unskillful behaviors have a root embedded in a strong desire to get out of feelings of discomfort as soon as possible, and by any means necessary. We may look to numb those feelings with drugs or alcohol; or cover them up by over-working or over-eating or over-shopping or cramming our schedule with things to keep us occupied and exhausted. We may look to sex and love as an escape; we may use Netflix or TV or gaming or pornography, the list goes on and on.

The more uncomfortable we are, the more distracted we become. And this cycle perpetuates itself. So the more we give into distraction tendencies, the more uncomfortable we find ourselves. To break this cycle we need tools and practices to lean on and utilize throughout the day. So, where do we start? Here’s what I suggest, based on my own experience of what I’ve found helpful for myself: Notice when discomfort arises, ask yourself whether it’s time to step into that particular discomfort or not, and then proceed to make a plan of action based on whatever you decide.

In order to expand our capacity for skillfully tending to feelings of discomfort, we have to first be able to recognize them when they come up. As you’re going about your day, practice to pay special attention to when you start feeling “off” or fidgety, as often this can indicate such feelings of discomfort or awkwardness. Notice how often you whip out your smartphone when you don’t really need to or when you use it to avoid doing something else more important. Identify the common and frequent triggers that cause you to feel awkward or uncomfortable or self-conscious (which involves feeling as though OTHERS are looking at/judging/critiquing you). Some common causes of discomfort are: when we’re in larger social situations, when we’re by our self somewhere out in public, when we’re not in control, when we don’t feel skilled at something, or when we experience lag time or moments of quiet/silence/inactivity.

Once we know when it is we are experiencing feelings of discomfort we can then ask ourselves this important question: Is this a moment to practice stepping into it? Allow this question to settle into your body, as this will enable you to get in touch with the clearest, least obstructed answer, verses your habitual tendency to say: Nope, this isn’t the time, I’m getting the heck out of here! It’s important to know that we all generally know what to do when it comes to matters of uncertainty in our lives. The trouble is we’re either too disconnected from being able to listen well to our inherent wisdom and/or we simply don’t want to do what our inner voice is telling us to do. It’s also important to understand that every situation is different. Whereas one day we might feel ready to step into, let’s say, a social gathering where we know very few people, the next day, when the same situation presents itself, we might not. That’s normal and super okay. What’s helpful to us here is that we’re actively engaging with what’s going on and we’re making a conscious and informed decision about what to do.

So, if we decide that yes, this is a time to practice stepping into discomfort then we would do well to start with small steps in this regard. For example: If we feel uncomfortable going by ourselves to certain things then we might try flying solo to a movie that we’re wanting to see – but we might also bring along our smartphone or a book to help keep us company. One thing at a time! Or if we’re more uncomfortable when hanging out with others and more prefer to go unaccompanied to things, then we can try reaching out to a friend or two and invite them to come along with us. Or maybe we find ourselves standing in a line at the grocery store and feelings of discomfort arise and in that moment we make the decision not to reach for our phone to check our texts/emails/facebook in order to occupy our time – our practice in that moment can be to simply not take out our phones. Any time we go against the grain of our less than helpful habit energies is a victory, in terms of strengthening the energy of mindfulness. So try not to underestimate the movement and progress you make when it comes to taking small steps to accept and embrace, and not run away from, feelings of discomfort.

And if we decide that no, this is not a time I choose to step into discomfort then we would do well to practice fully allowing that decision to take affect and not second guess ourselves or give ourselves a hard time about it. There will be times to step into discomfort and times not to, for a variety of reasons. So make peace with that. And maybe, if you’re up for it, you can make an agreement with yourself to work up to something in the near future, when it comes to a particular aversion you have that brings up a lot of discomfort.

Start with small, relatively easy things and then work your way up to larger things. If we attempt to take on super big matters of discomfort before training with smaller situations, we are likely to find that we do more harm than good to ourselves in this undertaking. So set yourself up for success and start small.

Utilizing moments of discomfort can be a tool to help us cultivate our mindfulness practice and build resilience. The smaller our comfort zone is, the more we suffer when things and people don’t adhere to how we think they should be (which, let’s face it, is most of the time). And, in turn, the wider we can extend our comfort zone, the happier and more at ease we’ll be in a variety of situations. So get your practice on!

You might discover, like I did, that it’s a game changer.

 

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Discomfort

What do you do to make sense of the world in moments when you wish it were different? How do you run and where do you go? Have you found tools for working well with fluctuations of every conceivable flavor of situation and spirit or are you bound to the same detrimental deviations perpetuating a lifetime of remorse, beholden to the swift allure of misery?

It might be drugs or alcohol we turn to for solace, it might be video games or TV or sex, or maybe it’s food we lose ourselves in – it could be overworking or overexercising or overmaintaining our small bubble of comfort or over anythinging that helps to dull whatever pain is present if we were to press pause in the moment.

There are a myriad of ways to run from the same pains that affect us all – and while some cause less harm than others, they all have the potential to unravel us one thread at a time.

We would do well to practice how to sit, settle, and be with the nature that surrounds us like the air we breathe: the nature of discomfort. And we need tools and skillful practices and things we can do to move through what would otherwise be an unsettling, disjointed, unexpected sliver of unfolding time, the likes of which leave a bitter, bile taste on our pallet.

As a woman I know who was me once said: There is nothing more potent than befriending that in which our inclination is to apprehend as suspect, to our own discomfort.

We need to get our friendship on with ourselves and everything which offers itself around us to the point of where regardless of what’s happening we can meet it as an opportunity to embrace verses an obstacle to run away from.

And the more we embrace the less we evade – the more we embrace the more space we create to allow the results that come having less baggage pitching and heaving in our wake to take place. A joyful life is possible – absorb this truth into your bones.

 

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Familiar Suffering

17 percent:
the success rate of the oldest residential drug & alcohol treatment facility in the world.
17 percent
of people stay sober for a year after they leave.
17 percent.
And it’s the highest success rate of any treatment center in the w h o l e world.
17 percent.

*Data from the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, published in 2003.

One of the most recent studies on recidivism rates – which most often refers to the rate at which a person relapses back into criminal behavior after being released from prison – showed that 67.8% of people were rearrested within 3-years of being released from prison, within 5-years that number increases to 76.6%. And of those prisoners, a little more than half were arrested by the end of the first year of being released.

I often ponder why it’s so hard to break our cycles of detrimental behaviors and habits. These are more extreme examples, of course, but the thread is the same for all of us. We all have a hard time letting go of the suffering we’ve grown strangely accustomed to. Even when we know what we’re doing is not working. Even when we’re miserable. Even when we’re crippled by shame and guilt and fear.

A common deterrent towards making positive changes that I’ve heard often from people, in a variety of contexts, involves the deeply rooted and long-held view that they’re broken, un-fixable, damaged beyond repair. My husband used to think he was one of those people. I have at least two friends and a family member I can think of that feel this way, too. And it makes sense to me that if we think we are broken then there’s little sense in trying to change course – because there’s a core belief that nothing will work.

“Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to spiritual growth.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

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Posted by on October 12, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Sovereignty

The best definition I found for the word “sovereignty” is stated in the image above: autonomous; free from external control. I’ve been resonating with this word over the past year and find that my personal sovereignty is developing and deepening along with my mindfulness practice, as they seem to go hand-in-hand.

I’m finding that the state of sovereignty is much like the state of joy in that when I talk about it people inquire further, not knowing how to develop such qualities of being. So, this is my first attempt at trying to put into words what this particular characteristic is about, from my own experience that is.

Sovereignty, in regards to oneself, is about having a strong and unwavering sense of self-reliance, internal direction, and self-assurance (in a humble and well-grounded fashion) – it’s about taking and claiming full and total responsibility for one’s own quality of life and state of being. To summarize, sovereignty is about being at home with yourself wherever you go, regardless of outer circumstances. And this is the crux of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness tradition: to come back home to ourselves in the here and now, with joy and ease, so that we can then be of service and benefit to others.

Developing our own sovereignty is not about disconnecting from others or regarding ourselves as superior or becoming a “lone wolf.” It’s about being able to depend and trust in our capacity to generate joyfulness and solidity no matter where we are or who we’re with – to befriend and keep good company with our own selves and emanate that outwards, un-tethered from the clutches of self-consciousness, self-judgement, and self-doubt. It’s a state born from mindfulness, concentration, insight, and diligent practice.

I’ve often mentioned my interest in breaking down mindfulness/Buddhist-based teachings in order to make them more palatable and practical so that they might become more applicable to a wider demographic of people, especially those who are looking for more straight-forward “how-to” guidance. So with that in mind, what are some actions we can take to actually practice the development of sovereignty? Let’s see what I can come up with:

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Posted by on September 21, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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