Am I Sure?

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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.

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New study about mindfulness apps

There I was in my car, on the way to visit a hospice patient yesterday morning, when I stumbled across a DJ on the radio talking about meditation. He was chatting up the findings of a recent study about mindfulness apps and cell phone games, declaring, in his own words, that participants in the study who meditated felt worse the more they meditated, whereas the game players felt better and more relaxed. His conclusion: playing games on your cell phone will leave you feeling relaxed and meditation is over-rated.

Um…what?

I decided to look up the study. Not only am I disappointed with the DJ’s account of the study but I am also unimpressed with the study itself, as it fails to take into account actual meditation/mindfulness practitioners. The study focuses instead on newbies to mindfulness and gives them only an app by which to learn from and practice with.

To be clear, I have nothing against cell phone games. However, I also find little benefit in playing the comparison game, as in: Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress, new study shows, which is the name of an article I found when looking up the study.

In my view, there can be benefits to using the mindfulness apps and there can be benefits of playing cell phone games. Why they need to be compared and judged better/worse, I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I am a big proponent of teaching & using mindfulness in a secular fashion – even though for me personally it’s a spiritual path – there are ways to approach mindfulness that can be more harmful than helpful, when it comes to laypeople wielding it around with little understanding and experience. There is such a thing as over-secularizing, where mindfulness is stripped down to the fast-food approach to living. When mindfulness is used as a gimmick to reduce stress in acute situations, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of potential for benefit.

To experience the fruits of mindfulness and/or meditation – such as ease and relaxation – it must become an active, engaged, and ongoing practice. When comparing mindfulness apps to digital games to see which has the power to relax more people after work, it makes total sense to me that the participants felt more stress relief after playing a game. People who are approaching mindfulness or meditation with a quick-fix mentality are going to be disheartened with it in short order. There’s a reason most people do not stick with meditation as a mainstay in their daily lives. It’s freakin hard. And it takes a number of things that most of us are not very interested or invested in, such as: patience, self-reflection, diligence, will-power, openness, and an ability to be with our own self, without distracting or distancing our attention from the here and now.

Most of us have no idea how to spend time with our self. We’re not comfortable in our own skin. And if we’re not comfortable in our own skin, then of course being tossed into a mindfulness app just for the sake of a study has the great potential to produce a less than ideal outcome.

Mindfulness and the practice of meditation is not a quick-fix sort of deal. It’s not even a long-term fix sort of deal. Mindfulness and meditation aren’t about fixing what’s “broken” in our lives. The daily practices of mindfulness and the practice of sitting meditation are about being with what is happening in the here and now – and once we can be with it, then we can start the work of understanding, accepting, and embracing.

Please do not make the same mistake as the morning shock jock made on our local radio station yesterday, concluding that meditation is bunk. If you’re truly interested in enfolding meditation or mindfulness into your life, it’s worth finding a sangha or a qualified teacher or, at the least, highly respected books or online resources in which to learn and get support from.

There’s nothing wrong with approaching mindfulness in a secular fashion, using it as a possible tool to reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm, just be sure you’re not looking for quick-fix solutions to long-term or ongoing challenges, as that has a high likelihood for being a recipe for disaster.

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.”

3 encounters that triggered my “this isn’t right” button

I came across this poster for sale at a local store in Polson, Montana on Thursday (see above).

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What an important and lovely verse to carry with us on our path of developing values and in our tool bag of practices. Too often, we set our life up to be happy, to be content, to be full of gratitude later on, at some undisclosed date in the future. We hinge our happiness on acquiring something or someone or some experience that isn’t happening in the here and now. What if instead of tomorrow or next week or next year being the best time we can envision, it was today? Game changer.

Over the past two days, I’ve had three encounters with strangers that prompted this writing I penned this morning:

Rally kindness,
even when it’s counter-intuitive –
especially when it’s counter-intuitive.

Rally kindness when you don’t feel like it;
when a situation seemingly calls for its opposite;
when it’s hard as hell to do it.

Rally kindness,
in body, speech, mind,
and in spirit.

Rally kindness so that it becomes
the lens through which you see the world;
so that it becomes the soles of your shoes
and the air you breathe, in and out.

If we choose not to rally kindness –
and yes, it is a choice –
amid challenging times with difficult people,
we will never stand a chance
of growing a garden of love and inclusiveness,
to cover the world over.

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Cultivating Joy

Image credit: http://everybodyhasabrain.com/the-five-remembrances/

Because of the simple fact that we are of the nature to grow old, have ill heath, and die – and because everyone and everything we cherish is of the nature to change – cultivating joy is imperative, if we have the desire to live a well-contented life. The consequences of cultivating joy is a life lived with intention, connection, and heart.

When the quality of joy is nourished and strengthened in the open field of our internal landscape, the ground on which we stand becomes a fertile place for other beneficial seeds to grow alongside of it. Seeds such as: patience, ease, understanding, compassion, empathy, kindness, gratitude, humility, and equanimity. When we water the seed of joy, these nearby companion seeds also get watered.

When our seed of joy is not well tended to, we are liable to go man overboard into the ocean of suffering when we find our self in the turbulent waters of: stress, upset, anger, jealousy, sorrow, a bad day, unpleasant encounters, or unfavorable conditions of any kind.

Indications – like a low-fuel light on the dash – that your seed of joy is under-nourished:

  • On a regular basis, after engaging with the news, you feel overwhelmed, cynical, hopeless, deflated, and/or pissed off.
  • You give more street cred to suffering than to joy, discounting those who you deem to be happy and doing well as being in denial of the “real” state of affairs.
  • You feel affronted/mistreated by others in a variety of settings on a daily or regular basis.
  • You continually sit in judgement of others, for a myriad of reasons; are constantly annoyed and disappointed by others; are caught in the comparison game, always measuring yourself up against others.
  • Small things set you off on an inner or outer tirade of cynicism/frustration/impatience/anger/fight mode.
  • You see the doom & gloom of situations most readily and have a negative spin on most people & places you encounter.
  • You smile infrequently, if at all.
  • You routinely feel exhausted and burnt out; depleted; spent.

We’re all familiar with the ways in which to care well for our physical health but what about our mental health? Mental health is just as important as our physical health. And cultivating joy is the best way I have found to nourish, bolster, and fertilize my mental health. Well balanced and well nurtured physical health + well balanced and well nurtured mental health = optimal well-being.

Fruits that develop from ongoingly and continually cultivating a strong seed of joy:

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Truthful & Loving Speech

The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create happiness or suffering, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully, lovingly and constructively. We will use only words that inspire joy, confidence and hope as well as promote reconciliation and peace in ourselves and among other people. We will speak and listen in a way that can help ourselves and others to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will protect the happiness and harmony of our Sangha by refraining from speaking about the faults of other persons in their absence and always ask ourselves whether our perceptions are correct. We will speak only with the intention to understand and help transform the situation. We will not spread rumors nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.

To read the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, which are the foundation of the Order of Interbeing, click here

I’ve been reading the Ninth Mindfulness Training every day for the past week, as part of a ongoing practice I’ve been doing with a friend of mine. And in rare form, I don’t feel as though I have much to say in added commentary in regards to this training. What I can say is this: I am committed to embodying this training as much as I possible can, for the sake of all beings (myself included). And, I’m a work in progress for sure.

Sadaparibhuta

Recap of the Five Bodhisattvas most common in our Plum Village Tradition:

Avalokiteshvara: Bodhi. of Great Compassion
Manjushri: Bodhi. of Great Understanding
Samantabhadra: Bodhi. of Great Action
Kshitigarbha: Bodhi. of Great Aspiration
Sadaparibhuta: Bodhi. of Never Disparaging

__________

We invoke your name, Sadaparibhuta. We aspire to learn your way of never doubting or underestimating any living being. With great respect, you say to all you meet, “You are someone of great value, you have Buddha nature, I see this potential in you.” Like you, we will look with a wise, compassionate gaze, so we are able to hold up a mirror where others can see their ultimate nature reflected. We will remind people who feel worthless that they too are a precious wonder of life. We vow to water only the positive seeds in ourselves and in others, so that our thoughts, words, and actions can encourage confidence and self-acceptance in ourselves, our children, our loved ones, and in everyone we meet. Inspired by the great faith and insight that everyone is Buddha, we will practice your way of patience and inclusiveness so we can liberate ourselves from ignorance and misunderstanding, and offer freedom, peace, and joy to ourselves, to others and to our society.

________

4/3

I appreciate the mention of how looking with a wise, compassionate gaze is what enables us to hold up a mirror for others to see themselves more clearly – it doesn’t say: verbally tell others how you think they should change/aren’t doing it “right.” No one likes being judged.

Pondering: how would/do I remind those who feel worthless that they too are a precious wonder of life? I think my main go-to would be in the offering of my time and full presence and in my propensity for reaching out to others. Those who feel worthless tend to feel lonely and neglected; unseen. I’ve learned over the years that my true presence and my time are the greatest gifts I have to offer to others. I don’t have to do anything but simply show up and be there, in mind, body, and spirit.

There is a deep well of collective sorrow in regards to feelings of worthlessness. Many/most people lack self-esteem, self-worth, self-love. I feel as though culturally, we’re at a critical low point in terms of self-value. The watering of negative seeds is so incredibly pervasive. Individually and collectively, we need to learn and practice how to water positive seeds, so that our confidence and self-acceptance can grow and strengthen.

________

4/5

I doubt and underestimate people frequently. Mostly strangers; those I don’t have a personal connection with. Judgements of character, disposition, and values come swiftly for me – for all us I reckon. Sometimes it happens in a split second.

Case and point: last night, I attended The Moth storytelling event at the Wilma. As soon as a new storyteller appeared on stage, I’d made up my mind as to whether or not I liked them. And since this was a conscious happening, I then observed and investigated my inner workings around the judgements that arose. While my findings weren’t new, they were still helpful all the same. I doubt and underestimate people who are overly emotive/expressive/dramatic; those I perceive as emanating a certain airy vibe; and those who dress in certain ways (which I’m not sure quite how to describe – it’s one of those things where I just know it when I see it). And while it pains me to say, I tend to doubt and underestimate womenfolk much more readily than menfolk.

I’ve noticed that when I consciously engage with my judgements in the moments when they arise, I am able to work with them constructively and it greatly increases my ability to infuse understanding and compassion into the situation and change my initial assessment of the other person into one that more accurately reflects who they are.

________

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