Filling the tank

In the wake of an especially difficult past two weeks, I’ve been upping my self-care practices and allowing myself to take some necessary time and space by pulling back from a few things.

Here are a few of my main go-to’s for self-care when I start getting depleted:

  1.  Sleep & rest. I allow myself to sleep more at night and rest more via naps during the day.
  2. Music. From listening to what I most enjoy to dancing it out in my living room to playing guitar and singing, my day is guided by music, and even moreso when I am physically taxed or emotionally challenged.
  3. Delicious & nutritious food. While I am closely tuned into what I consume and keep up a steady dose of wholesome, nourishing foods, I also allow myself to partake in comfort foods. Life is about balance and I practice to not to be too strict OR too lenient in my food choices when I’m struggling.
  4. Tuning out. When my cup is empty and I’ve worn myself out thinking and talking about a challenge, I practice to notice when it’s time to call a time out. Tuning out to a funny show on Netflix is sometimes in order. Again, life is about cultivating and maintaining balance. And in times of struggle, I practice to give myself some slack – but not too much slack – when it comes to watching TV.
  5. Getting outside. Being outside, whether in wild places such as the woods or simply for a walk around the block, helps restore my energy and refill my mental and emotional tank. Even if it’s a bit of a chore, when I push myself a little bit in order to get outside, I’m always glad I did once I get out there.
  6. Self-expression. On a regular and ongoing basis, my medium for self-expression comes through the art of writing. Even if I’m not feeling terribly inspired to write, I need to keep picking up the pen. If I stop writing when I’m struggling, I’m in trouble.
  7. Knowing when to reach out and who to reach out to. This is key. Reaching out for support is not a sign of weakness or defeat. In fact, asking for support is a sign of strength and resiliency. It’s also important to know who I can trust in to hold space for me and who I can really rely on when the going gets tough.
  8. Keeping my practice going. By practice I am referring to my daily sitting meditation practice and my daily mindfulness practices. If I let my daily morning sit slide off, it will effect my foundation for the rest of the day. Even when it’s hard and I don’t feel like doing it – even when the quality of my sit is poor – I keep on sitting. And I keep investing in: my daily gratitude practice; reciting my meal verse; pausing to take a breath when my home mindfulness bell chimes; smiling practice; cultivating joy; and tuning into my breath, body, and feelings throughout the day.
  9. Taking a break. This takes many forms. When my energy is waning and my internal gas tank is low, I often take a break from reading the news, so that I am not further depleting myself. I often take a break from participating in meetings or events that are taxing and/or have an element of difficulty embedded into them. And I will sometimes take a break from social gatherings or other such gatherings where I might be otherwise energetically dispersed.

These are some of the ways I restore harmony within myself. If you feel called to share what you do to help replenish and restore, I’d really enjoy hearing from you in the comments section below.

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A Difficult Week

Last week, I attended our local fall retreat up on the Flathead Lake. (This “peace is every step” pumpkin was a pic I took at said retreat.) Part of me wants to offer my typical post-retreat accounting here on this blog. But a bigger part of me has little interest in doing so. And part of me wants to tell you why I don’t have interest in relaying my retreat field notes and part of me doesn’t.

Instead, I think I’ll say this: it’s been a hard week. The hardest I’ve had in a very long time.

Over the last few days, it’s been interesting relaying this truth to people who have casually asked: how’s it going? I am someone who is interested in not answering on auto pilot with such empty responses such as: fine and good when confronted with that how are you question. However, I’m also interested in being brief. It’s a challenge, to say the least. On the best of weeks I am at a loss for how best to answer this question in such a way that is honest and also quick and to the point.

When I’ve told people: this week has been hard or I am being really challenged this week it solicited a range of responses I did not care for being on the receiving end of. It puts me in touch with how poorly skilled we are as a human collective to listen deeply and to respond in the spirit of interbeing.

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No one kind of tea is for everyone

… the paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions…only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.    – Carl Jung

Did you know there’s no one kind of tea that suits everyone’s fancy? Mint comes closest to being a crowd pleaser, I reckon. Still, it’s not for everyone. Nothing is.

Nothing.

There are countless ways to do life. And part of us knows this but it’s usually not a large enough percentage to equate to understanding on a deep enough level to make even a small dent in our delusions about such things.

There’s a persistent tickle whisper of a voice that serenades us, singing songs of fabled sameness to a shuttering detriment.

It’s worth us getting this one corrected.

We’re all one and We’re all the same are true only so much that it doesn’t interfere with another solid truth: the one about how we are all different.

Too often, we apply the lens of sameness in times when the lens of different-ness should be used. We get stuck in trite twirlings, insisting: This tea is sooo freakin good, you’re going to LOVE it! You HAVE HAVE HAVE to try it!! And if it turns out that said person who was supposed to love it does not, in fact, love it, well then clearly something is amiss with said person. Clearly their taste is flawed or their senses dulled from a sinus infection they don’t know they have or their pallet so under-developed they wouldn’t know good tea if it walked up to them like Bigfoot in the forest and said hello. Clearly, they are wrong.

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Big Limbs A’Gonna Fall

Some time on Wednesday during the day or early evening – or perhaps it was around 10pm and it was the sound I heard that prodded me to get up from my almost sleep to investigate – a widow-maker fell from one of our two slowly dying elm trees in the backyard.

As massive tangle-wall of green bramble, spindly branches, and 100-year-old heavy trunk has taken up residency in the middle of the yard, where I mow and sometimes, when the spirit calls for it, frolic.

In some respect, we saw it coming. It was only a matter of time – just like everything else. Nothing ever happens without circumstance. Nothing has ever happened for “no reason” or “out of nowhere.” Had we been wildly surprised and/or shaken up at the sight of it, it would’ve said much more about our own sad state of affairs than it would’ve the tree’s.

Still, when suddenly confronted face-to-face with such a large object that once forever held steady up above, it can make a person ponder such things as constancy, and how very many ways there are to die.

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.

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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.”