On Mental & Emotional Health

I am becoming more and more invested in furthering the dialog that this meme speaks to, as I feel it is a vital component of our well-being and one that is highly undervalued and overlooked in our collective society, to a sometimes tragic and devastating detriment to our fellow human beings.

I recently watched two different interviews with psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson – one as part of the online World Mindfulness Parenting Summit and one as part of the online Mindful Kids Peace Summit. In both occasions, he spoke about our three basic needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection. He explained that safety is associated with our reptilian brain-stem; satisfaction with our mammalian sub-cortex portion of the brain; and connection with our primate/human neo-cortex portion of the brain. In terms of safety, we look towards avoiding harm. In terms of satisfaction, we look towards approaching rewards. And in terms of connection, we look towards attaching to others.

He goes on to say that when our basic needs are not met, we then enter what he calls the red zone, which involves fight, flight, or freeze mode. However, when we build up our core of resilient well-being, we will be able to weather an increasing array of external stimuli without destabilizing ourselves. He said: You can use your mind to change your brain. He also said: No one can stop you (from doing this work) AND no one can do it for you.

There’s a reason that Buddhism focuses on training and strengthening the mind. It is the seat of working and active power when it comes to how we view, engage, interact, process, and digest the world around us and the people and experiences we encounter. As the Buddha taught:

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Interbeing, part 3

It’s one thing to say We’re all in the together or We’re all interconnected or We are not separate from one another, and a whole other thing to truly understand, actively engage in, and PRACTICE enfolding the truth of our interbeing nature into our daily lives.

If we don’t learn, investigate, and actively use the tools given to us in the fluid art of cultivating mindfulness, we run the very high risk of getting caught in theory, intellect, and notions. It’s super easy to read about mindfulness. It’s super easy to call ourselves a practitioner or a Buddhist or whatever label that tickles our fancy (spiritual, seeker…). It’s even easy to say we understand what the heck mindfulness is, when in actuality we have no freakin idea and are doing little to nothing in the taking action department.

There are a lot of things that sound good in the context of our practice tradition (by which I’m referring to the Plum Village tradition based in the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh). Here are a few examples: mindfulness, interbeing, letting go, compassion, true love, ease, joy, liberation, transformation. These sound great right?! What lovey concepts! Ah. But they are NOT concepts in the realm of our tradition. As practitioners we must work to dislodge these and other teachings from being mere concepts/ideas that sound nice and turn them into workable, actionable turnings of body, speech, and mind.

What does it mean to look with the eyes of interbeing, as our practice encourages us to do? A big part has to do with our becoming observers of our physical, mental, and emotional landscape – and then eventually moving from observer to a dutiful and faithful guard of the Four Kinds of Nutriments that fuel and propel us: edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. In order to look through the lens of interbeing we must be able to look clearly and accurately inwards, at our own selves. We cannot do the work of connecting deeply with others and dissipating our divisions of separation if we’ve not learned how to properly get in touch and grow familiar with our own person.

The Buddha said that everything needs food in order to survive. Nothing can survive without nourishment/food. In order to develop our ability to engage with the world from a place of interbeing, we must be firmly in touch with what input we’re allowing to enter through our body and mind and the heart of our experience. As two of the nutriments in particular can often pose some confusion (volition & consciousness), I would like to offer my own spin:

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Relating to the Weather

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How we relate to the weather says a lot about how we relate to life.  And we can use our relationship to the sky as a mindfulness tool (a barometer if you will) to look more deeply into our conditioned responses in our daily lives.

The first step is to shine the light of awareness onto how we perceive the weather day in and day out.  Do we find ourselves obsessively worried about it, checking the forecast often?  Are we disappointed when anything other than sunshine happens?  When the weekend rolls around do we find ourselves saying, “Man, I really hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow, that would suck.”  Do we describe the day as dreary, awful, or some other adjective for unpleasant when it’s simply cloudy out?  How quick are we to label the day as “bad” solely based on the weather?  Do we dread any sort of physical discomfort or complain about the cold, heat, rain or snow?

This may seem trite but I would counter that indeed it is the areas that we label as un-important in life that can often bear the most fruit.  If we get bent out of shape over the weather, which is almost entirely out of our control, it stands to reason that there are other areas in which we are not grounded in our lives.  Getting bent out of shape can take many forms from anger to mild irritation to simply carrying your hope for “better” weather around with you in the back of your mind.

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If our relationship to the weather is that of it never being just right or commonly waiting for the promise of tomorrow to bring more sun, more warmth or more whatever it is we think will make us happy this provides a mirror for us to see how we relate to the present moment.  When we spend our present moment waiting for something better to happen in the next moment, whether it be in regards to the weather or not, we carry with us the stress of never being satisfied.  When we spend our lives waiting for better weather we spend our lives waiting for a day that never comes.  Learning the art of Be Here Now is the most valuable practice we can offer to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world.

Being here now is not an ethereal idea or intellectual thought it is a true practice – a practice that you engage with and bring alive.  The practice doesn’t just happen on its own when the conditions are “right”, you have to actually do it.  It can be easy at first to think that Be Here Now means to deny your feelings or cover up certain parts of your experience but this is not the case.  To Be Here Now is to let go of the stories we attach to life’s unfolding that are neither skillful for our process of moving forward or provide value.  When we practice letting go of our regrets about the past and worries about the future the present moment is available to us.

We create the internal garden that we water.  When we water seeds of negativity, self-doubt, self-pity, complaining, worrying, stress, fear, anger, and so on those are surely the seeds that will grow inside of our mental, physical and emotional states of being.  When we water seeds of joy, ease, acceptance, openness, connection, adaptation, letting go, and so on those are surely the seeds that will grow.  What kind of garden do we want to nourish right here in this present moment?

Daily Practice – Day 9

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Day 9 – I was unable to sit this morning so although I did sit earlier at the center before I led an Open Way Sanghas board meeting and even though in an hour I will be leaving to return back to the center for our weekly Monday night Be Here Now Sangha group I did my six minutes just now in order to keep my daily practice going.  And since I went from doing the laundry at the laundry mat to the board meeting to volunteering with hospice to finishing up our taxes with our tax guy and am worn out I opted to practice laying down meditation instead of sitting meditation.  It was quite lovely.  Ya know, there’s no hard and fast rule that says you can’t lay down and meditate :)

Being in tune with our body and knowing how to listen to its signs of needing rest, food, water, playfulness, exercise, or other forms of nourishment is an important practice.  It is easy to ignore our bodies and to feed it in ways that are not beneficial to our overall health and well being.  Our minds and bodies are not separate but indeed very much connected.  If our physical body is not in harmony and balance our mind will reflect that and vice versa.  Let us take good care of ourselves in body and mind so that they in turn can take good care of us.  Listen carefully, our bodies and minds are telling us everything we need to know in order to care for them.

Daily Practice – Day 6

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Day 6 – I sat this morning before I headed out the door to embrace the day.  Mid-morning has been working well for me to sit.  I then read the remainder of the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake.

From the discourse:

“World-Honored One, can fear and anxiety rise from an internal source?”  The Buddha replied, “Yes, fear and anxiety can rise from an internal source.  If you think, ‘Things that did not exist in the past have come to exist, but now no longer exist,’ you will feel sad or become confused and despairing.  This is how fear and anxiety can rise from an internal source.”

The same bhikshu then asked, “World-Honored One, can fear and anxiety from an internal source be prevented from arising?”

The Buddha replied, “Fear and anxiety from an internal source can be prevented from arising.  If you do not think, ‘Things that did not exist in the past have come to exist, but now no longer exist,’ you will not become confused and despairing.  This is how fear and anxiety from an internal source can be prevented from arising.”

I found this passage comical in the sense that the Buddha is pretty much saying, “Stop that.”  :)  It is easy to over complicate things or muddle the waters of understanding with too much thinking.  The way I am reading this at present is that our minds are standing in our own way of enjoying life and being free.  Our minds create obstacles and we then become attached to them, which causes suffering.

Once again I see the importance of the practice of being here now shining brightly through the clouds of illusion.  The discourse is highlighting our inability to let go of the past and cultivate a relationship with the present moment.  If we were able to let go of the past, free of regret and worry, how much lighter would we be?  If we were not fixated on how this moment, right here and now, could and should be other than what it is how much different would our lives be?  If we stopped our un-necessary thinking, worrying, fearful, attachment driven, misunderstanding laden mind from spinning and telling stories what we do with all the extra time on our hands?