Am I Sure?

wake up to

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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Why I Practice

Why do I practice? And more specifically: Why do I practice in this Plum Village mindfulness tradition, in all the ways that I do?

Why I do see fit to attend retreats, spend time at Deer Park Monastery, sit for 30-minutes in meditation each morning, show up to my weekly sangha every Monday night, read sutras, chant, and spend hours each week tending to our local and statewide sanghas and mindfulness center’s business turnings? Why do I put so much attention, effort, care, and diligence into developing and strengthening the seeds of mindfulness, joy, ease, liberation, and heartfulness in my daily life?

For me, the spirit of these questions is worth while to to keep alive and answer periodically from time to time.

Right now, here in this moment, I am inspired to answer in two different ways: a practical way and a poetic way.

First, the practical way:

I practice because I feel nourished and supported by my teachers, the dharma, and the sangha. I practice because even when it’s hard, it feels like the right thing to be doing. I practice because I am able to see the fruits that develop and strengthen in my daily life as a result of my efforts, such as growing my capacity for being more kind, caring, present, connected, open, and understanding. I practice because I know life would be hell if I didn’t. I practice in the interest of life being precious and time being short. I practice because I want to help support and care well for others and I see clearly that in order to do that, my own well-being must be continuously maintained and protected. I practice because this tradition brings me to a vibrant, joyful, and grounded frame of mind, body, and heart, over and over again.

And now the poetic response:

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Choosing to Shine

A few years ago, I started on a journey to practice shining more. Shining my talents, abilities, and forms of creative expression. For me, shining means stepping into something and not letting fear run the show. I came to see how often I shirked back from shining – out of fear. Fear of ego and fear of out-shining others.

In a little under 3-weeks, the culmination of my journey thus far will manifest in a solo spoken word performance and CD release party here in town. To say that I am nervous would be a remarkable understatement. But, as I’ve been sharing with folks lately, I’m proud of myself because despite having feelings of doubt and fear and uncertainty, I’m still doing it. I’m still moving forward, one scary moment at a time. My tracks are recorded and mastered; my CD’s are ordered; the gig is set; my booklet of lyrics is at the print shop. It’s happening!

If you’re interested in checking out my event page for this upcoming gig: https://spark.adobe.com/page/hC5Y8cQ32xv1e/

Something I’ve realized over the years is that fear isn’t rational, which is a big part of what makes it challenging to work with. If fear were a rational process, it would be fairly easy to talk our way out of it. But we all know that engaging in an intellectual dialog when it comes to a certain fear we have is futile. For example, let’s say we’re afraid of flying. Would it reduce your fear, even an iota, if someone were to give you the facts and statistics about how flying is safer than driving? No, probably not. Fear cannot be addressed in the head, it has to be addressed in the heart of our experience. In order to work with fear, we have to get out of our head and into our heart.

So that’s what I’ve been working on. Since fear lives in the head, I’ve been breathing in and practicing to exhale and delve deeper into the fragrant and calming waters of the heart. I’ve been practicing to use gentle and loving speech with myself: I see you fear. You are present and part of my experience AND I’m choosing not to let you run the show. You can hang out and all – but I’m choosing to shine.

I love that the following poem is so well-known. I’ve encountered it in a variety of places over the years – my most favorite spot being the middle school my stepson went to a few years ago, where an excerpt hung in large lettering on a banner in the hallway.

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Deer Park Journal: Day 16

2018 Deer Park Daily Musings
Written during a retreat I attended from January 5th-26th, 2018

Background Info & Terminology: Deer Park Monastery is rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is situated in Escondido, CA, north of San Diego.

Laypeople: Also called lay friends or laymen and laywomen; those of us who practice in this tradition but are not monks or nuns.
Monastics: The collective group of both monks and nuns.
Clarity Hamlet: Where the nuns, also called Sisters, reside. Laywomen stay here as well.
Solidity Hamlet: Where the monks, also called Brothers, reside. Laymen and couples/families stay here as well.
Thay: Refers to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese

Sunday, January 21st 2018

Day 16

7:32am

Early morning haiku:

She’s out in the night
no longer in the morning
a waxing sliver

_____

A little something else I wrote in my journal this morning:

Are you operating with heart?
Giving it all you’ve got?
“It” meaning ALL of it:
the people around you,
your work,
your play,
your practice,
your studies,
sweeping the front steps,
cleaning the bathroom,
life…
Giving gusto to whatever it is you’re doing
is all that really matters, dear one.
Do it up.

______

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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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On Self-Absorption

I’m realizing that one of the big components of living and developing a spiritual life is to continually train in the art of lessening our tendency to be self-absorbed. The less we feed and nurture our sense of self-importance, the more we are able to build a strong foundation for living a happy and contented life.

For the sake of attempting to avoid misunderstanding, it’s important to mention here that self-importance and self-absorption are not the same thing as being self-assured or having self-confidence. When we are self-absorbed we have a heightened sense of self-importance. When this happens, we have the tendency to be very self-conscious, thinking that others are always paying attention to us wherever we go. We have little awareness of how others are feeling or what’s going on for them in their lives – everything is about us and how things affect us. We tend to get caught up in our own busy affairs and have little time to extend ourselves to others. I’ve also found that highly self-absorbed people tend to be surrounded with constant drama – there seems to often be something of a dire nature happening that consumes all of their time and energy (the law of attraction at play). This quality of being frequently presents itself as victim-hood, as well. People who are self-absorbed are filled with people to blame for their situation and have very little ability to take responsibility for things – they experience a problem and know right away who to blame for its creation, but are unlikely to do anything about it themselves, other than complain and point out problems.

The more we come to understand that our life is not our own, the more we step into the interbeing nature of all that is. In my experience, living a spiritual life is a matter of learning how to care well for ourselves so that we are able to care well for others. It’s about making each aspect a priority in our lives: self-cultivation and care/support for others – time for ourselves and time for others, in an intentional and skillful way.

Here are some things I myself do that serve to help me lessen my own levels of self-absorption:

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Good or Bad? We’ll Have To Wait and See

Photo Credit: Mike Williams Photography, posted on twitter

Yesterday morning, in my twitter feed, I came across both of these photos I’m including in this post (see other one below). They were taken by the local landscape photographer Mike Williams, whom I enjoy the work of. This above pic was accompanied by the hashtag: badroads, while the pic below had hashtags such as: backroads and fallcolor. Gathering from the hashtag distinctions of what seemed to amount to the classic – and what I would judge to be un-beneficial – determining of what constitutes as “good” and “bad,” I was reminded of the sharing of a version of the story below, that our local dharma teacher Rowan told during our open mic night at the Open Way Mindfulness Center on Saturday evening.

 

The Old Man and his Horse (a.k.a. Sai Weng Shi Ma)

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before — such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.

People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend.” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.

One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, and old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”

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