This is me…

This is me not knowing what to write; knowing only enough to know that I should just start clacking away and see what happens; knowing that if I allow my current state of I don’t feel like writing to continue that I’ll suffer more for it.

This is me amid a much longer process of inner recallibration than I would prefer, wishing I could just be onto the next thing already – whatever the thing is – with this clunky awkward exhausting stage behind me as something I could point back to and say I came out better for it in the long-run.

This is me, a usually very decisive, action-based dame, being un-nerved by not knowing what the heck comes next in the book of my life.

This is me being antsy & agitated on my meditation cushion in the mornings  (but at least still sitting); missing my time spent as a hospice volunteer; missing my time spent as a super amateur drummer for a local African dance troupe; missing spending time with my friends; missing gathering people together for the sake of helping to foster the building of community; missing the attending of music shows; missing the places I used to go and realize now I took for granted pre-virus; missing….

This is me wondering if I have what it takes to actualize my husband and I’s shared long-held vision of building a mindfulness practice center here in our much beloved home state of Montana.

This is me wondering if perhaps I could use a long stay at Deer Park Monastery, my home away from home, to help me refuel and re-hydrate and re-balance.

This is me wondering what my future holds, as I step back and away from certain roles I’ve been invested in for a long long time.

This is me wondering what comes next.

This is me, being human.

 

 

 

Origin Story (a poem)

Origin Story

This is me,
soon to turn 41-years-old,
just starting to properly familiarize myself with history
and educate myself on such matters as
how the heck did we get here as a nation?

I don’t mind telling you
it’s brutal as hell.

I don’t mind telling you
there’s part of me that is
wishing I had not opened
this door to our past.

I don’t mind telling you
to buckle up
to expect a different me
than you’re accustomed
in the wake of my learning.

My life is made
on the backs of Native Americans
African slaves
indentured servants
those who were painfully poor
immigrants looking for a better life
for their children.

Eyes that let in the light
can no longer feast on
the same darkness they once relied.

A heart no longer saturated
in its own will alone
pumps the blood of all those
whose lives were taken.

 

 

Resting Is Fuel For Engaging

from Everyday Peace Cards, 108 Mindfulness Meditations by Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t you just love when things line up sometimes? For the past few days, I’ve been percolating on crafting a blog post on the power/importance/wisdom/practice/art of resting and this morning, I drew this card at random from my deck of Everyday Peace Cards to read and reflect on this week.

In case you’re not well-versed in the topics I routinely gravitate towards, I write fairly often about the art of resting. Two of my other regular writing threads center around cultivating joy and practicing gratitude – and all three are investments of time I place high on my list of priorities, as someone who is deeply called in the direction of spiritual living.

So this is me, putting out yet another plug for resting as a vital component of well-being.

My experience -both personally and from what I’ve seen in my friends & family – aligns with what TNH is saying in the card shown above: most of us do not know how to rest.

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For vs. Against

On Friday, I attended a rally centered around the death of George Floyd here in Missoula, Montana, organized by the UM Black Student Union. Despite it being a quickly put together event, there was a good attendance and in large part a collective adherence to covid protocols (ie: mask wearing & social distancing).

Each time I am alerted to an organized gathering centered around a particular issue or matter in our lovely mountain town – this liberal oasis in an otherwise beet red state – I try my best to ascertain whether it will be a rally or a protest before I commit myself to attending. Similar to the Mother Teresa quote above, I myself am all for events that are pro/for-something but I am not likely to attend if it’s more of an against-something sort of event. A yes-event vs. a no-event, if you will.

I don’t consider myself an activist. I would never use that word to describe myself nor do I think it’s an apt descriptor to use should someone else try to pin that label on me. But please don’t get me wrong, I think activists are an important demographic of our population and I am glad there are many who gravitate in this direction. We all have our different callings – and thank goodness for that. There are a lot of worthy directions to travel in and each of us only has so much time and energy to devote in any given day.

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Lessons from a Lookout Tower

Sign posted in Swan Lake, Montana

Last week, in the first noted occasion of something in my world that hasn’t been cancelled in over 2-months in the wake of covid, I stayed for a spell in the Mission Lookout Tower in Swan Lake, which is a little thing you can do here in the great state of Montana: stay in old decommissioned fire towers. I reserved the tower 6-months ago, and based on my findings online assumed my stay was cancelled. Then, four days before my reservation was set to start, I got a call from the ranger station telling me I was good to go. So I went.

I started venturing – solo saunter style – to this particular tower in May of 2018, making this recent trip my third annual pilgrimage there. I think I stayed 3 or 4 nights my first time. Last year I stayed a week and this year, too, I booked it for a week long stay. (Merch plug: I compiled my writings from my tower stay last year into a homespun book called Sky Perch: One-week worth of writing from a lookout tower. If you’re interested, let me know and I will send you a copy for $10.)

As a writer, staying solo in a tower rocketed 40-feet up off the ground is simply a stellar venue for putting pen to paper. And my last two trips there were periods of great reflection, refreshing solitude, stillness, nourishment, and energetic refueling. My trip there this last go-around, however, was not any of those things.

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Venting?

This is me tugging on a thread to see what I come up with. The thread being: Is there a place for venting in the life of a mindfulness practitioner?

On our last two Zoom sangha calls, the topic of venting was brought up in two different unrelated occasions, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore it here on my blog. And for the record: this is a great topic to delve into and I very much appreciate the people who shared their thoughts and experience during our dharma sharing time on this. If the question I pose above had been asked in a group setting on a retreat to a Dharma teacher during a Q&A session, I would imagine myself thinking: now there’s a good question that can help benefit a lot of folks (which I do not say lightly, as most questions I encounter being asked during group Q&A’s are not of high quality).

First thing’s first. To delve into whether there is a place for venting in the life of a mindfulness practitioner, I must first give a reference point for what my own understanding of venting is, because I’m aware there will be vernacular differences here. Nicole’s definition of venting: to tell someone in charged tones/languaging the upset we’re experiencing – often in relation to another person(s) – with the hope of unburdening our self but the reality of fueling our struggle.

In my view, venting is most often (but not always) synonymous with rehearsing. I’ve not personally experienced venting equating to a true and actual release but more that it allows one to further strengthen their story and, therefor, their upset.

Often when venting takes place, we’re looking for a certain response from who we’re sharing with. Most often: we want others to get upset with us, to help validate how right/justified we are in being angry. This can be shown by the fact that often when we vent, we don’t just vent one time and then we feel better but we keep venting to whoever will listen.

This is tough one. Something I am personally and currently working on is: how to embrace/befriend anger when it arises as part of my experience (not something separate or something to pretend doesn’t/shouldn’t exist) without adding fuel to its fury. It’s an ongoing practice for sure.

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Paramita #5: Meditation

WEEK FIVE: MEDITATION
(taken and pieced together from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching)

Verse to read & reflect on daily:

Meditation consists of two aspects: stopping and looking deeply. We run our whole life chasing after one idea or happiness or another. Stopping is to stop our running, our forgetfulness, our being caught in the past or the future. We come home to the present moment, where life is available. Stopping is the practice of calming our body and emotions through the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful sitting; it is also the practice of concentrating, so we can live deeply each moment of our life. Looking deeply is to see the true nature of things. You look deeply into the person you love and find out what kinds of suffering or difficulty she has within herself and what aspirations she holds.

Unlike with the other paramitas thus far, this one brought up very little for me. The other ones spurred a lot of reflection for me but this past week very little has bubbled up for me around meditation and the daily verse.

The emphasis on looking deeply resonates for me and I appreciate how simply Thay broke meditation down to stopping & looking deeply. I think sometimes it can be easy to think meditation is just about stopping – but for me, if I practice stopping without also adding in the practice of deep looking, then I’m not so sure really much can change or transform; I’m not sure I can do much growing.

Deep looking is a necessary component of transformation, growth work, and skill building. In late March, I watched a Dharma talk online by Brother Phap Dung and I took notes during it (as I always do) and I jotted down something he shared: “ Deep looking is not analyzing, it means deep listening.” This really spoke to me. As soon as I heard him say that it made so much sense. So I’ve been keeping this teaching close to me: deep looking means deep listening. And I would add for myself: deep looking means being curious and asking questions.

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Living with Chronic Pain

I just spent an hour or so crafting an email to a young woman looking for some support that I was connected with through a mutual friend. A young woman who lives with chronic pain and has tried using mindfulness as a tool to work with better managing her pain levels, with little success.

Knowing how best to respond to these sort of inquiries has been a challenge for me in the past. In my view, trying to take up meditation for the first time while in the midst of great difficulty (physical or otherwise) is just extremely difficult, if not near impossible. But I wound up finding an angle to share from that I feel pretty good about. Here is the email in its entirety, in hopes that it may offer benefit to other fellow folks who live with chronic pain as well.

Dear ________,

My apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Thanks for writing and feeling comfortable to share with me a bit about what you’re going through and your experience with mindfulness in relation to living with chronic pain.

I myself have a nerve condition called CRPS, which I developed when I was in my late 20’s (I’m now 40-years-old). I was on meds for a number of years which, as you said, took the edge off. I also walked with a cane for a few years as a result of my pain and challenges in moving. I’ve been off my meds now for a few years and only use my cane once in a great while, on my high pain days. I’m on disability for my condition but I am able to work very part time.

What you shared in regards to when your mind quiets it then floods with emotion/grief makes so much sense, I can totally understand that based on my own experience back in the beginning of my journey with living with chronic pain. Meditation is not a one-size fits all approach – and especially when it comes to living with chronic pain, I think it’s important to be aware that meditation can bring up more discomfort in our mind than it helps to alleviate in the body.

I can share from my own experience a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful – and I’ll share too that both of these things took me a long while to really “get” and truly understand in a way that I was able to benefit from them and experience a reduction in my physical pain levels.

1. Mind/Body Connection. As a mindfulness practitioner since my early 20’s, I was grateful to have some background in the practices of mindfulness and sitting meditation before the onset of my illness and pain AND it also took me a long while to really see how closely and intrinsically linked the mind & body are. After my injury (which is what led to my nerve condition) as time went on, I saw more and more clearly that the more I generated stories of thought about how bad the pain was, how awful it was that I’d be in this pain forever, how I’d never be able to do X Y Z again, and so on, the more these thoughts and stories amped up my physical pain. As soon as I started thinking about how bad the pain was and started running with that story, my pain was immediately worse. So a big game changer for me with my pain levels had to do with making friends with my body and with my pain when it kicked up – prior to making friends with my body, I treated it like an enemy with which to battle and fight against. I would literally say (internally) to my body: I hate you, I hate this, NO! And this fight mode increased my pain, every time. So I learned to start making friends with my body and my pain – when I was unable to do something I wanted to do, when I was bed ridden with pain, I would say to myself: It’s okay body, I’m here for you, I’m going to take good care of you. And this befriending process changed my experience with pain almost right away, because I wasn’t adding to the fury of it by tensing up and hating and fighting against my own body. I would also put my hands on the high pain area and send it kindness through light touch, helping to care for my body. And as hard as it oftentimes was, I would smile to my body when my pain was unbearable. These friendly approaches to my body were very helpful and an important part of learning how to better manage my pain.

 

2. The Art of Resting. Gosh this one took me a hella long time to embody. Friends who have known me for a long time will often ask me what changed in regards to my condition, as they saw how bad it used to be for me, walking with a pain and being incredibly limited in movement with high pain levels and now I’m at the point where no one would know I’m someone who lives with chronic pain and physical limitations. And the answer I give them is this: the greatest thing that has helped my condition is that I’ve learned the vital importance and power of the art of resting. It used to be that I fought against resting tooth and nail – No! I shouldn’t be resting, I should be doing something more important & productive!! Resting means I’m lazy and selfish and and and!!! Despite what my body was telling me very clearly, I would rally against resting, trying to push through with the no pain no gain sort of approach (which is just death and destruction to those of us living with chronic pain). And early on, even when I was laying down (because I had no choice but to lay down because my pain was so bad) I certainly wasn’t resting – my body was laying down but my mind was super spinning and fighting and hating the fact that I was in pain and laying down in the middle of the day. So for me, I learned that the art of resting involves resting both body & mind. It became absolutely necessary for me to learn how to rest without feeling guilty about it; without feeling like I should be doing something else. It took me a lot of practice – and it was worth every bit of the challenges I had learning how to do it. For me still currently, I regard resting/napping as my super hero power. I am able to do quite a bit with my time these days and it’s largely because I diligently manage and balance my time every single day in between activity and rest. I put a great deal of importance on the art of resting in my life. And I regard resting not as selfish but actually as one of the most altruistic acts I can do. Self-care directly translates to my ability to help care for others. When I’m miserable, so is my husband, so are my friends when they’re around me. Resting is what gives me ongoing strength and fuel to keep doing the things I am still able to do, even though what I can do is in some ways very different than what my pre-injury self could do.

Additionally, I will share the importance of finding/appreciating/investing in activities we are still able to do. Cultivating joy is so important – so trying to activate energy in the direction of the things we can still do vs. what we can no longer do was really important for me. I have had many different kinds of gratitude practices I’d done over the years too and have gotten so much benefit from strengthening my gratitude muscle – I have a daily and active practice of connecting with gratitude and it deeply enriches my life and my relationship with myself and the world around me. Perhaps something fun for you to do is something I’ve done in the past where I had a gratitude buddy to share with once a week or once every 2-weeks – so we checked in with each other and each shared our recent gratitudes, with maybe a little commentary about why we were grateful for the things we mentioned.

I’m a big proponent of starting small to work big, as I like to call it. Starting with small small super doable steps sets us up for success when it comes to bringing on board anything new in the way of change work/growth work. And I would encourage this approach with meditation too, if that is something you are interested in cultivating in your life. Please don’t feel like you have to sit for some long hellish amount of time in order to do it right or that you have to sit in some particular position. If you do want to start a meditation practice, I would suggest you start with 2-minutes. And be in a position that is comfortable for you, or as comfortable as you can get. It might be laying down. It might be sitting on your couch. Set a timer for 2-min and see if during that 2-min you can offer yourself kindness and practice to enjoy your in-breath and out-breath for just a breath or two. If silence is too much for 2-min, put on some ambient music you enjoy and have that accompany you for the 2-min, to help your mind settle. If the 2-min feels doable, continue sitting (or laying) for 2-min maybe 3-5 days a week and then feel things out for yourself – maybe you feel ready to increase to 4 or 5-min after a couple of weeks, and maybe not. The point is to start with a really doable amount of time in sitting meditation and not to set goals that are near impossible to stick with – consistency is more important than the length of time you sit for. There are some meditation apps I’ve heard great things about too that might be helpful – Insight Timer is one of them. Smiling Mind and Stop, Breathe & Think are others I’ve heard good things about. These are also all free, or have free options involved with them. 10% Happier might also be worth looking into (which is an app and podcast). Having guided meditations (and keeping them short) can be helpful.

I hope some of this was helpful. Please know I’m happy to chat more with you and I’m here if you simply want to connect with another sister living with chronic pain, which can be helpful in and of itself, as those without direct experience with chronic pain, while often well-intentioned, can only understand so much and I’ve found that friends/family can say things that really show how little they get it (and how could they?!).

With care,
Nicole

 

Paramita #4: Diligence

Here is the verse our local paramita practice group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week, which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the Fourth Paramita (diligence) from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

The Buddha said that in the depth of our store consciousness, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeds (anger, delusion, understanding, forgiveness…). Many of these seeds have been transmitted to us by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence. The practice is to:

– refrain from watering the negative seeds in us and in the people we love. We also try to recognize the positive seeds that are in us and to live our daily life in a way that we can touch them and help them manifest in the upper level of our consciousness.
– “change the peg”; if you have a mental formation arising that you consider to be unwholesome, invite another mental formation to replace it.
– invite only pleasant seeds to come up and sit in the living room of your consciousness. Never invite a guest who brings your sorrow and affliction.
– keep a wholesome seed as long as possible once it has manifested.

If mindfulness is maintained for 15-minutes, the seed of mindfulness will be strengthened, and the next time you need the energy of mindfulness, it will be easier to bring up.

Gosh, I’ve really been enjoying this paramita reflection group. If you didn’t read the first post in this paramita series, I am part of a small group of 6 people and we’ve been a group now for 4-weeks, with 2 more left to go, centered around the Six Paramitas.

On Monday of each week we start with a different paramita and read a verse each day for the week associated with it. Then on Sunday, each member of our group offers a short check-in about their reflections and practice with the paramita on a shared Google doc. Originally, our group was slated to meet once in person at the end of our 6-weeks, however, we will likely now be meeting on Zoom instead.

For me, the benefit of knowing I have a group of friends I’m practicing with and holding myself accountable to while also having it be largely self-propelled and online works really well as a format. It’s just enough structure without too much structure and leaves a lot of open room for creativity and personalization.

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When This is All Over

I was at the gas station the other day standing at the pump, waiting for my tank to fill. A staff person was at an adjacent pump cleaning the handles and with an upbeat and friendly tone said Good morning! when he saw me. Then another vehicle pulled up to a pump closer to where he was working and he took to exchanging pleasantries and small talk with the driver. I overheard the driver ask him the stock standard how are you question, to which the worker replied: I’ll be happy when this is all over. I thought to myself: That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the crux of this coronavirus tune so many are singing – and it’s not at all different than our usual tune, the one where we think: after this happens, after I get this thing, after I land this job or this person or this whatever it is, THEN I’ll be happy.

We all do the dance of later I’ll be happy or later I’ll practice meditation, after things have settled down or later on I’ll get some rest when I have more time. I’ve been re-reading the classic Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi and also certain sections from two of my favorite books by Thay recently, which I’ve been referring back to quite a bit lately and receiving nourishment and strength from:

Peace can exist only in the present moment. It is ridiculous to say, “Wait until I finish this, then I will be free to live in peace.” What is “this”? A diploma, a job, a house, the payment of a debt? If you think that way, peace will never come. There is always another “this” that will follow the present one. If you are not living in peace at this moment, you will never be able to. If you truly want to be at peace, you must be at peace right now. Otherwise, there is only “the hope of peace someday.”

– from The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

To cook, or to fix some food, is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.

It is necessary to sit in zazen, in this way, but sitting is not our only way. Whatever you do, it should an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.

– from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

 

Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If you heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” There are wars – big and small – in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick.

Yes there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything…if we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone.

– from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

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