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.
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.
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.
Here is the verse my local paramita practice group has been reading & reflecting on daily this past week – which is the last one in our 6-week series – which I took and pieced together from the section focusing on the Sixth Paramita (understanding) from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:
The highest kind of understanding is to be free from all knowledge, concepts, ideas, and views. If we can offer understanding to someone, that is true love. The one who receives our understanding will bloom like a flower, and we will be rewarded at the same time. Understanding is a fruit of the practice. Looking deeply means to be there, to be mindful, to be concentrated. The teaching of the Buddha is to help us understand reality deeply. A wave is a wave, it has a beginning and an end. But a wave is, at the same time, water. Water is the ground of being of the wave. It is important that a wave knows that she is water, and not just a wave. We, too, live our life as an individual. We believe that we have a beginning and an end, that we are separate from other living beings. That is why the Buddha advised us to look more deeply in order to touch the ground of our being.
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.
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.
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.
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
Yesterday morning, I was driving to my stepson Jaden’s apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend Sierra, to drop off some food for them. Very few people were out and about on the road but I managed to get “stuck” the bulk of the way behind what I consider to be the standard Missoulian driver (translation: they were driving 5 miles under the speed limit). As I have a great desire to go a standard 5 miles OVER the speed limit around town, irritation is commonplace for me while driving. (I put intentional and ongoing effort into infusing my practice into the action of driving and I’ve come a long way and still have further to go.)
When irritation rose up in me, while puttering behind what seemed to be the only other car on the road in town other than my own, I saw my irritation straight away and laughed light-heartedly (which helps me to befriend my irritation). Then I said out loud to myself: Well Nicole, this is it, isn’t it? THIS is the practice of inclusiveness, right here and now. I mean, if you can’t work to enfold this super minor frustration into your practice then what possible hope is there for working with bigger moments when they arise? Then, as is often the case when I talk to myself, I answered myself back: Good point buddy. You’re totally right.
So, 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 Third Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:
Inclusiveness is the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. To suppress our pain is not the teaching of inclusiveness. We have to receive it, embrace it, and transform it. The only way to do this is to make our heart big. We look deeply in order to understand and forgive. The Buddha gave very concrete teachings on how to develop inclusiveness – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. If you practice these Four Immeasurable Minds, you will have a huge heart. If you keep your pain for too long, it is because you have not yet learned the practice of inclusiveness.
(For an intro to the paramitas and more info about this 6-week practice group, please reference my post from last week.)
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 Second Paramita from Thay’s book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:
The Five Mindfulness Trainings help protect our body, mind, family, and society. The First Mindfulness Training is about protecting the lives of human beings, animals, plants, and minerals. The second is to prevent exploitation by humans of other living beings and of nature. The third is to protect children and adults from sexual abuse; to protect yourself and protect families and couples; to help other people feel safe. The Fourth Mindfulness Training is to practice deep listening and loving speech. The Fifth Mindfulness Training is about mindful consumption. The most precious gift we can offer our society is to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete way to practice mindfulness. We need a Sangha around us in order to practice them deeply.
The second of the six paramitas is: mindfulness trainings. (To read the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the Plum Village tradition, click here.)
In the first paramita (giving/generosity), Thay wrote: The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence. And in the section on the second paramita, Thay wrote: The most precious gift we can offer our society is to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. With deep looking we can see how these two offerings – our true presence and our practice of the mindfulness trainings – are not separate, still, I like the distinction of what I can practice to offer someone else, one-on-one, and what I can practice to offer our collective society.