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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Interbeing and the Three Powers

I am currently practicing with the 10th Mindfulness Training in the Plum Village tradition of the Order of Interbeing (OI), with a friend and OI aspirant mentee of mine. We are spending two weeks on each of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. We try to read whichever one we’re on every day for the full two weeks and then, if we feel so inspired, we also journal about any thoughts/ideas that arise based on the training. Then we meet once a month and chat about our experience with the trainings we worked on since last we met.

Working through the Fourteen Trainings has been a lovely addition to my practice over the past few months. The only other time I’ve spent this kind of elongated practice energy with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings was during my own aspirancy process, before receiving ordination as an OI member in 2007.

The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting and Nourishing the Sangha

Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the realization of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal power or profit, or transform our community into a political instrument. As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice. We should strive to change the situation, without taking sides in a conflict. We are committed to learning to look with the eyes of interbeing and to see ourselves and others as cells in one Sangha body. As a true cell in the Sangha body, generating mindfulness, concentration and insight to nourish ourselves and the whole community, each of us is at the same time a cell in the Buddha body. We will actively build brotherhood and sisterhood, flow as a river, and practice to develop the three real powers – understanding, love and cutting through afflictions – to realize collective awakening.

(To read all fourteen, please click here.)

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Cultivating Joy

Image credit: http://everybodyhasabrain.com/the-five-remembrances/

Because of the simple fact that we are of the nature to grow old, have ill heath, and die – and because everyone and everything we cherish is of the nature to change – cultivating joy is imperative, if we have the desire to live a well-contented life. The consequences of cultivating joy is a life lived with intention, connection, and heart.

When the quality of joy is nourished and strengthened in the open field of our internal landscape, the ground on which we stand becomes a fertile place for other beneficial seeds to grow alongside of it. Seeds such as: patience, ease, understanding, compassion, empathy, kindness, gratitude, humility, and equanimity. When we water the seed of joy, these nearby companion seeds also get watered.

When our seed of joy is not well tended to, we are liable to go man overboard into the ocean of suffering when we find our self in the turbulent waters of: stress, upset, anger, jealousy, sorrow, a bad day, unpleasant encounters, or unfavorable conditions of any kind.

Indications – like a low-fuel light on the dash – that your seed of joy is under-nourished:

  • On a regular basis, after engaging with the news, you feel overwhelmed, cynical, hopeless, deflated, and/or pissed off.
  • You give more street cred to suffering than to joy, discounting those who you deem to be happy and doing well as being in denial of the “real” state of affairs.
  • You feel affronted/mistreated by others in a variety of settings on a daily or regular basis.
  • You continually sit in judgement of others, for a myriad of reasons; are constantly annoyed and disappointed by others; are caught in the comparison game, always measuring yourself up against others.
  • Small things set you off on an inner or outer tirade of cynicism/frustration/impatience/anger/fight mode.
  • You see the doom & gloom of situations most readily and have a negative spin on most people & places you encounter.
  • You smile infrequently, if at all.
  • You routinely feel exhausted and burnt out; depleted; spent.

We’re all familiar with the ways in which to care well for our physical health but what about our mental health? Mental health is just as important as our physical health. And cultivating joy is the best way I have found to nourish, bolster, and fertilize my mental health. Well balanced and well nurtured physical health + well balanced and well nurtured mental health = optimal well-being.

Fruits that develop from ongoingly and continually cultivating a strong seed of joy:

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Montana Open Way Sanghas Leadership Retreat

This past weekend, we had our first ever Montana Open Way Sanghas leadership and OI retreat (OI = order of interbeing, in the Plum Village Buddhist tradition). We also tried out a new retreat facility in Great Falls, Montana: the large and lovely Urseline Center, built in 1912.

 

Catholic in practice, the Urseline Center welcomes a variety of groups and programs into its space. We were very well taken care of. And what a treat to be surrounded by such history and craftsmanship. It was a treat to stay there and incredibly well-taken care of.

Here are a couple of things I penned in my journal early Saturday morning:

The quality of silence inside this elder building, is a sound I dearly savor and admire. Still, at 4:50am, a songbird’s morning trill penetrates the thick walls of brick and stone and reached with grace my countenance. Every bit of this place has been touched by someone’s faith or expression of God. And we, who dwell here for just a short sliver of time, are the ultimate and shining example.

_______

If you listen carefully,
with full attention and full presence
and full breath,
the harmonious choir of religious views
can be heard, resounding
in the hearts of the people.

This morning,
I walked slow, steady, and singing
around the pews of a 1912 Chapel.
In the third row,
I folded down the padded kneeling bench,
kneeled and joined my palms.
I connected with the church of my youth
and prayed.

I prayed to an energy
I neither understand or personally resonate
yet still find great and lovely movement in,
through those seeking guidance
on how to live well, with great kindness.

It was here, on my knees,
that I heard the ancient sound:
the harmonizing choir of all religious views,
lending their voices together
in symphony.

 

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Morning Meal Verse

Meet my morning meal verse.

Inspired by the Meal Contemplations in the Plum Village tradition, I wrote my own version. I invoke this particular verse only before my breakfast meal each day. For lunch and dinner, I shorthand it and simply use the first line.

 

Morning Meal Verse

This food is the gift of the whole universe,
the earth the sky and much hard and loving work.

May I keep my compassion alive by remembering
that there are many people who will not have enough to eat today;
who will suffer and die from starvation and malnutrition.

May I accept this food with reverence
and gratitude for the life I am afforded.

 

Reciting a verse before each meal, allows me to connect with the food in front of me in a conscious way, verses gobbling it up mindlessly on multi-tasking auto-pilot. It infuses a great deal of mindful energy into my daily routine. And it doesn’t take long at all to do it, just a few seconds is all.

Without these meal verses, it’s hella easy for me to take my food for granted.

If you’re interested in infusing a bit of mindful intention into your day, I would recommend the practice of using meal verses. Feel free to use the ones here or come up with your own. For me, it’s an important way to stay in contact with my aspiration to be more connected, skillful, and kind.

 

Beginner’s Guidance

Last week at our local sangha, affectionately named Be Here Now (BHN), we offered a beginner’s guide to the practice, as part of our regular evening’s format.

Here’s what our format was and what we covered:

  • Start: 7:30pm
  • Introduction to sitting meditation, 5-10 min (Nicole)
  • Guided sitting meditation, 10 min (Amy)
  • Intro to walking meditation, 2-3 min (Amy)
  • Walking meditation, 10 min
  • History of BHN & Introduction to our practice tradition, 5 min (Nicole)
  • Secular vs. spiritual practice, 5 min (Nicole)
  • Introduce and explain the usage of the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, 5-10 min (Linds)
  • Intro to sharing circle (Nicole)
  • Open sharing circle
  • Closing circle
  • End: 8:45pm

My prep notes:

Introduction to Sitting Meditation:

To listen to the audio file of this first portion of our evening, please click here.

Here in a few minutes, Amy is going to lead us in a guided seated meditation session and offer us some instruction during our sit tonight – but before we do that, I’d like to offer a little bit of instruction on posture for sitting meditation. Here at BHN we like to emphasize physical comfort when we sit and we like to encourage folks to simply sit in any way they feel works for them. And while that is still the case, I’d like to offer some additional guidance for those of us who may be looking to delve more into the development of a sitting meditation practice. If we resonate with the practice of sitting meditation and really want to enfold it into our daily/weekly routine, posture is an important component to address. When we sit in meditation, it’s encouraged that we sit upright and solid but not “at attention.” So we’re looking to find that balance where we can be both upright and relaxed; not stiff or rigid or locked in place. To sit upright, we want to have three points of contact. If we’re sitting on a cushion, that means our sit bones on the zafu (round cushion) and both knees on the zabutan (square mat) – and if our knees don’t touch the mat, then we want to support them with other small pillows or blankets, as we don’t want our knees to hover. If we’re sitting in a chair, that means our sit bones on the chair and both feet flat on the floor – and we want to have our backs not leaning against the chairback. So in both cases, we want to sit on the front 1/3 of our cushion or chair, if we’re physically able. And of course if you need back support then please use it. It’s also important to mention that our cushions and chairs are sans inferiority/superiority complex, so they happily reside together in the sangha. There is no better or less better seating apparatus when it comes to cushions and chairs, they are on the same sitting field. So please don’t get caught in the false view that sitting on a cushion will usher you someplace that a chair cannot.

Our eyes can be open or closed and our hands can be relaxed in our lap or on our knees. If our eyes are closed, we want to try to relax all the muscles around each eye and in our face. If our eyes are open, we can keep our gaze pointing downward, about 2-3 feet in front of us. We want to try to keep our shoulders relaxed and not scrunched up and tight.

Developing proper posture when sitting in meditation supports us in a couple of key ways. When we sit upright, with both solidity and relaxation, it allows our belly to have the space it needs to fully expand and contract, which is necessary in order for us to breathe deeply from our diaphragm. This sort of posturing also helps us to start training the mind to quiet and settle down. It’s much easier to still the body than it is to still the mind. And in order to start working on stilling the mind, we need to cultivate some discipline and support in our physical body. If our body is too loose and too relaxed, our mind will have a much harder time in becoming settled and concentrated. If our posture is lazy, our mind will be lazy too. So we start in our body, developing good posture for meditation, and over time – slowly slowly – our mental chatter will start to settle down.

When we first start sitting in meditation, it’s very common to feel as though our mental chatter actually picks up when we sit down on the cushion. But really what’s happening is that we are creating enough stillness to put on conscious display how active our minds really are. So it’s not that our minds are becoming more active necessarily, it’s simply a matter of noticing it in a way that we’re not used to.

Our root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (often referred to as Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese) says that we must learn the correct spirit of sitting. In an interview with what was formally called Shambhala Sun magazine, Thay offered that sitting should be pleasant and that we must learn how to sit without fighting (January 2012). So when we sit, we practice to simply sit and enjoy our sitting 100%. To be gentle and kind with our self in body and mind. If we sit in such a way where it feels like hard, taxing labor, Thay goes so far as to say that we are wasting our time in meditation. He said: the problem isn’t whether to sit or not to sit, but how to sit.

So how do we sit? What are we doing when we’re in meditation? Well, to start, what we are NOT doing is trying to wrestle our mental chattering into submission. And if we have the goal of sitting without the presence of any mental chatter – if we think having zero thoughts is a thing – we’re in trouble, because that’s impossible. We’re human and mental chattering is part of the deal. What we’re looking to do instead during sitting meditation is to redirect our focus and attention onto something else other than the spinnings of our thoughts. So our practice is simple but not at all easy: it’s to notice when our mind is trailing off into the past or future and to gently, with kindness, invite it to reconnect with the sensations of our breathing or the sensations of our body and sensory experience. And when it wanders off again, which it will, we practice to notice and return again. Notice and return, notice and return. This is the practice of sitting meditation. It’s a mental training ground. And it takes practice. It takes ongoing, diligent, continual practice. Our mind is a muscle and the practice of sitting meditation is rather akin to going to the gym to strengthen our physical muscles.

So, now we will segway into practicing all of this together as a sangha (which means spiritual community in Buddhism), and Amy will offer us some guidance along the way.

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Truthful & Loving Speech

The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create happiness or suffering, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully, lovingly and constructively. We will use only words that inspire joy, confidence and hope as well as promote reconciliation and peace in ourselves and among other people. We will speak and listen in a way that can help ourselves and others to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will protect the happiness and harmony of our Sangha by refraining from speaking about the faults of other persons in their absence and always ask ourselves whether our perceptions are correct. We will speak only with the intention to understand and help transform the situation. We will not spread rumors nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety.

To read the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, which are the foundation of the Order of Interbeing, click here

I’ve been reading the Ninth Mindfulness Training every day for the past week, as part of a ongoing practice I’ve been doing with a friend of mine. And in rare form, I don’t feel as though I have much to say in added commentary in regards to this training. What I can say is this: I am committed to embodying this training as much as I possible can, for the sake of all beings (myself included). And, I’m a work in progress for sure.