Grief and Loss

This coming week, I’ll be speaking on a panel as part of an annual series I’ve been putting together at our local Open Way Mindfulness Center the past few years, called Mindful Community Conversations (MCC).

MCC takes place once a month from September through December and focuses on heart-heavy topics, or topics otherwise held in the shadows of our awareness and/or attention. This past fall we’ve covered the topics of: Prison Reentry, Working Skillfully with Sexual Energy, and Healing Journeys of Mental Health. Our next and last installment of MCC, which I’ll be on the panel for, is on the topic of Grief and Loss.

In past years, I set up each MCC with one speaker but this year I thought we’d try something new and I set up each topic evening with a panel of 3-4 speakers. Our speakers thus far have, almost solely, been members of our local sanghas: Be Here Now and Open Way – practitioners of mindfulness who have lived through or with a particular challenge and are able and willing to share their personal experience of healing and how their practice helps support them.

Here’s what I plan on sharing:

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The Dharma of Conflict

I am currently working with what feels like a sea of disharmony in regards to my inter-personal relationships, and also in some larger contexts as well. And through this challenging time I am learning a lot about myself. I’m also learning a lot about conflict and how there are different types of conflict and different ways to approach it, work with it, and transform it depending on the situation and the person with who I am experiencing disharmony with.

As I’ve been intentionally working on dismantling what I call my mode of “over-caretaking” for the past 2-years, I feel as though the turbulent waters I am swimming in are very much related to this work as sort of a next-leg-of-the-journey sort of deal – a leveling up into advanced practice, if you will. In short, my brand of “over-caretaking” involves trying to meet people where they’re at to the detriment of my own truth, needs, and/or well-being. It involves me trying to go above and beyond what makes reasonable and good sense in order to alleviate or manage other people’s feelings of upset or discomfort. While I am very much interested in remaining sensitive and tuned in to people’s needs in order to be of skillful support, I am working on finding a balance to ensure that I am able to do so without compromising my own needs. It’s been a fruitful practice – and I am very much still in the learning process.

I’m coming to understand how very many different ways conflict can show up and manifest – which also means there are many different ways in which to work with it. There is no one right or particular way to be in relationship with conflict. Some conflicts will never be fully resolved or come to a place of complete closure. Some conflicts are terribly difficult to untangle because the other person involved is unable or unwilling to participate in engaging in open dialog. Some conflicts will fade over time while others can linger for years. Some conflicts point to a need for direct and honest communication and others point to a need to distance one self from certain individuals in an act of self-care. Some conflicts require silence and personal reflection before speaking and others require using our voice in the moment. Some conflicts can be tended to and resolved all on our own and others need to be worked through directly with the other person we’re in disharmony with.

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Why I Walk for Suicide Prevention

Today, I’ll be participating in the Out of the Darkness walk for suicide awareness, prevention, and support hosted by the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), along with a small group of friends from my local sangha Be Here Now.

Today: I walk for my friend Sean. I walk for my friend Scott. I walk for my childhood friend Mitch. Three young men who died by suicide. I walk for all those who are struggling. I walk for those who cannot. And I will walk with love in my heart for all of them, knowing full well that we are all in this thing together.

I started getting involved in awareness and advocacy work around the topic of suicide the same way most of us get involved with anything: personal experience. Most of us don’t choose at random what topics to get more involved in, they choose us.

During the course of one summer a few years ago, I had three friends, all female and all part of our local sangha, spend time in the neurobehavioral unit here in town. Each were placed there by health care professionals, for varying lengths of time. After that, the topic of suicide started appearing more in people’s sharings during our sangha on Monday nights. The power of sharing circles at sangha never ceases to inspire me. When one person can open up and be vulnerable, it gives others permission to do the same. And once the door is open, it cannot be closed.

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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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New study about mindfulness apps

There I was in my car, on the way to visit a hospice patient yesterday morning, when I stumbled across a DJ on the radio talking about meditation. He was chatting up the findings of a recent study about mindfulness apps and cell phone games, declaring, in his own words, that participants in the study who meditated felt worse the more they meditated, whereas the game players felt better and more relaxed. His conclusion: playing games on your cell phone will leave you feeling relaxed and meditation is over-rated.

Um…what?

I decided to look up the study. Not only am I disappointed with the DJ’s account of the study but I am also unimpressed with the study itself, as it fails to take into account actual meditation/mindfulness practitioners. The study focuses instead on newbies to mindfulness and gives them only an app by which to learn from and practice with.

To be clear, I have nothing against cell phone games. However, I also find little benefit in playing the comparison game, as in: Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress, new study shows, which is the name of an article I found when looking up the study.

In my view, there can be benefits to using the mindfulness apps and there can be benefits of playing cell phone games. Why they need to be compared and judged better/worse, I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I am a big proponent of teaching & using mindfulness in a secular fashion – even though for me personally it’s a spiritual path – there are ways to approach mindfulness that can be more harmful than helpful, when it comes to laypeople wielding it around with little understanding and experience. There is such a thing as over-secularizing, where mindfulness is stripped down to the fast-food approach to living. When mindfulness is used as a gimmick to reduce stress in acute situations, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of potential for benefit.

To experience the fruits of mindfulness and/or meditation – such as ease and relaxation – it must become an active, engaged, and ongoing practice. When comparing mindfulness apps to digital games to see which has the power to relax more people after work, it makes total sense to me that the participants felt more stress relief after playing a game. People who are approaching mindfulness or meditation with a quick-fix mentality are going to be disheartened with it in short order. There’s a reason most people do not stick with meditation as a mainstay in their daily lives. It’s freakin hard. And it takes a number of things that most of us are not very interested or invested in, such as: patience, self-reflection, diligence, will-power, openness, and an ability to be with our own self, without distracting or distancing our attention from the here and now.

Most of us have no idea how to spend time with our self. We’re not comfortable in our own skin. And if we’re not comfortable in our own skin, then of course being tossed into a mindfulness app just for the sake of a study has the great potential to produce a less than ideal outcome.

Mindfulness and the practice of meditation is not a quick-fix sort of deal. It’s not even a long-term fix sort of deal. Mindfulness and meditation aren’t about fixing what’s “broken” in our lives. The daily practices of mindfulness and the practice of sitting meditation are about being with what is happening in the here and now – and once we can be with it, then we can start the work of understanding, accepting, and embracing.

Please do not make the same mistake as the morning shock jock made on our local radio station yesterday, concluding that meditation is bunk. If you’re truly interested in enfolding meditation or mindfulness into your life, it’s worth finding a sangha or a qualified teacher or, at the least, highly respected books or online resources in which to learn and get support from.

There’s nothing wrong with approaching mindfulness in a secular fashion, using it as a possible tool to reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm, just be sure you’re not looking for quick-fix solutions to long-term or ongoing challenges, as that has a high likelihood for being a recipe for disaster.

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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Serving with Grace

Last weekend, we enjoyed our local spring family retreat up on the Flathead Lake with our Montana sangha family. Twice a year, we organize local 3-day residential retreats: one in the spring and one in the fall. And each spring is a family retreat, where we invite children to attend alongside their parents. This year we had 59 adults and 25 young people, aged 3-15, for a total of 84 people.

Each spring, I serve as co-director on the retreat planning team. I also head up the children’s programming with my good friend Amy, so essentially I am on two different branches for organizing the retreat. We have one team for: managing all of the logistics with the camp facility we use, registration, and organizing the schedule for the adults and program elements with our visiting teacher(s) and another team for planning the kids programs that we offer.

Knowing I serve in this co-director capacity each spring, friends often ask me if these spring retreats are an actual retreat for me. My reply this year has been: Not in the classic sense of the word, no. These retreats for me are a rich opportunity to engage with work as spiritual and joyful practice.

I’ve recently started reading this book:

Serving with grace is a deep aspiration for me on the path of practice. And to speak to my full aspiration, I would add: serving with grace and kindness.

Supporting our young people and their parents to come on retreat; to be in touch with the nature and landscape of the lake and the surrounding woods; to be in touch with the Dharma and the Sangha is a great joy and a true calling for me. It’s also exhausting work too. But gosh, I have no qualms about getting worn out temporarily from undertaking such a lovely endeavor. Sometimes, putting all of our physical fuel into something can fill up the heart tank and gear us up for the next thing that comes along. The physical tank is easy to refill: food, rest, movement. But keeping the heart tank full, that’s where the real work happens.