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.

 

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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Nourishing Happiness

This has been one of my very favorite passages to read from our Plum Village chanting book as of late and I wanted to share it. A big thank you to my friends at the Still Water Sangha in Minnesota for posting this on their blog, so I didn’t have to type it all out myself :)

Nourishing Happiness

Excerpt from “Chanting from the Heart” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Sitting here in this moment, protected by the Sangha,
my happiness is clear and alive.
What a great fortune to have been born a human,
to encounter the Dharma,
to be in harmony of others,
and to water the Mind of Love
in this beautiful garden of practice.

The energies of the Sangha and mindfulness trainings
are protecting and helping me not make mistakes
or be swept along in darkness by unwholesome seeds.
With kind spiritual friends, I am on the path of goodness,
illuminated by the light of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Although seeds of suffering are still in me
in the form of afflictions and habit energies,
mindfulness is also there, helping me touch
what is most wonderful within and around me.

I can still enjoy mindfulness of the six senses:
my eyes look peacefully upon the clear blue sky,
my ears listen with wonder to the songs of birds,
my nose smells the rich scent of sandalwood,
my tongue tastes the nectar of the Dharma,
my posture is upright, stable and relaxed,
and my mind is one with my body.

If there were not a World-Honored One,
if there were not the wonderful Dharma,
if there were not a harmonious Sangha,
I would not be so fortunate
to enjoy this Dharma happiness today.

My resources for practice are my own peace and joy.
I vow to cultivate and nourish them with daily mindfulness.
For my ancestors, family, future generations,
and the whole of humanity, I vow to practice well.

In my society I know that there are countless people suffering,
drowned in sensual pleasure, jealousy, and hatred.
I am determined to take care of my own mental formations,
to learn the art of deep listening and using loving speech
in order to encourage communication and understanding
and to be able to accept and love.

Practicing the actions of a bodhisattva,
I vow to look with eyes of love and a heart of understanding.
I vow to listen with a clear mind and ears of compassion,
bringing peace and joy unto the lives of others,
to lighten and alleviate the suffering of living beings.

I am aware that ignorance and wrong perceptions
can turn this world into a fiery hell.

I vow to walk always upon the path of transformation,
producing understanding and loving kindness.
I will be able to cultivate a garden of awakening.

Although there are birth, sickness, old age, and death,
now I have a path of practice, I have nothing more to fear.
It is a great happiness to be alive in the Sangha
with the practice of mindfulness trainings and concentration,
to live every moment in stability and freedom
to take part in the work of relieving others’ suffering,
the career of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

In each precious moment, I am filled with deep gratitude.
I bow before the World-Honored One.
Please bear witness to my wholehearted gratitude,
embracing all beings with arms of great compassion.

 

Sadaparibhuta

Recap of the Five Bodhisattvas most common in our Plum Village Tradition:

Avalokiteshvara: Bodhi. of Great Compassion
Manjushri: Bodhi. of Great Understanding
Samantabhadra: Bodhi. of Great Action
Kshitigarbha: Bodhi. of Great Aspiration
Sadaparibhuta: Bodhi. of Never Disparaging

__________

We invoke your name, Sadaparibhuta. We aspire to learn your way of never doubting or underestimating any living being. With great respect, you say to all you meet, “You are someone of great value, you have Buddha nature, I see this potential in you.” Like you, we will look with a wise, compassionate gaze, so we are able to hold up a mirror where others can see their ultimate nature reflected. We will remind people who feel worthless that they too are a precious wonder of life. We vow to water only the positive seeds in ourselves and in others, so that our thoughts, words, and actions can encourage confidence and self-acceptance in ourselves, our children, our loved ones, and in everyone we meet. Inspired by the great faith and insight that everyone is Buddha, we will practice your way of patience and inclusiveness so we can liberate ourselves from ignorance and misunderstanding, and offer freedom, peace, and joy to ourselves, to others and to our society.

________

4/3

I appreciate the mention of how looking with a wise, compassionate gaze is what enables us to hold up a mirror for others to see themselves more clearly – it doesn’t say: verbally tell others how you think they should change/aren’t doing it “right.” No one likes being judged.

Pondering: how would/do I remind those who feel worthless that they too are a precious wonder of life? I think my main go-to would be in the offering of my time and full presence and in my propensity for reaching out to others. Those who feel worthless tend to feel lonely and neglected; unseen. I’ve learned over the years that my true presence and my time are the greatest gifts I have to offer to others. I don’t have to do anything but simply show up and be there, in mind, body, and spirit.

There is a deep well of collective sorrow in regards to feelings of worthlessness. Many/most people lack self-esteem, self-worth, self-love. I feel as though culturally, we’re at a critical low point in terms of self-value. The watering of negative seeds is so incredibly pervasive. Individually and collectively, we need to learn and practice how to water positive seeds, so that our confidence and self-acceptance can grow and strengthen.

________

4/5

I doubt and underestimate people frequently. Mostly strangers; those I don’t have a personal connection with. Judgements of character, disposition, and values come swiftly for me – for all us I reckon. Sometimes it happens in a split second.

Case and point: last night, I attended The Moth storytelling event at the Wilma. As soon as a new storyteller appeared on stage, I’d made up my mind as to whether or not I liked them. And since this was a conscious happening, I then observed and investigated my inner workings around the judgements that arose. While my findings weren’t new, they were still helpful all the same. I doubt and underestimate people who are overly emotive/expressive/dramatic; those I perceive as emanating a certain airy vibe; and those who dress in certain ways (which I’m not sure quite how to describe – it’s one of those things where I just know it when I see it). And while it pains me to say, I tend to doubt and underestimate womenfolk much more readily than menfolk.

I’ve noticed that when I consciously engage with my judgements in the moments when they arise, I am able to work with them constructively and it greatly increases my ability to infuse understanding and compassion into the situation and change my initial assessment of the other person into one that more accurately reflects who they are.

________

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