Last week, I attended a weekend of mindfulness up on the Flathead Lake, hosted by our sister sangha Open Sky, entitled: Be Still and Heal. To help lead it, they brought in Dharma teacher Barbara Newell (formerly Sister Pine in our Plum Village tradition).
I thought I’d craft this post in order to share some pics and a few things I jotted down in my journal over the course of the weekend.
Dec 8th, Early morning journal entry:
Words can do only so much to incite action. Therefore, we should be advised as to when to put them down, in order to lift our gaze and set to the work of embodying their application in our life.
Words are nothing on a page. Words are empty of value when left to swirl around like a goldfish in the murky waters of our minds. And yet, words matter like the pulling of tides. They matter like thunder approaching warning us to weather coming. They can pierce our thickened armor as though it weren’t made of steel, penetrating our hearts like an assassin’s blade. And if I were told I would die tomorrow, I would cling to them for salvation, solace, and camaraderie.
On my recent road trip, in addition to all of the music I enjoyed listening to while driving, I brought along a set of CD’s I borrowed from our mindfulness center’s library: a 3-disc series of talks by Pema Chodron called Don’t Bite the Hook.
Here’s a description I found online:
Life has a way of provoking us with traffic jams and computer malfunctions, with emotionally distant partners and crying children—and before we know it, we’re upset. We feel terrible, and then we end up saying and doing things that only make matters worse. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Pema Chödrön. It is possible to relate constructively to the inevitable shocks, losses, and frustrations of life so that we can find true happiness. The key, Pema explains, is not biting the “hook” of our habitual responses. In this recorded weekend retreat, Pema draws on Buddhist teachings from The Way of the Bodhisattva to reveal how we can:
• stay centered in the midst of difficulty
• improve stressful relationships
• step out of the downward spiral of self-hatred
• awaken compassion for ourselves and others
I can’t say enough good things about this series. It was so chock full of insight and wisdom that I found I could only listen in 15-20 minute segments which fortunately, with how this series is set up, is very easy to do.
Here are some things I penned down whilst driving and listening (note: if it has quotation marks around it, then it’s something she said verbatim – if it doesn’t, it’s something I paraphrased, infusing my own understanding/practice into what I heard):
On Saturday morning, I watched the first 15-minutes of a talk by Sr. Thệ Nghiêm at Deer Park Monastery, given on September 15, 2017 (see Youtube link below). She spoke about something I’ve both experienced personally and spoken about in a talk I gave 3-4 years ago. At Deer Park Monastery, in southern California, behind the alter of orchids in the big meditation hall, sits a circular wooden sign that says: This is it. When I first encountered this calligraphy of Thay’s, I misunderstood its teaching and took it as a glib proclamation, as in: This is it, I guess. Whatever. Sigh.
As you likely imagine, this is not what it means. Back in the day, I knew I wasn’t viewing it as intended, I simply hadn’t developed my own insight about it’s intent just yet. Understanding unfolds over time, with practice in cultivating diligence and deep looking. Words/teachings can only take us so far. They can show us a new path to venture down, but we have to be the ones to move our feet and actualize the fruits of what it has to offer.
This is it is an invitation to look more deeply into every facet and fissure of our lives, really. To see life as ever-flowing, ever-changing, and ever-amazing. To understand the depths of This is it, means to see clearly that this moment – whatever moment we find ourselves amid – IS it, truly. This present moment is the foundation for the next present moment, and it’s up to us to sculpt it in the best way possible. To turn our lives into a living art form.
One of the main root teachings I receive nourishment of, by staying apprised of both local and world news, is in regards to the nature of life and death. In short: there are a lot of ways to live and there are a lot of ways to die. The more I learn and deepen my understanding of this truth – this nature of reality – the more it opens me to the preciousness of life, and the myriad of possibilities that exist.
This is it! is more than a teaching. It’s a way of living.
Yesterday, I finished an online course offered through PESI by Dr. Christopher Willard, a licensed psychotherapist, educational consultant, and author, entitled: Mindfulness Certificate Course for Treating Kids and Teens: Interventions for ADHD, Anxiety, Trauma, Emotional Regulation and More
The course consisted of 9 modules, totaling in at around 18 hours worth of class time. To learn more about Dr. Willard: http://drchristopherwillard.com/
This class spurred in me a deeper consideration of determining for myself what the differences and pros/cons are in regards to developing mindfulness in a spiritual capacity, verses a secular one. Some people question whether it is even wise at all to separate the two: mindfulness and spirituality. Perhaps these folks are concerned about watering down the potency of mindfulness and losing its true spirit and intention. Or perhaps, like me, they might wonder how a person can teach mindfulness if they themselves do not have their own practice in which to draw experience and stability from.
So, is there a right and wrong way to offer mindfulness? Is there a point when it can become too secular?
As our local Dharma teacher says, and I very much appreciate, the classic Zen answer to any question is: It depends.
Has there ever been – and will there ever be – just ONE way in which to do ANY particular thing ALL the time? I think not.
Inspired by a recent talk I watched online from Buddhist teacher and author Susan Piver, I’ve been thinking about how one of the great fruits of cultivating a meditation practice is developing the art of staying.
“Meditation teaches you how to stay with discomfort. What could be more valuable than that? Because basically everything is uncomfortable.”
– Susan Piver
Having a daily sitting meditation practice enables me to hone the art of staying, which enriches my daily life in a multitude of ways. But, staying with what? Ultimately, it comes down to an ability of staying grounded within myself in the present moment. But here are some specific instances that come to mind where the art of staying offers tangible, and practical, benefit:
As a point of clarity: a vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat or seafood and a vegan is someone who doesn’t eat meat, seafood, or animal byproducts of any kind: dairy, eggs, honey. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 12 years old. It was a decision I made one day, after finding out that my cousin had decided to be a vegetarian. It was something I thought sounded cool, so I did it and it stuck – pretty fancy reason, eh?!
I’ve never been personally drawn to going the one step further into vegan territory, but over the past few months it’s been a percolating thought. The sole motivating factor has to do with my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), encouraging his ordained students to take up a vegan diet. His teachings and suggestions hold a great deal of sway for me, given my love, respect, and confidence in his practice and what he has to say.
I don’t consume very much dairy naturally. I haven’t been a cow’s milk drinker since I was young and my food tastes ere on the side of quite simple and basic, and what many would consider bland, so cheeses, butter and cream toppings have never been a big draw for me in general. A few years ago I gave up dessert sugars, so ice cream, pastries, cakes, cookies, and other similar foods are out for me as well. But I do really enjoy pizza, which we typically have for dinner once a week in our household. And on occasion I make lasagna or stuffed shells. My biggest form of non-vegan consumption is eggs, which I eat every morning for breakfast, and up until recently came from my own backyard chickens.
In an effort to hear a little more from Thay on the subject of veganism, I found a youtube video of him addressing this very matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gwOzzGibsg&t=252s