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
Last night marked the fourth and final installment of a series I put together at our local mindfulness center entitled: Mindful Community Conversations. Once a month since September we’ve focused on a different topic, each featuring a different speaker. My vision was to help create and hold space within our mindfulness practice, in order to shed light on certain topics that are often very challenging and difficult to talk about and address. The topics I chose were: Chronic Pain & Illness, Depression & Addiction, Dealing with Difficult Emotions, and Grief & Loss. Our format started with 10 minutes of silent sitting meditation, followed by a 20-30 minute talk from the speaker and ended with an open sharing circle. As the facilitator for each evening, I prompted our sharing time by inviting folks to offer their name and a little bit about what motivated them to attend the particular evening’s topic. I found that the openness, intention, and strong mindfulness practice of each of the speakers allowed for a very powerful opportunity for community sharing and healing to take place. I continue to be moved and inspired by the coming together of sacredly held circles of people.
Our topic last night was on Grief and Loss. Our speaker was my sangha friend Greg, who’s one of our five ordained members of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing here in town. He’s also a hospice chaplain, so his depth of practice and experience with death and dying is vast. I greatly enjoyed his talk and the sharing that followed, from those who attended. I know that all of the words spoken last night will continue to slowly filter in and through me, and benefit my outlook and perspective in a myriad of unforeseen ways.
This morning, in the darkness of the hour of 5:00am so common and crucial to much of my writing, I wrote this:
To love is to know one day
you’ll grieve the loss of those you’ve extended yourself to,
and it won’t be pretty.
It’ll be devastating.
It’ll be devastating in ways impossible to comprehend until it happens.
And holes will manifest in the open field of your heart.
Holes that will remain as part of your landscape,
like the scars of a deforested hillside ravaged by wildfire.
you’ll be able to find yourself in the emerging
from those dark places,
amid everything that has been lost,
and you will take back up
the tending of your field.
Now that autumn is underway here in western Montana, the local birds are taking full advantage of our bustling mountain ash tree in our front yard, which is chock full of bright, orange, and apparently delicious, berries. While the tree produces berries each year, similar to fruit trees it has an every other year cycle of having a much greater bounty than the year prior. So every other year we have to contend with the challenge of birds running into our large picture window on the front of our house. As I understand it, not only are the berries a hot commodity to birds soon taking flight down south but with the turning of the weather the berries also start fermenting, causing the birds to become slightly intoxicated. Hence, their judgement gets impaired and the window they once avoided skillfully the rest of the year suddenly looks to them like something they could fly through.
One such disastrous thud of a bird happened this morning, prompting me to finally put up the only thing I’ve tried that really works to keep them at bay from our window: an exterior curtain. I’ve tried a few other things over the years: cutting out pictures and taping them to the window, shutting the interior curtain, but to no avail. I thought the little robin that hit so hard this morning wasn’t going to make it. But after a little while of sitting beside him, shielding him from one of my approaching house cats, he made his way to his feet, then hopped up on my front steps, started making chirping calls, and then flew up into the tree. It’s hard to say if he’ll continue to heal or not, but sometimes they do simply get stunned after their impact and then appear to recover.
The first mindfulness training, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, is Reverence for Life (see pic I’ve crafted together below). There are many ways to interpret, practice, and grow with these trainings, of which we have two sets: the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. In my experience, and personal opinion, the sentence: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life,” causes some confusion. What does it mean to kill? My desk side Webster’s dictionary defines kill as follows: to deprive of life; to put an end to; also defeat; use up; to mark for omission. Commonly brought up is whether it’s then acceptable, in relation to this training, to euthanize our dying pets. A similar question was posed in the current edition (September 2016) of Lion’s Roar magazine (formally Shambhala Sun), in a section marked Advice for Difficult Times:
I’ve been preparing for the next teaching talk I’ll be giving in a couple of weeks at my local sangha Be Here Now. I’ve decided to base my talk on the topic of nonself, which is proving to be a good stretch for me. Since my last talk was on the nature of impermanence, specifically the Five Remembrances, I’ve decided to have my next two talks continue to form around the theme of the Three Dharma Seals, which are: impermanence, nonself, and nirvana. The Three Dharma Seals, as stated in Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, are described as follows: “Any teaching that does not bear these Three Seals cannot be said to be a teaching of the Buddha.” The Three Dharma Seals are essentially the marks which indicate any true teaching offered by the Buddha.
Another way to phrase nonself is to say no self, to which I then like to add the word “separate” in between, for clarity of purpose, as in: no separate self. And yet another way to say this would be to use Thay’s word “interbeing.”
Nonself is easy to misunderstand. Nonself is not a nihilistic approach to life’s human construct or some fancy metaphor explaining how everything is just an illusion and doesn’t really exist. Nonself speaks to the simple truth of how we cannot exist by ourselves alone. We are a collage of our blood ancestry, experiences, relationships, and interactions. There is no separate self we can point to as being disconnected from the whole of everything else. We are because everything else is. Just as a tree cannot exist without the influence of the sun, air, water, and soil we cannot exist without the collaborative entirety of our past and present influences. As Thay states, in the same book as mentioned above, “Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you.”