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Re-Envisioning the Practice

This morning, I watched a portion of a Dharma talk on YouTube, given by Brother Phap Dung in Plum Village on July 29th, 2018. It was entitled: The Power of Cutting Off and Letting Go. (Here’s the link if you’re interested.)

How timely that it happened to correspond well with the reading I’d done earlier this morning from our Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

Once a week, I read a different sutra from the chanting book. This morning I found myself reading the Discourse on the Dharma Seal, where it gives mention to the “three defiling qualities of mind – greed, hatred, and delusion.” Brother PD also spoke to this list in his talk, though he referred to them as the three afflictions and rephrased them a bit as: craving, anger, and ignorance.

He also spoke about the three virtues – also referred to as gauges – of a spiritual person and/or leader:

  1. Compassion
  2. Wisdom
  3. Freedom (or cutting off or cutting through)

Some things from the Brother’s talk that I scribed down while watching:

– We must re-envision our practice so that it includes all activities, not just certain ones or the ones we find pleasing; this is what Thay meant when he coined the phrase engaged Buddhism. (this is a paraphrase)

– “Be ordinary, don’t stick out. Don’t over-practice.” – Brother PD on the practice of washing the dishes

– “Buddhist practice is like medicine. It helps us, frees us, and then you don’t go holding on to it.”

– Sometimes, I wish I hadn’t met Thay and I think to myself: my life was so much easier before coming to this practice. So, you might want to go somewhere else (for spiritual practice), because in this practice tradition you have to look at things you might not want to look at. (paraphrase)

_________

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Everything Dies

On our way home from the carousel yesterday, with his 4-year-old brother asleep in the car seat next to him, the soon-to-be 3-year-old I nanny for began spontaneously – and very calmly – listing aloud all of the things and people that are subject to die.

He listed individuals, inanimate objects, and really anything he could think of. While I couldn’t quite make out most of what he was saying, I did hear: “And Finn (his brother) will die. And garbage cans will die.” His list went on for a while. And ____ will die. And ____will die…

He ended by saying: “Everything…in the…WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD…will die.”

I thought it rather impressive that he saw fit to not only state this in slow fashion but also put emphasis on the words that he did.

He then added the words: “right away” to the end of his declarative finale. As in: Everything in the whole entire world will die. (pause) Right away.

I queried back in response: “Everything will die right away?”

“Right away.” he repeated.

Sensing there was something lost in translation, I rephrased and asked, “Everything will die right now?”

“No.” he said, very matter of factly.

“Do you mean that everything will die some time?” I asked.

“Yes,” he agreed, everything will die some time, Cole.”

“That’s true.” I said.

And that was that.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2018 in Everyday Practice

 

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Not Eating the Cookie

44. Train in the three difficulties.

Commentary

The three difficulties (or the three difficult practices) are:

  1. To recognize your neurosis as neurosis,
  2. then not to do the habitual thing, but to do something different to interrupt the neurotic habit, and
  3. to make this practice a way of life.

– from Always Maintain a Joyful Mind by Pema Chodron

Last week, I made 6-dozen chocolate chip cookies – 4 as a contribution for a hospice function and 2 for my boys, Mike and Jaden (husband & stepson, respectively). (I mean really, is there anything more heartless than volunteering to bake cookies for an event and then telling the people you reside alongside with: Sorry guys, I know the house smells delicious and all but these cookies are all spoken for.) As my home bakery got up and running, there were cookies on every available surface, strewn about the kitchen, as far as the eye could see. And my practice in that moment was to not eat the cookies. And it wasn’t easy. But, as I’ve been training in the skilled art of not eating the cookie, for the past 3-4 years now, it wasn’t as hard as it used to be.

Four years ago, I would’ve thought it madness, an impossibility of colossal proportion, to not eat the cookie. After all, cookies – and chocolate in general and most other things full of sugar – are the express culmination of all things good and decent in the world. But now that I’ve been training, even though it is still trying at times, I’m starting to enter a new realm that I’ve heard tale about, but scoffed at and sloughed off as being sheer and total nonsense and lunacy. The realm of not only not eating the cookie but delighting in not eating the cookie. And much of the time, this realm includes not even being tempted to eat the cookie, as its allure has greatly diminished over time.

They don’t call to me like they once did – or, maybe it’s that I’ve learned to tune them out. Ah, yes. That’s it. I now declare, triumphantly: Let the cookies call all they want! I’m not picking up!

I’m now imagining our landline ringing. Bring bring, bring bring. I go to check the caller i.d and there, displayed in bold letters taking up the whole of the phone screen, is one word: COOKIES. If it had been when I first started working on my sugar addiction, I would’ve burst into a cold sweat upon seeing that COOKIES were calling. But now, I’m all like: Leave a message after the beep, COOKIES. But don’t hold your breath waiting for me to call back! And the COOKIES are all like: Nicole, was it something we said?! We miss you. Don’t you miss us?! And then I’m all like: Boom! Nope!

It’s important to mention that my ability to not eat a single cookie when surrounded by 6-dozen in various stages of preparation in the kitchen, is the equivalent of the sugar Olympics, when it comes to the sport of not eating the cookie. I would not advise anyone to start here. I needed to do some serious training to get where I am now. Trying to break the cycle of sugar addiction while surrounded by a sea of cookies is like learning how to swim by just jumping in the deep end and seeing how it goes. In short: it won’t be pretty. There will be flailing about – and most likely, it will end by either you or someone in close proximity uttering these words in distress: Man down!

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Posted by on December 11, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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Awkward & Uncomfortable

The more we practice to observe, accept, and embrace discomfort, the more grounded, connected, understanding, and resilient we can become as a result. Grounded in the present moment; connected to our breath and body; understanding of our own inner and outer landscapes; and resilient amid the swells of change.

As soon as we’re born, we start acting out when we’re confronted with discomfort – and for the first few months it serves a crucial function. We cry and carry on in order to communicate that we’re hungry or tired or cold or that our diaper needs changing. But it seems this sets the stage for a lifetime of detrimental behaviors accrued for the sole purpose of avoiding or managing discomfort. We would do well as parents, family members, and caretakers of young children to work on not over-manicuring the environment and experiences of our little ones. As soon as a baby starts to develop other ways of communicating – which doesn’t take long, just a few months – we can start teaching skills of mindful speech and deep listening, tools for self-care, and coping mechanisms for weathering physical and emotional discomfort. The more meticulously we try to groom the lives of our young children, attempting to keep at bay any modicum of discomfort, the more we rob them of the opportunity to practice training in the art of building strong and healthy relationships with themselves in the present moment.

We are not taught how to interact with discomfort. We are only taught how to avoid it or cover it up. I believe that most, maybe even all, detrimental/unskillful behaviors have a root embedded in a strong desire to get out of feelings of discomfort as soon as possible, and by any means necessary. We may look to numb those feelings with drugs or alcohol; or cover them up by over-working or over-eating or over-shopping or cramming our schedule with things to keep us occupied and exhausted. We may look to sex and love as an escape; we may use Netflix or TV or gaming or pornography, the list goes on and on.

The more uncomfortable we are, the more distracted we become. And this cycle perpetuates itself. So the more we give into distraction tendencies, the more uncomfortable we find ourselves. To break this cycle we need tools and practices to lean on and utilize throughout the day. So, where do we start? Here’s what I suggest, based on my own experience of what I’ve found helpful for myself: Notice when discomfort arises, ask yourself whether it’s time to step into that particular discomfort or not, and then proceed to make a plan of action based on whatever you decide.

In order to expand our capacity for skillfully tending to feelings of discomfort, we have to first be able to recognize them when they come up. As you’re going about your day, practice to pay special attention to when you start feeling “off” or fidgety, as often this can indicate such feelings of discomfort or awkwardness. Notice how often you whip out your smartphone when you don’t really need to or when you use it to avoid doing something else more important. Identify the common and frequent triggers that cause you to feel awkward or uncomfortable or self-conscious (which involves feeling as though OTHERS are looking at/judging/critiquing you). Some common causes of discomfort are: when we’re in larger social situations, when we’re by our self somewhere out in public, when we’re not in control, when we don’t feel skilled at something, or when we experience lag time or moments of quiet/silence/inactivity.

Once we know when it is we are experiencing feelings of discomfort we can then ask ourselves this important question: Is this a moment to practice stepping into it? Allow this question to settle into your body, as this will enable you to get in touch with the clearest, least obstructed answer, verses your habitual tendency to say: Nope, this isn’t the time, I’m getting the heck out of here! It’s important to know that we all generally know what to do when it comes to matters of uncertainty in our lives. The trouble is we’re either too disconnected from being able to listen well to our inherent wisdom and/or we simply don’t want to do what our inner voice is telling us to do. It’s also important to understand that every situation is different. Whereas one day we might feel ready to step into, let’s say, a social gathering where we know very few people, the next day, when the same situation presents itself, we might not. That’s normal and super okay. What’s helpful to us here is that we’re actively engaging with what’s going on and we’re making a conscious and informed decision about what to do.

So, if we decide that yes, this is a time to practice stepping into discomfort then we would do well to start with small steps in this regard. For example: If we feel uncomfortable going by ourselves to certain things then we might try flying solo to a movie that we’re wanting to see – but we might also bring along our smartphone or a book to help keep us company. One thing at a time! Or if we’re more uncomfortable when hanging out with others and more prefer to go unaccompanied to things, then we can try reaching out to a friend or two and invite them to come along with us. Or maybe we find ourselves standing in a line at the grocery store and feelings of discomfort arise and in that moment we make the decision not to reach for our phone to check our texts/emails/facebook in order to occupy our time – our practice in that moment can be to simply not take out our phones. Any time we go against the grain of our less than helpful habit energies is a victory, in terms of strengthening the energy of mindfulness. So try not to underestimate the movement and progress you make when it comes to taking small steps to accept and embrace, and not run away from, feelings of discomfort.

And if we decide that no, this is not a time I choose to step into discomfort then we would do well to practice fully allowing that decision to take affect and not second guess ourselves or give ourselves a hard time about it. There will be times to step into discomfort and times not to, for a variety of reasons. So make peace with that. And maybe, if you’re up for it, you can make an agreement with yourself to work up to something in the near future, when it comes to a particular aversion you have that brings up a lot of discomfort.

Start with small, relatively easy things and then work your way up to larger things. If we attempt to take on super big matters of discomfort before training with smaller situations, we are likely to find that we do more harm than good to ourselves in this undertaking. So set yourself up for success and start small.

Utilizing moments of discomfort can be a tool to help us cultivate our mindfulness practice and build resilience. The smaller our comfort zone is, the more we suffer when things and people don’t adhere to how we think they should be (which, let’s face it, is most of the time). And, in turn, the wider we can extend our comfort zone, the happier and more at ease we’ll be in a variety of situations. So get your practice on!

You might discover, like I did, that it’s a game changer.

 

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Static

I’ve been having a particular kind of static operating in the back recesses of my mental landscape lately, which has been interfering with my standard modes of frequency. Sometimes it’s more subtle and quiet; and other times it’s clamor is all I can hear. I’m feeling hesitant to go into more detail here on this public platform, so I apologize for speaking in general, nondescript terms.

Really the specifics matter little, when I think about it. Regardless of what static I happen to be experiencing – anger, sorrow, guilt, confusion, anxiety, stress, jealousy, lust, heartbreak, discomfort and so on – the practice remains the same. The first step is acknowledgment, or recognition, followed by: identification, acceptance, and investigation – with the hope of being able to move eventually into the art of embracing and transformation.

There’s no fire like that of lust,
No grasping like that of hate,
No snare like that of delusion,
No river like that of craving.

– Dhammapada

Acknowledgment: This first step may seem like a no-brainer. We have to start by recognizing what it is that’s coming up and running the show – to know what it is that we’re allowing to sweep us away from living life fully, in the here and now. So often, we simply have no idea what’s leading us around and propelling our discomfort and/or discontent, in whatever flavor it presents itself in. Adding further complication to this seemingly simply step is the fact that most of us have been taught and trained into thinking that certain emotions are not acceptable or are inappropriate or make us a “bad” person. So there’s a fair amount that can get in the way of being able to truly acknowledge that we even have feelings of anger or fear or craving, and so forth. The good news is: the more we practice to acknowledge our vast range of emotions that arise, the more we are able to understand them and interweave them into our full embodied experience of being human.

Identification: Being able to simply put a name, or label, on what it is that’s coming up for us and creating this static – as I’m choosing to call it here – may seem insignificant but in reality it can be extremely helpful in regards to stepping into the role of Observer, which can support us in creating some distance from the strong emotional charge that’s kicking up. Even just a sliver of distance can be beneficial in terms of ratcheting down the immediate pull that can so often accompany strong or otherwise challenging emotions.

So we start by saying: Yes, I am experiencing static. Then we call it by its true name, whether it be: fear, anger, sorrow, confusion, aversion, heartbreak, shame, hatred, jealousy, lust, etc.

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Posted by on November 16, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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The Invitation

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside,
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

 

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Good or Bad? We’ll Have To Wait and See

Photo Credit: Mike Williams Photography, posted on twitter

Yesterday morning, in my twitter feed, I came across both of these photos I’m including in this post (see other one below). They were taken by the local landscape photographer Mike Williams, whom I enjoy the work of. This above pic was accompanied by the hashtag: badroads, while the pic below had hashtags such as: backroads and fallcolor. Gathering from the hashtag distinctions of what seemed to amount to the classic – and what I would judge to be un-beneficial – determining of what constitutes as “good” and “bad,” I was reminded of the sharing of a version of the story below, that our local dharma teacher Rowan told during our open mic night at the Open Way Mindfulness Center on Saturday evening.

 

The Old Man and his Horse (a.k.a. Sai Weng Shi Ma)

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before — such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.

People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend.” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.

One morning he found that the horse was not in his stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was a fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, and old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again, the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is one fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”

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