Stop Struggling

One of my new practices for 2020 is to enfold one card per week into my routine from Thich Nhat Hanh’s set of Everyday Peace Cards, 108 Mindfulness Meditations.

On Mondays, I pick out a new card and then I read it every day for the next week. In just the past 3-weeks, I’m finding that the teaching on the card then naturally percolates and bubbles up for me throughout the week and helps to inform my daily practice. And sometimes I’ll do a bit of free-form writing in my journal about the card’s teaching as well.

The card shown above is the one I’ve worked with this past week: Stop Struggling.

As soon as I first read it last Monday, I chuckled aloud. You have struggled in the past, and perhaps you are still struggling – but is it necessary? No. Struggle is useless. Stop struggling.

In part, I reckon that I find it funny cuz it’s true. And in part, I reckon I find it funny because Thay just slices right into the heart of things and tells it like it is, making it sound so easy to do, when in my view of reality it often seems impossible. So I find it funny because I know how stubborn I can be!

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May I Be Useful, May I Be Kind

Every morning, I end my sitting meditation session with a short gratitude practice involving three gratitude-infused prostrations to the earth and then I stand and do one final standing bow, where I say inwardly to myself:

In gratitude for this one more opportunity to live today,

may I be useful, may I be kind.

I fashioned the Zen enso in the pic above using a newly acquired calligraphy pen and a super thick Sharpie.

In early December, I posted this pic on my home sangha’s Facebook page (Be Here Now Community) where, to date, it has “reached” 1,556 people. Of the 72 people who clicked on an emoji for the post: 71 people either liked or loved it and 1 person chose the sad icon. The person who was saddened by the post, commented: Can I be un-useful…..? So I am not good enough as I am….? 😢💔

I chose not to respond to this person’s comment, as I didn’t feel that a FB comment reply would be a skillful way to have any sort of meaningful dialog take place, and would likely only serve to create more confusion. However, I really appreciated this person’s comment; it’s been a subject of mild reflection for me ever since. I greatly appreciate learning how people hear and receive the Dharma. It helps me to better understand where people are coming from and to perhaps make adjustments in how I might share the Dharma with others, as someone who is highly invested in doing my best to unpack certain elements of the teachings that can often and easily be misunderstood or left unclear.

My reflections centered around this person’s comment include: if I was asked this question in person, what would I have said?; what message do I think they received from my post?; how can I flesh this out more?; how might I respond in such a way that won’t be more damaging or add further to this person’s confusion/sorrow?

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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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Fun Zen Circle Project

In preparation for our upcoming spring family retreat with our Montana sangha family, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh – for which I am serving as co-director – I worked on this fun project this morning. Ensos! An enso is a zen circle and is said to symbolize a number of different things: openness, awareness, strength, the universe. Enso’s can be created open or closed and are typically fashioned in one brush stroke.

Since our upcoming retreat will be a family retreat and we’ll have kids present, we thought it would be fun this year to create a small optional activity that we could simply leave out on a table in the main gathering area that all ages could engage in, if they so chose.

As I was brainstorming a simple community activity, I came across a post in my Twitter feed from the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico that offered inspiration:

The tweet that accompanied this picture said something along the lines of having folks there at Upaya fill out an enso with their aspiration for their own practice during the retreat. So I took this idea and tweaked it a bit.

I made a total of 70 enso’s on small multi-colored squares of paper, using a calligraphy brush and some tempera paints I had on hand. Then I made a sample one posted with instructions that I’ll leave on the table, along with markers and some oil pastels:

This wound up being great fun to do this morning :)

I contemplated whether to put out paints and brushes for people to make their own enso’s but decided with the number of people we have attending and so many kids that it would best to keep the activity less involved/potentially messy. My plan is to collect all of the well wishes created and string them together in a collage for display. So stay tuned to see the final product!

 

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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I Think We’ve Got It Backwards

Okay. So, what I’m about to post here has taken me almost a year to flesh out and wrap my brain around. Here goes.

In our Buddhist practice tradition, we have this teaching: This is because that is. Short-handing it, it means: Everything happens for a reason, based on a myriad of causes and conditions. On a similar note, I see as though we have two large components of life backwards, and one leads to the other.

The first thing we commonly have backwards:

A) We often see and regard ourselves as being separate/independent/unique in times when we would do well to strengthen our ability to look with the eyes of interbeing and get in touch with our similarities, shared humanity, and true sense of connection.

and

B) We often see and regard ourselves as being the same in times when we would do well to cultivate a deeper understanding of our individuality.

___________

And because of this first thing we commonly have backwards, it leads to this second thing we commonly have backwards:

C) We try to lone-wolf it in times when we would do well to lean on our loved ones for care, support, and nourishment.

and

D) We rely on others in times when we would do well to cultivate and/or strengthen our sovereignty.

__________

So, D is because of B and C is because of A. This is because that is.

I realize this might be confusing, like I said: it’s taken me a year to flesh this out. Here are some practical examples that will hopefully help a bit (with corresponding letters that match with the points above):

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Interbeing, part 3

It’s one thing to say We’re all in the together or We’re all interconnected or We are not separate from one another, and a whole other thing to truly understand, actively engage in, and PRACTICE enfolding the truth of our interbeing nature into our daily lives.

If we don’t learn, investigate, and actively use the tools given to us in the fluid art of cultivating mindfulness, we run the very high risk of getting caught in theory, intellect, and notions. It’s super easy to read about mindfulness. It’s super easy to call ourselves a practitioner or a Buddhist or whatever label that tickles our fancy (spiritual, seeker…). It’s even easy to say we understand what the heck mindfulness is, when in actuality we have no freakin idea and are doing little to nothing in the taking action department.

There are a lot of things that sound good in the context of our practice tradition (by which I’m referring to the Plum Village tradition based in the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh). Here are a few examples: mindfulness, interbeing, letting go, compassion, true love, ease, joy, liberation, transformation. These sound great right?! What lovey concepts! Ah. But they are NOT concepts in the realm of our tradition. As practitioners we must work to dislodge these and other teachings from being mere concepts/ideas that sound nice and turn them into workable, actionable turnings of body, speech, and mind.

What does it mean to look with the eyes of interbeing, as our practice encourages us to do? A big part has to do with our becoming observers of our physical, mental, and emotional landscape – and then eventually moving from observer to a dutiful and faithful guard of the Four Kinds of Nutriments that fuel and propel us: edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. In order to look through the lens of interbeing we must be able to look clearly and accurately inwards, at our own selves. We cannot do the work of connecting deeply with others and dissipating our divisions of separation if we’ve not learned how to properly get in touch and grow familiar with our own person.

The Buddha said that everything needs food in order to survive. Nothing can survive without nourishment/food. In order to develop our ability to engage with the world from a place of interbeing, we must be firmly in touch with what input we’re allowing to enter through our body and mind and the heart of our experience. As two of the nutriments in particular can often pose some confusion (volition & consciousness), I would like to offer my own spin:

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