Sunday, July 31, 2011

Eating With a Fork or Not?

He is new, only has been at the community for a few days. And it has not been easy for him to get used to the place. Every time we meet, George's got tears, silent tears. A grown man, with a long, good life behind him, crying for his family, and the other home he just left. He's trying to make sense of his new environment. Friendly faces, many, take turn trying to make him feel better, and telling him that he is much loved, and that he will be ok. George keeps on crying. 

Finally, he calms down, and agrees to sit down for dinner. A plate of pasta is placed in front of him, and George starts eating, with his hands. Pieces of beef escape down onto his bib, and then the floor. I grab a fork and ask if he would like me to help? George does not seem to hear, and continues. His hands are dripping with sauce. Residents at the next table are giving us looks. Meanwhile, my brain is spinning out thoughts. About my mother-in-law telling me the story of her neighbor who had ended up eating like an animal. About my daughter when she first learned how to eat on her own, and how she used her hands, just like George. I did not mind the messiness then, I even took pictures to capture the memory. Thoughts about expectations of how we are supposed to behave as adults. Then wondering what does George need most, at this moment? To eat on his own still, with his bare hands? Or to be assisted, having someone else guide food into his mouth? Neither a perfect solution.

Alzheimer's is not fun (many of the times). It's not pretty. And it rips one's heart open. It also makes us question some of our most basic assumptions of how life is to be lived. What is more important? To preserve George's remaining control over his eating experience? or to keep things neat, and 'civilized'? What does it mean to be civilized, anyway? The fork is a product of our Western culture, a late addition in our evolution, and a rather contrived tool that is being shunned by over a billion people.


The mind, stripped away from its superficial layers, shows itself naked, at last. Crying heart and hands made for grabbing food . . .

No wonder, I felt so alive, sitting next to George, fork laid down to rest.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Six Questions About Emotions

In the midst of a pleasant walk through the park, something my friend said changed my mood from sweet to unpleasantly hot. I had the presence of mind to acknowledge the anger rising, and its disastrous effect on my happiness. Not good, I thought. No need to linger in this state. Quick, wise mind traced back the chain of causes and effects, down to the real culprit, inside. I had been down that road with him many, many times before, and the options were clear. To feed the anger some more with unwise thoughts, or to cool it with what would do me good. I chose the latter, with great difficulties, I must admit . . . 

When dealing with emotions, U Tejaniya suggests that we ask ourselves the following questions:

"When I am having this emotion, does it make my body and mind feel good or bad? "
In this case, bad. Nothing pleasant about having this anger.

"What is the emotion about, what is it directed towards?"
Anger had to do with expectations I had about how my friend should behave towards me. 

"Why am I having this emotion?"
'Shoulds' have a bad rap in cognitive therapy, and for a good reason. Expectations are a sure recipe for unhappiness, and its cohort of miserable emotions. Here, anger.

"Is having this emotion necessary or unnecessary?"
Unnecessary. I often think of, what if this was the moment of my last breath, would I want to spend it that way. 

"Who is angry?"
This idea of me as a person with a whole lot of baggage. Mind burdened with expectations (see above), cravings, clinging, insecurities, foolishness . . . 

"What is anger?"
A creation of the mind. Mind turning on itself, and taking the body along with a host of unpleasant sensations - shallow breath, hotness and aches in the head, tight throat, knots in stomach . . . 

If too much to remember at once, start with just the first one. It will take you far in the investigation of emotions. Nothing like finding out for ourselves what works, and what doesn't, to make the right choice.

Anger = unpleasantness = not worth clinging to.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Few Bits of Wisdom From Ruth

I just got words that Ruth Denison's new website was up, thanks to the efforts  of a few members of the   Dhamma Dena sangha.

Picture of Ruth during the Fall 2010 women's retreat at Dhamma Dena

While wandering through the site, I came across some of Ruth's prized gems:

If you live in the present, there is no future.

Each moment is different, there is a hidden jewel in every one.

Notice your awareness. Endless are the ways to be attentive.

Be open and accept whatever arises with the clarity of attention—without liking or disliking.

Seeing comes from inside to outside, not from outside to inside.

Witness life within you. Not “my” life, since there is no possessor. Direct the observing mind to where the sensations are—to the energy field.

Let the silence of the mind receive the energy of the body.

When we use the breath to quiet the mind, craving ceases.

Don't let thinking rob you of your experiences.

Meditation is not a search for something; rather it is a journey to discover what is here.

Lacking awareness of our true nature leads to insecurity and fear.

My favorite reflection is the one before last. Echoing Ruth's teaching, I have found such freedom in giving up the quest for a better state, and instead shifting the practice to curious investigation.

What is your favorite quote in the list?

PS - I am seriously considering attending part of Ruth's Fall retreat. Anyone else is interested?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's Up With the 'I'?

Nothing like having a few narcissists amongst one circle, to heighten one's awareness of the pathetic nature of an 'I' run amok. This week, I had the opportunity to spend time with two such persons. As to be expected, there was much self-referential speech to be endured. With great interest, I watched myself go from annoyance, to boredom, to pity, to curiosity. 

And came up with a question.

Why this need to continuously feed the mind with thoughts about an inflated self? 

To the extent that we are all narcissists to various degrees, the mirror presented by the narcissistic person can be very useful. Looking inside, during times when thoughts arise about speech or actions in support of 'me', I usually find an emptiness yearning to be filled. Lots of clinging there . . . The challenge of practice lies in not indulging the thoughts and choosing instead to sit with the anxiety.

This morning I found a young one yearning for connection. 

The heart, once convinced of the futility of this 'I' business, becomes free to explore its full blown delusion, and the heavy price it exacts on one's (and others') happiness.

What is your experience of the 'I'? How much do you need to feed it? 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Thoughts Matter So Much

Found in Twitter stream, this morning:

What we think or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do.~John Ruskin

I had to respond with a vehement no:

What we think has big influence on state of our mind and happiness, regardless of followed or not by actions.

Case in point, as I watched earlier the effect of a few unwholesome thoughts on my overall state. Mind darkening, stomach constricting, and increased unpleasantness. Each contributing to unnecessary suffering.

And why, it is so important to guard the mind, and clean it up whenever the hateful or angry thoughts sneak in:

Found a few unwholesome thoughts upon waking up - putting a halt and replacing instead with wise ones, taking care of mind.

Oh! the happiness of a purified mind . . .

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Old Age Home Contemplation

For greater mindfulness, one can heed the Buddha's advice and go to the cemetery: 
(1) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body dead one, two, or three days; swollen, blue and festering, thrown in the charnel ground, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-factors in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: "The body exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.
(2) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."
Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body...
(3) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons...
(4) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton blood-besmeared and without flesh, held together by the tendons...
(5) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons...
(6) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions_here a bone of the hand, there a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull...
(7) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bleached bones of conchlike color...
(8) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground reduced to bones, more than a year-old, lying in a heap...
(9) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."
The Nine Cemetery Contemplations, from Satipatthana Sutta: The Foundations of Mindfulness `
Or one can spend time in an old age home, or a hospice, and witness day after day, the inevitable deterioration of body and (often) mind, that comes with  death approaching.

Hence, coming to the same deep realization:

Truly, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it . . . 
Truly, also my own mind is of the same nature; such it might very well become . . . 

Service work, it's good for the ones we serve. It's also one of the most powerful spiritual practices to help one attain freedom from greed, hate and delusion. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Free No More

So many freedoms most of us take for granted:

The freedom to sleep in
The freedom to take a long bath
The freedom to pick which clothes to wear
The freedom to work and feel useful
The freedom to decide when to eat and what
The freedom to get on the bus
The freedom to pull weeds in the garden
The freedom to go out for a walk, whenever
The freedom to have a glass of wine
The freedom to be alone, or not
The freedom to spend money on small things
The freedom to pick up the phone
The freedom to drive places, any place
The freedom to stay up late
The freedom to choose

So many freedoms millions of people in our country do not have. They are not in prisons, but they might as well be. They are the millions of (mostly) elders living in long-term care institutions.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

And Life Goes On

I stopped by her room
and saw nothing different,
other than labored breath, and stiff body.
The doctor was on the phone,
ordering some meds.
Aides were going about
their usual after dinner routine.
Betty's roommate got swiftly changed
and put to bed.
The dimming light signaled another day,
ready to end.

I went home to have dinner with my friend.
We ate and talked and laughed.
One last check into work mail,
and I learned the news that Betty had passed.

The next day I stopped by her room,
and found no sign left of her,
other than two family pictures,
and her hospital bed, stripped of the old sheets,
and not yet remade.
A new family came to check available rooms.
Shared rooms.
They peeked in, and liked what they saw.
"It's so bright. Our mother would do well here."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Five Easy Ways to Derail One's Mindfulness Practice

How easy it is for the mind to rationalize not practicing, or practicing less and less!

Outer circumstances have made it a bit more challenging for me to sit every morning as I usually do. Lots of stress, many balls to juggle, some difficult people to deal with . . . There has been objective reasons for why I have not be sitting so diligently, or for less time. 

Ever resourceful mind has found ways to maintain the illusion of ardency in my practice, even using trusted teachings to lend credibility to my waning practice. One can only be deluded for so long however! At some point, more and more self-created unhappy thoughts creep in, and the extra-suffering opens the door to clear seeing. 

Minding the ways that one can so easily slip out of mindfulness practice:

The first one:

"I can practice all the time. No need to sit." (Andrea Fella)

The second one:

"No need to wait for the timer to ring. I can just let the sitting unfold, naturally. Ending when the mind calls for it.'' (U Tejaniya)

The third one:

"Sitting, walking, standing, swimming, driving, cooking, talking . . . no difference. All opportunities to practice, just different activities." (the Buddha)

The fourth one:

"Short times, many times." (Mingyur Rinpoche)?

The fifth one:

"I am going through an emotional storm. Reflection, not sitting is what is called for during this time." (Ayya Khema)

Notice the half-truth in all these thoughts. Hence the danger. The reality is yes, these are all accurate. And they also do not dispense one from the unavoidable practice of sitting still for long enough every day. Training the mind, leaving it enough time to settle to clearly see the hindrances, the true nature of life unsatisfactoriness, the emptiness . . . 

Guarding the mind from itself.

What are some of the ways that you slip out of practice?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More Good Reasons to Practice Mindfulness

A coworker came to work walking really slow yesterday. Turns out, she had not watched her step in the parking lot, and tripped on one of the cement car bumpers. The immediate consequences were a bad fall, and a big scare. The next day, she woke up with her entire left side blackened and a horrible pain in her chest. At the emergency room, she was told she had fractured her ribs.

It could have been worse. She could have fallen on her head or broken her back.

This is what happens when the mind is not present.

Mindfulness practice is not just a means towards increased happiness. It is also an insurance against unnecessary pains, big and small. Accidents, costly oversights,  words spoken too fast, broken friendships, bad decisions, missed appointments, lost wallets . . . Can you think of times when not being mindful caused you much grief?

Watching each step, each breath, each thought, each word, each emotion. 
Being mindful.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Getting On With the Full Program

Lurking behind every aversive thought,
every constriction in the body,
every annoyance in the heart,
I almost always find
the implicit expectation of something else,
another reality wished for
and not to be had in this moment.
And beneath it all, the firmly planted delusion
of life just as I would like it to be
with no pain, no unpleasantness, no bad surprises,
no old age, no sickness, no death, no earthquakes,
no downturn . . .
I sit and I wonder, when shall I become wise,
and get on with the full program?
When?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Taking It Easy With Aversion

This week I have not been able to make it to the end of my 30' daily sitting meditation. Too much unpleasantness, and aversion to the experience. After a while, it gets to be too much, and I need to take a break. 

Here is what U. Tejaniya has to say about aversion:
When you experience aversion, recognize it and then change to a neutral object like the breath or some physical sensation. Watch this for a while to calm the mind, then look at the aversion again for a while - just keep going back and forth. Many yogis find it too difficult to watch the mind continuously. As long as we don't have real wisdom, as long as we depend on bringing in wisdom intellectually, we will have to use a samatha practice to calm the mind. 
Now remembering my interview with Ruth, and her advice to not linger on the aversion for too long.  Going instead to the breath, or the hands. 

Why one needs to hear the teachings over and over again. Otherwise the mind forgets . . . 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is Social Volunteering the New Hip Thing?

This week, I had the pleasure to meet Heidi, a young event planner interested in volunteering for our community. Heidi is coming with a group, her group. She has convinced 30 of her single friends to join her in giving some of their time to the elderly. A few hours, one Saturday a month, working side by side, and then getting together for dinner afterwards. 

Heidi is part of a new movement in volunteering. They are young, hip professionals who want to do good and have fun at the same time. They are the same folks with an active social media presence. 

I can smell a new startup in the making, a social volunteering network that would combining social media, old-fashioned volunteering, and youthful spirit. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Life's Not Fair and Other Wisdom

My friend who works with me told me she was sad. "There is just so much suffering out there." Her job is to welcome enquiring families looking to transition their loved ones to an assisted living place. Listening to her stories for the week, I was struck by the cruelty of life for some of us, particularly towards the end. They are 59, 86, 45 , 61, each with his/her own tragedy,  a massive stroke, Parkinson's, a bad fall, Alzheimer's. Different blows, same devastating results: body, broken; mind, failing; dreams, halted; savings, wiped out . . . 

There is no telling which one of us will be dealt a bad card, and when. 

Meanwhile, appreciating what is being given, and could be taken away, any moment. The ability to walk. The pleasure of a perfect spring day in San Francisco. The satisfaction from meaningful work. The joy of friendships. The safety of a good mind. The sanctuary of my own home. The energy of youth. 

And most of all gratitude for the sinking realization of impermanence, and the gift of wisdom.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Double Take on Loving Kindness

Jack Kornfield, Ayya Khema, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, Ruth Denison, Jon Kabat-Zinn, six  teachers . . . all big fans of loving kindness.

U Tejaniya has a different take, worth listening to:
For some people, to practise metta bhavana when they are angry can create an internal conflict. For them it does not work. What is real is the anger, and trying to intellectually suppress it won't help. I tried to send metta to people when I as angry with. But now my wisdom just cannot accept it. My wisdom tells me: "Be real! Watch the anger! Understand the anger!" It feels like the mind is trying to lie to itself. I have done quite a lot of metta bhavana in the past, even practiced all night long and got into absorption, into really blissed-out states for a whole day, but it did not make me a less angry person. The moment I stopped practicing I was full of anger again.
After I had been practicing satipatthana at home for many years, continuously watching all mental activities, I started having periods during which there was really no more dosa in the mind. Then it was easy to send metta to anyone - no problem. My teacher would sit until his mind was really peaceful and only then send metta. Because then it was real metta. Only if you have money in your pocket, can you give some away 
[. . .]
The metta I would like you to have is real metta, not the kind you try to create for yourself or towards someone else. If there is no dosa, then metta, mudita, karuna, and upekkha all become possible, and you can radiate as much metta as you like. Metta grows our of adosa and it is therefore more important to acknowledge, observe, and understand dosa than to practice metta. I emphasize this point of first dealing with the dosa because it is real.
[. . .]
I always tell yogis who want to practice metta to be aware of themselves while they are doing it. When you are observing yourself while sending metta, you are doing satipatthana. Watch your mind at work sending metta; check whether you really feel metta. Then you will also notice if you are angry and that it is really difficult to send any metta when you are angry.
I think I see U Tejaniya's point. There are times when it gets tough inside, and I decide to be easy on myself, and I give into the sweetness of metta, just to give the heart a break. Times when fear threatens to take me down, or when the heat of anger needs to be cooled. Investigation stopped, and instead, a deliberate cultivation of wholesomeness in the mind. The big question raised by U Tejaniya is of whether it would not be more wise to continue the investigation of the fear, or the anger. Getting down to the bottom of the hindrances, until they get dissolved completely through wise, sustained attention.

I also fully ascribe to the value of substituting unwholesome thoughts with wholesome thoughts. Responding to the state of fear with thoughts about peace, and ease. Responding to the anger with well wishing thoughts about happiness, and well-being. The neuroscientists have confirmed the Buddha's findings, that the brain can be rewired through the cultivation of specific thoughts. 

Maybe there is a middle road here? To practice metta, WHILE at the same time continuing to be very aware of the hindrances still present, and their effect on one's happiness. Also to know one's limits, and have compassion for one's aching heart. Holding the fear, and the anger as a mother would hold her unhappy child. The idea being not to substitute the anger with love, but to envelop it with love, giving it space to move. Coming full circle with U Tejaniya's point about wisdom.

Metta by itself, no. Metta with wisdom, yes.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"I Have Three Titles"

Every night, same story. A few spoons of pureed substance, a few sips of chocolate Ensure and Mr. Wang is done with dinner . . . "Did I eat enough? I want to go to my room." Efforts to feed him only result in more frustration. Mr. Wang cannot wait to sleep away his sadness. 

Body wasting away, and down to a mere ninety pounds. Mind no longer to be trusted for remembering the simple things. Wife of sixty years at home and also wasting away, although in a different way. Family visiting, some times. The reality is Mr. Wang does not have much to live for, anymore.

Watching all signs of life seemingly withdraw in one such as Mr. Wang, a natural response is to believe what's being presented, and to not engage.

Tonight was different. I asked him what kind of work he used to do, and was surprised to see him smile. "I have three titles, in engineering." It turns out Mr. Wang had a long career as a gifted engineer, after graduating from one of the best universities. He used to build bridges. As he tells his story, I notice Mr. Wang emptying his plate. First goes the mashed up beef, then the zucchini, then the rice. He finishes up the chocolate pudding, and gulps down half of the Ensure. There is no more talk of him going back to his room. When one of the other residents starts entertaining us with a story, Mr. Wang breaks into a  laugh. "She has a sense of humor." We joke about the woman's imperious personality. "She is my professor!"

Taking it up a notch, we ask if he would be willing to advise us on the 'engineering' problems we have in the building. "Sure, I have three titles . . ."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Being a Mother

The reality did not hit until earlier tonight. She is driving cross-country, by herself. And she is trying to make it in record time. And she is trying to save money and was talking about sleeping in her car at night. To appease us, she made a reservation at Hostel 66. For how many nights, I am not sure. 

Late afternoon she was in Arizona, aiming for Albuquerque. 

Sitting still, I watch the mind go nuts, and the throat tighten, and the stomach clinch, and fear spread through my whole body. And all my accumulated wisdom about the value of being in this moment, and of not giving into useless anxiety becomes of little use.

This is what being a mother does.
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