Saturday, December 28, 2013

Mindfulness, Memory, and Wisdom

Ayya Khema talks about this life as an ongoing adult education course. The main topic of the class is wisdom, of course. Many times, I find myself faced with a situation where mindfulness offers the possibility of choice. This way, or that one. Usually, the most immediate impulse is not the most advisable one. Underlying tendencies die hard, and always raise their heads when emotions are involved. This is particularly true for primary relationships. But if one has developed enough insight, the mind does not give way to such impulses. Instead, the memory of prior similar times with the same person or a different one, provides scenarios ripe for contemplation. 

Twenty years ago, when I did not know about the hindrances and their way of overtaking the heart, I let anger sever a precious bond, and a very sad story unfolded in the aftermath. Twenty years later, I am still feeling the effects of my decision. I also have a chance to not repeat the past, this time with a different partner. Whenever  I find myself triggered, I now have mindfulness to rest on, and the wisdom to choose not to react to the outer trigger. The urge to love has also become greater than the iron hotness of anger. Every night, I dwell in the garden of my heart, and I survey the situation. First, noticing the weeds, a resentment, some fear, greed, whatever they may be, I know better than to let them overtake the beautiful flowers which I know to be there. I give it a try. Pulling out the weeds sometimes takes for than one try. Those things have a way of digging deep, fast, and it may take days, weeks, months, before I can enjoy the peace and love again. 

The ability to remember is key to this whole process. Without memory, the mind cannot learn nor make the leap of inference from one past event to the present moment. Science tells us this about episodic memory:

Episodic or implicit memory is the memory of an event or “episode”. [...] Episodic memory can be thought of as a process with several different steps, each of which relies on a separate system of the brain. The initial step in forming this type of memory is called encoding. Encoding is necessary for the acquisition of new factual knowledge. [...] The step by which the information is accessed and brought back into consciousness is called retrieval. [...] Research and clinical experience suggest that information is not simply stored and retrieved, and that there may be an intermediate step in this process, which we call consolidation. Consolidation is the process by which recently learned information becomes more strongly represented in the brain.

This morning, feeling grateful for the gifts of mindfulness, memory, and wisdom. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

6 Life Lessons From Ones With Dementia

I spent Thanksgiving Day in the dementia care community where I work. Throughout the day, I got reminders about what matters in life, and what doesn't. Take a guess, then read on . . . 

Mind
Few of us pause to appreciate the beauty of our human mind. Not until we are brought face to face with the reality of a mind stripped of some of its essential functions, do we become grateful for what we have 'up there'. The ability to comprehend and make sense of things, to speak and be understood, to make decisions, to have sound judgment, to move, to have emotions, to control them, to remember what just happened, to orient ourselves visually and spatially . . . So many things we owe to the healthy mind! Every day, I marvel at my mind's ability to function so well. And I also ready myself for the eventuality of it failing some day. Not getting attached, even to the mind itself, that which makes mindfulness possible.

Body
The body that once felt eternal, has a way of betraying the very old and the ones with dementia. One by one, systems start failing. Vision, hearing are usually first. Then the legs give way, and a series of assistive devices take over. The cane, then the walker, then the wheelchair, then the reclining chair when even sitting becomes too hard . . . Pretty soon, it is the arms and hands’ turn to go limp. Bodily functions follow, that can no longer be controlled. And close to the end, even swallowing becomes a challenge. Then heart, and breath. The body, just like the mind is a wonderfully engineered machinery programmed from the start for obsolescence. While it works, we tend to treat it with nonchalance. Seeing what happens eventually serves as a powerful reminder to appreciate this body while it is still working, and to also not cling to it too much. It cannot be trusted, just like the mind.

Success
Lawyer, judge, inventor, entrepreneur, surgeon, artist, psychologist, writer . . . they made a mark in society, and had the good fortune of having success, lots of it. Now, there is hardly a trace left of their previous life, apart from fading pictures of past glorious moments, and here and there respectful references to ‘Doctor this', 'Doctor that’. Time and the inability to hang on to memories have a way of erasing what once seemed so important. The world moves on, and the young take over. Seeing this process can help us not fall into the trappings of success, and conversely, failure. No need to get too excited one way or the other. 

Money
It does not matter how much money we make or have. Eventually, we all end up without the ability to enjoy or miss those things we used to cling to. This is not to say we should not plan for the future and make sure we have a comfortable home. It just means we will eventually have to let go of all our ‘things’. Those material possessions are not what matters in the end. Very few of the people I spend time with, talk about what they used to own . . . And the ones who do, all do let go in the later stages of their illness. My mother was one of those people. 

Relationships
Nothing’s for sure, including those close relationships we take for granted. Loved ones upon whom we may have counted for comfort in our old days, those people may die on us, or have a change of heart. The old man who believes that his daughter has died is not far from the truth. His daughter is still very much alive, but she has not visited or called him in years . . . And the woman who thought her husband would be there for her, is now a widow wondering where her beloved has gone. Relationships with those we love and who love us are to be treasured. And we need to expand our circle of love to not just our family and friends, but also anyone with whom we can have a meaningful connection, even if for only a moment. 

Self
This thing we call ‘I’ is not worth getting so preoccupied with. If we live long enough, that too will be chipped away, until we no longer have a sense of identity. The glue that kept our story going will have dried up, and now there will only be a vague sense of existence, and remnants from past habits, that’s all. Yet, most of us spend so much of our lives thinking, acting based on this concept of ‘I’, ‘Me’, and ‘You’. We worry so much about what happened to 'I' in the past, and what is going to happen to it in the future. Our carefully constructed identity is indeed just a story with a beginning, middle and end. For many of us that story will end way before our final years, and in its place will be a void waiting to be filled with new meaning, new ways of occupying ourselves, right there, right now.

What life lesson(s) if any have you learned from being around persons with dementia?

Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Reasons to Startup With Mindfulness

I have been most grateful for the many ways in which mindfulness practice has sustained me in my journey as a startup entrepreneur. For those of you on a similar journey, here are 12 reasons why you might want to consider taking up mindfulness. 

Mindfulness, commonly known as the practice of present moment attention, also encompasses the cultivation of other qualities which happen to be essential for entrepreneurship. Here they are, in no particular order:

Mindfulness
Paying attention to the big picture and small details that can do you in 

Persistence
To overcome inevitable challenges, disappointments, obstacles, setbacks.

Effort 
Not being afraid to give of oneself completely, hard work.

Desire
Passion and love for the cause.

Faith 
In outcome, process, and more importantly, one's ability.

Non attachment
Particularly to one's views when it is clear that another course of action is required. And also, the outcome. 

Loving kindness
First for oneself, then others. This does not mean being meek . . . 

Concentration
Being focused on the work to be done.

Discernment 
Guarding from hasty decisions and taking the time to sort things out. 

Equanimity
Not being fazed by all the things that go wrong - they will go wrong!

Not self
Getting one's ego out of the way. Instead doing what is required by the work and circumstances.

Friendships
Most importantly, picking partners, mentors, friends wisely. 

What else would you add to the list? 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Labeling and Counting

Whenever my mind is in too much turmoil to easily settle, I rely on the following two techniques:

1. First is labeling:

It can be as simple as recognizing the arising of a thought disturbance. Or if the awareness is so inclined, it can get a bit more specific: worrying, obsessing, work, boredom, aversion, escaping . . . The labeling helps one take one step back from the content of the thought itself, into the larger awareness of mind activity.

2. Second, is counting:

Breath, steps, whatever the object of our attention, as long as it is repetitive, we can use counting as a way to keep our awareness on its intended object. I have learned to count from one to ten, starting over after number ten is reached. If the mind strays in the middle of the sequence, one is to start over from one again. I try to keep it simple and natural. Letting each number fall wherever it wants within each breath, each step.

How do you help your mind?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

6 Common False Views About Mindfulness Practice

Inspired in part by some of the comments on this blog, I posted this on the Huffington Post earlier this week:

Mindfulness is often times misunderstood, and that's unfortunate. Such misconceptions can lead folks to give up their practice prematurely. It can also prevent them from reaping the full benefits of true mindfulness. Here are some of the most common false views about mindfulness that I have encountered and ways to change them: 

1. I can't stop my thoughts. 

Mindfulness is not about stopping one from thinking. Rather it is about noticing when thoughts arise and then bringing the mind back to the intended object of our awareness, often times the breath. To expect the mind to not think is ludicrous. The brain is programmed to think, and we spend most of our waking life thinking. It is unreasonable to expect the brain to shut off its thinking mode, just because we want to. When we meditate, we realize we are not in control. 

2. A few minutes is good enough. 

Even mindfulness is not immune to our fast-everything culture. There are teachers, and books that promulgate the idea that just a few minutes of mindfulness from time to time is enough. That is unfortunately not so. While it is true that a little bit of mindfulness is better than none, the reality is that mindfulness is just like any other skill. Practice a little, and you will make little progress. Practice a lot, and you will gain a lot. A good rule of thumb for mindfulness practice is 30 minutes of formal practice every day. I recommend first thing in the morning, as one is more likely to practice that way, and also one can reap the benefit of their early practice during the whole day. 

3. I imagine I am in a meadow. 

Guided imagery has its own set of healing properties. And it is not mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, not being taken away somewhere else. Next time you decide to meditate, remember to stay where you are! 

4. I feel worse when I meditate. 

With that statement, comes the immediate implication that meditation is not a good thing and should be abandoned. This idea comes from the false assumption that mindfulness is about feeling good. While it is true that mindfulness often leads to feeling more peaceful and content within oneself, there are many moments along the way when practice is all but pleasant. It is not unusual for new meditators to feel physical and emotional pains they were not aware of before. Meditation is about being mindful of what is, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant. 

5. Mindfulness is about just being aware. 

Another misconception is the notion that mindfulness is strictly a passive activity. Mindfulness in daily life -- not when sitting for formal practice -- encompasses both moment-to-moment awareness and skillful interventions based on what is observed. If I find my thoughts going in a direction which I know is harmful to myself or others, I am to stop those thoughts and substitute them with other more adaptive thoughts. This comes with practice, and is an important aspect of mindfulness. Commonly used cognitive therapy techniques for depression and anxiety, are a version of such mindfulness practice. 

6. I paint, that's my meditation. 

To get lost into the flow of a pleasurable or creative activity is not mindfulness, although it does entail the ability to concentrate which is part of mindfulness practice. When I used to paint for hours, I would get so absorbed into what I was doing, that I would lose track of time. But I could not remember much of what had happened during all those hours. When I meditate, the opposite happens. The emphasis is on putting my full attention on the present moment and being aware. It also involves insight, the ability to learn about myself in relationship to the present moment experience. 

I hope this is helpful... and I wish you to practice well!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Book About Mindfulness, Alzheimer's, and Dementia

I have not been very good about posting lately . . . 

The good news is I just signed a contract with New Harbinger Publications to write a book about a topic very close to my heart. 'The Liberated Caregiver: A Mindfulness-Based Guide to Stress-Free Alzheimer's and Dementia Care' (working title).

My hope is that the book will be helpful to those who need mindfulness the most - in my opinion - the family and professional caregivers tending to those with dementia. I have spent the last several years honing the curriculum which I now teach at UCSF OSHER Center for Integrative Medicine, and the timing seemed right for sharing it more widely.

It has been a work a love, and not a day goes by without me thinking about my mother whose legacy lives on in my work with those with Alzheimer's and dementia and their caregivers.

It has also been quite a crusade, as the mainstream is only now waking up to the importance of offering a dementia-specific mindfulness training for caregivers.

Last, it has been a collaborative effort involving all the people along the way who have contributed in one way or another to the shaping of this work. I am especially grateful to Dr. Kevin Barrows, at UCSF, for taking such an active role and interest in the Mindfulness-Based Dementia Care program. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tending the Garden in My Heart

I continue to feel moved to focus on the heart. Throughout each day, paying attention to the stirrings within, and noticing the constant changes. Most precious has been Ayya Khema's image of the inner garden with flowers and weeds. The flowers are the beautiful emotions in the love family - love, compassion, rejoicing, and equanimity. The weeds are the hindrances that keep arising and need constant attention - greed, ill will, anger, fear, worries . . . 

There is no shortage of reasons to visit the garden in my heart. Each time, feeling the love or its possibility, and right next to it, a small weed or a tall one. Some weeds are more easy to see than others. When I feel envy, it is not hard noticing the immediate unpleasantness. Wise mind knows better than to linger in such thoughts. Instead, better step back at once and name the weed. Envy, envy, I am going to cut you down right there, right now, so that I can see and feel the beautiful pink flower. Opening the heart is a habit that can be cultivated, like anything else. 

Other weeds are harder to see, as they have a way of blending with the blooms. Feeling love, it would be easy to overlook the tinge of attachment and fear that comes along. Yet, there is no mistaking the slight constriction in the throat, the tension in the chest. What I call love needs to be stripped from such weeds. 

This is an all consuming practice that leaves little interest for writing about the practice . . . 

How are you taking care of your heart?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Love Practice

With mindfulness practice, one becomes more and more convinced of the impracticality of not harboring love in one's heart. Conditional love, ill will, anger, hate all contribute to unhappiness. And all are self-created. Upon close examination, it simply does not make sense to let those fester inside. Life is too short. Not a single moment to be wasted. That is the good news. 

Of course, abandoning old ways is not so easy. A lifelong of bad mind habits cannot be undone that quickly. The mind hangs on to self-righteous thoughts. It keeps coming back with the same old, same resentments, same separating views. It does not take much for the heart to follow, with a tightening, a closing of the half-open door. Chaos usually ensues, and more misery. That is the challenge.

This week, I had a chance to see resentment build to a point of seemingly no return. For a few days, mind and heart did their dance, hesitating between further justification or the possibility of release. It took stepping back, and resting on the foundation of practice to decide on the latter. It came down to a willingness to love above all. I found the heart deep down yearning for this clearing. 

I am most thankful for the unwitting teacher in my life, the mirror I sometimes push away because of its unflattering reflections. Ayya Khema is my other helper on the path of love. In those moments, when I am not so sure, her words are always there, ready for my picking:

The love has to come from our heart. So if there is no love for ourselves, no understanding for our own difficulties, how can we love another? We always think we do, but it is the kind of love that demands something. It wants something back. Maybe it doesn't even want love back, but it wants something back. It wants the right kind of attitude from the other person, the right kind of behavior, the right kind of being together -- there's some demand being made. As long as we're demanding something -- be it ever so subtle -- so long our love cannot be pure. Love can only be pure if it's given without any payment. 

And this:

Our work on the purification of our heart lies in our daily encounters with anyone, particularly human beings. It's not so difficult to love a little bird that has by mistake strayed into our room and we're trying to get him out again, poor little bird, nice little bird. But somebody who has strayed in our room and wants to sit there and talk while we're sleepy, well, there needs to be a little more determination to love that one. It's human beings that we need to work with. All of us have that opportunity constantly, and there's no excuse not to do it, because this is actually what our life is all about. It's an adult education class.

And that:

The heart just has to love; it doesn't have to discriminate. And when we can see the difference between the usual judgments and just loving -- not discriminating -- we have taken a very important step.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Mind Curator

Dwelling in one's mind and heart,
one gets to be a curator of the space within.

Sifting through the constant influx of thoughts,
checking for quality. This, yes. That, no.
And so on . . . constantly watching.
Swiftly discarding that which might blemish 
the otherwise pristine blank walls.
Taking the time to appreciate the occasional treasure,
and giving it the space it justly deserves.

Same with probing the heart, acknowledging
each visitor. Then deciding whom to welcome,
and whom to usher out the door. And how to go about it.
Wide open love, compassion, rejoicing, and peace
are equally welcome to stay. Not so anger, craving,
and their cohort of other disruptive accomplices.
Even so, being patient, and understanding.

The mind curator never gets to rest.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Top 5 Regrets of the Living

A dear friend died yesterday, someone I was supposed to do a project with. As always, the news of death rings the alarm for those of us still living. We may ask, am I living my life well?

For answers, let us turn to those at the end of life. These are the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying:
  1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
  3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
No need to wait for the end to become wise. Looking back on my life, I have my own list of regrets, mistakes made along the way that I wish to not repeat. Here it is:
  1. I wish I had spent less time in fear
  2. I wish I had spent less time in anger
  3. I wish I had been more wise in some of my choices
  4. I wish I had discovered mindfulness earlier
  5. I wish I had understood loving kindness earlier
What is your list?

Friday, August 16, 2013

How to Be With the Breath

U Pandita says to watch the abdomen rise and fall:

Now place your attention at the belly, at the abdomen. Breathe normally, not forcing your breathing, neither slowing it down nor hastening it, just a natural breath. You will become aware of certain sensations as you breathe in and the abdomen rises, as you breathe out and the abdomen falls. ~ In This Very Life ~

Ayya Khema instructs us to pay attention to the nostrils:

This [breath] is ideally experienced at the nostrils. Breath is wind, and as it hits the nostrils, there is feeling. That feeling helps us to focus at this small point. ~ Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~

Ajahn Chah is more inclusive:

Simply take note of this path of the breath at the nosetip, the chest and the abdomen, then at the abdomen, the chest and the tip of the nose. We take note of these three points in order to make the mind firm, to limit mental activity so that mindfulness and self-awareness can easily arise. When our attention settles on these three points, we can let them go and note the in and out breathing, concentrating solely at the nose-tip or the upper lip, where the air passes on its in and out passage. ~ On Meditation ~
It seems that every teacher have his or her own way with the breath.

I find the Buddha's way to be the one most in accord with my own experience:

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' 

No need to restrict the field of our investigation with the breath. The natural flow of inhale and exhale touches every part of our body, and we need to embrace it all.

How do you sit with the breath?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Joyful Emotional Contagion

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of presenting to an assembly of Catholic nuns at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. These women are all doing wonderful work in the world, and it was great sharing with them about mindfulness-based dementia care, and ways that they can use the approach to better serve their ailing sisters and others also dealing with the illness. 

I want to talk about something else though . . .

What struck me, once more, is the powerful impact on oneself, of keeping company with those deeply immersed in the spiritual life. I felt uplifted, literally, and filled with gladness during my whole visit at Mercy Center. This morning, the joy is still there, coursing through my whole body. Emotional contagion is very real. It can go both ways and one needs to guard oneself from toxicity or just plain unconsciousness in one's close networks. Conversely, one is to cultivate friendships with others whose whole life is devoted to the pursuit of inner happiness.  

Again, I ask myself, which company do I want to keep? Which people do I want in my life? Which place do I want to dwell in? Which activities do I want to keep? Which ones to I want to let go of? One very good friend whose life was nearly taken away by cancer, shared the same concern this morning. "I feel that God gave me another lease on life. And I ask myself, am I to continue as before? I know the answer is no. I just need to figure out what to do differently" 

Sure, we want to have compassion for those with dust in their eyes. We want to extend loving kindness to them. And, at the same time we need not, should not seek or maintain their company. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

5 Forgotten Mindfulness Practices With the Body

The body scan as currently taught, is not a part of the traditional teachings. Yet, it has now become the practice of choice for mindfulness of the body. This has gotten me curious. In this post, I would like to review the various mindfulness of the body practices as explained in Mindfulness Immersed in the Body. Here they are, along with my commentaries:

1. First is awareness of breath, body sensations, and tensions in the body:

[He] sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out. "Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.' Or breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.' 

Currently, the awareness of breath practice is most often split from the awareness of sensations in the body as taught in the body scan. Also, many teachers stay clear from any active involvement with areas of tightness in the body. We are told to mostly notice the 'bodily fabrication', and not do anything about it. Here, according to the traditional teachings, the meditator is to use the breath to 'calm' bodily fabrications. I find this more aligned with my experience of the body. Sitting, paying attention to the breath, the attention gets drawn to some discomfort, or pain in a part of the body. I do not fight the distraction, but instead choose to be with it, giving it space to be within each in breath, and letting it dissolve as it may with each out breath. A reminder that mindfulness practice is very much an active practice. It is much more than just sitting . . . 

2. Second is mindfulness of physical activities:

When walking, [he] discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.' Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it. [...] When going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away... when bending & extending his limbs... when carrying his [belongings]... when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring... when urinating & defecating... when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert. 

We are so conditioned to think of mindfulness practice as mostly sitting, or walking. We forget that opportunities for practice are with us at all times. Sitting now at my desk, I can become aware of fingers tapping the keys. Mindfulness is a 24/7 practice, minus the time we spend sleeping.

3. Third is awareness of the repulsiveness of the body:

[He] reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: 'In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.' 

To which I will add the practice of witnessing the results of aging on the body, ours, and that of others. Working with sick, old, and dying folks, I get a chance to see what awaits most of us in the end, if we live long enough. The stench of human feces and urine, all mixed in, in the middle of the night  . . . Youthful beauty, disintegrated, and giving way to an ugly bag of bones. Faces, contorted from pain everywhere in the joints, the organs . . . Minds, gone and struggling to make sense of each moment. We all try so hard to disguise the repulsive nature of our body and the fact that we are walking, defecating machines. 

4. Fourth is awareness of the 4 elements in the body:

[He] contemplates this very body — however it stands, however it is disposed — in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.' 

Standing, I feel the solidity of my feet against the ground beneath. Once mind steps aside, there is only earth element. Taking a shower, I sense the water running down my body, and within, inside the mouth, the viscosity of saliva. Outside, inside, same fluidity. Sick with a fever, I feel fire within. Out and about, the sun warms the outside of my skin. Spinning at the gym, I feel the air from the fan, caressing my face. Meanwhile, the breath comes and goes, inside the nostrils, the chest, the belly. Air all around. The body, our body is not separate from the environment, but instead a different configuration of the four elements. 

5. Fifth is contemplation on the fate of the human body:

As if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground — one day, two days, three days dead — bloated, livid, & festering, he applies it to this very body, 'This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate'...

Yes. Today's charnel grounds are to be found in hospices and nursing homes. Tending the dying, we get to see what happens to the body after death. We may want to beautify corpses, and make them look as if life had not left. That is missing out on the opportunity to contemplate the profound truth of impermanence as it relates to the body. 

Which of these five practices do you feel most inclined to take on? 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Limit Love?

Today, I visited a very old woman.
I thought she was a man at first.
Age does that, obliterates all traces
of vanity and feminine glory.
A big, oozing wart on her cheek
kept drawing my gaze, hypnotic,
and in my heart, disgust surged.
She reached out for my hand.
Right next to my not liking, love arose,
awakened by hers. She smiled.
"Have you had lunch?"
In her mind, I was her daughter.
I flashed back on my own mother
who died two months ago.
And decided right there, why limit love?
I could become a daughter again,
if only for that moment.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Loving Kindness and Compassion

Loving kindness and compassion both originate in the heart. Both evoke a warm, fuzzy feeling. And each tends to be confused for the other, and vice versa. 

Loving kindness, or metta, or unconditional love is the practice of generating love in one's heart towards all people, regardless of how lovable they are.
Far enemy: hate
Near enemy: attachment

Compassion, or karuna, arises when we feel sorry with someone. We feel their suffering. It starts with feeling compassion for our own suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of one's own life. 
Far enemy: cruelty
Near enemy: pity (feeling sorry for the other person)

While different, I find those two inclinations of the heart to be intimately related. Loving kindness practice naturally leads towards feeling compassion, and compassion for self and others facilitates the openness of the heart needed to feel loving kindness.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Clearing the Mind

Wherever I go, wherever I am, here it is, the hindrance of anxiety. The discomfort has been enough to make me want to figure out what to do with it. I have remembered Mingyur Rinpoche's teaching about turning the panic into the object of one's meditation. In between breaths, seeing the beast, and letting myself feel its whole effect on body, heart, and mind. Becoming further convinced of its invasive nature. I know I am holding the tiger by its tail, and I take heart. Sitting some more, I find two other hindrances trailing not far behind. Anger seems to be the source of the restlessness, and underneath the anger, desire for some guarantee of pleasantness. Hindrances often come in a pack . . .

Hindrances are part of the ordinary human experience. Our freedom lies in our ability to recognize them for what they really are, as opposed to falling prey to their deceiving ways. The mindfulness tradition provides us with a method for removing the hindrances:

1) Have a sense that the hindrance is an unbeneficial state of mind, e.g, I need not worry if there is nothing I can objectively do about the object of the worry. 
2) Separate the object of the hindrance from the hindrance itself, e.g, the problem is not the object of my worry, but the worrying itself. 
3) Let go of the negative thoughts that accompany the hindrance.  

To remove hindering thoughts, we are to follow the following sequence - from The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

1) Change the object of our thoughts to one that is skillful. Loving kindness is one such practice. We orient the mind and heart towards love. 
2) If still hindering thoughts, contemplate the drawbacks of those thoughts, particularly their effect in terms of stress on our body and mind. 
3) If still hindering thoughts, shift to ignoring the thoughts.
4) If still hindering thoughts, relax the fabrication of those thoughts. 
5) If still hindering thoughts, say a firm no to the thoughts. 

When feeling anger toward a person, we learn to subdue our anger, by practicing one of those five ways - from Subduing Hatred
1) Develop good will for the other person
2) Develop compassion for the other person
3) Develop equanimity toward the other person
4) Pay no attention to the person
5) Contemplate fact that the person is the in-heritant of his own karma

Other instructions aim at the same thing, namely to focus on the good qualities of the other person, and to realize our lack of control over another person's actions. 

In the end, letting go of the hindrances is the result of clearly seeing their detrimental impact on our own mental health, and of using skillful strategies to remove the disturbing thoughts at the root of the hindrances. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The First Day of Your Life

Ayya Khema asks us to contemplate:

"Think about today as the first day of your life. How do you want to live the remainder of your life? What changes do you need to make?"

I have been pondering that question.

The past is past and cannot be undone. At best, I can learn from it. I can view today as a chance to start anew, with mindfulness and acquired wisdom as my best allies. 

The more I age, the more life feels precious. Each day, each hour, each minute, each moment, a new gift that is not to be wasted with wrong action, wrong speech, wrong thoughts. There are long run decisions to be taken, and micro ones to be made every day. 

Doing the right thing requires seeing clearly within ourselves. Mindfulness can help shed some light, but it is not always enough. We need to stop, and probe deeply within. Armed with paper and pen, we can sit and reflect back on unhelpful patterns. Do we feel un-ease? Where does it come from? Can it be helped with changes within, or do we need to take action outside? What is in our control, and what is not?

We need to ask the big questions:

Which company do I want to keep?

Pema Chodron talks about the difficult ones as our teachers. Similarly, Ruth Denison often talks about her difficult relationship with her husband and how being his wife was a part of her spiritual path. Ayya Khema urges us to be careful and not haste to place the blame outside of ourselves. We are not perfect, and we need to first look inward before attributing our unhappiness to someone else's actions. I keep their advice in mind. I also remember the Buddha's admonition to only have noble friends. The Buddha is very clear on that matter:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. 

We are to keep company with those who encourage us on the spiritual path, in whichever form that may takes.

Next is, which work do I want to devote myself to?

I have the good fortune of having found work that incorporates mindfulness practice, service, and creativity while at the same time allowing me to make a living. Of course, the danger exists of perverting the purity of the initial intention. Wanting more money, more prestige, more self-gratification. Looking around, I am reminded that  outer claims to 'mindfulness' and to serving a higher cause, are no guarantee. Always, going back within to check. What are my motives? Am I being honest? Has greed arisen?

Last, the most important question.

If practice is the most important thing, am I making enough room for it? And if not, why?

I had planned to go on a two-week retreat this coming week. I ended up canceling. It did not seem wise to leave in the midst of so many important work projects. I promised myself that I would reschedule and retreat in September instead. I rationalized that practice can take place anywhere. I could sit longer every day, redouble my effort to bring mindfulness in my daily activities. I could listen to more dharma talks. I could attend mini-retreats here and there. Being a lay person is not easy on practice. Distractions and good reasons abound, that take one away from inner freedom.

Three questions worth asking ourselves. How would you answer them?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Just Do It!

Every day, same thing. The mind looks for excuses:

I need some tea.
I am just going to check my emails, quick.
I am not quite awake yet.
I am too restless.
I had a long sitting yesterday.
I am too tired.
I am feeling under the weather.
I don't have time.
I am going to sleep for a few more minutes.
I will practice later.
I am hungry, I need to have breakfast.
I don't feel like it now.
One day off is ok.
. . . 

The mind is clever when the time comes to sit. Every day, seeing the mind's tricks for what they are, hindrances to practice.

Every day, telling the mind, "Just do it!", and quickly going to my seat. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Peeling the Onion

Not self has been my favorite entry door into mindfulness practice. I know it is different for everyone. Others connect more with the characteristic of suffering. And yet others use impermanence as their primary source of insight. 

Today, sitting in the midst of turbulences, I could see clearly the importance of bringing the mind back over and over again on the immediate experience of breath, and unpleasantness, and aversion. Not adding more suffering with  extra thoughts about 'I'. Eventually, mind grew more calm.

Ayya Khema has this to say about not self, or rather corelessness as she calls it:

"Why are we practicing? To find freedom within. Our lack of freedom arises because there is pressure, stress, dissatisfaction, wishes, hopes, plans. There is the idea of becoming different from what one is. All these ideas put pressure on ourselves and we often (mistakenly) think that pressure comes from outside. We can never come to the end of our desires. They keep on arising. But we can come to an end of desires by first reducing, and then eliminating them. The self as we ordinarily see it is like an onion. Try to peel off the identifications. See who I think I am. See what's left after peeling off. See that there is someone that knows what's left after peeling off 15, 16 identifications. Who is this knower? Usually the last bastion that we hang on to, that is totally unreliable. That knower most often knows nothing, or knows the wrong thing, or is very unreliable. Where is this knower? Certainly not in the big toe . . . Most likely in the mind. Does it have a definite seat there? Does it have a solid entity or is it a mental formation? We cannot say who knows, but what knows. We make up an image that we call me. How did we get the idea that this thing that's sitting on the pillow that's the body is called me. That's a mental formation. Why would we want to change that mental formation? Because we notice 'me' is the source of all our problems. No 'I', no problem." 

An ongoing process of dis-identification. Letting go of the compulsion of mind to form self-thoughts. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Things I Remember During Mindfulness Practice

What helps me most when sitting every morning? Remembering some basic teachings from the Frames of Reference.

Here they are, translated in plain English:

[He] remains focused on the body in and of itself — ardent, alert, and mindful —

First starting with mindfulness of the body. First noticing the sensations in the feet, then moving up to the thighs resting on the chair, then becoming aware of the whole body sitting still.

putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world.

Setting aside ordinary preoccupations. Telling myself, now is not the time to plan or worry. Now is the time to practice mindfulness.

[He] sits holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the forefront. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

Sitting up straight, turning the attention to the breath.

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.'

With each breath in and out, sensing the whole body.

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.'

In the process, noticing any tightness in the body, and relaxing the tension

When feeling a painful feeling, [he] discerns, 'I am feeling a painful feeling.' When feeling a pleasant feeling, he discerns, 'I am feeling a pleasant feeling.' When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he discerns, 'I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.'

Noticing the quality of the experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither.

[He] remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to feelings, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to feelings, or on the phenomenon of origination and passing away with regard to feelings.

Getting to see the constantly changing nature of the quality of the experience - pleasant one moment, then becoming unpleasant, etc . . . 

"When the mind has passion, he discerns that the mind has passion. When the mind is without passion, he discerns that the mind is without passion. When the mind has aversion, he discerns that the mind has aversion. When the mind is without aversion, he discerns that the mind is without aversion. 

Noticing either clinging or aversion. Do I like this, or do I dislike this?

"When the mind is constricted, he discerns that the mind is constricted. When the mind is scattered, he discerns that the mind is scattered [...] When the mind is concentrated, he discerns that the mind is concentrated. [...] When the mind is released, he discerns that the mind is released [...]

Noticing the quality of the mind itself. Tightness around thoughts? Scattered? Concentrated? Calm? whichever the quality, noticing.

[He] remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to the mind, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to the mind, or on the phenomenon of origination and passing away with regard to the mind.

Focusing on the nature of thought making process, not the thought themselves. Thoughts coming and going . . .

[He] remains focused on the five hindrances. [When] sensual desire is present within, [he] discerns that 'There is sensual desire present within me.' Or, there being no sensual desire present within, he discerns that 'There is no sensual desire present within me.' He discerns how there is the arising of unarisen sensual desire. And he discerns how there is the abandoning of sensual desire once it has arisen. And he discerns how there is no future arising of sensual desire that has been abandoned. (The same formula is repeated for the remaining hindrances: ill will, drowsiness, anxiety, and doubt.)

Recognizing each of the five hindrances: craving of pleasure, anger or hate, dullness, restlessness and anxiety, doubt about practice. Catching each one at whichever stage it may be in: just nascent or full blown. Hindrances can be strong but focusing on the nature of the hindrance itself, not its object, can help one let go of it. 

There is the case where he discerns, as it has come to be, that 'This is stress.' He discerns, as it has come to be, that 'This is the origination of stress.' He discerns, as it has come to be, that 'This is the cessation of stress.' He discerns, as it has come to be, that 'This is the way leading to the cessation of stress.' 

Seeing for oneself the connection between clinging and stress in both body and mind.

This is where I am at with my practice. This is what I understand. 

How about you? Which wisdom do you bring in each time you sit? 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

An Accelerated Course in Wisdom

Being in a line of work that puts me in constant touch with aging, sickness, and death, is akin to taking an accelerated course in wisdom. Visual reminders are the most powerful. Seeing in others the inevitability of decay and ending, one becomes less inclined to cling to youth, beauty, and health. This body is on its way to becoming a bag of bones. Awareness itself may fade before the body even.  And sensual pleasures may give way to physical pain.

Ajahn Chah's flower - the beautiful flower carries within the prospect of its wilted image . . .

Subject to birth, subject to aging,
subject to death,
run-of-the-mill people
are repelled by those who suffer
from that to which they are subject.
And if I were to be repelled
by beings subject to these things,
It would not be fitting for me,
living as they do.

As I maintained this attitude -
knowing the Dhamma
without acquisitions -
I overcame all intoxication
with health, youth, life
as one who sees
renunciation as rest.

For me, energy arose,
Unbinding was clearly seen.
There's now no way
I could partake of sensual pleasures.
Having followed the holy life,
I will not return.

~ Trainings Sutta ~

Understanding that freedom lies in giving up the fantasy of eternal pleasantness. Meanwhile appreciating whatever good arises in each moment. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Not Chasing After the Past


I was at a dinner last night and a woman there who is a rep for a cosmetics company, tried to convince me to buy her miracle anti-aging cream. 'Look at me! I am sixty one, and I look twenty years younger . . .' She took a look at my face and decided I probably needed the 'Re-Define' line.' I was polite, took her fancy brochure, and dumped it in the trash after I got home. How foolish, I thought, this refusal to go with the inevitable. 

You shouldn't chase after the past.
or place expectations on the future.
What is past 
is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there, 
right there.
Not taken in,
unshaken,
that's how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing your duty today,
for - who knows? - tomorrow
death may come.
There is no bargaining 
with Death and his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently, 
relentlessly ,
both day and night,
Has truly had an auspicious day:
So says the Peaceful Sage.

- Bhaddekaratta Sutta: An Auspicious Day, MN 131 - 

Are you chasing after the past?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

In Her Wake

In her wake,
tears welling up
as soon as I sit for a while
and hidden joy
of the enduring love
that binds me to her still.

In her wake,
regrets about times
when I did not love her well,
one, two, three, four and more;
wishing for a rewind button
that does not exist.

In her wake,
a renewed inspiration
to open the heart
when the mind thinks otherwise
and to not let my own wounded-ness
blind me to the possibility of love

In her wake,
many thoughts coming and going,
and the reminder to guard
from misguided sentimentality
and the easy temptation
to idealize the deceased.

In her wake,
recognizing as my own,
hindrances I used to see in her mostly:
attachment to material things,
chronic worrying about imaginary future
and love tainted with much clinginess.

In her wake,
awareness of impermanence
sinking more deeply;
even her whose life I took as a given
had to disappear, first in mind, slowly,
then in body, with the final exhale.

In her wake,
the reassurance that death can be sweet,
nothing to fear, only the mind's ideas
and our unwillingness to let go;
holding tight the comforting vision
of her surrender - much peace, much ease.

In her wake,
the determination to not let her terminated life,
every bit of it, go to waste.
Using all I learned from her, all she gave me,
to live each new moment more wisely, more kindly.
I used to call her Maman.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Grieve, And Don't Grieve

The mindfulness-based injunction to not grieve can be misunderstood. As I am waddling through my own grief, it is becoming more clear that one is not to indulge in the proliferation of grief related thoughts. AND, at the same time, one is not to ignore the waves of grief-related emotions that keep on surging from the heart.

'Do not grieve' is an impossible goal for the ordinary humans that we are. Hindrances in the unenlightened or partially enlightened mind make it such that clinging is present still, which leads us to experience great suffering when our love one leaves us permanently. This non negotiable goodbye brings our grasping tendencies to the forefront of our consciousness, and we get to feel the painful consequence from our binding and impure love.

If we try to hasten the 'not grieving' process, we run the risk of repressing the grief. Not a good thing, as I learned many years ago when I could not face up to the reality of my emotions when my father died. The dis-owned grief came back to crush me a year later, in the form of a disabling breakdown. We are to recognize the emotions that rise up, all of them, without judgment. We feel them, we give them space to be, and we move on with the next moment.

Conversely, we do not want to overindulge grieving thoughts. Such over thinking is only an expression of the mind-created self running wild. It is easy letting the mind create stories about the dead person, and ourselves in relation to the person. Wishful stories, guilt ridden thoughts, embellished tales . . . are all fabrications that keep us stuck in the suffering from unnecessary clinging. To let go of the urge to think such thoughts, I have found it helpful to contemplate Ayya Khema's talk on Metta, especially this:

The near enemy of love is attachment. [...] The whole problem lies in the fact that because it is attachment, we've got to *keep* those one, two, or three in order to experience any kind of love. We are afraid to lose them: to lose them through death, through change of mind, to leaving home, to whatever change happens. And that fear discolors our love to the point where it can no longer be pure, because it is hanging on. Now fear is always connected to hate. It doesn't mean that we hate those people, those one, two, or three, or four, or five, or how many there happen to be in the house, it means that we hate the idea that we could be losing them. So there's never that kind of open-hearted giving, without any demand behind it that a certain person is also there to receive it. Therefore it's always dependent, and as long as we are dependent, we're not free. This kind of love is doomed from the beginning and we all know that. We can change that kind of attachment to something else, but most people do not have that ability. Some people do, they manage; but it's a rare case. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Do Not Hang On

My mother died earlier this morning.

My friend Christine shared this gift with me, and I want to share it with you:

This is the note left by Joan Baez's mother who died Saturday April 20th, just a few days short of her 100th birthday:

"Friends who want to celebrate my new adventure, please gather round. Don't grieve, for it's only a worn body that's leaving and the memory of any sad times goes with it. The good memories are in my spirit and my spirit is with you today. I'm in your midst, for there's nothing more valuable to me than to be with you my beloved family and my gracious friends.
Take a moment for silence and wish me well. I'll hear you. Then make the bottles pop. You know I love champagne almost as much as I love you!
Big Joan"

I may not be in the mood for champagne, but I do agree with the 'don't grieve' part. My mother was so clear in what she expected of me during those last few months. Let me go, do not hang on, this is what needs to be done now . . . 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Following the Breath

How we are with the breath can make a huge difference in our mindfulness practice. And it helps knowing that the breath takes place all by itself, independent of our will.

The breath is always there, we just need to find it wherever it is most noticeable. Belly rising or falling, chest expanding or contracting, air back and forth in the throat, or more subtle flow in and out of the nostrils? We each have a place where the breath manifests itself most. 

Then it is just a matter of following the breath. Not in our head, but through sensing of the moment-to-moment experience of the breath in the body. Nothing to do, only sit back and watch. Of course, not that easy, as the mind always wants to interfere. 

Like the curtain is moved by the wind, so we are moved inside by our breathing, without doing anything for it. If you gently give up doing it, you will experience that it comes all by itself. We should not be the educators of breathing. Breathing should teach us how it wants to be - without our admonishing it. ~ Charlotte Selver ~

The practice is twofold. First is to sit with the warm determination to simply follow the breath, and to bring back our awareness onto it whenever the mind wanders. Second, is to mine those unwanted thoughts for insight. What are the mind's tendencies? What happens in the body when the hindrances arise? Are there any knots or tensions? What am 'I' clinging to? 

If we wait long enough, as is the case during long retreats, the mind becomes more quiet, and there comes a time, when it is just awareness and breath . . . , the absence of stress.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Cause of Stress

Sitting still, I get to see the stress within.
A tight throat, a knot in the stomach,
a clenched jaw, worried thoughts,
agitation in the heart, pain in the neck,
it's all the same . . .
The mind's decided it does not like
what's happening
Whether passing of a dear thing
or  present unpleasantness,
it does not take long.
The mind hangs on to its dislike
and the body manifests.
The mind can't wrap itself around 
the difficult truth. 'I' keeps on wanting 
the impossible, all fun and no pain.
There lies the stress, the tension
between what is, and what is wished for.
Each moment of mindful attention, a nano step 
closer to the necessary renunciation.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dementia, Grief, Mindfulness, and Not-Self

Contacts with my mother have been sparse lately. It's been hard catching her on the phone during the rare times when she is awake. And the nine hour time difference does not help either. Yesterday, I was able to hear her breathe once as I whispered words of love to her. The aide confirmed that she had seen a response in her face.

Friends, coworkers have been asking about my mom. Each time, I have felt a twinge of annoyance. Grief shows itself in sometimes subtle ways . . .The truth is I have been a bit too adamant to claim closure with my mom. "I have said goodbye. I am at peace."  This last chapter is taking longer than I thought, and I feel as if lost in a twilight zone, with hardly anything to hang on to. No physical contact, no voice, just one breath in several weeks, that's all that's left. 

I have been haunted by the image of her lying in bed, pulling away from my touch, and holding on tight to her sheet instead. Breath coming and going, light as a feather. And no hindrance in the body, anymore. This struck me as remarkable, coming from my mother, who had been such a chronic worrier. She had let go finally, and I had to let go also. Carrying this last image of my mom has been most helpful now that I am thousands of miles away from her. It has also enabled me to understand more deeply the reason for practice. Mindfulness, particularly when focused on the breath, is the surest method for experiencing the relief from ordinary mind-made suffering.

From my mother, I have learned most during those last ten years when dementia stripped her brain bit by bit, of its ability to fabricate thoughts about past, future, and self. Being with her  forced upon me the direct experience of not-self, and for that I am incredibly grateful. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Preventing Burnout With True Compassion

@mihaela_V on Twitter asked 'Any tips re: compassion w/o taking on others' suffering?' That's a great question, and one I can answer based on my limited experience as both a mental health professional, and a practitioner of mindfulness. 

Early on in my career, when I worked as a psychiatric social worker, I remember coming home every day from the hospital feeling drained and with little left to give to myself and my family members. The explanation was simple. I was taking on the suffering of those I was meant to help. And the remedy, as suggested by my supervisor, was clear. I needed to strengthen boundaries between me and the patients. Whenever faced with difficult material, I learned to summon images of door being shut, and fences going up. It helped some, but not really. 

The reason is, I did not know what true compassion was.

Fast forward thirty years, and my experience is so different now . . . Mindfulness has enabled me to   bring compassion first to myself, and second to others in my care. And in the process, I have discovered the joy of serving without feeling burdened by it.

UC Berkeley Center for Greater Good has one of the best definitions of compassion:

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

To Leigh Brasington, I owe this clear articulation of what compassion is, and what it is not, and what happens when it is not practiced correctly. Here are my notes from last year retreat with Leigh:

The far enemy of compassion is cruelty. Its near enemy is pity. We risk burnout when we get attached to results, and we insist on relieving the other person's suffering.

Practically, this has meant approaching the other person's suffering like this:

I meet you and I sit with you. I allow myself to feel all of the suffering in this moment, yours and mine. I discern what is yours and what is mine, and what are my reactions to yours and my suffering. And I pay particular attention to any tightness in my mind or body, for it is always a sign unnecessary clinging, which we know is the real troublemaker. What am I wanting that is not possible? What am I pushing away that cannot be done away with? Sitting with her who is sharing her great mental suffering with me, can I let myself feel her anguish, her depression, her hopelessness? Can I stay with the extreme unpleasantness of it all? No need to do anything, other than 'seeing' the whole package, and finding the ebbs and flows of breath in between. Same way I would deal with my own suffering. In the joining and the shared acknowledgment of the suffering lies the possibility of healing. And without the rub from ego-induced clinging, the other's suffering does not stick but leaves instead joy in its trail. Joy from heart open fully, not defended. 

May this be helpful to you whose heart wants to open, and bring relief to the other who is hurting. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mindfulness, Right View, and Letting Go

When the mind is calm enough, and the heart opens, insight can arise. 

This morning, sitting, I could clearly 'see' that practice is very simple. To sit with the intention of putting  awareness on the breath. Then sitting back and watching what happens. First in the body. Where is the tightness that prevents the free flow of breath in and out? And what comes along with it? Getting in touch with the heart stirrings, the hindrances in the mind. This morning was sadness, and longing, laced with a bit of fear and tiredness. And thoughts, mostly about 'me' in different roles, past and future. 

Remembering the intention of mindfulness, and that breath is where the truth lies. Everything else, a product of disturbed mind. Sitting, I could feel the repeated pain from each automatic thought coming at the forefront. Each one a variation on clinging, and the product from deep seated illusion about the solidity of self. 

Each time sitting like this, the mind gets a bit wiser, a bit less attached to itself. There is no way around practice. One needs to put in the time. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Be Mindful, Be Playful

This morning, sitting on my favorite chair, doing nothing, I found the mind playing catch with itself. Having fun with each new thought. First noticing, then seizing, then releasing the thought. Until the next one, and the next one, and the next one . . . Mind at ease with itself. Welcoming each manifestation with gentle curiosity.

Mingyur Rinpoche examplifies and talks best about playful mindfulness:



Playful mind. Not tense. Not lazy.

The mind can play with any object. Thoughts, yes, but also breath, body sensations, emotions, sounds . . . Because of the law of impermanence, one thing we can be assured of is that each moment is a new moment, entirely different from the previous one. Each moment, a complete surprise.

I am curious. Aren't you?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Loving Kindness Contemplation With iPhone

I had some time in between meetings, and decided to call friends I had not talked to in a while. Going down the contacts list on my iPhone, I noticed the mind passing judgment on each name.

The one at the top had fallen into the mere acquaintances category. Heart tightened a bit.
Next one, a resounding no. She had hurt me once, and I still remembered the sting. Stomach and throat closed tight. The person in question no longer deserved to be on the list, 'my' list. 
Oh, yes, that one. A good friend, and someone I am contemplating doing good work with. I felt heart open, and body relax.
Further down, someone who would always be part of my life. A complicated story, and some ambivalence, but mind was fair and could see things as they are.
And right below, the urge to call her, who is always there for me. Heart overcome with gladness, it felt good. 
At the letter D, heart ached from love not returned, and the craving for shared sweetness that could not be, at least not now. 
Each letter, surprises in store, some first names I was not even sure whom they belonged to, and why I had once deemed them important enough to become 'contact'. 
. . . 

Soon, it became clear, I had to keep going down the list, and use each name as a way to test the state of my heart. What I found was no big surprise, but a confirmation of what I already knew. It takes a lot of sustained mindfulness to dismantle the mind's habit of finding reasons to not love. Noticing the damage done first and foremost to oneself when unloving thoughts arise. And not kidding oneself about one's ability to love. 

Most helpful has been Ayya Khema's talk on metta, the most convincing teaching I have heard on love.
Ayya Khema reminds us to make loving kindness a part of our daily practice. Both mind and heart need to be re-trained. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mind Musings on Mind

In the midst of spinning, it struck me, the awesomeness of this body, and of the mind that animates it. Instructor asking us to sit. Body sits down. Stand. Body stands. Pedal fast. Legs pick up the tempo . . . Every moment, a miracle of connections made in the service of 'I', starting with the mind's perception of sensory input, followed by a cascade of linkages within the brain, resulting in just the right kind of action for this moment. 

Being with my mom after her stroke, made me realize how dependent we are on our full-functioning brain. Most of us are so spoiled. We take it for granted that, of course, we can walk. Of course, we can speak. Of course, we can swallow. Of course, we can remember. Of course, we can understand . . . Meanwhile not realizing, our attachment to this body, and to this mind as we know it. 

Typing this post, I stop to notice what happens when the mind thinks up a word, and seemingly instantly, the correct finger finds its way to the right key. The mind is a beautiful thing, in its purest state. Our challenge is to notice the taints that keep on clouding our consciousness, the hindrances that keep on rising in the forms of troublesome thoughts. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Lesson in Living, From the Dying

Back from visiting my mother, I have been met by a flurry of good news on the work front. Many seeds planted a while ago, are now sprouting all at once. Success is sweet, on the surface . . . Not far below, the pain of clinging has been tugging at my throat. For the overachiever that I am, it is hard not getting attached to accomplishments. 

Most effective antidote has been the remembrance of my last moments with my mom. Ever since I left her last week, I have been holding the image of her lying in her bed, almost floating, with only a touch of breath, here and there. A picture of complete letting go, and the opposite of what happens when the mind lets self-habits take over. 

Going about my day, I carry my mom in my heart. And I am grateful for the gift of her unwitting teaching. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The End of Grief

I could not sleep last night. Grief was compelling me to stay up and investigate. In the darkness, in between breaths, I was able to see grief as the hindrance that it is, an extreme manifestation of aversion to the nature of life itself. Mind wanted to keep on telling stories about my mother and how she used to be, and how I wish she would still be, and how I was not ready to face the final nature of our parting. I noticed how much I was getting lost in those thoughts, and I remembered what to do when faced with a hindrance. You focus on the hindrance itself, not the object. Stepping back one notch, away from thoughts about my mother, I turned my attention to the aversion and I asked myself, what is the thing that keeps it going? Beneath, I found clinging and magical thinking, a deeply seated delusion about life not ending, or only on my own terms. This is where contemplation is such a great companion practice for mindfulness. One needs to meditate over and over again, on the fourth remembrance:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

This, is the antidote to grief.

Later, during dinner with my daughter, I could feel the temptation of grief threatening to take over and spoil those precious moments with her. And  I realized the foolishness of indulging such mind state right then. The situation called for no less than appreciating the tenderness between us, and the joy of our good meal together. 
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