Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why I Sit Every Morning

Every morning, same thing. To sit, or not. Almost always, I end up sitting. 

In that split second of deciding, the mind has to be convinced of the benefit of practice. Remembering the merits already gained from practice, and the wisdom heard from teachers who 'know', those are the two things that get me to my seat.

I know how it feels the days I practice, and the ones when I don't, and the difference between the two. Taking the time to sit is a guarantee against subsequent reactivity, and mindlessness, and the danger of getting losing myself into dangerous thoughts. Simply put, it is good mental hygiene, same way I would not think of going out without having brushed my teeth first. After meditating, I feel more calm, more settled, more centered, and more in my body. I know I can go do my work and reap the rewards from 'showing up' and being fully present. On the other hand, skipping morning practice is a bit like starting the day on the wrong foot, haphazardly put together, and at the mercy of mind at its possible worst. History is there to prove what happens when I do not give myself the gift of practice to start with. Forgetting my wallet, a near miss on the road, feeling more stressed, less satisfying work interactions, wrong speech, and sometimes even wrong actions . . . the consequences can be sour. 

Taking a more long view, practicing every day is a bit like training a puppy. Only with consistency, can one hope to have the puppy fully trained, eventually. The mind is like that. This is why mindfulness goes hand in hand with practice. No practice, no mindfulness. Little practice, little mindfulness. Lots of practice, lots of mindfulness! I often look into the joyful faces of some monastics, and I say to myself, 'I want what they have'. Of course, there is only one way, and that is steady practice so that the mind becomes so sharp that it can see the reality of things as they truly are. From there to wisdom, only a long series of small and sometimes not so small steps. I have experienced enough to intuit the possibilities, and also know that this way of being that is most familiar and not very satisfactory, does not have to be so. There is a better way. I am just still too caught up in layers upon layers of mental fabrications. It has been most valuable reading the suttas, and more contemporary accounts from respected teachers, those who speak to me such as Ayya Khema, Ajahn Chah, and U Tejanyia. When the practice grows weak, I can fall back on their wise words, and make sense of doubt, and the other hindrances. 

In the end, I sit every morning because I don't want to be more miserable than I have to. I want to give myself a chance to live each moment of this day fully. I want to be happy. 

How about you? What motivates you to sit?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Lost in Moods

How little it takes to make one's mood darken, fast!

Things not going my way with several work projects, not being able to reach my mother at her nursing home, a relative with a difficult temper . . . and I am in a funk. A few days ago, when circumstances and people cooperated, I was on cloud nine.

From Ajahn Chah:

The untrained mind lacks wisdom. It's foolish. Moods come and trick it into feeling pleasure one minute and suffering the next. Happiness then sadness. But the natural state of a person's mind isn't one of happiness or sadness. This experience of happiness and sadness is not the actual mind itself, but just these moods which have tricked it. The mind gets lost, carried away by these moods with no idea what's happening. And as a result, we experience pleasure and pain accordingly, because the mind has not been trained yet. It still isn't very clever. And we go on thinking that it's our mind which is suffering or our mind which is happy, when actually it's just lost in its various moods.

Ayya Khema compares life to a continuous adult education. Each of life's irritant is there to show us the work to be done with our mind. The clinging still to pleasure, and the pain of avoidance in its absence. Felt present unhappiness is the best teacher, a call to see things as they really are, with the foundation from those who have gone forth before us, as a safe resting place for the practice to be done. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Pain of Conditional Love

There is a reason Leigh Brasington teaches loving kindness as a preparation practice for the jhanas. Unless the heart is fully opened, and unhindered, the mind cannot fully settle. And a disturbed mind bars one from the possibility of inner peace and freedom. 

Loving kindness is a benchmarking practice for the heart. It shows us how many obstacles the mind sets to love flowing out freely. It also bumps against automatic responses from a body most often used to closing up.

Sitting, practicing loving kindness, I  get to see all the idiotic reasons perpetuated by the mind, for why I should not love such and such person. 

"I hardly know him. Love is for close loved ones, ins't it?" Mind operates under the delusion that love is a limited resource, to be allocated parsimoniously only under certain conditions.

"He has hurt me.  I cannot trust him. I don't feel like loving him." Mind makes gigantic leaps, from needing to be cautious, to slamming the heart door . . . Not realizing that each slam is a source of stress for the whole system. I am not hurting him who has no idea of the movie playing in my heart. I am hurting myself.

"She does not seem to care. Why should I love her?" Mind keeps on dispensing evaluations. Lovable? Yes, a little, or maybe a lot, or not at all? 

Turning towards the heart, I get to see all the conditions set up in the mind only, and that keep me from finding the joy within. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Do I Grieve?

Grief is a part of the human experience, some times more so than others. Grief can take many forms. It can be long, drawn out, sudden, anticipatory, shared, lifelong . . . Grief is painful, and we don't like it. It is also one of the most powerful ways I know to have one's heart opening wide. Past the anger, the path is clear for healing tears to melt into love. 

These past few weeks have presented me with an opportunity to experience grief in its many forms. And I got to reflect on the nature of grief, and  'why do I grieve? why do we grieve?'

Often, I think of the Buddha's admonition to Ananda to not grieve. I take it as an invitation, not to not feel the grief, but to uproot it with mindfulness, investigation, and wisdom. Grief is an ultimate protest from the heart about the inevitability of impermanence, and death, and separation. Our mind cannot reconcile with the truth of the fourth remembrance, uttered by the Buddha during his last moments of life, that '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.' 

Grief is also an attempt to work through the necessary letting go of what can no longer be had. The finality of death is our most profound teacher. It is there around us at all times. Not a day goes by without the news of some kind of death touching us in some ways. If we listen, we can become more reconciled with the nature of life that can be taken away at any moment. 

Last, grief is also linked with our conventional way of experiencing the self as a thought out, linear construct. If we are truly present and not identified with solid 'I' or 'mine' thoughts, grief disappears:

Wrong view of self is the root of all pain, grief, and lamentation. 
~ Ayya Khema, in Be an Island ~

Friday, January 4, 2013

To Label, Or Not?

Labeling, or the practice of naming the nature of the mind's activity in the moment, can be useful tool for mindfulness practice. It is also a debated practice amongst various teachers. Some use it extensively. Others discourage it. 

Sitting this morning, I let my experience guide me and found a third way with labeling.

Sitting with a disturbing thought, a hindrance, and becoming aware of its nature, labeling is useful to put such mental fabrications in their place. It serves to put away the distraction, and bring the mind back to its intended object. It helps prevent the mind from getting lost into the object of agitating thoughts, and assigning the problem where it really belongs, the hindrance itself.

Sitting with just breath, and body sitting, and other non-self related phenomena such as sounds, there is no need to label. Putting words on such experiences introduces an unnecessary degree of separation between the present moment occurrence and pure awareness. Better yet in that case, is to stay with sensory awareness. Being with the sensation of breath flowing in and out, or sounds meeting hearing sense, or contact points between body and chair. 

Labeling. There is a middle way.

I will be curious to hear about your own take on labeling, and how you have or have not been practicing with it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Challenges of Mindfulness Practice

On this first day of the year, I felt like going to the source, again. 

Going to Leigh's website for his curated list of suttas, I settled on the first one on the list, and let the words do their work on me . . . 

From the Potthapada Sutta, on States of Consciousness, this time, I got the following:

Living in this world as I am is a challenge to practice. The alternative of going forth with the contemplative life is there. Reading the suttas, one cannot help but be tempted. Indeed, the household life is crowded, a path of dust. Going forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. And, the reality is, it is not so easy going forth nowadays, particularly for a woman!

Next is the pursuit of moral discipline. I can always use a reminder about  right speech. To not engage in false speech, divisive speech, abusive speech, or idle chatter, is not easy to do consistently. Most helpful I have found, is to remember the inevitable karmic consequences from such action. Of course, mindfulness is the best protection.

Guarding the senses door, I take as an invitation to take all sensory experiences with a grain of salt. Carrying with me, Ajahn Chah's image of the wilted flower. Nothing to be enthralled by. Instead appreciating what each moment brings, and leaving it at that, not grasping for more. 

Mindfulness of all activities is such an underrated practice. Many times, I have stated the intention of bringing mindfulness into my every day life, consistently from dawn to dusk. Many times, I have not followed through. Only during retreats, have I been able to carry through. For now, I shall settle with good intentions and the appreciation for those times throughout the day when I remember to be mindful.

Being content with what I have or less even, is another goal worth exploring this year. I rely upon so many outer conditions for my most basic sense of well-being. Good food, preferably of the organic kind; enough money in the bank to protect from future hardships; the ability to spin every day at the Y; a warm home, I don't like to be cold; this computer and my iPhone, God forbid something happened to those precious possessions! decent looks, it's easy saying I don't care about those, as long as nature is good to me; the list goes on . . . 

Abandoning the hindrances is the next thing on the list, right before the chance to dwell in the first Jhana . . . It's been quite a ride, noticing the hindrances and exploring ways to set them aside.  Anxiety, anger, boredom, depression, envy, and grief, take turns to challenge mind and heart with their share of misery. The big lesson I learned is to not get lost into the objects of such states, but rather to see them for what they are, unwholesome fabrications of the mind, to be ridden of without question. 

What is your take?
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