Monday, February 8, 2016

My New Book: 'Caring For a Loved One With Dementia'

I am delighted to announce the release of my new book, 'Caring for a Loved One with Dementia: A Mindfulness-Based Guide for Reducing Stress and Making the Best of Your Journey Together'.

It was almost two years ago, when a New Harbinger editor approached me to write the book. I am glad. It feels good being able to offer what I learned to others going through the heroic journey of caring for a loved one with dementia.

Some of the stories I shared here in this blog, about caring long distance for my mother, made their way in the book. And I am grateful for it. Blogging allows a fluidity of words that can become stilted when writing 'a book'.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Listening to the Sound of Breath

This morning, sitting and minding the breath, an insight arose that  I would like to share. Up until now, I have always thought of awareness of breath and mindfulness of sounds as two separate practices. This morning, sitting, it struck me that both can be combined into one.

It goes like this:

Sitting, put the attention on the breath wherever it is most noticeable in the body. Linger a few minutes there, and in the midst of the surrounding quietness, start listening to the constantly changing sound of the breath. Sound of breath coming in, sound of breath leaving the body, and the silence in between. Let it carry your awareness.

For some such as myself, the sound of breath may be just what is needed to get the mind concentrated.

Paying attention to the sound of my own breath also made me think about all the times when I was privileged to sit next to someone dying, and how the sound of breath is such a big part of the life ending experience.

May you listen to the sound of breath. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Just Do It

Today, I found renewed inspiration for practice in Ajahn Chah's injunction to 'Just do it!'. It is so easy wanting to complicate practice, when in fact the idea is to just do it, meaning simply following the breath, and keeping at it for a set period of time.
Just keep breathing in and out like this. Don’t be interested in anything else. It doesn’t matter even if someone is standing on their head with their ass in the air. Don’t pay it any attention. Just stay with the in-breath and the out-breath. Concentrate your awareness on the breath. Just keep doing it. 
Don’t take up anything else. There’s no need to think about gaining things. Don’t take up anything at all. Simply know the in- breath and the out-breath. The in-breath and the out-breath. [In] on the in-breath; [out] on the out-breath. Just stay with the breath in this way until you are aware of the in-breath and aware of the out-breath....aware of the in-breath.... aware of the out-breath. Be aware in this way until the mind is peaceful, without irritation, without agitation, merely the breath going out and coming in. Let your mind remain in this state. You don’t need a goal yet. It’s this state that is the first stage of practice. 
... watch the inhalation to its full extent until it completely disappears in the abdomen. When the inhalation is complete then allow the breath out until the lungs are empty. Don’t force it. It doesn’t matter how long or short or soft the breath is, let it be just right for you. Sit and watch the inhalation and the exhalation, make yourself comfortable with that. Don’t allow your mind to get lost. If it gets lost then stop, look to see where it’s got to, why it is not following the breath. Go after it and bring it back. Get it to stay with the breath, and, without doubt, one day you will see the reward. Just keep doing it. Do it as if you won’t gain anything, as if nothing will happen, as if you don’t know who’s doing it, but keep doing it anyway. Like rice in the barn. You take it out and sow it in the fields, as if you were throwing it away, sow it throughout the fields, without being interested in it, and yet it sprouts, rice plants grow up, you transplant it and you’ve got sweet green rice. That’s what it’s about.  
Of course it is not so easy. The challenge lies in making it to one's seat and staying with the practice. What helps is knowing that in the end, the mind will eventually calm down, and we may get a chance to experience peace. Meanwhile, we let go of any goal, any desire for any outcome. And we just follow the breath.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Meditation is Easy for Old Folks

I have been re-reading the Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Such a delight and food for one's practice . . . I was especially interested in what he had to say about aging and mindfulness practice. A common view is that one should undertake mindfulness at a young age while one's health is still good. Ajahn Chah takes another stance, that I find worth sharing for the many older folks interested in taking up mindfulness practice. Here are some excerpts:
Older persons, who often can’t sit very well, can contemplate especially well and practice concentration easily; they too can develop a lot of wisdom. How is it that they can develop wisdom? Everything is rousing them. When they open their eyes, they don’t see things as clearly as they used to. Their teeth give them trouble and fall out. Their bodies ache most of the time. Just that is the place of study. So really, meditation is easy for old folks. Meditation is hard for youngsters. Their teeth are strong, so they can enjoy their food. They sleep soundly. Their faculties are intact and the world is fun and exciting to them, so they get deluded in a big way. For the old ones, when they chew on something hard they’re soon in pain. [...] When they open their eyes their sight is fuzzy. In the morning their backs ache. In the evening their legs hurt. That’s it! This is really an excellent subject to study. Some of you older people will say you can’t meditate. What do you want to meditate on? Who will you learn meditation from? This is seeing the body in the body and sensation in sensation. Are you seeing these or are you running away? Saying you can’t practice because you’re too old is only due to wrong understanding. The question is, are things clear to you? Elderly persons have a lot of thinking, a lot of sensation, a lot of discomfort and pain. Everything appears! If they meditate, they can really testify to it. So I say that meditation is easy for old folks. They can do it best. [...] You have to see it within yourself. When you sit, it’s true; when you stand up, it’s true; when you walk, it’s true. Everything is a hassle, everything is presenting obstacles – and everything is teaching you. Isn’t this so? Can you just get up and walk away so easily now? When you stand up, it’s “Oy!” Or haven’t you noticed? And it’s “Oy!” when you walk. It’s prodding you. When you’re young you can just stand up and walk, going on your way. But you don’t really know anything. When you’re old, every time you stand up it’s “Oy!” Isn’t that what you say? “Oy! Oy!” Every time you move, you learn something. So how can you say it’s difficult to meditate? Where else is there to look? It’s all correct. 
So now, you have no excuse!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time Is Not the Problem

Whenever I say I did not have time to meditate today, that is not true. Rather, it is that I did not use my time wisely. If I pay careful attention, and I add up all the minutes I spend each day on Twitter, Facebook, the Huffington Post, and late night TV, I come close to one hour at least, which is a good amount of time that could have been spent on mindfulness practice.

Apparently, I am not as bad as most . . . A survey earlier this year shows that the average time spent online is 6 hours, out of which 2 are spent on social media and microblogging. This is insane. We are spending almost one full day out of our week idling away on the phone or the computer. Not only is it valuable time that could be spent otherwise, starting with mindfulness practice, but the activity itself of constant checking for the latest updates does not give the mind any chance to rest in between necessary daily activities.

I do not have yet a solution, for I am as addicted as anyone else. I just want to put it out there, in an effort to start becoming more aware, and reclaim precious mind. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

6 Ways to Be With the Breath

Listening to one of Ayya Khema's many excellent recordings, I was reminded that there is not one but at least six different ways of being with the breath during awareness of breath sitting practice. Here they are:

1) Counting:
In your head, count one on the in-breath, one of the out-breath, and repeat until you get to ten. Then start over . . . Any time a distracting thought interrupts, or you loose track, just go back to one.

2) Word:
If you don't like numbers, use one word, the same one on each in-breath and each out-breath. You can use the word 'peace' for instance, or any other that works for you. 

3) Image:
If you have visual mind, imagine the breath coming in and out as an ocean wave or a cloud. When coming in with the breath, the wave gets smaller. As it goes out,  it gets bigger.

4) Sensations:
Pay attention to the sensation of the wind of breath on the nostrils, or the throat, or the lung. Follow the breath in, follow the breath out. Make sure to continue to stay with sensations in the body. 

5) Phases:
If practiced already, you can notice beginning, middle, and end of each breath. 

6) Contemplation:
If you cannot work with the breath, look at the impermanence of each breath, the constant coming and going. 

My practice of choice is the sensation approach, focusing on the physical experiencing of breath making its way through and out of the body. I have found focusing on the larger sensations such as the rising and falling of the belly much easier to do than let's say honing on the sensations in the nostrils. 

Find the one that works best for you, and stick to it!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why I Keep Going Back to Vedana

We are sensing beings. We sense, i.e. experience our environment through our five immediate senses, and also our mind. The quality of that sensing experience is called 'vedana' in Pali language, and it affects our life from the time we are born until our last breath. Vedana falls into three categories: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, and we usually react to each type in a predictable manner. We want more of the pleasant, and we push away the unpleasant. The neutral is usually too bland to be noticed by our ordinary consciousness.  Now, why does it matter, you may ask? A great deal, it turns out. In my experience, vedana, and our awareness of it or lack thereof, can be the difference between a life liberated from the tyranny of conditionality, and a life at the mercy of circumstances.

Looking back, I see that my original motivation for taking up mindfulness practice came from a misguided view. I was suffering and wanted a way out, and had this understanding that mindfulness would be the way to one day start feeling peace, happiness, and bliss. While it is true that practice can bring some of those wonderful states, the paradox lies in the fact that wishing for those can actually be an impediment to freedom and joy. Only within the past few years, have I come to let go of such foolish wish, and instead reconcile with the truth that each moment is to be experienced for what it is. This has enabled me to more fully relax into each moment, no longer having to dread or wish away the inevitable, all the 's...' that always comes sooner or later. In relationships, it helps not personalize annoying encounters. This person was a pain, he or she caused me grief, and in the end, it does not matter so much. What does count is the recognition of yet another unpleasant moment, and my automatic reaction to it, the familiar internal clenching, the tightening against the experience. Mindfulness can help catch it before it gets too entrenched, and before the mind seals it with its share of stories about this thing, this person, this event. The mind becomes trained to tell itself, 'unpleasant, this is unpleasant', and to not make too big of a deal of it.

Now, the best way to loosen vedana's hold is not so much in the unhappy moments, but rather during times when all is well and we find ourselves really liking 'this'. Next time such a moment arise, pause and notice your body and mind's inclination to want to hang on. It feels so good, we want more, and we don't want the feeling to stop. We start grasping, and when the time comes and the goodness slips away,  as it is bound to, we experience suffering. The trick is in not hanging on so much to the pleasantness. That way we are less likely to experience vedana burn as I call it, the same way we won't get rope burn if we don't hang on to the rope when it gets pulled away. Every time, I find myself transported with euphoric feelings, the bell goes on in my head, warning me to not get so carried away. That moment that feels sooooo wonderful right now, that too shall pass. Which is not to say, that feelings get dulled, to the contrary. One can feel great joy, yet be loose around it. The mind knows and becomes more impartial regarding the happenstance of pleasantness or unpleasantness. The mind trains itself to cultivate the beautiful quality of equanimity.