Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Memory Does

The last three days, I have walked down memory lane, back to my roots. Visiting the farm house, spending time with my mother, hearing the old folks speak with their unmistakable accent, gazing at the luminous sky, venturing in the few vineyards remaining, buying walnut oil at the local merchant, shielding from the familiar hot sun, and enjoying the coolness inside the thick, ancient walls, . . . Now, I am in the train that takes us back to Paris, same one we used to take at the end of every summer.

Memories are powerful. They grab one by the heart, not leaving mind a chance to process even. As we speed further and further away from the place I call home, I find right inside my throat, and my chest, a bittersweet mixture of fondness and grief. Nothing to do, other than being with. 

And I think about post I wrote a few days ago, about the wisdom of guarding the sense-doors, and I say no, not now.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Gift of Mind

Jetlag is getting best of me, dulling mind and tiring body. There is not much to do but be with diminished capacities, and appreciating what I know to be transient nature of discomfort. I tend to take the mind's ability to think clearly, so much for granted. Today, as I lay in hotel bed, wanting to sleep, but unable to, trying to read some more of Ayya Khema, and having to give up, setting out to meditate, only to find uncooperating mind, I realize what is most dear to me. Mind. 

And I think of my mother, whose mind has been playing tricks on her, for five years now. And I  can only surmise what it must be like to have one's mind not to be counted on, any longer. Jetlag is providing me with gift of deepened empathy for her invisible pain. I realize the importance of not setting her up for failure when I talk with her. Not asking questions she does not have answers for. Instead asking the simple ones that make her feel in control still. Or complimenting her on what makes her proud, like her good physical health, and her youthful looks. 

I dedicate this post to the millions of people in the world who, like my mother, are suffering from diseases of the mind. May they find peace, and relative happiness in the midst of their suffering. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Not Forgetting to Guard the Sense Doors

In France, with plenty of time to spare, in between visits to mother in the nursing home. Ayya Khema has been keeping me company with 'Who Is My Self?: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation', one of the best Dharma books I have read in a very long time. In it, Ayya Khema interprets and explains in plain English the Potthapada Sutta, the Buddha's famous teaching about the true nature of the 'self', and the path to get there. 

I had read before about the importance of guarding the senses, but had not quite gotten it until I hit Ayya Khema's chapter on the topic. Guarding the senses seconds the five precepts, the first step along the path. It is followed by mindulness and clear comprehension. In my practice so far, I realize I have  been quick to jump over to mindfulness, not bothering with critical intermediate stop of guarding the senses. 

Ayya Khema elaborates on the following passage from the sutta:
'Here a monk, on seeing a visible object with the eye, does not grasp at its major signs or secondary characteristics. Because greed and sorrow, evil unskilled states, would overwhelm him if he dwelt leaving this eye-faculty unguarded, so he practices guarding it, he protects the eye faculty, develops restraints of the eye-faculty. . .  On hearing a sound with the ear, . . . on smelling an odor with the nose, . . .  on on tasting a flavor with the tongue, on feeling an object with the body, . . . on thinking a thought with the mind . . . He experiences within himself the blameless bliss that comes from maintaining this Ariyan guarding of the faculties. In this way . . . a monk is a guardian of the sense-doors.'

Using her down to earth feminine wisdom, Ayya Khema guards us against common misinterpretations:
Most of the time, this is misunderstood and wrongly practiced. It is taken to mean, not to look, not to hear, not to taste, not to touch. This is quite impossible. Our senses are there; we must look, hear, taste, touch, smell. Our mind refuses not to think, as we very well know from our meditation . . .
and explains what is really being said:
When the eye sees, it simply registers color and shape. All the rest takes place in the mind. For instance, we see a piece of chocolate. The eye sees only the brown shape. It is the mind that says: "Ah, chocolate! That tastes delicious - I want a piece!" Not to grasp at the major signs or secondary characteristics is to stop the mind from doing exactly that. 
We can practice this easily with anything we either very much like or very much dislike . . . 
. . .  
If we are easily swayed by what we see, the best thing to do is to recognize the sense-contact and stop the mind at the perception, the labeling. It is very hard to stop it before that. So, for example, if we see a person, or even think of a person, for whom we have hate or greed, someone we either dislike or long for intensely, we should practice stopping at the label, person friend, male, female. Nothing further. The rest is our desire. That is what is meant by guarding the sense-doors.
Our senses are our survival system. It is much easier to survive if we can see and hear than if we are blind or deaf. Most people assume, however, that the senses are there in order to provide them with pleasure. We use them in that way and become angry when they fail to do so. We then blame the trigger. If someone displeases us, we blame that person. It has nothing to do with the other person, who, like us, is made up of the four elements, has the same senses, the same limbs, and is looking, as we are, for happiness. There is nothing in that person that is producing displeasure. It is all in our own mind.  
Exactly the same applies when we think another person will provide us with pleasure . . . There is no reason to look to that person for pleasure or blame then for not providing it. All we have to do is see "person". Nothing more. There are so many "persons" in this world, why should we allow this particular one to arouse our syndrome of desire-distaste?
If we guard our senses, we guard our passions, which enables us to live with far greater equanimity. We are no longer on that endless seesaw; up, when we are getting what we want, down, when we are not, which induces a continual inner feeling of wanting something that just escapes us. Nothing that is to be had in the world, anywhere, under any circumstances, is capable of bringing fulfillment. All that the world can provide are sense-contacts - seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking. All are short-lived and have to be renewed, over and over again. This takes time and energy, and here again it is not the sense-contact itself that satisfies us. It is what the mind makes of it. Guarding the sense-doors is one of the most important things we can do, if we want to lead a peaceful, harmonious life, untroubled by wanting what we do not have, or not wanting what we do have. These are the only two causes of dukkha; there are no others. If we watch our sense-contacts and do not go past the labeling, we have a very good chance of being at ease.
Starting right now,  with sensation of heat in body, from hot summer day. If I am not careful, I can easily go into aversion mode, and make myself miserable. No, instead, I shall use the information from my senses and take right action, drinking some water. And leave it at that. Staying 'cool' . . .

I love you, Ayya Khema!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I Went Back

I went back yesterday to la maison de ma mere. The only place in the world where I have kissed the earth.

I went back with my daughter. This is a women's house.

I went back and visited each and every room, as I always do. And opened the big armoires, all three of them.

I went back, and said to myself, 'No more'.

I went back, and saw the passage of time, clearly. Pictures of ancestors whose names I never knew, and my grandmother's old wedding garland.

I went back, and tried to keep my heart shut, not wanting to cry.

I went back, and was met by the old, familiar smell of mold, in the kitchen. The light was dim, and I poured ourselves some water.

I went back, and took one last picture of my daughter and I, in the overgrown yard.

I went back, and left, closing with great difficulty the big portal.

Cool Meditation Places in France

In preparation for my trip to France, I have been researching all the mindfulness meditation centers and teachings there. 

Places to sit, and go on retreat:

Le Village Des Pruniers (Plum Village)

Online only resources: 

Lots of beautiful places, and great teachers! On my to-do list is a retreat at Plum Village, and also Moulin de Chaves . . . Not this time, though. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Dangers of Gratitude

Gratitude is a beautiful emotion. Almost too much so.

As I investigated my thankful mind this morning, I found hiding right behind gratitude, two not so noble  mental states.

First was aversion. When it comes down to it, gratitude is almost always linked to the realization of what life would be without that thing we are grateful for. As I linger in the appreciation of the warm shower welcoming my body, the thought arises of not having warm water, or no water at all, two possibilities with a definite tinge of unpleasantness. It is that thought that precipitates the feeling of gladness from the relief of not having to experience what one does not like.

Second state is greed. I find it a challenge to feel grateful without also becoming attached to the thing I am happy for. That's because gratitude is intimately linked to a pleasuring of the senses or the mind. Staying with the shower example, I was very well aware of my intense liking of the hot shower. I have been in situation where there was only so much heat to go around, and the water all of the sudden became cold, and I can remember the disappointment, the irritation from no longer having what felt so good.

Mindfulness is the best antidote of course, to keep gratitude in its pure state, without the taints from aversion or greed.

All of the above, very twisted, I know . . .

Friday, June 25, 2010

Lowering the Bar

I have been going enough times now, to Zen Hospice, to notice a trend. I come out of my days there, in a markedly improved mental state compared to how I felt when I went in. Other volunteers report a similar experience. We are also all feeling an overall change for the better in terms of the way we deal with life in general. 

This may seem kind of strange, and definitely at odds with the public perception of work with the dying. The "How do you do it?" type of reaction.

What has been happening is a mental shift, realizing that I can take nothing, absolutely nothing for granted. As in the fact that I am able to type these words on the keyboard right now, and see the letters dancing on the screen, and smell the incense burning on my desk, and not feel pain in my body, and enjoy the full capacity of my mind, and not being tired, and being able to sit up straight, and not having to wear a diaper, and being able to breathe freely, and knowing that I can get up if I want to, and that I don' have to rely on others for the littlest things . . . 

I call it lowering the bar of my expectations, to almost nil. A dramatic overturn of the way I used to be before the dying taught me. A lesson I had read many times before, in the books, but never quite got. 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bric-a-brac In the Mind

Every day, I go by this house. Every time, I am appalled, and wonder how can 'those' people live like this?

And from there, inevitably, the sobering realization that I am a hoarder just like them. Only, of a different kind. 

When I stop long enough, I can see the clutter in my mind. A bric-a-brac of thoughts, most of them junk. 
To be rid of.

How about you? How much space is there in your mind, right now?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"When I Walk, I Walk"

More powerful than many Suttas I have read, easiest to recall when most needed, is one simple line from Sylvia Boorstein's grandfather, as related in her book, It's Easier Than You Think. That line is:

"When I walk, I walk"

Today, biking to Printers Inc, our neighborhood coffee shop, to meet my daughter, the words came up just like that. "When I walk, I walk" meaning of course, "When I bike, I bike".

Paying attention to the road ahead, and the burn in my thighs from pedaling hard, and keeping my back aligned, and feeling the oh! so slight brush of the air against my face. Just biking . . .

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

3 Mindful Ways to Be With Someone in Pain

This is part II of Vidyamala Burch's pearls of wisdom, on chronic pain, this time for person trying to help chronic sufferer:
1. Empathize and ground them in present:
The first thing I would try to do is simply connect with them as another human being who is suffering. I would try to help them feel that they are not alone in their pain and I would try to connect with them on the basis of empathy. I would talk to them about the fact that they will ever only experience the pain one moment at a time and ask them to examine how much of their distress is based on ideas of past and future (such as dreading future moments of pain). 
2. Laugh with them and help them find pleasantness in the moment: 
I would also ask them what is pleasant in their experience right now: It might be something very simple like having warm hands, or being in a beautiful room, or feeling the gentle sensations of breath in the body. By experiencing this directly they may be a little less overwhelmed by their pain. I would try to laugh with them. One thing I have found through my own practice of mindfulness and compassion is that it is always good to lighten up. Everything is changing and if I can let go into this broad sense of flow then I experience life as being much less heavy and stuck.
3. Model honesty and equanimity about present experience:
So I would try to empathise with their situation as deeply as I could, and I would try to engage on the basis of enjoyment of their company as well and in this way help them realize that chronic pain is just one element of life and that it is possible to be quite light about the situation if one isn’t dominated by the pain either through being overwhelmed or through being trapped into habits of avoidance and running away. I would try to exemplify a sense of being with the pain with great honesty, whilst simultaneously having a broad and open appreciation of all the other elements to the moment as well – many of which are joyful and pleasurable.
Simply beautiful. Nothing to add.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The 5 Step Model of Mindfulness for Pain

I have to share these pearls of wisdom from Vidyamala Burch, regarding 5 mindful steps of living with chronic pain:
1. Awareness:
I noticed that it was essential to be willing to engage with my actual experience of pain rather than block it or resist it and I noticed, paradoxically, that if I was locked into avoidance and blocking, then I also numbed myself to beauty and subtle positive emotions. When blocking I didn’t experience the pain so much, but then I only felt half alive, which was in itself unpleasant.
2. Moving towards the unpleasant:
So I realized that, after the first step of becoming broadly aware in a general sense, the next step for becoming mindful when living with pain is to find ways to very gently turn towards the pain and allow layers of resistance, avoidance and blocking to soften with tenderness and gentleness so one can begin to feel more fully alive. This is the second step – moving towards the difficulty.
3. Seeking out the pleasant in the moment:
I also knew that this was not the whole story and that, after having become more tender and open by turning towards pain and softening resistance, the next step was to be like an explorer seeking hidden treasure and to learn to pay attention to pleasurable states. So this is the third step – seeking the pleasant in the knowledge that it is always possible to find something pleasant if you learn how to pay subtle attention to your experience.
4. Holding both pleasant and unpleasant in broad awareness
The fourth step grows out of the previous steps and is a broadening of awareness to hold both the unpleasant and the pleasant within a very stable field of awareness that is infused with equanimity. You can see steps two and three as being like looking through a close-up lens of a camera to examine the details of experience, and then step four is like pulling back to a wide-angle lens that contains great variety within the same frame. Another important aspect of the fourth step is to see into the impermanent, fluid nature of experience and to allow both the unpleasant and pleasant to rise and fall without either resisting unpleasant experience on the one hand or grasping onto pleasant experience on the other.
5. Responding rather than reacting
The fifth step is the behavioural outcome of the previous four steps and is ‘choice’ – it is learning to live with creative choice in every single moment rather than being driven by habitual reactions. 
Simple. And also very powerful.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Beyond Words

She's lost in a world 
of her own; can't see
nor speak English.
Her brain almost gone,
she laughs to herself,
and sings in Chinese.
The rumor is,
she was an opera singer.
I call her name, 
and venture to touch 
her frail hand.
She lets me,
and resumes her singing.
I chime in with Frere Jacques,
Ding, Dang, Dong . . . 
Chinese opera and French rhyme
together, I feel the gentle tap 
of her middle finger on my wrist.
We are rocking.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

7 Ways to Scope Out a Good Buddhist on Twitter

Part of my morning ritual, is checking out new followers @minddeep, and deciding which ones to follow back. I have become pretty good at figuring out tweeples in a few seconds, just by taking a look at:
The picture:
Don't weird me out. Don't look too sexy. Smile. Even better, dress as a Buddhist monk (or nun) :)
The bio:
No new age-ish linguo, please. Instead sprinkle one of the magic words like 'meditation', 'Vipassana', 'zen', 'Buddhist', 'Dharma', etc
The website:
I prefer you don't sell stuff. I love it when you blog about the Dharma.
The ratio of 'followers' to 'following':
Greater than one usually tells me you've got something to say. But there are exceptions!
How recent is the activity?:
At least within the past month, and fairly frequent. Otherwise, how can I have a conversation with you?
List titles:
'Dharma', 'Buddhist', 'zen' lists tell me you are interested in the stuff.
The first page:
Do your tweets ooze mindfulness, loving kindness, authenticity, and Dharma intelligence?
Here is what I mean:

Any other ways, people use to discriminate who to let into their Twitter community of Dharma brothers and sisters?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Perfectly Closed Feedback Loop

Mindfulness-based Social Media, to live up to its true social nature, involves not one, but at least one other equally mindful practitioner, with the participants publicly responding to each other's messages, until the thread runs its natural course.  I had such an exchange today with Maia Duerr

Me: publishing blog post on 'The Mindfulness Revolution at Work', including grateful mention for Maia's research in the field.
Me: tweeting Maia, to let her know about post.
Maia: tweeting back to thank me.
Maia: tagging me in facebooking update mentioning my post, and adding sweet reference to my blog
Me: responding to Maia's update with appreciation
While this may feel like mutual admiration society, the net outcome on my side was the  happiness from a sweet feedback loop brought to perfect closure. If only all social media interactions were this kind, and complete . . . 

The Mindfulness Revolution at Work

It has been twenty years exactly since I stopped working in the corporate world, and I still remember the feeling of alienation that would overtake me every morning, as I stepped into my office on the twenty seventh floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. Corporate America was very different back then. Women had to wear pantyhose in the dead heat of summer, and dress like men with frumpy, dark suits and bow ties. People's performances were measured largely based on superficial perceptions, such as who put in the most amount of hours, or produced the most memos, or convened the most meetings. No attention was paid to the individual's well-being, and its impact on the whole organization's productivity. What I saw then, were people who were encouraged to bring only a very limited part of their selves to the workplace. None of this was made explicit, of course, as it was considered part of the cultural norms of work. I tried to cope as best as I could, and used to sneak out every lunch time, for a yoga class at the Yoga Circle. That was not enough. My whole, real self rebelled in the form of repeated panic attacks, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction that caused me to leave eventually after the birth of my first child. I never looked back.

Fast forward to now, and what a difference twenty years can make! While not mainstream yet, the idea that personal happiness can actually contribute to the good of the whole organization is making its way, slowly, in the media, in academic circles, in the field of organization development, in the minds of corporate luminaries, in actual places of work. Even better is the connection made between the practice of mindfulness, and a happier, more productive workforce. I could not be more pleased!

Below is a compilation of the best research I could find on the topic of mindfulness in the workplace:

From Center for Contemplative Mind in Society:

Practice in the Workplace 
I particularly want to thank Maia Duerr for her groundbreaking exploration of the field of contemplative practices in organizations, that she so generously shared in all the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society reports on the topic. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Back and Forth

A combination of restless mind and unhappy back had me do lots of walking, back and forth, throughout the day.

Each step
taking it slow,
welcoming the contact
with steady ground.

First the heel,
then the outer edge,
the ball of the foot,
and last, the toes.

Sucking up 
all the coolness 
from beneath.

A different take on the traditional practice of walking meditation. Different impetus. Same outcome of mind, calmed, and body, happy from no longer sitting. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Keeping Empty Mind and Open Heart

The first time I sat with residents at Zen Hospice, I came with an empty mind, and open heart. Not knowing anything about them, other than whatever little information I could gather from their physical appearance, and sometimes, a few personal items.  With each person, I sat and listened, with my ears, and my eyes, and I let each moment unfold with its own mystery. It felt easy.

Of course, I had questions. I wondered about their history. What had brought them here? What had their life been like before they got sick? What was their prognosis? How about their family? Did they have any friends? . . . I asked the people in charge. Should I bother to know more? 

The next time I came, I made sure to read up on each resident, before I set out in the ward. And got many of my questions answered. And something else too.

Right away, I noticed a change. Previously open mind was now filled with judgments, and preferences, and assumptions, and stories of my own, superimposed upon the dry, clinical facts I had just read. Sure, I was more informed, and maybe better prepared in some cases, but was the tradeoff really worth it? One can never underestimate the power of information. Diagnosis, labels, stereotypes, personal memories of past interactions, gossips, information gained through hearsay, . . . so many bits the mind can use to create distance in our heart, between ourselves and others. 

Not all is lost however. Under the gentle gaze of awareness, if is up to us to loosen the fixed views we hold of those we come in contact with. Keeping and cultivating in our mind, only those thoughts that open our heart, to all the possibilities within each moment. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Probability Game

A lot of my day to day tranquillity, I owe to the reassuring science of probability.

Sitting right now, writing this post on the computer, within the safe cocoon of my home office, in serene middle class neighborhood of small town in Bay Area, with all my loved ones within earshot, what are the odds that death shall strike any time soon? My feeling is, almost null. Of course, there is always the possibility of a major earthquake, but last time I checked, the USGS prediction was a 62% chance within next 30 years. I can't think that far ahead. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

3 Mindful Steps to Working With Chronic Pain

This morning, sitting, I was visited by various pains and aches. In the knees, in the shoulders, in the usual spot in my right lower back . . . There was frustration, and some anger also. Even breath was slipping away, making itself hard to follow. More than once, I was tempted to get up and walk away. I was glad I stuck with it however, as I got a chance to very clearly experience the cycle of pain - not liking - body tensing - more pain. In such moments, I was reminded of our very human tendency towards resisting physical pain, as expressed in reflexive recoil in our body. 

This is where mindfulness practice, along with wisdom, right effort, equanimity, and faith in proven process come into play. What kept me in my seat this morning, were the knowledge and prior experience, that there was much to be gained from not to fleeing, but sitting instead with the pain in a non reactive way. 

In their MBSR Workbook, Bob Stahl and Elisha Golstein, present a very helpful how-to three step approach to working with chronic pain in meditation:

1) Investigate the pain and tension in the body:
A common knee-jerk reaction to pain is to clench and get tighter around it. Unfortunately, this can not only increase the physical pain, it may also begin a vicious cycle of reactions that lead to increased anger, fear, sadness, and confusion. Getting tight around pain further constricts the muscles and restricts blood flow, which may cause more spasms and pain, possibly even in other areas of the body. This cycle is difficult to stop, and in time you may discover that you're constricted not just around the painful area, but throughout the body.
The body scan provides an opportunity for you to reorient toward living and working with tension and pain. As you reeducate yourself about your pain by distinguishing physical sensations from mental and emotional feelings, you can learn to recognize strong sensations in the body as just physical sensations . . . 
Once you become aware of how you hold pain in the body, you can start figuring out how best to work with it . . . Mindful awareness will not only allow you to see where you're holding unnecessary tension, but will also help you soften and possibly release tension in these areas where there's no pain at all. Mindfulness also teaches you that if you can't release the tension, you can practice riding its waves, just observing them, letting them be, and allowing them to ripple wherever they need to go.  
2) Working with the emotions in physical pain:
Bringing mindful awareness to emotions allows you to begin to acknowledge them, no matter what they are, validating and acknowledging them without censorship and without resistance. As with physical pain, resistance to difficult emotions often causes more pain while learning to let be and go with them, rather than fighting them, can often diminish or change the suffering associated with them . . . 
As you gain more understanding of your physical pain, your emotional reactions to it, and the differences between them, you'll begin to see that there's a difference between physical pain and suffering.  Even in times when you can't change the physical sensations of pain, you can change your emotional responses to them and thereby reduce your suffering. 
3) Living in the present moment:
When you identify with stress, tension, or chronic pain, you may think of it as a long-term problem or life sentence, and this attitude can take you out of the present moment and increase your suffering. Mindfulness teaches you to be here now. You don't know what the future may bring, and you really don't know if the stress and pain will last forever . . . 
Rather than being held hostage by your discomfort, you can cultivate the attitude that it's possible to learn from it. As you learn to let go of the past and not cling to a specific vision of the future, you'll be able to see things as they are in the moment, with a growing sense of freedom and the possibility of new options. This perspective transforms you, your pain, and your relationship to your pain.
Three proven steps that can change the way you live with your pain. Not easy, but well worth the effort. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Noble One

Last night, I was invited to marry le Comte de Lis, a French Count. In a dream . . . I woke up thinking about the obvious symbolism of the fleur-de-lis as a sign of nobility. And I started to wonder,  what does it mean exactly, to become noble, particularly within the scope of the Buddha's teachings.


From  The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bikkhu Bodhi's translation, on the noble disciple:

[He] regards material form thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' He regards feelings thus: 'This is not mine this I am not, this is not my self.' He regards perception thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' He regards formations thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' He regards what is seen, heard sensed, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.' - Alagadupama Sutta 22.16
Touched by that pleasant feeling, he does not lust after pleasure or continue to lust after pleasure. That pleasant feeling of his ceases. With the cessation of the pleasant feeling, painful feeling arises. Touched by that painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, and lament, he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. When that pleasant feeling has arisen in him, it does not invade his mind and remain because body is developed. And when that painful feeling has arisen in him, it does not invade his mind and remain because mind is developed.- Mahasaccaka Sutta 36.9
[He] knows what things should be cultivated and what things should not be cultivated, he knows what things should be followed and what things should not be followed. Knowing this, he cultivates things that should be cultivated and does not cultivate things that should not be cultivated, he follows things that should be followed and does not follow things that should not be followed. It is because he does this that unwished for, undesired, disagreeable things diminish for him and wished for, desired, agreeable things increase. Why is that? That is what happens to one who sees.- Mahadhammasamadana Sutta 46.4
[He] does not abide with a mind obsessed and enslaved by identity view; he understands as it actually is the escape from the arisen identity view, and identity view together with the underlying tendency to it is abandoned by him. He does not abide with a mind obsessed and enslaved by doubt . . . by adherence to rules and observances . . . by sensual lust . . . by ill will; he understands as it actually is the escape from the arisen ill will, and ill will together with the underlying tendency to it is abandoned in him.- Mahamalunkya Sutta 64.12
[He] does not regard material form as self, or self as possessed of material form, or material form as in self, or self as in material form. That material form of his changes and becomes otherwise. With the change and becoming otherwise of that material form, his consciousness is not preoccupied with the change of material form. Agitated mental states born of preoccupation with the change of material form do not arise together and remain obsessing his mind. Because his mind is not obsessed, he is not anxious, distressed, and concerned, and due to non-clinging he does not become agitated.- Uddesavibhanga Sutta 138.21 

Which I take to mean in plain English:

Having right view of life's impermanence, 
and not clinging to that which cannot last, 
and not resisting that which will not endure anyway. 

Freeing one self from false notion of rigid I 
who would like to think it is in control, 
and adopting instead view of self as interdependent 
with constantly changing internal and external phenomena, 
and people, and things, and situations.

Letting go of hindrances of doubt, and worry, 
and ill will, and craving, and laziness.

Being noble entails being wise,
and following the Four Noble Truths,
and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Makes perfect sense to me, given little I know of life so far. How could I refuse the inner marriage that was proposed to me?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Falsity of Hope

Hope is good. For many, it is the only reason to keep on living. The prisoner hangs on, thinking of the day when he will be released. The cancer patient looks at statistics, and finds solace in a greater than zero odd of remission. The spiritual seeker draws much strength from reading accounts of happiness awaiting. The participant in MBSR training keeps on coming to the group, inspired by tales of others before her who have cut their pain symptoms in half. The abused child seeks refuge in fantasies of another life, one day . . . 

Hope is sometimes the only thread left, between life and death.

Hope is also a double-edged sword, and a state of mind that keeps us in the future, and seals the deal of our present unhappiness. So many times, I find myself not liking the current moment, and hoping for, rehearsing a different life. If only . . . When . . . Some day . . . So many variations in the mind, around what really amounts to  a profound hatred of the present experience, and a denial of life itself. 

Hope lures us with its false sweetness. 

Hope is ok, as long as it comes with an acceptance of the now. A tricky balance,  best maintained by keeping hope contained in the broad field of big intentions, and out of moment-to-moment living. It's somewhat akin to steering our boat towards a lovely place, and then forgetting about our destination, and making room for all the experiences along the way. Not expecting anything else but what is offered to us, right now. The storms, the rough waves, the sleepless nights, the beautiful sunsets, the stillness, the dolphins . . . Not wasting a single minute of the journey.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

20 Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Healing

'Mindfulness-Based'. Add these two words to pretty much anything to do with psychotherapy, or healthcare, and you are sure to make a splash. A Google search turned no less that 20 mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches, all of them hybrids between Jon Kabat-Zinn's pioneering protocol for MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Reduction), and traditional healing techniques. Here they are, all 20 of them:

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Behavioral Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention
Mindfulness-Based Couples Therapy 
Mindfulness-Based Family Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Anxiety Reduction

And the list keeps on growing . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Aikido of Mindful Communication

How do you usually handle conflict?

Do you avoid?
Do you become passive-aggressive?
Do you play the victim?
Do you confront?


Do you blend?

I learned about the aikido concept of entering and blending during my MBSR teacher training:

Entering and blending is an aspect of mindful communication that is designed to help people break out of habitual reactions to threatening, emotional, or stressful interaction and instead blend with the other's energy in a way that reduces the conflict and does no harm to you or the other. 

Entering and blending involves four  steps:

Align- Put yourself in the other person's shoes, practicing mindful listening and asking for clarification if necessary,  as in "I want to understand your point of view better. Tell me more about what's going on." 
Agree- Find areas you can agree on , as you begin to look in same direction, as in "If I were treated that way, I'd be angry to", or "I am also disappointed about this situation", speaking only for yourself.
Redirect- Team up with the other person and work together to find a way to resolve the situation, as in "We're both disappointed about the situation. What can we do to make it better?"
Resolve- Explore what might be a mutually agreeable compromise, or just agreeing to disagree, as for example, "If I ate out less, could we get a housekeeper so we could spend more time together?"

Entering and blending also presupposes that you are mindful of your own internal state, to begin with. Giving yourself the space to notice first, rather than reacting immediately. This requires practice, and compassion for oneself:
One way to notice if you're reacting is by paying attention to your body. If anything is stiff or tense, you're probably reacting to your own discomfort and trying to avoid or ignore it. Use these physical sensations as a cue to acknowledge whatever thoughts and feelings are there, and bring yourself to the present by tuning in to the breath as it rises and falls. As you become centered and present, you make space to respond mindfully and with greater flexibility and creativity, rather than mindlessly reacting. As always, be patient and compassionate with yourself. 
Entering and blending, the high road to conflict resolution. 

(All quotes from A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction WorkbookBob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein's new book))

Monday, June 7, 2010

Her Last Hour

She did not have much longer to live,
I was told by the nurse.
In the blue quiet room, I sat by her bed
and took a good look at her,
whom I had just met.

She was working hard,
my breath no match for the rattle
 inside her throat.
I placed my hand on her sinewy wrist
and left it there. 

I looked around for some clues.
The date on her hospital bracelet
that belied her youthful face.
A picture of her, smiling,
and standing with loved ones.

And most useful,
a card from a friend, with godly words.
Prayers long forgotten,
I had to make up my own words
to let her know that God was with her.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Behind the Masks

One by one, I took down the masks 
behind which I hide

Flickr credit: MahPadilha

The psychotherapist
The blogger
The geek
The hospice volunteer
The thinker
The meditator
The woman
The poet
The mother
The wife
The daughter

And found nobody
To speak of.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Double Healing Power with MBAT (Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy)

An emerging therapeutic approach, Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy blends the two disciplines of mindfulness and art therapy. There is little research in the field to date, besides the controlled trial done by Caroline Peterson with cancer patients

What I know for sure, however, from years working as an art therapist with patients in partial hospitalization programs, is that art therapy is a powerful modality for many suffering from  a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, chronic illness, trauma, chronic pain, adjustments to life transitions, anger issues, personality disorders, psychotic states, etc . . . On a personal note, art has always been a part of my inner journey, whether in the form of paintings, sculptures, and more recently simple collages, and poems. Art therapy engages the creative, imaginative, soul-making part of ourselves. As such it helps with putting ourselves back as broken, and yet potentially whole people. It is both a process and a goal-oriented activity, that can be accomplished alone, or in the presence of an art therapist who then acts as witness, and also assistant of natural healing taking place during the person's art-making.

At San Jose State University Foundry
working on bronze sculpture - Spring 2005
(from San Jose State University Magazine)

Separately, I have also witnessed the potency of mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention, in my work with MBSR groups, hospice patients, and also individual clients. As with art therapy, I came to discover the transformative power of mindfulness, through the door of my own emotional and mental suffering. While mindfulness has taken the front seat in my journey towards self-healing, I have found expressive techniques to be a very useful adjunct during those times when strong emotions and difficult mental states arise.

Of course, in order for it to work, Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy requires that the therapist be deeply involved personally in both practices of mindfulness and art-making. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Loving Kindness, the Way It Works

I remember the first time I was introduced to loving kindness, during a weeklong retreat with Jack Kornfield at Joshua Tree. That was many years ago . . . Back then, Jack's sweet words were met with a categorical refusal on my part, and a string of dismissive thoughts:

Don't ask me to be kind. 
This is not how I feel.  
This is stupid.

Fast forward fifteen years later. Loving kindness has become an integral part of my daily life. A practice I routinely call upon when the emotions get to be too much, or when my heart aches for another person. 

Feeling fear, I relax into the arms of loving kindness. May I be at peace, may I be at ease, may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from fear . . . 

Feeling anger, I whisper those same words in the privacy of my mind and heart. May I have compassion for myself. May I suffuse that anger inside with love. may I free myself from it. 

Feeling worry, I calm myself down, and bring myself back to the present moment, gently. May I be free of worry, may I be at peace. 

Feeling grief, I soothe myself. May I be at peace, may I be at ease. May all beings be at peace. 

Feeling the anguish of loved ones or people I hardly know even, I write them lovingly kind words. A quick email, a tweet, . . . or a private thought. May you be free from suffering, may you be at peace, may you be at ease. 

Same with those who are difficult, and cause me to pause. May you be free from suffering, may you find peace, my heart is with you. 

Loving kindness has become my secret weapon of choice, for all the times when life gets a bit rough. Why such a change of heart? What caused me to give in? I offer the following explanation to those of you doubting still the power of loving kindness. 

Practicing loving kindness, does not mean feeling love at the exclusion of any other emotions. Rather it means calling upon loving kindness to enrobe all or the emotions inhabiting us in the present moment, many of which can be all but loving . . . It took a while to get this. 

One needs not be able to feel loving kindness when reciting the words at first. Actually, it triggers often quite the opposite. As stated by Jack Kornfield, in The Wise Heart, 'Initially, it can feel difficult to offer love to ourself: for many it can trigger feelings of shame and unworthiness . . . After many repetitions, strong love for oneself can be established.' 

It may take reaching the bottom to have one's heart finally open to the practice of loving kindness. For me, it was experiencing states of overwhelming fear. When there is nothing left to do, why not give loving kindness a chance?

There is also good scientific evidence for why loving kindness works. Our emotions are shaped by our thoughts. If we retrain ourselves to substitute lovingly kind thoughts for our usual messages of self-hatred, over time, it is to be expected that our overall well-being will increase. 

Loving kindness. So simple. Yet incredibly powerful.

May you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be at ease, may you be healthy. :)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Woman Who Saved My Back

For the past five years, I have suffered from severe chronic back pain. The surgeon offered his services, but I declined. I had heard too many stories about botched back surgeries. While meditation helped tremendously, to the point where I could go for extended periods of time, feeling almost no pain, it  did not address the physical cause. So be it, I thought.

Until I met Esther Gokhale.

Esther's office is only a few blocks from my house. She also happens to be a back guru whose reputation keeps on expanding. She has been endorsed by the Mayo Clinic. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation is doing a research project on her technique. She saved Joan Baez's back. She has been written up in Vogue . . . And several of my friends swear by her.

She was also invited to give a talk to Google employees, part of Google Talks Series:

Esther showed me how my posture was all wrong. Feet falling inward, instead of assuming their original kidney shape. Knees locked, instead of being relaxed. Pelvic bowl tipping back instead of forward. Spine overextended in the front, instead of in the back, shoulders hunching forward instead of back, chin  up instead of head and neck straight . . . No wonder my back had given up! 

Esther told me to read her book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, and to sign up for her six class series. I am almost through, and can't say enough. I have relearned how to walk, and sit, and lie down, and lift, so as to not stress my back, using proper posture, and all the right muscles. The pain is gone, really gone. And, I can now experience again the satisfaction of meditating on a cushion, as opposed to a chair!

I am feeling so grateful!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

On the Fence

On the fence
where aversion and craving meet
not liking present moment
wanting another place, another time

I get caught in the prickly embrace
of barbed wire
a familiar feeling from way back.
I used to think
something was wrong.

So much unpleasantness
could not be normal,
and I would make up stories
about why.

That was before I knew,
we are all sitting on the fence.
Somewhere between breaths,
with heart and mind both willing,
sweetness awaits.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It's All Good

Wandering mind came and went, many times over this morning. And with each return of full attention, I remembered:
Each time we awaken to no longer being present to ourselves or to another is, paradoxically, a moment of presence. If we are willing to see the whole of our lives as practice, our awareness of the moments when we are not present, coupled with our intention to awaken, brings us into the present.
-Saki Santorelli, Heal Thyself
No use berating oneself for not being present. Instead, allowing for the joy of being, that includes all states, and makes room for our humanness.

I feel so free!