Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Top 4 Mindfulness Practice Blogs

I would like to take advantage of the upcoming Blogisattva Award to publicly name my absolute favorite Buddhist blogs. Of course, this selection reflects my own bias towards fellow bloggers who share my interest in open sharing of one's mindfulness practice:

Sharanam (Katherine Rand)
ZendDotStudio (Carole Leslie)
Peace Ground Zero (Emily Breder)
Digital Zendo (Jaye Seiho Morris, the only guy in the bunch . . .)

Consider it as a gesture of appreciation for those from whom I have learned so much about the art of mindfulness practice.

I also recognize there are many other very fine Buddhist bloggers, with a different focus. I trust that they too will get recognized for their contributions in fields as varied as Buddhist studies, engaged Buddhism, etc . . . 

Now heading over to the Blogisattva Award website to fill in my nomination form! I encourage you to do the same.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Proving Rinpoche Right

Using Substitution to Deal With Grief and Other Difficult Emotional States.

"Make a different emotion", was one of the ways I was taught by Mingyur Rinpoche, to deal with a difficult emotional state. At the time, I had wondered . . . 

Today, I finally experienced firsthand what Rinpoche meant. Actually, I did not make a different emotion. Rather, a different emotion made itself. 

I woke up feeling the effect of the day before at Zen Hospice. A feeling of intense grief from having accompanied two of the residents there, close to the death door. I knew to take it easy, and cleared my calendar. Slowly drank my morning tea, read all three sections of the New York Times, sat in the sun, petted the dogs, went swimming . . . All good, but not enough. The fragility was still there.

A petty argument with my mate, about bread gone stale, succeeded where all the earlier TLC had failed. So annoyed I was by such a ridiculous episode, that I was soon filled with hot energy. Previously weak heart, started beating furiously again. Gone the grief, in the anger. I could move on now . . . 

This is what Rinpoche meant. The heart can only be filled with one strong emotion at a time, just like the mind can only entertain one thought at once. 

Letting Go Lesson

AIDS had dealt him its final blow, and now it was death's turn to march in with its unmistakable signs. Even the purple spray bottle, that's used to moisten the mouth of those during their last hours, had been stored away. There were was nothing left to do but sit, and be with Doug. Amidst the narrow space,  between the huge oxygen bottle, the long tube, and his bed, I managed to squeeze in a chair.  

Sitting, I was struck by the poignancy of Doug's situation. Doug was dying alone in the midst of the Laguna Honda open ward. His body showed signs of what must have been a hard life, with messy tattoos scattered all along his arms. I wanted to know more about him. During our first encounter last week, I had not been able to make sense of his words, only than he had just come from UCSF. Looking around Doug's bed, I found no personal belongings, other than a bible, and even that, I was not sure was his. Inside the holy book, a business card from a social worker at UCSF, and a dirty envelope with his name hastily scribbled, that held pictures of a lonesome baby cat.

Sitting, I took in the tension between Doug's almost complete stillness, and my own agitation. Despite all my intention to be calm and open, something inside was resisting. There was tightness in the throat, and the chest, and the stomach also. A whole blockade meant to oppose, and cling. The longer I sat, the stronger the walls of the fortress. Meanwhile, I could feel Doug drifting away more and more, into a place of utter surrender, with only a few rises and falls of the chest, here and there. Light, effortless.

Sitting, I let Doug show me the way. And I realized I need not wait until death comes, to let go.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Real Cause of Mental Pain

When To Meditate, and When To Contemplate.

It hit me last night. One dart, strategically shot, that left my heart bleeding . . . Of course, reactive mind chimed in, and pushed the dart further in, causing even more suffering. Something had to be done. I knew better than to give 'poor me' voice much weight. Sure, I had been done wrong by someone close, but still, that was no reason to take on the sad, angry role of victim. I remembered Ayya Khema's advice. Meditation would do me no good in this situation. Instead,
"What you could do at such time would be contemplation. Sit down where nobody will disturb you, and focus on the pain to find out it s cause, why it should have arisen. Do not be satisfied with an answer such as "Because so-and-so said something"- that's only the superficial cause of it. That would have been the trigger, but there's no cause for mental pain unless there's something inside oneself that is reacting to that trigger. It is useful first to find the outer trigger, which is probably well known to you. It could be a sense of futility, anxiety about the future - any kind of trigger is possible."
Sitting down at my desk, I was able to put my finger on the outer trigger. Yes, anxiety about the future, and also of not being able to rely on the other person.
"Then you need to find in yourself the reason for the reaction creating pain. The reason has to be "I don't want it the way it is." There can be no other."
Yes, I have a big need for security. Anything that threatens it, triggers a strong personal reaction of fear.
But why don't we like it the way it is? Usually the answer is "Because my ego is not supported." The bottom line of the whole inquiry is always the "ego", but it's useless to say, "I know it is my ego" and then continue to have the pain. It is useful , however, to go through the whole process of the trigger, the personal reaction , the inquiry into the cause of the reaction and then the understanding that the reaction is our dukkha and not the trigger.  I have a formula: "Don't blame the trigger." Never let the mind stay with the trigger; always investigate what and who is reacting. Unless we find the reaction to the trigger in ourselves, we are going to repeat the same performance with the same result over and over again, like a preprogrammed computer printout. Press the same buttons and the same printout appears, until we finally realize that it is nothing but a button being pressed, and that we don't have to have the same printout. We are in a position to be able to stop ourselves.
There is so much freedom in no longer looking for cause outside of oneself. I, not the other person is responsible for my pain, and that at least, I can do something about. In this case, I asked myself the question, why do I give the other person so much power? Why can't I find the security I need within myself? Down the ladder, I went, asking more why's, all to do with me, and no one else.
In the beginning that may be painful because we have to look at ourselves in a new way. We need no have this exaggerated idea of our own worth, nor do we need an exaggerated idea of our nonworth. We can learn just to accept the way things are. Sitting on the pillow at such a time is very good, but trying to meditate is often useless; contemplate instead. The subject of the contemplation is to be: "The cause of mental pain."  
~ From 'When The Iron Eagle Flies', pages 76-77, by Ayya Khema ~

What are some forms of inquiry, that you practice, and that complement your meditation practice?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Labeling or Felt Noting?

4 Questions About Mental Noting During Meditation.
With great respect, I continue to read Ayya Khema. This time on how to work with strong emotions and thoughts during meditation:
A very important way to work with these is to label them, drop them, and then go back to the breath . . . 
. . . We give the disturbance a name, identify it, so that we know what it is; then we drop it and get back to the breath. The thought or emotion dissolves by itself after having been labeled, because we have become an objective observer. We are no longer subjective. As an observer we watch the occurrence, but we do not go into it, and therefore there is space for the emotion to fold up and vanish.
If Ayya Khema was still alive, I would engage her in the following questioning:
What happens when one cannot clearly identify the emotion and the bodily sensations associated with it?
Even when one 'knows' the emotion that is experienced, doesn't labeling run the risk of tying one into thinking mind?
Instead of labeling, would it be more beneficial instead to engage in felt noting? - I just made up the expression felt noting, to describe the act of experiential noting, in felt, not verbalized sense. When I sit, I am aware of various states, in deeply felt sense. 
Does putting words on experience run risk of reducing it? Even if I know I am experiencing anger, the word anger itself is loaded with connotations that may not do justice to the more complete, felt experience. Same with the breath. Rather than noting 'rising, falling, rising, falling . . .' as instructed by U Pandita, for instance, woudn't a more skillful way be to just be with the experience of each in and out breath?

What is your take?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Images of the Path

What Does Your Dharma Path Look Like?
Whenever I think about walking the Dharma path, I envision a flat, windy road amidst the countryside. Last night's dream gave me a different image. That of a tall snowy mountain, with Bob Stahl and Jack Kornfield as my companions . . . Our hike up through the cold, deep snow was strenuous*, and we had stopped for a break, and a chat.

Flickr photo - Alex Eylar

I would love to hear about your path. What does it look like?

* Maybe this has to do with 'The Hard Path to Happiness'?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Learning From the Inside Out

A Lesson In Compassion From Richard Taylor, Alzheimer's Expert.

Richard Taylor, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist, Alzheimer's sufferer and advocate, and author of the book, 'Alzheimer's From the Inside Out'. Here is a taste of what Richard can teach us about compassion, and mindful relating:

For more lessons from Richard, you can read his book of course, or visit his website and blog. You can also read a speech he gave last year in Paris.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ayya Khema's Take On The Body Scan

The body scan meditation is one of the pillars of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). I find Ayya Khema's take on it - she calls it 'sweeping' - worth spending time on. Here are some relevant excerpts from her book 'When the Iron Eagle Flies', chapter on 'Mindfulness of Feelings and Sensations':
In one aspect, this is a method of purification  . . . [It] is quite specific, as becomes clear when we remember that our physical reactions to our emotions are constant and immediate, and we are unable ever to stop them . . . 
Our emotional reactions have no other way of manifesting themselves than through our body. Since birth, we have been dealing with our emotions in this manner, or maybe we could say "misdealing." The body has always reacted and has eventually retained some of these reactions in the form of tensions and blockages. This meditation method has the potential for removing blockages, or at least rendering them somewhat less obstructive, depending on the strength of our concentration, and also our karma . . . 
[This] method . . . can be likened to an internal shower. What the mind has put in through emotional reactions, the mind can remove by letting go. 
Letting go is the open secret of purification. Every time we move from one place in the body to the next, we have let go of whatever arose in the previous spot. In the end we let go through our fingertips and through our toes* into the room, because there is no longer any other body part to which we can move. We are thereby cleaning up, taking an internal shower, removing some of the inner blockages. Since this is a great help physically, our minds also feel more at ease. We don't have as many difficulties with the body an more, an we can use our mental energies unhampered by discomfort. 
This technique also has a healing quality. Anyone with some concentration can easily get rid of a headache, or even backache. Some sicknesses that are deeply rooted will be more difficult to eradicate, and indeed may be impossible to get rid of. But minor difficulties that are not chronic can be removed fairly easily. The technique has, however, many more possibilities. 
One of its important aspects is that we learn to let go of feelings, so that we need not react. Feelings comprise physical sensations and emotions . . . Here we have a method by which we can actually become aware of feelings, without any reaction being necessary. Even if anger arises, this is one occasion when we know with certainty that nobody has caused it. It has arisen, and this may be the first time in our life that we are aware of anger arising without any outside trigger. The same applies to grief, worry, fear, or any of our other emotions. 
This method also gives us an opportunity to become aware of sensations that at times are unpleasant. If we drop them and move our attention to the next part of the body, we perform exactly the same action-namely, non reaction to an unpleasant sensation by letting go of rejection. We are letting go by putting our attention elsewhere.  
This method teaches to deal with all our feelings with equanimity . . .  
Ayya Khema makes it sound so easy! My personal experience of the body scan has not been so dramatic. I would even venture as far as admitting a certain resistance to it . . . Maybe now is the time to revisit?

What is your experience of body scan meditation?

*.I was taught to do the body scan starting with the feet, which is the traditional MBSR way, as taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Ayya Khema does it in the opposite direction, starting with the top of the head, and then sweeping down the rest of the body, part by part. I am not sure it makes any difference, as long as the whole body is covered. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Hard Path to Happiness

Another Lesson From Zen Hospice, About the Power of  Seeing and Embracing Suffering.

Sitting with Doug*, a new resident on the ward, I got a confirmation of what it does to consciously be with all of one's experience, including the yucky stuff. It was hard to understand Doug. The tube in his throat helped him breathe, but had the unfortunate effect of muddling his words. Still, we managed. He asked me to turn on the TV. Doug's gaze was intense. I looked at the bare environment around his bed. Not a single personal object in sight. Doug settled on the Bay Area Bargains channel. The topic was home insulation and its benefit for large homes. The talk host, a bouncy middle age woman, took us inside the various rooms of a magnificent mansion, where she excitedly discussed the topic at hand with an expert. Doug seemed unfazed. I, on the other hand, couldn't help but react to the contrast between this place, where Doug and I sat, and that other world that was presented to us.  I wondered what Doug felt. 

Next to us, with only a thin curtain to separate us, we could hear Diana*, my favorite aide, giving Doug's neighbor his bath. Ears mobilized, and nose also. The smell of dirty diaper taken off, and body being cleansed grabbed me at the nostrils. Sitting with much unpleasantness, I struggled with staying in my spot. "You let me know, whether you want me to stay or leave." I asked Doug. He motioned for me to stay. This is just like sitting meditation, I thought. The trick is in surviving the aversion, without acting on it. And so, I kept on sitting with Doug, until it was time for Diana to take over, and give him his bath. 

Several more times throughout my shift, I encountered the unpleasantness, and I saw it for what it was. The opportunity, each time, to go against the grain of deeply ingrained habit, that causes me to want to flee what does not feel good. A day at Zen Hospice is like regular life on steroids. Same suffering, only magnified a thousand times. Same aversion to suffering, only so strong it cannot be ignored. And the obvious conclusion, that the only way out of the suffering is not to try to escape its reality, for that only makes it worse. No, the only way out, is to go deep into the suffering, and the natural aversive response to it, and to breathe with it, to feel it completely, and to embrace it. No cope out. That would defy the whole purpose. 

And now, the punch line. Out of the ward, I walked, heart filled with much lightness and joy. Feeling so completely whole.

* Not real name, to protect privacy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In the Fog, Mindfully

Using Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with Alzheimer's Patients.

Another application of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) is with people suffering from Alzheimer's. Here is a first hand account from Marcel Brasey, as shared in his speech at the 'The Alzheimer's disease: a social challenge' Conference, ten years after his initial diagnosis of Alzheimer's:
What really enabled me to survive, has been the psychological support from which I benefited during the past year plus. Within the daily fog, I can once again find my way, comfortably myself… 
I discovered a technique and a philosophy of stress reduction: mindfulness meditation, as developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. As a result of this practice, one learns how to release oneself from negative ruminations, to accept setbacks, to let go of distortions, to see things as they really are, even during times of great personal challenge, interpersonal conflict and grave disease. 
Over the past year, I was fortunately to be able to take part in the first organized Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) group organized under the auspices of the memory center at the University hospitals of Geneva.
I never cease to be amazed by the versatility of MBSR. I also wonder about other possible mindfulness-based protocols that could be designed specifically for the ones suffering from Alzheimer's. Something to explore further . . .

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What Is It?

A Visual Poem on Direct Versus Mediated Perception.

Walking in the park, 
 I see 
bright green sticks,
dancing in the dark.

Thinking mind thinks
it knows better,
and whispers,
grass, it's grass.

Friday, August 20, 2010

21 Heart Lessons From The (Supposedly) Mindless Ones

Ron, Alice, Jane, the Chinese opera singer, and of course my mother, have done more to open my heart than hours of sitting meditation and listening to Dharma talks. This post is my way of paying tribute to them, my elder friends, whose minds are increasingly escaping them, as dementia makes further inroads into their brains. Here is what I learned from them so far:
  1. Go with the flow, and drop all expectations of how things should be.
  2. Living in the present is a beautiful thing.
  3. Dropping memories from the past takes care of grudges and resentments; every new moment gives one the chance to start fresh.
  4. Worries about the future are a product of overly thinking mind; let go of thoughts and peace ensues.
  5. Our usual idea of the self is an illusion that goes away once thoughts disappear.
  6. More letting go, more opportunity to practice and become wise.
  7. True love is about accepting the one as he or she is, not what I want him or her to be.
  8. Where does attachment to thinking mind comes from? 
  9. Beyond words, beyond thoughts, lies the beauty of heart to heart connection.
  10. Heart connections can transcend explicit memory, and seep down to deeper level of implicit memory.
  11. Raw suffering has a way of finding its way to otherwise closed heart, cracking it open enough for love to rush in.
  12. Empathy, love, compassion, patience fill up one's heart with goodness; and that's a good feeling.
  13. Mindfulness of heart, body and mind, opens doors to self and other one's reality.
  14. Caring heart endures even when thinking mind has long quit.
  15. Without the perfect facade of thinking mind, the only option left is complete authenticity. 
  16. Giving other a chance to still care for me is a gift to him or her.
  17. Appreciation only costs a few words, yet causes so much joy in the other one's heart.
  18. Sustained mindfulness and kindness require hard work; lapses are to be expected, this is where loving kindness comes into play.
  19. Judgments, opinions, expectations, are all products of small mind; they need to dissolve under the lens of mindfulness.
  20. Behind each word, each action, each thought, there is logic; that I don't always understand is no reason to dismiss or judge unfavorably the other one's behavior.
  21. Who is being served? we both are . . . by each other.
Related posts:
Stepping Into Ron's Shoes
Sitting With Alice
Letting The Heart Open Wide
Dancing With Jane
The Gift Of Mind
Beyond Words
The Power Of Connection
Her Last Gift
The Gift And Curse Of Memory

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's Wrong With This Moment?

Walking, biking, standing, 
sitting, talking, writing,
lying down, driving, swimming . . . 
I often encounter 'it',
a general feeling of dislike
about this moment.

I know all the signs:
tightness in the throat, 
stomach in a knot,
bitter taste in the mouth,
sadness in the heart,
and tiredness all over.

Inside thinking mind,
I find dreams of a different life,
sweeter, easier, more peaceful,
simpler, better, and without pain.
I imagine different conditions,
to make me happy.

Today, the light went on,
and I saw with great clarity,
the exit sign, pointing the way
out of dilapidated old house.
Nothing's wrong
with this moment.

PS - if you liked this poem, you may enjoy Gil Fronsdal's talk: 'It's OK' 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Deal With Resistance First, Pain Later

U Tejaniya's Approach to Dealing With Strong Physical Pain.

Ask a different teacher, about best way to deal with pain, and you will get a new answer each time . . .  I like U Tejaniya's approach - from his book, 'Don't Look Down on the Defilements. They Will Laugh at You':
When you experience pains, aches and other bodily discomforts, it means you have a mental resistance to them and therefore you are not ready yet to observe these unpleasant physical sensations directly. Nobody likes pain and if you observe it while still feeling any resistance towards it, it will become worse. It is like when you are angry with someone; if you look at that person again and again you will become even angrier. So never force yourself to observe pain; this is not a fight, this is a learning opportunity. You are not observing pain to lessen it or to make it go away. You are observing it – especially your mental reactions to it – in order to understand the connection between your mental reactions and your perception of the physical sensations.
Check your attitude first. Wishing for the pain to decrease or go away is the wrong attitude. It does not matter whether the pain goes away or not. Pain is not the problem; your negative mental reaction to it is the problem. If the pain is caused by some kind of injury you should of course be careful not to make things worse, but if you are well and healthy, pain is simply an important opportunity to practice watching the mind at work. When there is pain, the mental feelings and reactions are strong and therefore easy to observe. Learn to watch anger or resistance, tension or discomfort in your mind. If necessary, alternate between checking your feelings and the attitude behind your resistance. Keep reminding yourself to relax the mind and the body, and observe how it affects your mental resistance. There is a direct link between your state of mind and pain. The more relaxed and calm the observing mind, the less intense you will perceive the pain to be. Of course, if your mind reacts strongly to the pain (i.e. if you experience pain as unbearable) you should change your posture and make yourself comfortable.
So if you want to learn how to deal with pain skilfully, try this: From the moment you start feeling pain, no matter how weak it is, check your mind and body for tension, and relax. Part of your mind will remain aware of the pain. So check for tension again and again, and relax. Also check your attitude and keep reminding yourself that you have the choice to change your posture if you experience too much pain, as this will make the mind more willing to work with it. Keep repeating this until you no longer feel you want to watch the tension, the fear, the desire to get up, or the unwillingness to stay with the pain. Now you should change your posture.
.  .  .
It is best to look at pain directly only if you cannot feel a resistance to it. Keep in mind that there may be a reaction at a subtle level. As soon as you recognize mental discomfort, turn your attention to that feeling. If you can see subtle mental discomfort, watch it change; does it increase or decrease? As the mind becomes more equanimous and sensitive it will recognize subtle reactions more easily. When you look at mental discomfort at a more subtle level you may get to the point when your mind feels completely equanimous. If you look at pain directly and if there is true equanimity, mental discomfort will not arise anymore. Remember that you are not looking at the reactions of the mind to make them go away. Always take reactions as an opportunity to investigate their nature. Ask yourself questions! How do they make you feel? What thoughts are in your mind? How does what you think affect the way you feel? How does what you feel affect the way you think? What is the attitude behind the thoughts? How does any of this change the way you perceive pain?
From my work with people suffering from severe chronic pain, and also my experience as a chronic pain sufferer, I very much resonate with U Tejaniya's point about not rushing to observe the pain, whenever strong mental resistance is present. U Tejaniya's teaching goes counter to Jon Kabat-Zinn's body scan approach used during MBSR training, where the pain gets confronted head on, and attitude gets addressed at the same time as the pain itself. 

Definitely a direction I am going to experiment with!

Related posts, with different teachers' perspectives:

Bob Stahl & Elisha Goldstein (MBSR): 3 Mindful Steps to Working with Chronic Pain

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stepping Into Ron's Shoes

Seeing the Logic Behind Alzheimer's Mind's Wanderings.

Ron* has become one of the fixtures in the Zen Hospice ward. Always ready to strike a conversation with anybody who wants to listen. Yesterday, I sat with him.

Ron is known for his wild stories about his imagined Hollywood past. Yesterday, I learned about his encounter with Mae West, how she had stopped her limo on the freeway, and thrown hundred dollar bills at him. "Just like that! Yes, she did." Tale came on the heel of accurate relating about death he had witnessed that morning on the ward. "You would not believe what I see here!" Ron keeps a meticulous tally of all the comings and goings on the ward, of old staff departing, new staff coming on board, residents dying.

I listened to Ron, and I also observed my mind, and heart. I noticed judgment coming up, right away, about the nonsensical nature of his Mae West story. And with it, boredom, aversion, and contempt. A sense of superiority and disconnectedness that did not sit well with my initial intention to be there for him.  I realized this is how Ron gets received most of the time, and I wondered how it must feel, for him? I started to investigate the reason for Ron's story. 'Crazy mind' has its own logic, I figured. And I made connection with my own mind's tendency to use fantasies and thoughts, to flee unpleasantness in the present moment. Same thing, only I do not share with the rest of the world. I realized Ron's crazy stories are his way of coping with his otherwise unbearable reality.

"Tell me more about Mae West, Ron."

* Not his real name

Monday, August 16, 2010

Getting Ready For The Desert

More than two months away, . . . 

Subconscious, planning mind is in full gear, anticipating women's retreat with Ruth Denison in her desert abode.

Until then, of course, the real work is in practicing wise and kind attention to the now, as much as possible.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wanna Sit?

Using Twitter and Facebook for Improv Sitting Meditations.

Something quite beautiful has been happening on Twitter, and Facebook also. Several times, I have let people know when I am about to sit, and invited them to join me. To my surprise, each time, one or several of them did just that.

Thanks to @WesternNovice, @espritrelax, @surfacebuddha, @Miko57 (and his two daughters, one age 6), @WalkingAwake, for joining via Twitter.

Thanks to Lori Wong, Alicia McLucas, Maia Duerr, for joining via Facebook.

A gift of impromptu sangha that has warmed my heart, and has given an extra boost to my practice, and hopefully my friends' practice also. 

Following @surfacebuddha 's nudge, 'Sitting is so much stronger when you know you're not alone. Let's keep it going, you inspire others', I would like to invite you to expand the ripple further. Next time you sit, don't keep it to yourself. Instead, tweet it, facebook it, and send out an invite. Suggested hashtag on Twitter: #wannasit?

Of course, you can also join the Online Meditation Crew and heed their daily calls. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

If Buddha Was a Woman

The Challenge of Detaching, From a Feminine Perspective.

Daughter number two left this morning early. I heard the sound of her suitcase being wheeled out on the concrete driveway. She was driving to meet up with her sister three hours away. The two of them are embarking on a cross-country adventure, ending at my oldest daughter's new school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 

Lying in bed, I noticed the time, 5.53 am. There was no point in trying to go back to sleep. Better instead, watch the body do its thing. Jaws clenching, stomach tying itself in a knot, heart pinched, arms becoming heavy, throat tightening. And thoughts to match, of all the things that could possibly go wrong during their upcoming trip. With the short-lived relief of being with a few breaths, here and there. 

I am a chronic worrier, just like my mother was before Alzheimer's did its job. Of the five hindrances, anxiety is my biggest enemy, and one I need to keep on investigating. Lying with it for two hours this morning, I was gifted with a few insights about the beast:
  • One major culprit is mind's tendency to make up stories about future.
  • Mind's wanderings is fueled by fear of grief and permanent loss.
  • Mind deludes itself into thinking that it can use thoughts to control outcomes.
  • Beneath rejection of impermanence, is clinging to foolish wish for a fixed state.
  • When I go back to breath and present moment, anxiety lessens.
  • If I am fully present with sadness and grief from actual situation, mind is less likely to wander.
  • Just observing anxious state of mind is sufficient enough to bring some significant relief.
  • Holding fear as mother would a scared child, is rather sweet.
The Buddha has his own take on the subject:
"What do you think, monks: is corporeality permanent or impermanent?" — "Impermanent, Lord." — "And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?" — "Painful, Lord." — "What is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: 'This is mine, this I am, this is my self'?" — "Certainly not, Lord." — "What do you think, monks: Is feeling... is perception... are mental formations... is consciousness... permanent or impermanent?" — "Impermanent, Lord." — "And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?" — "Painful, Lord." — "And what is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: 'This is mine, this I am, this is my self?" — "Certainly not, Lord."
"Therefore, monks, whatever corporeality, whether past, future, or present, in oneself or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near — all corporeality should with right wisdom, thus be seen as it is: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.'
"Whatever feeling... whatever perception... whatever mental formations... whatever consciousness, whether past, future or present, in oneself or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near — all... consciousness should, with right wisdom, thus be seen as it is: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.'
"Seeing this, monks, the well-instructed noble disciple becomes disgusted with corporeality, becomes disgusted with feeling, with perception, with mental formations, with consciousness.
"Through his being disgusted, his passion fades away. His passion having faded, he is freed. 
~ Discourse on the Snake Simile: Alagaddupama Sutta (MN22)
The Buddha is very pragmatic. Why get attached to something that cannot be relied upon? I understand his point, intellectually at least.

I also think women have it a little harder than men. Women as bearers of the mother archetype are inherently set up for strong attachments, particularly to their children. This makes the job of detaching particularly challenging. I wonder if the Buddha's discourse would have been different, had he been a woman?

There is some wisdom in anxiety, after all.

How about you? What is your experience of being with anxiety? What have you learned?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hard Wired Against Loss

Exploring The Flip Side Of Mother's Love.

My oldest daughter has been packing for several days. She is leaving home, again, this time for grad school. Heaviness in the heart has been creeping in, slowly. Tonight, I am typing with a tight throat, and the heat from grief. I know about impermanence, that's what practice is about, isn't it? Breath, thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations, cascading versions of myself, events, come and go, and I am ok with it all. In fact, I rather like the constant ebbs and flows of life. With one exception.

The loss of a loved one, even a temporary one, is an experience I cannot get used to. With it, comes the great fear, that of losing them forever.  I read the Buddha's Fourth Rememberance, that says "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.", and I think to myself, "That's a hard one to take. Not there yet, and may never get there." I also realize anxiety has come to grab me by the throat, and to deliver a hard hit to the stomach. Anxiety is a product of disturbed mind, to let got of.

This is what happens when one is hard wired for bonding with one's offspring. The fear of loss also comes with the evolution package, and requires no less than Buddha's strongest medicine, in order  for  it to be effectively dealt with. I think of the elderly mother I saw at Zen Hospice last weekend. I remember the profound sadness in her eyes, as she sat, helpless, at the bedside of her daughter who no longer wanted to eat. And I can only now begin to feel the immensity of her grief.

Using all of what life brings as an opportunity to practice, and stretch the heart. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Buddhist Monk That Makes a Lot of Sense

Why U Tejaniya's Star Keeps on Rising.

He is young, relatively for a monk. He is funny, which can be rare in the Asian Theravada crowd. And he has a refreshing view of Dharma practice. He is the author of the book, 'Don't Look Down on The Defilements: They Will Laugh at You' - here, here, and here. His name is U Tejaniya, and he is the abbott of the Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center in Burma.

What I like most about U Tehaniya, is his emphasis on the attitude one brings to mindfulness practice, which is something I have been keenly aware of during my own practice.

The more I read about U Tejaniya, and I discover his teachings, the more I wish to spend time in his company. Today, I shall apply for Burmese meditation visa, in preparation for a retreat at his monastery at the beginning of next year.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Here Come the Theravadans

15 Great Theravada Buddhist Teachers from Asia

Well worth seeking out, these men are some of the most respected contemporary Theravada teachers. Some live in the US, and many of the ones based in Asia leave their monasteries regularly to teach in the West. 

Ajahn Jumnien
Abbott and founder of Wat Tum Sua temple

Chosen by Ajahn Chah to succeed him as abbott of  Wat Nong Pah Pong forest monastery
Also guide for Wat Pah Nanachat international forest monastery

Ajahn Sobin Namto
Founder, Wat Wangplado temple

Ajahn Plien Panayapatipo
Abbott, Wat Aranyawiwake forest monastery

Ajahn Tong
Abbott, Wat Phradhatu Sri Chom Tong Insight Meditation Center

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Sri Lanka, U.S.
Bavhana Society

U Pannadipa
U.S. (originally from Burma)
Abbott, Tathagata Meditation Center

Khippa Panno
U.S. (originally from Vietnam)
Abbott, Ky Wien Temple, Washington, DC, and Chief Meditation Teacher, Thich Ca Thien Vien Meditation Center, Riverside, CA

Abbott, Pa Auk Forest Monastery

U Kundala
Abbott, Saddhamma Ransi Meditation Centre

U Lakkhana
Abbott, Mahavijayaransi Vijjalaya & Mahaatularansi Dhamma Yeiktha

U Pandita
Abbott, Panditarama Forest Meditation Center

U Pannathami
Australia (originally from Burma)
Abbott, Panditarama Sydney Meditation Center

U Tejaniya
Abbott, Shwe Oo Min Meditation Center

Did I forget anyone? If so, please add name in comments section.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Two Weeks With Ruth Denison

Ever since I read her biography, Ruth Denison has been in the back of my mind.

Ruth Denison, Vipassana Dharma Elder, and grande dame of Theravada Buddhism in America, is one of only four western disciples given permission to teach by U Ba Khin, the Burmese master and layperson known for his expertise of the sweeping method and practical application of mindfulness. Ruth has had quite a life, and embodies the best of what the feminine can bring to the Dharma. She was the first Buddhist teacher in the U.S. to lead an all-women's retreat. 

This afternoon, I followed my heart, and arranged for some time with Ruth, in the form of a two week women's retreat with her at the end of October. I can hardly wait!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sitting With Alice

2 Heart Lessons From the Ones With Dementia

Part I

"I feel lonely", she tells me, her voice so faint I have to strain my ear to understand.

Alice* is another long time resident at Zen Hospice, whose old age dementia has wiped out most of her thinking brain.  I can feel her loneliness, and I let her know in my own words . . . She nods, and gives me her usual big smile. "What is this place? Is this home?" Short phrases, big fears. She's relying on me, her alter memory, to orient her again, and again. 

After a while of shared sweetness, I start noticing the unpleasantness. All inside, and made up of boredom, with a strong flavor of aversion.  And soon, the relief from suddenly knowing. Thinking brain -mine - is not liking being forced on a diet.  I have come to depend so heavily on thoughts to give me a sense of substance. Unbeknownst to her, Alice is teaching me a big Dharma lesson. 

Grateful for the wisdom gained, I 'return' to Alice with a new sense of ease.  Boredom, frustration still there, but no longer getting in the way. Feeling heart has taken the center stage. When the time comes for me to leave, Alice teaches me yet another lesson, this time in caring. "Make sure to watch your step."

Part II

I read the post I wrote a few days ago about 'Letting the Heart Open Wide'. And I am shocked. The conversation I had with my mother then, is the same, word for word, as the  one I had with Alice today. Only this time, I am left with a different residual feeling. With my mother, our few minutes together on the phone had left my heart wide open for her pain, and my pain, and the love that bonds us. With Alice, the luxury of more time gave me the chance to explore the heart even more.

Feeling much gratitude for all these heart and mindfulness lessons from the ones supposedly 'without a mind' - dementia, from Latin 'demens' = without mind -

* Not her real name.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

'Taking in the Good' with Rick Hanson

I had the great privilege to attend a day-long with Rick Hanson, at IMC. Rich Hanson, a neuropsychologist and long time Vipassana meditator, is the author of the bestseller, 'Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom'. The title of his presentation was 'Taking in the Good'.

Taking in the good, we certainly did, as Rick explored with us the exciting area of confluence between neuroscience, neuropsychology, and Dharma practice. The good news is negative patterns in the brain can be reversed, through deliberate changes in the mind. This is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The bad news is the brain's negativity bias, a collateral damage from years of biological evolution. To counter this negativity bias, we need to reshape our implicit memory bank by consciously taking in good experiences over and over again. This is where right mindfulness and right effort come into play. 

Often we may think we are taking in the good stuff in our life, but we are not really, or at least not completely. I found the following TIG (Taking in the Good) practice from Rick, especially useful. It goes like this:
  1. Look for a positive fact, and let it become a positive experience. (I picked 'breathing')
  2. Savor the positive experience, sustaining it for 10 to 30 seconds, feeling it in the body and emotions, and intensifying it. (Never before did breathing feel so 'sweet' . . .)
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body, registering deeply in emotional memory. (Oh! such a blissful state, the sweetness of breathing)
I was reminded of Jack Kornfield's raisins exercise.

Too often I rush to gratitude, without taking the time to completely appreciate what I am grateful for. This is definitely a practice to add to my happiness toolbox!

Taking in the Good. All of the Good.

If you have the time, you may want to go through the complete deck of Rick Hanson's slides, available here in pdf file

Friday, August 6, 2010

6 Steps to Finding a Great Dharma Teacher

What The Buddha Says:

Being a novice along the path, I have been wondering, how does one find a teacher? How does one know a good teacher from a bad one?

Straight from the Buddha's mouth, is a 6 step-test to investigate potential Dharma teachers:
A monk who is an inquirer, not knowing how to gauge another's mind, should make an investigation of the Tathagata in order to find out whether or not he is perfectly enlightened. 
I find it interesting that the Buddha assumes a teacher should be perfectly enlightened. This is a high bar to reach, and I wonder how many of the contemporary Dharma teachers have reached that state?

The first three step as outlined below by the Buddha, involves looking at the teacher's bodily deeds and speech to infer whether or not his or her mental states are pure and free from defilements. 
[He] should investigate the Tathagata with respect to two kinds of states, states cognizable through the eye and through the ear thus: 'Are there found in the Tathagata or not any defiled states cognizable through the eye or through the ear?' When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'No defiled states cognizable through the eye or through the ear are found in the Tathagata.'
When he comes to know this, he investigates him further thus: 'Are there found in the Tathagata or not any mixed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear?' When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'No mixed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear are found in the Tathagata.
When he comes to know this, he investigates him further thus: 'Are there found in the Tathagata or not cleansed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear?' When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'Cleansed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear are found in the Tathagata.'
The fourth step involves determining the length of time  since a teacher has reached perfect enlightenment. The longer, the more trustworthy the teacher. 
When he comes to know this, he investigates him further thus: 'Has this venerable one attained this wholesome state over a long time or did he attain it recently?' When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'This venerable one has attained this wholesome state over a long time; he did not attain it only recently.'
The fifth step warns against the danger of fame, and the need to be cautious when approaching a 'famous' teacher. Fame can throw a teacher out of a purified state, back into the delusion of pride and conceit.  
When he comes to know this, he investigates him further thus: 'Has this venerable one acquired renown and fame, so that the dangers [connected with renown and fame] are found in him?' For, monks as long as a monk has not acquired renown and attained fame, the dangers [connected with renown and fame] are not found in him; but when he has acquired renown and attained fame, those dangers are found in him. When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'This venerable one has acquired renown and attained fame, but the dangers [connected with renown and fame] are not found in him.'
The sixth step recommends looking for a teacher who is free of fear and attachments to sensual pleasures. The latter may be particularly challenging for the majority of Western teachers who live the householder life.  
When he comes to know this, he investigates him further thus: 'Is this venerable one restrained without fear, not restrained by fear, and does he avoid indulging in sensual pleasures because he is without lust through the destruction of lust?' When he investigates him, he comes to know: 'This venerable one is restrained without fear, not restrained by fear, and he avoids indulging in sensual pleasure because he is without lust through the destruction of lust.'
~ MN 47: Vimamsaka Sutta; I 317-20; from 'In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon', Bhikkhu Bodhi edition ~
Do you know of any such teacher? Please share. :)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Letting the Heart Open Wide

I like to pick random Dharma talks from teachers I don't know and listen to them while I take the dog out for a walk. Last night, was an old talk from Rebecca Dixon on the 'Four Noble Attainments'. Something Rebecca said resonated profoundly with where I am these days:
"May the suffering you encounter, open your heart enough that it can let in all that is true in this moment."
This morning, talking to my mother on the phone, I let my heart open wide. 

She was lost, did not know where she was. "I am so lonely here."I noticed painful pinch in my heart, and the temptation to close it quickly so as not to feel. Instead, I let myself be with her and her pain. "Yes, it is lonely. Growing old is no fun, isn't it?" She wanted to know where she was. I explained she was in a retirement home, where she did not have to worry about cooking or anything. It was a safe place. "Is the apartment mine?" Yes, it is yours. "Where am I?" she asked again. You are in a retirement home. "What time is it?" It is time for dinner soon, and one of the helpers is going to come and take you to the dining room. " When are you coming? I am all alone here." I will come soon, and will tell you when I know an exact date. My brother is coming to see you with his family next week. Beyond the words, I could feel her distress, and the immensity of her disorientation. She asked about her old house. "When will I go there again? It is such a wonderful, big home. I am rich, you know." Yes, you are rich, maman, and yes, the house is beautiful . . . 

Keeping the heart open wide, for my pain, and her pain. 

How open is your heart, today?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Staying In My Seat

Lately, I have been practicing longer sittings, slowly working my way up to full hour. And I have been struggling with physical pain. A lot.

This morning, it became very clear to me I was dealing with two main obstacles:
  1. First was a natural difficulty with tolerating the primary physical pain, that translated into an urge to get up and move, so as to distract myself from the pain. 
  2. Second was the mind thinking about the amount of time left sitting, and anticipating that I was going to remain stuck in the pain. Of course this was a perfect example of deluded mind that leads one into believing in reality of mere concept. 
1) All of life is suffering, due to its inherently unreliable, always changing, and tragic nature. We are to fully know life's suffering, as a precondition for our liberation. This can only be accomplished through concentrated attention, moment to moment, deeply feeling the fabric of existence, starting with breath to ground us. So that we can transform our habitual distaste for suffering, into accepting it fully, and therefore radically change the way we are with ourselves, and others.
2) Craving is the effect of suffering, not its cause. Because of dukkha, and five aggregates coming into contact with dukkha, we are naturally moved to look for ways to escape present unpleasantness. We want to get this to get rid of that. Hence craving, with its attendant army of unwholesome states, symbolized by Mara. Even Buddha, after he had conquered power of Mara, kept being confronted with Mara throughout his life. We are to let go of our craving, abandoning its hold on us, even for discrete moments. We turn away from our habitual surface preoccupation with sense gratification, to face the miracle of life and the reality of death. We cease to be victims of our attachments and fears. That can be accomplished through mindfulness.
3) Next comes the cessation of craving, not suffering. Buddha knew tremendous suffering throughout his life, even after he got enlightened. The traditional distinction between pain and added suffering from clinging is really an artificial one. More relevant goal is not to not suffer, but rather to lead flourishing life. We are to experience life free from craving. That is true liberation, at which point the possibility of another way of life opens up. To be unconditioned means to not be conditioned by the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion. Leading us to be free to enter the stream.
4) Next is the Eightfold Path, in which we engage the world in a meaningful way. This is a thread that has never been really developed under the traditional dogma. It says, we have the capacity to be awakened at every moment. Once craving is let go of, and we have successfully conquered Mara, we are no longer blocked from experiencing the path. We are to cultivate the path. We become stream-enterer. We become free from morality as just a set of rules. We become independent, autonomous, and free according to light shining within us. It is an affirmation of our transformation, of what really matters to us in our lives, of what it means to be fully awake.
Accordingly, the antidotes that kept me in my seat all related to the Eightfold Path, particularly:
  1. right view: understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which helped place transient experience of discomfort within larger context of attainable freedom.
  2. right effort: not giving up, instead staying with the experience, no matter how difficult, and finding within myself the energy and fortitude to do so; this was very hard.
  3. right mindfulness: being present for the whole experience moment to moment, including the pain, the thoughts and emotions associated with the pain, and the overall feeling towards the pain, other phenomena outside of painful experience, such as contact with sounds, etc . . . 
  4. right concentration: sustaining the attention on chosen object, whether pain, or breath, or sounds, whatever I found to be most predominant or useful; as with right effort, I struggled with that one as well.
Mindfulness, like anything else, is about practice, practice, practice. Tomorrow morning, I shall sit again, and practice with all my mind and heart.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Willing To Be Disturbed

Being Thankful for Life's Big and Small Irritants.

Last night, I dreamed I was removing a bee's stinger from my flesh. Slowly, carefully . . . Taking my own sweet time to deal with the irritant.

When I woke up, I was welcomed by a comment from Carole at ZenDotStudio Blog, including the following quote from her friend the Zen monk:

"be willing to be disturbed"

The monk's words stayed with me all morning, and transformed into a question: "How willing am I to be disturbed?",

and a series of considerations:

that life is a series of disturbances, some bigger than others, from minor itch, to bee sting, to pink slip, to pain in the neck, to cancer, to flat tire, to annoying character, . . . 

that the trick is to change one's attitude towards these unavoidable hassles, and to handle them with grace, understanding, and equanimity,

that these ripples on the surface of one's existence are to be welcomed, as a chance to  exercise one's  mindfulness and compassion muscles.

Of course, the day provided me with plenty of opportunities to test my good will.  Each time, feeling heat in the heart, and tightness in the throat and stomach, in reaction to the perceived irritant. Each time, turning towards the reactive unpleasantness as one would meet a grumpy old friend. Each time, growing more patient, and "willing to be disturbed".

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dancing With Jane

3 Mindfulness Lessons From The Ones With Dementia.

Both with my mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's and some of the older residents at Zen Hospice, I have had the opportunity, many times, to experience what it's like to be with a person with dementia. The same questions asked over and over. The accusations. The impossibility to carry on 'normal' conversations. The underline distress . . . Those are the 'bad' parts.

There are also some aspects of relating with the memory impaired that are feeding right into Buddhist practice:
  1. Staying in the present - no need to dwell in the past, or project into the future, for these are no longer part of reality.
  2. Operating from empty self - in the absence of another self to relate to, one's constructed self becomes irrelevant; there is only what happens in this moment, bad words exchanged a few minutes ago never took place.
  3. Practicing equanimity, compassion, and loving kindness - reactive anger would be very unkind; love that forgives and truly understands is the only option.
Last Sunday, I had most profound time with Jane*, an older woman at Zen Hospice. She and I,  both happy from getting what we needed from each other, as we danced with words and I let her have the lead.  She felt understood and loved. And I got an ultimate lesson from her in the art of mindful relating. 

* Not her real name.