Friday, December 30, 2011

The Way Flowers Are

Is this flower pretty?... Do you see the ugliness within this flower?... For how many days will it be pretty?... What will it be like from now on?... Why does it change so?... In three or four days you have to take it and throw it away, right? It loses all its beauty. People are attached to beauty, attached to goodness. If anything is good they just fall for it completely. The Buddha tells us to look at pretty things as just pretty, we shouldn’t become attached to them. If there is a pleasant feeling we shouldn’t fall for it. Goodness is not a sure thing, beauty is not a sure thing. Nothing is certain. There is nothing in this world that is a certainty. This is the truth. The things that aren’t true are the things that change, such as beauty. The only truth it has is in its constant changing. If we believe that things are beautiful, when their beauty fades our mind loses its beauty too. When things are no longer good our mind loses its goodness too. When they are destroyed or damaged we suffer because we have clung to them as being our own. The Buddha tells us to see that these things are simply constructs of nature. Beauty appears and in not many days it fades. To see this is to have wisdom. 
Therefore we should see impermanence. If we think something is pretty we should tell ourselves it isn’t, if we think something is ugly we should tell ourselves it isn’t. Try to see things in this way, constantly reflect in this way. We will see the truth within untrue things, see the certainty within the things that are uncertain. 
~ in The Four Noble Truths, from Living Dhamma, by Ajahn Chah ~ 

Monday, December 26, 2011

End of the Year Wisdom

Left from my Catholic upbringing, the reminder every Christmas of the possibility lying dormant within each one of us,  of giving birth to a new attitude. An improved version of ourselves, filled with good intentions and the will to cultivate even more mindfulness, loving kindness, and wisdom both within and with others. 

As this year comes to an end, I am very grateful for the gift of practice that kept me safe from making hasty, and potentially very wrong decisions. I saw firsthand the blinding nature of anger wrongly placed onto another person, and the power of waiting, and not acting out on what seemed like a rightful thought at first. I look back on the past when mindfulness practice was not a part of my life, and when I fell prey to wrong convictions. I think of the time when I left my first husband, a good man, and caused havoc in my then young family.  I am still paying the price. One cannot escape the law of karma. There is much wisdom and love to be extracted however from the resulting suffering. 

The big lesson lies in not repeating prior mistakes. Been there, done that, I know better now . . . 

The marriage relationship is wonderful that way, as it presents us with multiple opportunities for personal transformation. Found in the February 2012 issue of Psychology Today, a great article on 'Are You With the Right Mate?':
At some point in every relationship, it's natural to ask whether your partner is the right one for you. But if that's as far as you go, you're missing the opportunity of your life . . . "Rather than look at the other person, you need to look at yourself and ask, 'Why am I suddenly so unhappy and what do I need to do? We do not look to our partner to provide our happiness, and we don't blame them for our unhappiness. We take responsibility for the expectations that we carry , for our own negative emotional reactions, for our own insecurities, and for our own dark moods.". . . "A lot of the thinking about being married to the wrong mate is really a self-delusion." . . . "We're all difficult. Everyone who is married is a difficult spouse. We emphasize that our spouse is difficult and forget how we're difficult for them."
Likewise, children keep us honest with ourselves. Mine have been brutally forthright in their feedback, and it's been rough seeing myself in their mirror. I have failed them in big ways once, twice, three times, and their young hearts are not ready to forgive yet. If I am not careful, the mind could make matters even worse with unnecessary regrets and remorse, or anger at them. No, better take a stand, and practice love instead. Forgiving myself for my misdeeds, forgiving them for their harshness. 

Coming to terms with one's imperfections. Thanking loved ones for the opportunity to polish away the impurities. Surrendering to the humbling ways of the heart.  

How do you experience the family crucible? How do relationships contribute to your practice? How does your practice enhance your life at home?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

'Tis the Time to Rejoice

The time has come again to rejoice and be merry. Carolers are doing their rounds of nursing homes and other not so jolly places. Amazon is reporting a record year. The UPS man is working over time. And the mailman's bags are overflowing with Christmas cards. 'Tis the season . . .

And just now, sitting and taking time off from readying the house for tonight Christmas Eve's dinner, I found grief right in my core. That's the truth.

Holidays are funny that way. Collective expectations of Hallmark like happiness take one straight to the heart for a reality check. Mind has being doing its number on me for the past few weeks. Taking me back to times years ago, when the children were little, and our family was still whole. Wishing the present cracks were not so. Hoping for this holiday to be over, quick, so the heart does not have to ache so much.

Loving kindness practice can bring the same emotions. Nothing like being faced with the possibility of love, to become aware of its absence in one self. 

Sitting,  I could feel much aversion to the overall unpleasantness. An experience ripe for more insight and wisdom . . . First dealing with foolish thoughts, words popping in the head and that are mired in the hindrances of desire, ill will, and restlessness (my top three . . . ). Much to do with 'others'. If only they could be kinder, more patient, less angry . . . If only they got along . . . If only they did not live so far away, and could be here to celebrate with us, me . . . If only they were not sick and falling prey to old age . . . A bunch of garbage thoughts to be discarded, over and over again. I should know better than to dirty my house that way. 
Very few people in this world have perfect situations. Everybody has something wrong in his or her life. Either the house is too small, or the salary is too low, or the relatives don't agree, or the street is too noisy, or the food is not good enough, or the education wasn't sufficient for the job one wants. There is always something wrong. Nobody has a perfect situation. Everybody tries to make it as nice for him - or herself as possible, which is all right. But if we do not take a stand now, and keep waiting for perfect situations, we will never change. We can't wait for perfect situations because they'll never happen. The perfect situation can only be created inside one's own heart and mind. There it is possible. ~ Ayya Khema, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~
'Tis the time to rejoice, indeed. 'Tis the time to rejoice, always. That's the truth.

My brother sent me this picture of him visiting my mother with his son: 

How do you experience these holidays?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sitting Right There

This morning, sitting in my favorite red egg chair, tweeting, I heard the #wannasit call from @DavidMAshton and @New2Buddha.  And I decided to join right there, on the spot. Not leaving my chair, not changing position, laptop still on my lap . . . I closed my eyes and discovered new sensations. New pain from curved spine kept still. Coldness, hard edges from the computer soon becoming  part of the body. Mind had to be alert for the potential for extra aversion.  

Realizing that not everyone has the luxury of optimal sitting conditions. The sick, the old, the dying are often stuck in less than comfortable positions. Slumped over in a wheelchair, or lying down crooked in a hospital bed, one has no other choice than to practice, right there. 

Not being attached to one's idea of the perfect sitting posture. Practicing for the times when sitting up straight may no longer be an option.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Reality of Bodily Suffering

Spinning this morning, there was music, heard, and instructions, heard also, and heat, sensed, from body working hard, and aversion to the effort . . . Mixed in and not belonging to the class, some tightness inherited from a prior interaction. Mind has moved on, or at least thinks so. But the body can't let go so easily. 

There is much research done on neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one's experience. While the mind-body connection is undeniable, and the mind can help loosen some of the tensions in the body, one is still left dealing with some reluctant spots. 

The Buddha tells us to calm the bodily formations by turning our attention to the ins and outs of the breath, meanwhile relaxing the tensions. The question is how much of the bodily formations can be calmed, and how quickly? The more recent the formation, and the more superficial, of course, the easier it can be undone. Also, the more one practices mindfulness, the lesser the chance of new formations forming. Still, one is left with the old stuff, habitual patterns of reactivity in the body, and deeply held tensions from emotions tied to unconscious or repressed memories. Through practice, one can learn to sense the knots, and get in touch with the suffering attached. Wishing to rid oneself of the pain, or actively trying to explain it away as is done in some forms of therapy may do us more harm than good.

Sitting with a friend, she tells me she has this thing in her body. She points to her chest. She shows me a collage she did about herself. Many disconnected images, neatly cut out from magazines. She analyzes her work. "This represents me perfectly". I am left feeling cold.  She is hoping for the day when will she will no longer have "this". "I will be free then."  She dreams of being an artist. 

We need to hear Ayya Khema:
Please be aware of the fact that this body does not have suffering, but that it is suffering. Only then can we begin to fathom the reality of human suffering. It is not that we have some discomfort sometimes, but that this body consists of suffering. It can't sit or lie still without becoming uncomfortable. Know the impermanence. Know the unsatisfactoriness, which is inherent in the human body. Know the fact that the feeling has arisen without your invitation. So why call it "mine"? ~ from Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~
With this realization, comes a reconciliation with oneself, wounds and all, and the wholehearted desire to not add more suffering to what is already there.  More fuel for mindfulness practice . . . and compassion for others. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Minding the Blind Spots

A meditator friend of mine tells me of her divorce from her then husband years ago. "He was part of my sangha. He was such a narcissist. One day I realized I was angry all the time. That's when I decided to split. I have never regretted it."

A well-known dharma teacher displays  surprising unskillfulness during a critical life event.

A man who speaks at length about mindfulness throughout many communities, is everything but mindful and kind in his dealings with his co-workers. 

Two men and a woman, each wrongfully convinced of their own wisdom. Each one with a shadow looming large behind their back, and clearly visible by everyone but them. Each using mindfulness as a shiny front for a not so pretty truth. Sitting on the cushion every day, even for long periods of time, is no guarantee of evolved consciousness. That much, I know.

Last night's dreams shed light on my own shadow. Parts of myself that I too easily project on to those who are closest to me, and now thrown back at me. I am not as loving as I would like to think. I've got work to do . . . 

How big is your shadow? What parts of your personality are not obvious to you? Would you like to ask your honest friends? Your mate? Your children? 

'The experience of the self* is alway a defeat for the ego.' ~ C.G. Jung

* Jung's notion of the self is very different from one referred to in Buddhist view of not-self. Rather it refers to the experience of a higher state of consciousness not bound by limitations of the small 'I', the ego.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Direct Connection Between Mindfulness Practice and Beneficial Changes in the Brain

From the lab of Harvard researcher, Sara Lazar, comes the most conclusive study to date, linking mindfulness practice with sustained beneficial changes in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, introspection, and stress response. 

As reported earlier this year in the Harvard Gazette:
Participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. In a study that will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) reported the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGHPsychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical Schoolinstructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.
For the current study, magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation — which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind — participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of nonmeditators over a similar time interval.
Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.
This study is scientifically proving what all meditators know from experience, i.e. the long lasting effect of meditation not just during formal mindfulness practice, but more importantly, afterward, throughout the day. 

Another good reason to start each day with a 30 minute sitting! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Taking a Break

Today is the first day in a very long time, that is not filled with back to back meetings. I awoke this morning, with no emails to answer to. And my to-do-list did not include any close deadlines. Stressed mind, stressed body were overdue for a break. 

I will take the time to sit for forty five minutes. I will make it to my favorite spin class at 12.30. I will slow down and not rush. I will single task. I will resist the temptation to schedule more appointments, or make up new activities. I will pay attention to my steps. I will taste the food that I eat. 

Today, I am giving myself the greatest gift. Creating the conditions to practice mindfulness. For a whole day.

And I feel immense gratitude for the privilege of being able to control my own work schedule.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Notes From Facebook Compassion Research Day

Here are my raw notes from day spent at Facebook, focusing on fascinating presentation from  Dacher Keltner, researcher and evolutionary psychologist from UC Berkeley, Greater Good Science Center.

Sympathy Breakthroughs:
  • Jonathan Glover, Humanity
  • 75% of soldiers refuse to shoot at enemy
Principles of the spread of compassion:
  • emergence of care-giving system
  • reliable identification
  • contagious compassion
  • it pays to be good
  • from gene to meme
Signals of compassion:
  • a reliable signal of compassion: it's not in the face
  • the vocal register of compassion: amusement, awe, compassion, enthusiasm, interest communicated through voice
Self-less genes

Viral goodness: the spread of compassion
  • neonate distress cries
  • emotional, physiological convergence in friends
  • compassion inspires elevation
  • generosity spreads through networks (Fowler & Cristakis)
  • altruism increased in altruistic clusters
  • collective joys
Tactile contact: the first language of compassion
  • human skin is largest organ that gathers all kind of social information
  • touch: rewards, builds trust, signals safety, soothes
  • UC Berkeley study on emotion and touch: correct label, were able to identify emotion that was intended through touch
  • coding touch
  • women misread men's compassion signals through touch
  • men miss women's anger signals through touch
Vagal superstars:
  • richer friendship networks
  • more sympathetitc prosocial children
  • trusted more in interactions with strangers
Compassion deficits in US children: empathy has dropped, narcissism has risen

Making compassion a meme, a sticky idea:
  • oliners and rescuers
  • reading compassionate words like "hug" makes people more altruistic, less prejudiced toward outgroups
Competitive compassion:
  • compassion as a basis of status
  • reputation
Awe and the sacred:
  • transcendent experiences of beauty give people a sense of common humanity
  • experiences of awe trigger activation in the vagus nerve
  • experiences of awe trigger altruism, compassion
A compassionate, cooperative future:
  • Pinker and the rise of cooperation, compassion
  • Wright and the rise of nonzero relations
  • cooperation fares better than competition
  • the wisdom of the tit-for-tat (Axelrod, 1984): cooperates, forgives, not envious, strong
(I especially resonated with the parts about touch and voice. In my work with the dying and persons with dementia, I have found both touch and voice to be the primary channels for relatedness and also vehicles for expression of compassion.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More Good Stuff

Many seeds, planted over the year,
and diligently fertilized with lots of work.
Have brought many fruit, ripe for the picking,
and much pleasure to be had.
Something else being born also,
that's not so pleasant.
The pain of grasping, for more good stuff.
Sitting, walking, driving, lying down,  I can feel
the burning from holding too tight.
Mind is on a roll and cannot easily let go.
Hardly a part of the body left untouched
by the gluttony of the hungry ghost.
Feet and hands offer a bit of rest
Breath too close to fire in the belly,
for comfort. There is only one thing to do,
to convince the mind, and the flesh.
Sensing, seeing the misery up close,
and slowly, relaxing the tight grip.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Extreme Loving Kindness Practice

There is a reason why loving kindness of one's enemies is left for last by all who teach loving kindness. It is easy to love dear ones, or the sick, or the old, or the dying, or the generic all encompassing 'all beings'. It is another matter to practice loving kindness towards a person who has done you wrong, one for whom feelings of anger and spite are still brewing within the heart. 

Lately my mind has been populated with thoughts about one who has hurt me and many others. I have watched the many movies in my mind about him, and things he has done, and the wrong acts I imagine him perpetuating still. I do not like those movies. I want to change the channel, and I realize that besides sitting and waiting for the thoughts to dissolve under the laser beam of mindfulness, I ought to make use of another more active practice. I call it extreme loving kindness practice. A blend of good intentions, mindfulness, concentration, and investigation. 

Sitting, I give the mind a chance to watch the mind unleashed, and its effects on my whole being. I get to see anger, outrage, and fantasies of revenge do their work. Breath squished, stomach knotting, throat and neck tensing, temperature rising . . . and an overall unpleasantness. All brought upon myself. This does not make sense, and I love myself too much to keep it going. Mind gets tired of the same old, bad story. From there, it becomes easy to entertain a new train of thoughts. "May you be at peace, may you be at ease. May you be well, may you be happy." I see my 'friend' and I feel great compassion for his unconsciousness, and I sincerely wish him to become free from his own private hell. Meanwhile, body (my own) starts relaxing, and the mind also. And the energy previously tied up in anger gets freed up for all the good work I need to do. 

Extreme loving kindness, such a practical and beautiful practice. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Living on the Edge

Every moment,
living on the edge
between the misplaced hope
for a pleasing life always,
and the very real possibility of hell,
just like that.

Techtonic shifts,
the earth's does not care
about 'me'.
One day, old age and death
shall come and do their job
When, how, there is
no knowing.

As much as 'I' recoil
at the idea of pain,
there is no protection
to be had.
Each day, plenty of reminders
that fate's got no feelings.

Many brothers and sisters
bleeding, everywhere I turn
I see the anguish in their eyes
and I hear their silent screams
Gone over the edge,
they have, with not a chance
of returning.

I am learning my lesson:
no point in getting carried away
thank you very much
for every sweet moment,
with a grain of salt
'cause that's life.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Out of Five Stars

I tend to visit more plush communities. Yesterday was my first time visiting a nursing home for the poor with dementia. I had been forewarned. "It's a horrible place." There was also the ominous rating in the elevator. 2 out of 5, in huge white bold type. And in case one did not quite get it,  below, an explanation in small print: 'This facility has received two stars out of a maximum of five.'  

Four floors of desolation, and a string of open doors revealing rows of beds, with people in various states of undress. A fat woman waves and says hello from her bed. In the hallways, more older folks, sitting in wheelchairs, waiting, silent. A man with a helmet stares at me. I read the menu posted on the wall and can only imagine what canned fruit at every meal must taste like. Many of the residents are Asian. I wonder when was the last time they had fried rice? I am shown into the activity room and see elders parked around a rectangular table with a well-meaning young aide to watch over them. Markers, crayons, and colored papers strewn across the table. According to my proud host, two people got featured in the city's "Art for Elders" show. Lucky the few ones who can still access their gift of creativity in such dismal surroundings! 

The institution has a color code for each resident. A red dot means "that person is really advanced in their dementia . . ." Yellow, not so bad. Green and blue, in between. I can feel my mood darken by the minute. The bleak lighting is of no help. I wonder how long do folks usually stay. "This is a long-term care facility. Usually years." I don't even bother asking the usual questions. How many caregivers per residents? How about medications? I already know the answers. I am done. I just want to leave. 

This is what awaits those who have no money, no family, and a mind that's slipping, and a body to go down with it. 

There's got to be a better way. I am filled with outrage, and the desire to do something. I also turn inwards to look at the depth of my attachments, and the fragility of my happiness, so conditioned by unpredictable outer circumstances. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Toxic Place

One does not always have a choice. Sometimes, one ends up in a toxic environment, and the question arises of what to do from a mindful, compassionate place?

I asked my fellow tweeters:
other than need to exit, what is there to learn from being in a toxic environment?

And got the following answers:

@FullContactTMcG I learned compassion from sitting in my formerly toxic environment. For self and other... Then I left that relationship

@blkwriter the ability to hang in there if need be

@kabzj radical responsibility?

@JDProuty not much to learn in toxic environments but a good place to teach
                    toxic environments ~ toughest test of mindfulness ~ teach by example

@debraZERO I have found my voice, I don't want to suffer w/them. It's okay to be happy.

@Digitt one can learn the ability to transform negative energy into positive.
              just a state of mind. A shift in perception and standing in your power.

That's a lot of wisdom, right there.

For myself, I have found toxic environments to be useful up to a point. Useful tests of one's wisdom, kindness, compassion, and non reactivity. This fear I feel, whose is it? Of course, mine always, in the end. How about the anger? Same thing, a reaction from 'I' to difficult outer circumstances, and people. Intellectually, I could see that it was my choice to let the toxic brew seep in, or not. And at the same time, I found mindfulness can only go so far. At some point, one needs to leave. Some personalities, some situations are real pollutants for the mind, and the heart. 

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” 
Mahatma Gandhi ~

Then the real work begins, of purifying one's mind from the unwholesome thoughts that may linger after one has left the actual place, or person. Owning one's propensity to dukkha, and investigating the effect on one's happiness. Replacing the anger with loving kindness. 'May he be at peace, may he be well.' And 'May I be at peace, may I be well.'

Saturday, November 26, 2011

6 Reasons to Follow the Breath

First breath, last breath, and millions in between . . .

Breath. Such a basic physical phenomenon. And one of the most useful objects of attention during mindfulness practice.

More and more, I have come to rely on the breath to 'save' me. And here is why:

It is not 'I' who breathes, but rather the body that is being breathed. Focusing on the movement of breathing, relaxing into the automatic ins and outs of breath, the 'I' can relax. Reaping the joy from anatta . . .

While busy following the breath, the mind gets occupied with the wholesome activity of noticing the  sensations of breath in, breath out. Meanwhile the unwholesome thoughts are kept at bay. Purifying the mind with attention to the breath . . .

With the beginning of each new breath, a new birth. With the ending of each breath, another death. Nothing to hold on to. Watching impermanence in action, over and over, and over . . . 

Breathing in, belly and chest naturally expands, and bodily tensions get a chance to relax. Breathing out, impurities in the mind get flushed out. Calming the bodily and mental formations with the mechanics of breath . . .

Resting in the space between each inhalation and exhalation, the pleasure awaits of yet another visit from breath, another moment of life, given. Taking in the good . . . and cultivating gratitude.

Sitting still, in silence. Nothing else belongs to this moment, except the ongoing movement of  breath. As the mind starts to wander away, the irrelevance of most thoughts becomes clear. Breath as reference point . . . 

Finding out for one self what is meant in the Anapanasati Sutta.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Be Social, Be Mindful

I used to think of social gatherings as the last places to practice mindfulness. So noisy, so much stimulation, so much mindlessness all around . . . 

Inspired by U Tejaniya's teachings, I have come around to another point of view. Yesterday's Thanksgiving became another opportunity for practice. More than twenty people gathered, many of whom I only get to see once a year. Some I have more connections with than others. And each new encounter, a chance to observe the mind at work. 

How much do I really listen? How active is the 'commentator', the judge? How quickly do 'I' decide, "I like this conversation", or "This person is boring"? How many stories from the past do I bring into each interaction? What she said to me five years ago, and I still have not forgiven? Or the memory of a heartfelt conversation that brought the two of us close once? Who do I choose to speak to, and who do I ignore? How does it feel right in the core of my body? Tensing? Or relaxing? What is the emotion? So much to process in a matter of seconds.

I found that practicing in this way gave the evening a whole different flavor. First, I learned much about  the many ways in which the mind can create wedges between one self and others. The trick is to catch the thoughts before they have a chance to get acted out into words, or behaviors. Besides insight, much joy is to be had as well. Joy from being more present, and more kind. Right now, there is only me and him, this almost stranger whom I will probably not see until same time, next year. It is not about 'me', it's about him and what he is saying, and watching the impurities of my own mind wash away, leaving my heart free to meet him. 

How do you bring mindfulness to your social interactions? What do you notice?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feeling Impatient? Feel Grateful.

The trip started well. No traffic on the freeway, boarding pass printed ahead of time, no luggage to checkin,  I made it to gate 55 in record time. Then, the announcement that flight 1931 was being delayed an hour. Great, I thought, I will be able to try out the new egg chairs in the lounge. I had work to do, and did not mind the unexpected extra time. An hour soon turned into two, and then three. I surprised myself with my  lack of impatience. 

Later, standing outside terminal 4 at LAX, a series of texts from my daughter about her being stuck in traffic left me equally unfazed. When she finally arrived an hour later, I felt only gladness. It took us another two hours to reach her apartment instead of the usual 20 minutes. I watched drivers around us agitate their horns and attempt to make rash moves. Nowhere to go, but hundreds of restless minds needing to be indulged, right now.

I wondered, how come the calmness that had stayed with me for all this time?

It certainly helped that I had practiced sitting earlier in the day.

It certainly helped that I countered thoughts of dislike about flight travel with thoughts of gratitude about the fact that I could travel, and was soon to see my daughter. Thinking about my friends at the assisted living community, who can no longer venture even a few blocks without depending on the company of a willing other. Or the woman at Zen Hospice who was dying of lung cancer, and spent her last days bent over, head cupped in her hands, trying to catch some air. Thinking about this precious life, and nothing to be taken for granted, not even breath or the privilege of walking around a crowded airport. 

Gratitude is what had done away with any velleity of impatience.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Off to a Good Start

Waking up every day, same possibilities.

Either jump in, unaware, into the mayhem of the day, and be prepared for the consequences.  Or, stop and choose to dwell in mindfulness even before opening one's yes, following Ayya Khema's wise counsel. I have chosen the latter and perfected a routine that has done me a lot of good.

Laying in bed, at the first moment of consciousness, I peak at the early morning light, and I close my eyes again. Getting in touch with breath, and the general climate inside. What is the general feeling? Am I starting off with resistance, or willingness? As of late, there has been lots of reluctance. I remember Ruth Denison's teachings on vedana. Recognize the unpleasantness and it will diminish. She is right. Embracing the tightness, I can feel the body relax. Mind almost always follows with gladness, and gratitude for the gift of breath, and life starting anew, once more. It is now time to open the eyes, slowly as instructed by Ayya Khema, noticing the stickiness of upper and lower lids parting after a long night, and the brightness streaming in. 

Listening to the body, I give it what it wants. A few long, slow cat stretches. Spine cracks with delight. I am ready to get up.  Walking to the bathroom turns into a short walking meditation. First feeling the stickiness of bare feet against the wooden floor, then coldness from the marble tiles. Watching the various body parts, moving in accord to perform the rituals of toileting, brushing teeth, and freshening up. And the mind also, as it tries to take me away from each moment, already. 

Next is another critical juncture. To sit now, or later? I have found it best to sit first thing. This way, I am sure to get some practice in, and I prep the mind for the rest of the day. Giving the mind a chance to settle before external events have agitated it too much. Less effort is required to calm the mind, and also one can start the day from a centered place. Nascent unskillful thoughts can be addressed before they get a chance to mushroom into some kind of intractable state. 

We have so much control over our life. Good day, bad day, it's up to us to set the right tone from the start.

How do you usually start each day? Is mindfulness a part of your morning routine? 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living up to Our Mindfulness Potential

I am not yet done listening to this wonderful talk given by Ayya Khema. Many gems to be found there, and in particular:

"Most people use mindfulness just enough to survive."

Using mindfulness to cross the street, to brush our teeth, to type this post, to eat breakfast, to work, to make love, to buy groceries, to go to the bathroom . . .

Using mindfulness to function, and go through the mechanics of daily living.

Ayya Khema, and other wise teachers tell us there is more to life however.

Life can be lived in freedom from the unnecessary suffering of clinging to what cannot be had.

Mindfulness practice is about using all of our mindfulness potential to find the joy of life lived free the tyranny of our habitual cravings. Whenever I realize how little I make use of such gold mine, I feel great sadness. Such a waste!

Ayya Khema reminds us of some simple steps we can take to deepen our use of mindfulness: 

Formal practice, for sure, as in sitting and walking meditation.
And also, being mindful of the content of our mind outside of meditation, being aware of unwholesome thoughts and substituting them with wholesome thoughts. Purifying the mind.
Being mindful of the body outside of meditation, watching our movements, e.g. body walking to the table.

Often I interrupt the day with one of these three questions:
What am I doing? What am I thinking? How am I feeling?

How much of your mindfulness potential are you using?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Need For Panic

Sitting this morning, I found a succession of short, shallow breaths. The underline panic I have been feeling lately is still there, threatening to take over if I am not careful. 

Thirty years ago, standing on the sidewalk right by the Chicago L station, I encountered such breath, and not knowing, I gave in. Pretty soon, it felt as if I could no longer breathe. I was having a heart attack I thought and I called my doctor. He had me count until one hundred, without much success. The iron corset got even tighter, and I ended up in the ER. I got hooked up on the EKG machine. My heart was perfectly fine. I had just had a panic attack. 

Since that day, I have had a predisposition to panic. And I have learned ways to be with it. For a long time, I relied on the combined power of positive self-talk, belly breathing, and distraction. It worked. Somewhat.

What has really helped has been mindfulness practice, and particularly a deeper understanding of the role of one's attitude towards the panic itself. 

The Buddha himself has been my greatest teacher in that respect:

"Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’ 
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’  
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’ 
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ 

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’ 
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’ 
He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’ 
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’" 

~ Anapanasati Sutta ~

Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . Breathing out short, I know 'I am breathing out short' . . . Breathing in, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing out, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing in, I make room for shallow breath, and tightness, and the possibility of maybe relaxing a bit . . . Breathing out, I continue to make room for the whole experience . . . I also include a more neutral experience in the body, such as the sensations in my hands or feet, giving mind a break from the breath. Then returning again to the breath . . . Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . 

From this acceptance, the tight corset starts relaxing, giving breath more space to fill in the lungs, and mind a chance to calm down.

Such a subtle, and important shift.

Not panicking about the panic!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Medicine For Choppy Waters

It's been rough, lately. Choppy waters require strong medicine, and I have been especially vigilant to keep up with my mindfulness practice. 

Making sure to sit every morning first thing, for thirty minutes each time. And upping opportunities for informal practice throughout the day. Driving, I concentrate on driving, and nothing else. Walking to work, same thing. In between clients or meetings, I 'steal' a few minutes to sit, and reconnect with breath, and myself. Drinking a cup of coffee, I resist the temptation of checking messages on my phone, and I turn that time into another meditation. etc, etc . . .

That way, I can start each day from a calm, centered place, and I am better equipped to deal with the turbulences. 

How do you deal with the rough seas in your life? Do you practice? Do you escape? Do you react?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

From Conceptual to Experiential Self

From Philippe Goldin's presentation this weekend at El Camino Hospital (an event benefitting Bob Stahl's MBSR scholarship program), I found the following slide on 'Self-Focused Processing' particularly useful:

Conceptual or narrative self:
  • past-future
  • fixed self-concept
  • rumination
Experiential or embodied self:
  • present-moment focused
  • continuously changing experience of self
  • reduced problems with depression, anxiety, etc . . . 
A 21st century version of the teachings on anatta . . . with a focus on the health benefits of an experiential view of the self. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Anything But This Moment . . .

Sitting, it usually does not take long before the unpleasantness makes itself felt. Drinking from the bitter cup of suffering is an exercise in patience, and faith. One that I am not always able to see through the end. Lately, it has been hard staying seated for the whole thirty minutes.

Walking, I thought I would be brave and go 'naked' without my phone. This is the perfect opportunity to turn exercise into a walking meditation, I tell myself. Soon, I discover the pain there also. The same one I was feeling during sitting. To stay with each step and the burden of fully felt discomfort, or to find ways to escape? The mind ends up playing its usual tricks and takes me somewhere else.

At the gym, I went without a book. Yes, I shall turn the time on the elliptical machine into yet another form of practice. It's been a while since I have exercised my heart so hard. Body, breath, and mind start to rebel against so much effort. I start wishing I had not left the book at home. Anything but this moment . . . Then remembering 'breath as an anchor', I decide to investigate the new sensation of breath under stress. Mouth open, throat dry, air burning through the lungs. For a while, I forget that I don't want to do this.

Throughout each day, I make many such overtures to mindfulness, and I almost always find it incredibly challenging to stay with the unpleasantness. This is why sustained practice is so hard.

How do you manage to stay mindful?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Putting Myself to Sleep

I have had lots on my plate lately . . . and each evening, same story. The familiar tightness makes itself felt, that could keep me up all night. 

Rather than getting even more upset by such unwelcome visitor, I have discovered a new way of being that has made it (relatively) easy to fall into the oblivion of sleep. 

It goes like this . . . 

Lying in bed, I turn my attention to the whole experience of body in repose, pressure in the throat, knot in the stomach, and also breath coming and going at its own pace. Back and forth, between tightness and breath. Embracing the discomfort, meanwhile letting body being breathed. Each breath, a gentle stroke against the fear, and the butterflies swirling inside. Softening, softening, and making room for growing delight. 

Surrendering to the sweetness of breath.

How do you put yourself to sleep?

Other posts on same topic:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembering to Take in the Good

Today, walking into Avenidas Senior Center for a meeting about the Presence Care Project, it hit me. Hundreds of bright specks of violet, scattered amidst other less luminous dots. What a wondrous sight it was, and an awesome way to start the day!

What could have been just petals on the ground became an occasion for tremendous gratitude. I had to take a picture.

Remembering to take in the good.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creating the Space

(cross-post with Presence Care Project blog)

Amazing things can happen with folks who are living with dementia. They can start speaking intelligible words after months of muteness. They can start relating and smiling again. They can move their previously frozen limbs. They can sing entire songs. They can show flashes of insight. So many possible surprises.

However, the conditions have to be right.

First and foremost, the person needs to be given the time, and the mental and emotional space to BE. That means no rushing, no outpacing, no talking over, no ignoring, no assuming. Instead, we are to practice being present for them.

How does that work?

First I take a chair and I sit . . . down. Down at the person’s level, mirroring her own sitting. And I take the time to relax into my body, and to let my mind settle. Becoming aware of the sensations in my body, and of breath. Dropping below the habitual level of discursive thinking and emotional reactivity. I create space within my own mind. Sitting with her, I practice what is commonly called mindfulness.

Something usually happens then. Mindfulness starts working its magic not just on me, but also the person I am sitting with.

I notice my friend’s body starts to relax, and I can feel her mind loosening as well. There is an overall sense of joint resting within a vast expanse. For her this is especially important, as the newly created space and stillness gives the tenuous connections in her brain a chance to take again. She can ‘re-ment’. She was mute and now she tells me “thank you”.

If electrodes were taped on my friend’s brain, I am pretty sure, we would see dramatic changes in her brain’s activity and connectivity. Mindfulness by proxy . . . Maybe a new avenue for neuroscience research?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

6 Teachings on How to Be With the Dying

Ayya Khema's biography has been my late night companion for the last few weeks. Such an inspiring life, and so many wise teachings interspersed throughout. I especially appreciate her advice on how to relate to the dying:

1. When a person is dying, we should recall to him all his good deeds, so that he can die with a peaceful and happy mind. That is very important, for it very often occurs that on their deathbeds people are suddenly afflicted with regret and remorse, because they think they have done one thing or the other wrong. If you, as a doctor or a nurse, do not know a dying person very well, you should get information from his family so you can help him.

2. We should get in physical contact - hold hands with the dying person or stroke him, so he does not get the feeling he has been abandoned.

3. The sense of hearing is the last sense to go. Therefore we should not think that a person who seems to be lying there unconscious is not hearing anything. In his presence, only those things should be said that he should hear.

4. We can say to the person that we are all going to die. The body is not the most important thing. The mind and consciousness of the good and true are much more important. 

5. [We should not shy away from relieving or eliminating physical pain.] Consciousness is also present even when a dying person cannot answer or respond in the usual way. It is completely wrong to give a person over to pain - this only fills the person's mind with negativity and discord.

6. One should die at home in a good, familiar environment. One's dear ones should be present and know that they have to give the dying person permission to die. It is important to say to him or her: "Yes, we will miss you, but we're all completely okay, we're are just fine. We love you, but we can go on living." We should not try to hold on, since that makes dying more difficult.

6 great teachings for us to remember when the moment comes to midwife another person into dying. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

5 Ways to Practice Generosity

From Gil's recent talk on generosity, I have taken away these 5 practices of generosity (as part of broader mindfulness practice):

1. Do exactly what you are already doing, but infuse it with a spirit of generosity.

2. Look for opportunities for small acts of generosity that you would not generally do, and study yourself before, during, and after.

3. Look for situations in which you are inspired to give, and do it, and if you can't think of anything look at that.

4. Stretch yourself in being generous, and give in ways that are hard for you, even if just a little; explore what it's like.

5. Practice doing an act of generosity to someone you are in conflict with, and explore what happens inside.

And while practicing generosity, keep the following principles in mind:

When practicing generosity or giving, you don't have to FEEL generous.
Wise generosity is about how to benefit oneself, and how to benefit others.
We should give in a way that does not harm oneself, and does not harm others.
We should give out of obligation but because it feels like a beneficial things to do.
HOW one give is more important than WHAT one gives.

To Gil's points, I would like to add my own twist:

Paying attention to the body and mind's movements as one considers giving or not giving. Is there tightening, or expansion in the body, the heart, the mind? Tightening is clear indication of the need to bring ease into one's approach, either needing to relax into being more generous, or its opposite, withholding misguided giving.

For now, I shall focus on the first and fifth practices. The fifth one because of current circumstances. And the first one because it goes hand in hand with casual, moment to moment mindfulness. 

What is your relationship with generosity? How do you practice? Do you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Hazards of Unguarded Mind

She's been my teacher for the last week. 

Being with Betty has been a dramatic lesson in the perils of mind, when it has been unguarded for too long.  Betty's got an anxiety disorder so severe that she can no longer function. Her throat closes up and  she feels as if she is going to choke. Her legs go numb, and she is overtaken by weakness. Her mind fills up with thoughts of death and she begs to be shot. Her heart vacillates between terror and occasional bursts of anger. She cannot be left alone. Only drugs, and the continuous company of doctors and nurses bring her a tiny bit or relief. 

Layers after layers of accumulated mindlessness, exposed and wrapped up in pathology.

Slumped over in the couch, her hands entrusted in mine, she begs me to please relieve her from her misery. She wants to know that I care, and that I believe in the reality of her suffering. That I can do. When she tells me she is going to die, I see deluded mind in action. And I tell her. It may feel as if you are going to die, because your breath's gotten shallow, and your mind is visited by terrible thoughts. I suggest, instead of saying 'I am going to die', tell yourself 'It feels as if I am going to die, but I know better, I am not. I am still breathing, and talking.' Also, give your mind a bit of rest, and practice new thoughts. 'May I be at peace, may I be at ease. May I be at peace, may I be at ease.' Relaxing the mind.

There is work to do also with the body. Tightness all over needs to be dealt with. First, recognizing it, which is no problem for Betty. Where she goes wrong is in what she does with her perception and awareness. Not seeing the tensing against the primary tension, and how it contributes to her feeling more and more out of control. Being aware of the whole experience: the body's long held habit of reacting with tension, overlaid with great dislike and fear about that experience, then leading to more tension, ending in a knot so tight that air, and blood can barely pass through. 'Don't talk to me about deep breathing anymore. It does not work, only makes me worse.' Somewhere, Betty has learned that breath is to be used for her condition. The fact that she has been taught wrong has turned breath into a new enemy. Figuring we have enough to deal with, I decide to leave that one aside, for now at least . . . and to use the body instead. Focusing on the hands, and the sensations there. 'I feel cold and warm.' In that moment, Betty's mind is no longer focused on the tightness. Giving the mind a rest, purifying it. 

"Give me a shot, now!" In this moment, Betty believes only drugs can relieve her from her suffering. Another delusion to be addressed. Using mind against mind, and the power of memory to remember the extra suffering by the use of drugs when they wear out. And reintroducing the knowledge that working with her thoughts is as powerful and without the side effects. "You are forgetting the power of your mind. There is a lot you can do with your thoughts, and how you choose to deal with the panic." She nods. I take it as a small victory. 

"What did you use to enjoy before the panic came?" "I like music, classical music." Getting the mind out of its rut. One wholesome thought, one wholesome action at a time . . . She is open to listening to a Mozart CD.

There is the panic, and what led to it in the first place. Digging down deeper, and accessing the anger beneath. Lots of it. Another hindrance that's been marching for years into Betty's life. Meeting with her relatives, Betty's voice grows loud and she tells them how she feels. Betty's got a lot of work to do. She needs to see a therapist. 

Betty did not know. She let her house get so dirty over the years, that she can no longer live in it. Now is the time for heavy cleanup crew, and she has to roll up her sleeves. 

No need to wait that long. The fresher the grime, the easier to remove. Betty is calling me (us) to the tedious work of ongoing mindfulness. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Shame of Envy

A recent event, my reaction to it and resulting actions brought forth last night what had been brewing for quite some time:

I have been feeling envy
Wanting what they have
and that I don't have

It's been taking me
down the wrong path
and I didn't even see it

Forgetting to focus 
on the real problem,
of craving mind

I don't like to admit
to such shameful leaning
so petty, so small

I was consumed,
and now, the freedom 
of chains broken.

U Pandita's teaching about 'The Ten Armies of Mara' comes to mind:

Meditation can be seen as a war between wholesome and unwholesome mental states. On the unwholesome side are the forces of the kilesas, also known as “The Ten Armies of Māra.” In Pāli, Māra means killer. He is the personification of the force that kills virtue and also kills existence. His armies are poised to attack all yogis; they even tried to overcome the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.

Here are the lines the Buddha addressed to Māra, as recorded in the Sutta Nipāta:

Sensual pleasures are your first army,
Discontent your second is called.
Your third is hunger and thirst,
The fourth is called craving.
Sloth and torpor are your fifth,
The sixth is called fear,
Your seventh is doubt,
Conceit and ingratitude are your eighth,
Gain, renown, honor and whatever fame is falsely received (are the ninth), 
And whoever both extols himself and disparages others (has fallen victim to the tenth). 
That is your army, Namuci [Māra], the striking force of darkness. 
One who is not a hero cannot conquer it, but having conquered it, one obtains happiness.

To overcome the forces of darkness in our own minds, we have the wholesome power of satipaṭṭhāna vipassanāmeditation, which gives us the sword of mindfulness, as well as strategies for attack and defense.

In the Buddha’s case, we know who won the victory. Now, which side will win over you?

What really got to me was my blinded-ness to the forces of envy. So focused was I on the outer object, that I got lost, and failed for a long time to fully investigate the source of my suffering. This is what delusion does to the mind. 
Envy, such a powerful teacher. 
When is the last time you felt prey to its twisted-ness?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where I Go For Loving Kindness

From Jack Kornfield, my first teacher many years ago, I got my first training in loving kindness during one of the family days at Spirit Rock. I remember learning:

First start thinking of a person for whom I felt great love
Then get in touch with the love I felt in my heart
Then direct that same love towards myself 
'May I be at peace, May I be at ease, . . .'
Then to expand the circle of love further and further outside of myself until it included all the people in the world. 
'May they be at peace, May they be at ease . . .'

This did not work quite so well for me. Since then, I have found this optimistic approach about loving kindness is also difficult for many other folks. There are two problems. First is the fact that for some, there has never been the experience of feeling love for another person. Second, most of us in the Western world have a very hard time loving ourselves. Instead of loving kindness, anger or self-hate may arise with such practice. Not necessarily bad, as everything is grist for the mill in meditation practice, but still, not really the intent.

More workable I have found, is a more inclusive practice that goes like this:

First start thinking of a person, or a pet, or a place, or a thing for whom one feels great love
Then get in touch with the love felt in one's heart and hold it
Then try sending out some of that same love towards oneself
And become aware of all that is present in one's experience
Including other feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body
Relax the tensions in the body, and the mind, as much as possible
Meanwhile being aware of quiet body being breathed
Take it in all in, not pushing away anything, and wish one self well,
'May I be at peace, May I be at ease, . . .'
Enrobing all the feelings, thoughts, sensations, tensions
Enrobing them in the love found earlier in one's heart
Repeating the words as often as necessary,
Being aware still of body being breathed, in and out
Then expand the circle of loving kindness to at least one other person,
'May he/she be at peace, May he/she be at ease, . . .'
And continue expanding the circle, until one comes to a stop.
Not forcing anything, relaxing into the reality of one's heart,
And rewiring our brain with the words
'May I/they be at peace, May I/they be at ease, . . .'

The place I go to for love, is a memory of my maternal grandfather holding my hand, and the smell of the earth impregnating his farmer's clothes. How about you? What is your love person, place, thing, . . . ?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Persistent Guests in My House

It's become clear now who are the guests that linger in my inner dwelling. 

First is the workaholic who obsesses over what's next at the office. I encounter 'her' while I sit, while I walk, and in my dreams. She populates my mind with many thoughts, and preoccupies herself with planning and multiple projects. She acts as a barrier between myself and the present moment. She is not really a person, but rather a constellation of habits, emotions, and thoughts. She is driven by another, much older character, to do with my early years as a child. That one is a scared little girl, still living in what felt like an unpredictable home with a father given to unpredictable rages. Fear is her modus operandi and her first line of response. Those two guests take turn in dominating my day to day life. 

'Take turn' is no longer so accurate, though. I should say 'have taken turn' instead. Things are changing.

Another figure, much more powerful than those two is establishing itself. She is wise, and knows how to put the other two guests to rest, using the qualities of insight, patience, mindfulness, equanimity, concentration, investigation, and loving kindness. In this moment, there is only breath coming and going, and hands typing words on the computer, and body sitting a bit slouched in the office chair. The rest, the scared 'I' that makes itself felt in the pit of the stomach, is to be put in its place. A persistent guest, a product of automatic responses from body and mind in need of being calmed, using the breath, and concentration on the task at hand. 

How humbling to realize that this mind, this body do not really belong to me . . . Otherwise, right now, there would be only be the peace of breath, moving freely in and out of boundless body. 

Who are the guests in your house? How do you put them to rest?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gratitude Eight Times Over

Gratitude is about realizing what one has, and knowing it can be all taken away, just like that.
Gratitude is about noticing others' plight, and yes, comparing, and acknowledging one's good fortune.
Gratitude is about not taking anything, and I mean anything for granted.
Gratitude is about visiting several old folks' homes today, and seeing decrepit bodies, minds lost in another reality, and a place or two that made me want to flee, because it was so bad in there.
Gratitude is about appreciating my youth still, and my sound mind, and my independence, and the ability to contribute with my good work.
Gratitude is about realizing the control I have over my mind to host happy thoughts, or not.
Gratitude is about feeling so lucky to be able to speak, after hearing of a friend whose speech was taken away by a stroke.
Gratitude is about counting my many blessings, and holding them lightly in the heart.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

6 Rewards of Loving Kindness Practice

I am a big fan of loving kindness practice. It took me a while, years actually to warm up to it, but now I could not imagine life without it. Today, during his Dharma talk at IMC, Gil gave six reasons to give into metta:

Loving kindness is a way of protecting ourselves - from negative thoughts, ill will, greed,  . . . 
Loving kindness creates social harmony - through our kind thoughts, words, and actions.
Loving kindness helps us sleep better - falling asleep more easily, and waking up more rested. 
Loving kindness acts as reference point to see ourselves better - making it more obvious the things that need to be resolved, the anger that has been festering, etc.
Loving kindness can be used as a concentration practice - helping with fragmentation.
Loving kindness supports the practice of liberation of freedom.

May you be at peace, may you be at ease!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nothing To Be Clung To

Sitting, the words come:
'nothing to be clung to'

Not getting into stories,
and from many times before,
the almost certainty of this:
'nothing to be clung to'

Breathing in, breathing out,
relaxing around the edges
of the habitual tightness:
'nothing to be clung to'

Years of tensing, grasping,
cannot be undone that quickly
It is only a matter of time:
'nothing to be clung to'

There is no need
to find out the object even,
for none is worth the desire:
'nothing to be clung to'

Sitting, the words come:
Nothing to be clung to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs Was a Dharma Teacher Also

Steve Job's death yesterday came as a shock. We all knew he was dying, but were hoping that he would be a part of this world for a little while longer. As a tribute to him, I would like to share this video of him giving the Commencement Speech for the Stanford class of 2005.

I especially appreciated his story about death:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

And I thought of the wisdom of another man, not famous like Steve, but just as wise . . . 

This is the truth.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

16 Steps With the Breath

Following last week's talk by Gil on the Anapanasati sutta, I have been meaning to dig deeper and articulate for myself the 16 steps regarding mindfulness of breathing as a full practice. Here is what I understand, based on Gil's talk and reading the Anapanasati sutta:

By focusing one's attention on the breath, one can develop mindfulness, concentration, and insight. We alternate between just being present and changing the experience. Focusing on the breath helps with staying in the present. This requires an active use of our attention. This is not about being passive.

Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’ 
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ [1] 
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’ 
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ [2] 

The Buddha says, just know the quality of your breath. Breathing is used as a reference point, that makes it easier to see what the mind does. Also because the attention goes to breathing, one is starving the distractions. 

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’ 
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’[3] 

In the process, we become aware of bodily formations - what is there in the body because of activities of the mind. The various sensations.

He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’ 
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’ [4] 

Then we relax and soften those sensations. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing joy.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing joy.’[5] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing pleasure. 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing pleasure. [6] 

Some energy gets released, and we experience relief. We let ourselves feel the resulting joy and happiness.

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing mental formation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing mental formation.’[7]

Same way, we became aware of the bodily formations, we become aware of the mental formations - the effects on the mind of how we use the mind. We feel what is going on in the mind. We look at what is feeding the mental activity: emotions, anxiety, worry. We get to know the overall state of our mind.

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in calming the mental formation.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out calming the mental formation.’[8] 

Then we relax what goes on in the mind little by little. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing the mind.’[9] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in pleasing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out pleasing the mind.’[10]

We have the experience of soft mind. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in concentrating the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out concentrating the mind.’[11] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in releasing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out releasing the mind.’[12] 

This is an iterative process, we get to watch what happens in the mind and the body when we tighten. We learn how to be aware and to relax. How to liberate the mind. We are not letting go of, but rather letting go into peace, into being more relaxed. We go between knowing something and doing something about it, back and forth. We are breathing with our experience of body and mental states. The breath is what keeps us centered. We are not only focusing on the breath, but we also track what is going on in the present moment. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing impermanence.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing impermanence.’[13] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing dispassion.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing dispassion.[14] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing cessation.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing cessation.’[15] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing relinquishment.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing relinquishment.’[16] 

The last four steps are about cultivating insight. We realize the things we cling to that are not worth clinging to. The thing we cling to start fading away as we become disinterested. Knowing something well enough is sometimes all that's needed to let go. 

This in a nutshell was Gil's lecture.

Of course, the question that comes up for me, and that I did not think of asking after the talk, is of how to calm the mental formations? Many times throughout the sutta, the Buddha repeats "having put aside greed and distress for the world". I take it to mean that we take a stance and we decide to drop our habitual way. While sitting, we no longer get hooked into greed, ill will, worry, and sorrow. Instead we choose to dwell in the truth of breath, in and out, in and out, through body sitting still, and we do not linger in the mental formations that cause us unnecessary tensions and suffering. This is how I understand taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is where (previously verified) faith comes in.