Saturday, April 30, 2011

Like a Guitar String

Pain in the right shoulder threatened my ability to work on the computer. Something had to be done, and I knew where to turn. Estelle, my favorite masseuse had saved me before. She could do it again.

She did, and also told me the plain truth.

Deep inside, she had found a tiny tendon, as taut as a guitar string. "In my entire career, I have never worked on such tight shoulders!" I told her I was under stress, lots of it.

I went home and thought about all the unpleasantness that has come my way recently. And how I had deluded myself into thinking that I had met it completely. 

I decided to sit and investigate the truth. Relaxing the whole body, from the feet all the way up to the head, I quickly found myself enveloped by a big grey cloud. Yes, there was much to not like, and there was no mistaking the intensity of my aversion. To resist the aversion of the aversion . . . I was to stay in the cloud and feel every bit of it. This took courage.

Unpleasant vedana. Ruth said to be very aware, or else the unpleasantness gets worse . . . 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Place Where I Stand

Waking up, I first open my eyes.
Then find breath, for a little while.
And the remembrance to dwell in mindfulness.
Lying in bed still, I close my eyes again.
And find my way to a different place,
Where there is only this moment
and the awareness of what is.
I linger some more,
just to make sure I got it.
And stand there, ready for the day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Needs to Get Done

Imagine a workplace where everyone's energy was directed towards the task at hand.
Imagine a workplace where everyone's minds ceased to take things so personally.
Imagine a workplace where mistakes would be welcomed instead of feared.
Imagine a workplace where work itself turned into the practice.
Imagine a workplace where displays of the ego would be discouraged.
Imagine a workplace where reactivity gave way to calm responsiveness.
Imagine a workplace where politics did not exist.
Imagine a workplace where each interaction left everyone more whole.

Will you dream with me, and start making the dream happen? It's up to you!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Not Waiting For a Sweet One

Difficult outer circumstances make it clear how much more work is left to be done inside. Sitting, walking, swimming, driving, alone, or with others, I have been getting hardly any rest from the unpleasantness. I am also aware enough to know that there is no way out other than to go through the discomfort. With each peak of suffering, comes a new insight, a little more wisdom. Tonight, as I type these words, the pain is right there, oozing out of my fingers, a mixture of anger, sadness, tiredness, and fear. Lots of unpleasant vedana, and the immediate temptation to make matters worse with some added aversion to the feeling itself.  I could sit some more but it is getting late, and I lack the energy for more meditation. No, instead, I shall turn to Ayya Khema:
There is a lovely story from Nazrudin, a Sufi Master, who was gifted in telling absurd tales. One day, the story goes, he sent one of his disciples to the market and asked him to buy him a bag of chilies. The disciple did as requested and brought the bag to Nazrudin, who began to eat the chilies, one after another. Soon his face turned red, his nose started running, his eyes began to water and he was choking. The disciple observed this for a while with awe and then said: "Sir, your face is turning red, your eyes are watering and you are choking. Why don't you stop eating these chilies?" Nazrudin replied: "I am waiting for a sweet one."
The teaching aid of chilies! We, too, are waiting for something, somewhere that will create peace and happiness for us. Meanwhile there is nothing but dukkha, the eyes are watering, the nose is running, but we won't stop our own creations. There must be a sweet one at the bottom of the bag! It's no use thinking, hearing or reading about it, the only effective way is to look inside one's own heart and see with understanding. The more the heart is full of wanting and desiring, the harder and more difficult life becomes.
This is my problem. I keep on hoping for some idea of sweetness that exists in my mind only. Walking the dogs earlier, the smell of jasmine caught me, delicious, lingering. Nothing else to be experienced, but the jasmine sweetness . . . That is if mind hadn't cluttered the moment with some self-made agitation. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Two Little Chinese Girls

In the YMCA locker room, the sight of a little Chinese girl cutely combing the hair of her younger sister, then the two of them hugging. That's all it took to take me to a sorrowful state. 

Mind flashing back to happy, earlier times with my two daughters when they were that age. The depth of our bond back then, and my identity as a mother. 

Mind playing tricks on the heart, from wanting to hold on to the past. I saw it, just as it was happening, and recognized the self-made suffering. 

Mind over mind, protecting the purity of the present moment. 

When is the last time when you had such a moment of insight, and you did not let your mind go down the path of more suffering?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Nothing's For Sure

Coming out of nowhere,
another disturbance came today
toppling the castle of cards
so carefully assembled.

Past the initial shock,
there was laughter
at life's twisted sense of humor,
and then a pause.

So much time spent
rehearsing, planning, anticipating,
all in vain,
the truth is nothing's for sure.

Friday, April 22, 2011

She Just Wants to Dance

"She's forgotten how to get on the table" the man says to me. He speaks with such authority that I almost believe him for a moment. 'She' is Katerina, an endearing woman at the eldercare community where I work. Katerina was diagnosed with Alzheimer's ten years ago at the early age of fifty one. 'He' is her massage therapist. 

There is music playing, and Katerina only wants to do one thing. She wants to dance. She takes me and forcefully spins me. I follow her lead, and the two of us start laughing. Beyond words, we understand that this is a moment for dancing, nothing else. 

Not jumping to conclusions. Not interjecting our ideas into the moment. Being present for what is.

Dancing . . . 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Don't Look Down on Anger, It Will Wreck You

Yesterday morning, as I stared at the costly result of a short moment of mindless driving, I remembered U Tejaniya's Don't Look Down on the Defilements, They Will Laugh At You . . . 

Unattended anger, doing its job! I realized I needed to heed U Tejaniya's advice:

In order to understand defilements, you have to watch them again and again. What can you gain from just having or expecting good experiences? If you understand the nature of the defilements, they will dissolve. Once you are able to handle defilements, good experiences will naturally follow. Most yogis make the mistake of expecting good experiences instead of trying to work with the defilements.

Respecting anger for the powerful energy that it is. Approaching it with great curiosity. Investigating. 

I was amazed by what  I found. First, was delusion brought to light, and the realization that the cause of the anger was to be found inside, not outside in someone else. Second, was the insidious effect of my unconscious attachment to a young part of myself, no longer appropriate for this stage of my life. 'She' was the one that had kept me hooked into the anger. And I was no longer willing to suffer for  'her' sake.    Third, was how quickly the anger left once I understood its real origin. I awoke this morning, filled with great joy, and gratitude. 

Do you have any 'wreck' stories to share? How did you learn from them? 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Strength to Bear

There are many kinds of prisons. Literal prisons with real walls, real bars and real guards. Golden prisons that deceive one into the illusion of false security and material ease. Inner prisons from limiting, self-created constructs in the mind. Different forms, and the same result in each case. A life not fully lived, and spent in great suffering. We all have our own version of the prison. This is why the Buddhist path emphasizes liberation so much. We are to free ourselves from the inner shackles that bind us.

I know for myself this process of liberation has been made possible by a steady practice of meditation. Not only has my practice helped me see more clearly the causes and conditions for the prison, thereby preparing an eventual release. It has also given me the strength to gracefully bear the hardships, both inner and outer, that have besieged me along the way.  I have found mindfulness practice to be the single most reliable source of courage and the ultimate refuge when suffering reaches a climax. With practice the hindrances loosen their grip, and so do outer stressors. Fear, anger, doubt, sorrow, discouragement still visit, but I do not let them have the last word, and they no longer dictate how I react to situations. There is also the joy and strength from standing on the boundless, bedrock foundation of  the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Three gems that cannot be taken away by anyone or any circumstance.

From Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician and one of the most famous prisoner in the world, I have drawn much inspiration:
I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicingmeditation. It was not an easy process. I did not have a teacher and my early attempts were more than a little frustrating. There were days when I found my failure to discipline my mind in accordance with prescribed meditation practices so infuriating I felt I was doing myself more harm than good. I think I would have given up but for the advice of a famous Buddhist teacher, that whether or not one wanted to practice meditation, one should do so for one's own good.
So, I gritted my teeth and kept at it, often rather glumly.

I may not grit my teeth, but my stomach does tighten, often . . . giving me one more object of contemplation. 

What does your prison look like? How is your practice of mindfulness helpful? Where else might you turn for strength?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Engaged Mindfulness From the Heart

Dr. Allen Power, my partner for the Presence Care Project was in town this week, and our time was spent in many meetings and presentations to various elder care communities. The Presence Care Project is about developing a mindfulness-based approach to training care partners of persons living with dementia, with the hope that both greater well-being will result in both care partners and the ones in their care. I felt a great sense of accomplishment as we made great inroads into the development of the project. And I could not help but think back on the time nine months ago when the idea arose for the project, all because of this person:

My Mother
and also this place:

Zen Hospice
and this man's work:

Jon Kabat-Zinn
To my mother, I owe the experience of being with her since the beginning of her forgetfulness, and the ability to notice what a difference mindfulness practice made in our relationship. From feeling only grief, to a growing acceptance of her in the moment, even appreciating new aspects of her personality that have been freed as a result of her condition. From my experience at Zen Hospice, I became further convinced of the power to heal the forgetful ones with a mindfulness-based approach to caring. Many times at the Laguna Honda Hospice ward, I saw a dramatic difference, between the way forgetful residents happily responded to us, the Zen Hospice volunteers, and the way they would become agitated when interacting with the regular staff. Last, with his now well researched Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, Jon Kabat-Zinn showed me that it was possible to successfully bring mindfulness into a mainstream institutional setting, and gave me a foundation upon which to solidly stand.

Then it was only a matter of a few months before a team was formed, first with Dr. Allen Power, author of the book 'Dementia Beyond Drugs', and more recently Dr. Leslie Ross, a researcher with UCSF. We have received enquiries from many places, including Singapore, Australia, the UK, France, and of course various communities in the U.S. And we are gearing up to implement the training in several elder communities in the Bay Area. We want this to be an evidence-based research project that can been easily replicated in communities everywhere. 

Amazing the places the heart can take you . . . 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lightening the Load

I have been pondering this zen story:

Two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walked side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger of the two monks for help. He exclaimed, 'Don't you see that I am a monk, that I took a vow of chastity?'

'I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply to help me to cross the river,' replied the young woman with a little smile.

'I...not...I nothing for you,' said the embarrassed young monk.

'It doesn't matter,' said the elderly monk. 'Climb on my back and we will cross together.'

Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left her side and both monks continued their route in silence. Close to the monastery, the young monk could not stand it anymore and said, 'You shouldn't have carried that person on your back. It's against our rules.'

'This young woman needed help and I put her down on the other bank. You didn't carry her at all, but she is still on your back,' replied the older monk.

How difficult it is to let go of the burden of resentment and hurt . . . 

One way that I have been able to lighten my load, is through the contemplation of 'this moment'. Realizing this is the only moment, precious, and not to be spoiled by the untamed mind's agitations. 

What do you do when you find your heart weighed down? Please share.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why I Do This Work

Tending to elders with dementia, has been an amazing practice. No need to contemplate the five remembrances every morning. The work does it for me. 

Today, I got to see the reality of old age. Worn out, twisted bodies in various states of disrepair. And unsteady minds to further complicate things. 

Today, I got to see the reality of ill health. The old man was lying in bed, too weak to move any more. I asked him if he was in pain. He said "Yes, at the usual place."

Today, I got to see the reality of death up close. One of our residents had just passed away, and we spread rose petals over his dead body, as it was getting carried out to the mortuary car. 

Today, I got to see the heartache from a family I visited. Their father was letting himself go after the news of a ravaging diagnosis, and all were on edge from the near end.

Today, I got to practice right action, right speech, and right view. Moving slow, taking the time to be present for all I met. And I ended the day in joy.

May you too, discover the benefit from contemplating the hard realities of life, old age, sickness and death. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Right Speech, No Speech

More often than not,
right speech is about no speech.

Playing confident to a girlfriend
and keeping one's mouth shut.
Hearing a co-worker's complaints
and keeping one's mouth shut.
Listening to a teenager's heart stories
and keeping one's mouth shut.
Seeing someone's shadow looming large
and keeping one's mouth shut.
Noticing gratuitous judgments in the mind
and keeping one's mouth shut.

Each time, noticing the temptation
to speak one too many word.
With the wisdom of knowing the consequences
that could lie ahead, if the tongue slipped.
Guarding one self, guarding others
in silence, enjoying the fruit of skillful restraint.

When's the last time you spoke too hastily? Can you remember what happened next? What did you learn?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

6 Mindful Ways to Make the Most of Each Day

Inspired by yet another very wise talk from Ayya Khema, here are six mindful ways to make the most of each day:

1. Set the intention to be mindful:
"When getting up in the morning, the first thing would be a determination to be mindful. Becoming aware of opening our eyes, is the beginning of the day, and the beginning of mindfulness. If we have opened our eyes before becoming aware of that, we can close them and start all over again."
2. Meditate first thing in the morning:
"The first thing would be to sit down to meditate, maybe having to get up a little earlier . . . In most homes, starting at 6 o'clock, there is noise. If that is so, we need to get up early enough to avoid that . . . If we have a whole hour available for meditation, that's fine; at least let us not practice under half an hour, because the mind needs time to become calm and collected. The morning hour is often the best for many people, because during the night the mind is not bombarded with as many conscious impressions as it is during the day, and is therefore comparatively calm." 
3. Follow with a contemplation of the five remembrances:
(simplified version I learned during Zen Hospice training)
I am of the nature to grow old.
I cannot escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
I cannot escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

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.
I inherit the nature of my actions in body, speech and mind. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
4. Realize this is the only day you have and use it most skillfully:
"We can keep three things in mind. First comes mindfulness, bare attention to the prevailing mode of being. That can be a physical activity without the mind going astray, or it may be a feeling or a thought which has arisen. Paying full attention, not trying to bury it under discursive debris, but knowing exactly what is happening in one's life. When physical activity does not demand our attention, we can again direct thoughts to the fleeting aspects of our own lives and everyone else's, and reflect what to do in the short time available. When we consider this correctly, kindness, lovingness, and helpfulness arise as priorities. We need not help a lot of people all at once. Even helping one person, maybe someone who lives in the same house, is beneficial. It is the attitude and motivation that count, not the results."
5. At the end of the day, make a balance sheet of your actions:
"At the end of each day it can be a good practice to make a balance-sheet, possibly even in writing . . . We can check our actions and reactions during the day, and can see which ones were conductive to happiness for ourselves and others and which ones were rejected . . . If we do that night after night, we will always find the same actions accepted or rejected. Kindness, warmth, interest in others, helpfulness, concern and care are always accepted. Self-interest, dislike, rejection, arguments, jealousy are always rejected. Just for one single day, we can write down all our actions on the credit or debit side, whether happiness-producing or not. As we do that, we will find the same reactions to the same stimuli over and over again. This balance sheet will give a strong impetus to stop the pre-programmed unwholesome reactions."
6. Before going to sleep, practice loving-kindness meditation:
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be safe.
May I be well.
May I be at peace.
May I be at ease.
May I be happy.

May you be filled with loving kindness.
May you be safe.
May you be well.
May you be at peace.
May you be at ease.
May you be happy.

During this coming week, will you join me in practicing Ayya Khema's mindful ways? 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Absurdity of Self-Made Fear

A friend gave me a copy of Arianna Huffington's book, 'On Becoming Fearless'. I have been practicing . . . Not becoming fearless per se, but rather, being fearless with the fear itself. Sitting this morning, I found my old friend waiting, begging to be acknowledged. There was no going around the fear. I watched the breath trying to make its way in and out, through the constriction. Small, short breaths. 

Being with the fear . . . 

And reflecting also, past the obvious surface explanations of life's unavoidable vicissitudes. 

Down, down I went, and found the fear of change, and many 'what if' scenarios all involving me in the main role and lots of drama. This is what the anxiety prone mind does. Projecting into an imaginary future, and putting oneself through much unnecessary made up misery. No wonder I am feeling afraid!

Hence, to catch the mind, and observe the consequences of its doings. Feeling completely the suffering, and the absurdity of it all. And then, putting my foot down, and declaring no to it. Dwelling instead in the simplicity of the present moment. Right now, just typing on the computer, feeling the warmth from the heater on my legs, being breathed. Being grateful for the gifts of healthy body, healthy mind, and a roof over my head.

How is your relationship to fear?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Behind Closed Door

Twice yesterday, I closed the door of my windowless office and I set the iPhone timer for 10mn. I turned off the light, and I sat there in the darkness. Giving myself the gift of intent mindfulness, being present for breath, and sensations in still body, and all the noises, big and small that make up a work environment. 20 minutes total that's all it took to set back the clock on my mindfulness watch. 20 minutes very well spent for myself and my employer. 20 or even just a few minutes, can you spare that much in your busy work day?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It's a Shame

Yesterday, I met an 84 year old man. A real gentleman with an impeccable sense of style, and a twinkle in his eyes. He and I talked about his life now, and his life before when he could live an independent life. Billy used to be an artist, and a real good one. Now he spends most of his days sitting in the front lobby of the institution where he lives, or lying down on his bed, trying to sleep away his boredom. Towards the end of our conversation, Billy goes deep into the truth of his current existence:

"It's a shame that I don't get to do much anymore. I want to feel useful.  I'd like to contribute something and not just exist. That seems like such a waste of life."

Yes, we all want to feel useful.  Doing what I do, serving others, writing on this blog, engaging in mindfulness practice, are all meaningful activities that give me a sense of purpose. Without those, I would be reduced to non existence. For those like Billy who are living with crippling forgetfulness, the ability to lead a purposeful life depends on the assistance from others. It requires digging into the person's past and a careful observation of his response to current situations to find out with that person the specific activities that will enhance his life. For Billy, we determined that playing around with clay and making sculptures is still of interest to him. He wants to give it a try.

What gives meaning to your life?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Strong Medicine For the Heart

Just when I needed it most, right here in the mind, a thought borrowed from Jack Kornfield's talk during this year's Wisdom 2.0 conference:

"I have heard one is to practice metta  (loving kindness) 150 times before it finally sinks into the heart."

Sitting with much agitation, I heeded Jack's advice, and soon watched all thoughts drop in favor of:

May I be (on in breath)
happy (on out breath)
May I be (on in breath)
at peace (on out breath)
May I be (on in breath)
at ease (on out breath)
. . .

and towards the end, a few such 'metta' words aimed at the object of my agitation:

May you be
May you be
at peace
May you be
at ease
. . .

followed by a few deep breaths, and yet another stroke, just for me:

May I be
May I be
at peace
May I be
at ease

Body still, being breathed. Heart opening, and cooling. Mind purified, resting in the kind words.

I have found metta to be the strongest medicine for difficult emotions. How about you? How do you use your practice to calm the heart?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

How I Train Myself

While in the storm still, I have been thinking a lot about 'The Simile of the Saw' (or Kakacupama Sutta), one of the Buddha's teaching about anger and good will. Particularly this passage:
"Even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves."
Today, I shall train myself to be unaffected and will say no evil words. I will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. I will keep pervading the one who badly hurt me with an awareness imbued with good will, expanding it even further to the whole wide world. Pondering those beautiful words: abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility and ill will. 

Trusting the Buddha to know best:
Attend constantly to this admonition on the simile of the saw. That will be for your long-term welfare & happiness.
Compassion for those hardest to love is a practical matter. It's good for the mind, it's good for the heart.

Friday, April 1, 2011

In the Storm

Standing still in the middle of a storm, 

I get to feel its full effects.

Major upset in the body. Throat, tight. Chest, heavy. Heart, pounding. Limbs, shaking almost. 

In the heart, a powerful cocktail of fear, wanting (something else), anger (at this person), and doubt also. 

In the mind, tumbling thoughts of 'poor me', 'what a jerk!', 'what's going to happen?', and many more in the same genre.

Hindrances showing themselves in all their darkness . . . 

And under carefully watching eye, something else also, that's even more powerful. Another brew made up of wisdom, strength, loving kindness, determination, energy, patience, virtue, renunciation, truthfulness, equanimity, generosity. All ten perfections showing up during this critical moment. 

I needed to write this post this morning, as I am about to head out to work after a sleepless night.

May you be well, may you be at peace, may you be at ease, may you be happy.
May I be well, may I be at peace, may at be at ease, may I be happy.
May the source of my torment be well, and at peace, and at ease, and happy. (I mean it)