Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not This Time

Walking this morning, I found much unpleasantness. The mind had its reasons, ready to be indulged. This path often travelled, I did not feel like taking, however. Not this time.

Dharma talks are not for nothing . . . 

I remembered the essence of this teaching, from Leigh Brasington:
A short term strategy for diminishing dukkha is to look at the critical link between vedana and craving, including our ability to become mindful of pleasant vedana when it occurs and our craving for it. In that gap lots of concoctions and false perceptions take place.
Yes, the gap. There was a gap, if only I could stop the mind in its tracks. And even if I couldn't, I could at a minimum watch it skip from 'unpleasant', to 'not liking', 'really not liking'. Body meanwhile constricting, throat tightening, stomach knotting. All in a matter of seconds. 

Years of evolution at work. It's going to take a while for the body to unlearn, and the mind to understand. 

Helpful, Blanche Hartman's image of "Not taking that train (of thoughts)". That I could do, over and over again. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Care Package for Ruth

Ruth is back at Dhamma Dena recovering with the loving support of her many students who are taking turn caring for her. Not being able to be with her, I sent her a spiritual care package this morning in the form of a reprint of all the posts I wrote about her in this blog. Ruth does not have access to the Internet, but she loves reading the old fashioned way . . . 

With Ruth at Dhamma Dena at the end of her  Fall  2010 Women's Retreat
May she be well again. May she be free from physical suffering. May she be at ease . . . 

And may you benefit from her teachings!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Calming Bodily Formations

I have a new mantra. It naturally arose during the course of sitting, day after day. Gil had planted the seeds a while ago, during his talk on the Satipatthana Sutta.

Taking hold in the mind, this teaching he shared, from the Buddha:

He trains thus: 'I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation'; he trains thus: 'I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.'

I made it my own:

'Breath. Calming bodily formations.'

Giving the breath all its power. Breath as ultimate refuge.

Constriction, tension, pain, hotness, coldness, fear, anger . . . slowly dissolved, one breath in, one breath out at a time. Trusting in Buddha's wisdom, that this is the way.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Why Sit?

Sitting with nothing to do.
but just sit

and watch the ebbs and flows
of breath
and the frequent interruptions
of thoughts
a lot about 'me'.

Sitting with nothing to do
but just sit

and listen to the sounds
outside, and inside
and feel
the random pains
and pleasures.

Sitting with nothing to do
but just sit

and not liking
being with the unpleasantness
a lot of the time
still hoping for some bliss

Sitting with nothing to do
but just sit

and see the true nature
of mind
making up stuff
when there is only
body sitting quiet.

Sitting with nothing to do
but just sit.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Us Versus Them

I just met her last night. She graduated from a prestigious school back East and had a long career as a social worker, before the illness took her down. 

She asks me about someone else living in our assisted living community. "She is one of 'us'." Looking for her words . . . "You know, 'us' vs 'them'." 

I know. 'Us', meaning the residents like her. 'Them', meaning staff like me.

Artificial labels, that maintain the illusion of separateness. Collectively enforced selfing . . . 

One day, I could be one of 'us' also. We can all.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

First Know Thy Self

It has taken me a while to get the Buddha's teachings about anatta, or 'not self'. Gil's talks have been extremely helpful in that regard, and have helped shed light on my personal experience. 

This morning, I came across this gem from Ayya Khema, in Meditating on No Self:
Yet in order to experience no-self, one has first to fully know self. Actually know it. But unless we do know what this self is, this self called "me," it is impossible to know what is meant by "there is no self there." In order to give something away, we have to first fully have it in hand.
Makes so much sense!

The naive deluded mind hears 'not self', and 'emptiness', and rushes to try to experience no 'I', no 'me', no 'self'. And gets confused, and scared during this paradoxical manifestation of yet another 'self'-created experience. 

Rather, let us spend time with the 'self' as we know it, and let us watch it dissolve under careful observation. Realizing that this 'self' is a pure product of our thinking mind, and our view of the world as a solid, continuous entity where past, present and future collide. 

Sitting, walking, standing, lying down, being present for what is.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Dukkha Door

The Buddha's way points to three possible doors to liberation: dukkha (suffering), anica (impermanence), and anatta (not self). For each of us, the door may be different. For me, dukkha has been, is the gateway. Whenever I pay close attention, I always find suffering, even during the happiest moments. And it is the willingness and conviction of the worthiness to fully explore such suffering that always lead me to break free. This is in marked contrast to times past when I used to dread 'my' suffering. 

From Ajahn Sumedho, in The Four Noble Truths:
With mindfulness, we are willing to bear with the whole of life; with the excitement and the boredom, the hope and the despair, the pleasure and the pain, the fascination and the weariness, the beginning and the ending, the birth and the death. We are willing to accept the whole of it in the mind rather than absorb into just the pleasant and suppress the unpleasant. The process of insight is the going to dukkha, looking at dukkha, admitting dukkha, recognizing dukkha in all its forms. Then you are no longer just reacting in the habitual way of indulgence or suppression. And because of that, you can bear with suffering more, you can be more patient with it.
No longer being deluded about the nature of life. Not hoping for a life without suffering. And paradoxically finding moments of freedom, with no self-created suffering. 

Does dukkha 'speaks' to you? How are you with it?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Gladness of Steadiness

There is great joy in knowing one is doing exactly what is called for in the moment. While in that state of mind, the particulars of outer circumstances cease to matter. It requires slowing down, and sustained mindfulness practice. Taking the time to notice, what are the feet stepping on? what is the thought? what is the overall feeling? what is the right action, right now? what is the intention? Putting the leash on reactivity, and dwelling in the gladness of steady heart, and tamed mind. 

Almost all day, I spent that way. 

I wondered what happened? How come so much grace, all of a sudden?

And it became clear, the hindrances had receded, finally. Fear, aversion, doubt, craving . . . gone.  It had taken spending days in their intimate company, surveying all the suffering involved, for the heart to finally decide, enough! 

Until the next time. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Breaking the Rules

I heard from the Dhamma Dena sangha that Ruth had broken her arm, and that she was recovering just fine. My thoughts were with her often today. Such a formidable teacher she is . . . I have been meaning to share this video I took of her recounting the now famous episode during which she was asked to leave the U Ba Khin tradition:

Thank you Ruth for breaking the rules. Thanks to you, I and many others have been able to discover and appreciate the benefits from walking meditation. Not just sitting . . . 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Emotions, From All Four

Fear, anger, excitement, . . . it's been quite a ride lately, and a marvelous opportunity to practice Gil's recent teaching on The Four Foundations of Emotions. Many times I took a mindful pause, and took turn watching from each of four places. 

First, the body. 
Heat rising up to the head, down all the way to each fingertip. Anger.
Butterflies dancing . . . It's getting cold. Fear.
Flesh effacing. No blocks. Only gladness.

Second, the feeling.
That one usually comes easily into awareness.
Unpleasant, unpleasant, unpleasant, 
testing my ability to bear.

Third, the state of mind.
Noticing aversion, lots of it,
and never far behind, its close cousin: 
greed for what cannot be had.

Fourth, getting into the subtleties.
Which story is being whispered
by deluded mind,
that's causing all the trouble?

The words popped up at once. "Can't be trusted." I felt anger towards myself as I recognized the familiar voice, that threatened to take me down once more. Only this time, I heard it loud enough that I could talk back, and say "No, not buying it." and I could think of a million reasons why I could count on myself.

What is your story? How do you approach your emotions, particularly the difficult ones?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

More Than Meets the Eyes

He hardly speaks. Today, during my usual morning visit on the second floor, I saw him coming towards me. Would he like me to join him, I wondered? Peter looked at me intently, with an almost smile, and I took it as a yes. Walking by his side, I made sure to match my pace exactly to his. A walking meditation, and a communion without words. Just as we turned around, there was Katerina, another resident. She was crying, and speaking in her own language. I stopped to comfort her with words I thought she might hear, and a hug. 

"Thank you." Peter surprised me with his words, and the confirmation that the heart and the capacity for compassion are still very much alive in those whose memory is being challenged. 

There is so much more than meets the eyes in the reality of the person with forgetfulness (otherwise known as dementia).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Loosening the Knot

I have taken the new habit of following early morning sitting meditation with a brisk walk out in the city - San Francisco. This morning, walking and being with steps, and breaths, and the smells of freshly cut grass in Alamo park, and the glorious views at the top of each hill, I was met with a familiar tightness in my midst. There were obvious causes for the unpleasantness - outer circumstances bringing a host of unhappy thoughts and emotions. Lots of fear and aversion . . . 

Here we go again, I thought. This 'I' of mine is not liking things the way they are, based on recent circumstances and likely future events. 

From Ajahn Chah, in A Tree in a Forest:
We contemplate happiness and unhappiness as uncertain and impermanent and understand that ll the various feelings are not lasting and not to be clung to. We see things in this way because there is wisdom. We understand that things are this way according to their own nature.
If we have this kind of understanding, it's like taking hold of one strand of a rope which makes a knot. If we pull it in the right direction, the knot will loosen and begin to untangle. It' ll no longer be so tight and tense. 
This is similar to understanding that things don't always have to be the way they've always been. Before, we felt that things always had to be a certain way and, in so doing, we pulled the knot tighter and tighter. This tightness is suffering. Living that way is very tense. So we loosen the knot a little and relax. Why do we loosen it? Because it's tight! If we don't cling to it, then we can loosen it. It's not a condition that must always be that way.
We use the teaching of impermanence as our basis. We see that both happiness and unhappiness are not permanent. We see them as not dependable. There is absolutely nothing that's permanent. With this kind of understanding, we gradually stop believing in the various moods and feelings which come up in the mind. Wrong understanding will decrease to the same degree that we stop believing in it. This is what is meant by undoing the knot. It continues to become looser. Attachment will be gradually uprooted.
Not just the teaching of impermanence, but in my case, certainly the teaching of suffering also. Feeling the burn from the tightness, and seeing it for what it is: self-induced suffering to be done away with, one mindful moment at a time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It's the Negative Space

Sitting, watching each breath. Walking, watching each step. Swimming, watching each stroke . . . I realize each time, it's not so much about sensing breath, step, or stroke, as it is becoming aware of what arises in between. The tightness in the throat, the constriction in the stomach, the ruminative thoughts, the oppressive energies, the reactions to outer circumstances, all formations begging to be examined.

Positive space, and negative space in the mind.

And awareness dancing back and forth between the two.

Positive space: glimpses of pure mind. Negative space: passage oblige for purification of the mind.

I find this insight helpful in being with each moment, not resisting the formations and the hindrances. But rather welcoming them as part of the whole. For a long time, I did not 'know' this, and brought much unnecessary suffering upon myself as a result. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Two Strong Men

I encountered them in my dream. Two men from the Israeli commando forces. Handsome, and filled with youthful energy. I wondered aloud what they were doing in my world, and got a quick answer. "We have come to take care of business." Not an ounce of aggression in their voice, only steadfast determination. 

Starting with my authoritarian father, I grew up to become afraid of power, my own and that of others. Power usually meant anger, and fear of the other person's anger. It has taking me years to start owning what is rightfully mine: power decoupled from old situations, power infused with the positive qualities of strength, resolve, patience, and yes, love also. Not letting the past dictate what ought to be done in this moment. Letting go of the identity of the scared little girl. 

Being on the Buddhist path has been a mixed blessing in that regard. I have struggled to understand the true meaning of some of the teachings about loving kindness, and acceptance for instance. Between non harming and non action, not defending one self, lies an invisible line that I have crossed too many times. Being a woman, in a patriarchal universe, there is of course the added layer of gender, and what that does to one's relationship to power. Misconstrued dharma and disempowered feminine make for a toxic brew. The good news is mindfulness practice has enabled me to see more and more the devastating impact of unfounded fear on my ability to be happy. Fear stemming from an illusory sense of self, and slowly being brought to light for what it really is.

From a practice standpoint, I find it useful to reflect on the Buddha's Five Powers of:
Intention, Mind, Thoughtfulness 

"Go ahead, do what you have to do." I am now living out my response to the two young men, and realizing the positive qualities of power, embedded in wisdom. Both internally, during the course of practice, and out into the world, at home, at work . . . 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cultivating the Land of Mind

From U Jotika, a very wise Theravada teacher, some pointers on how to prepare the mind for mindfulness practice:

Before we meditate there are few things we need to reflect on in order to prepare our mind. In our daily life we get dis- tracted by so many things . . .

'When we understand that life is short and time is precious and if we will have developed some understanding of the Dhamma, it becomes more precious. Do not procrastinate, do what should be done today, we don’t know whether we will be still alive tomorrow. Today, now, do what should be done, try to accomplish, to do.' . . . 

An earnest meditator doesn’t procrastinate. No matter where you are or what you are doing; that is the time and the place to meditate . . .

When we take Buddha as a teacher, His purity, wisdom and freedom gives us a direction, “Where am I going, what is my goal”? . . . 

When you’ve really seen that meditation is worthwhile you’ll give your life to it. The more you give, the more you get. Do it with all your heart! . . .

Freedom really means knowing what is useful, what is beneficial and worthwhile, knowing what is wholesome and what is unwholesome and choosing what is wholesome, good and right and doing it whole heartedly . . . 

When we don’t keep the five precepts we harm others as well as ourselves. These precepts are not imposed by somebody. It is nature . . .

Let go of the past and be willing to fully live in the present. Be willing to change and to grow. Often we are afraid to change, to grow, and because of lack of confidence we don’t try our best. We are responsible for ourselves and our lives, no matter what happened in the past, without blaming anybody . .  .

It is a natural thing for every being to experience good and bad things in life, reflecting on this it helps to let go, to not get attached . . . 

Meditation is like cultivating the land. Look very deep into your mind every day, and try to weed, because every day seeds are coming in the mind. They will take root and if you let them stay there long, their roots will become very strong and it will be harder for you to root them out, but if you can throw away the seed before it germinates it will be very helpful . . . 

It is up to me, up to you.

Now, may you enjoy this day, cultivating mindfulness.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The U-Bend on Happiness

Sitting on his front porch, gently rocking, the man waved and gave me a smile. The old man in a yellow sweater embodied what mind needed most in that moment. The gift of quiet contentment, nothing to be had. Since my walk last night, I have been carrying his image. 

According to the following graph, my age puts me at the lowest point on the well-being scale . . . No wonder I have been feeling so much angst!

I am not sure I want to wait thirty more years to reach the old man's bliss . . . These older folks know something I don't and I want to learn from them:

Older people have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

There are various theories as to why this might be so. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, talks of “the uniquely human ability to recognise our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons”. Because the old know they are closer to death, she argues, they grow better at living for the present. They come to focus on things that matter now—such as feelings—and less on long-term goals. “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.” For instance, she says, “young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.”

There are other possible explanations. Maybe the sight of contemporaries keeling over infuses survivors with a determination to make the most of their remaining years. Maybe people come to accept their strengths and weaknesses, give up hoping to become chief executive or have a picture shown in the Royal Academy, and learn to be satisfied as assistant branch manager, with their watercolour on display at the church fete. “Being an old maid”, says one of the characters in a story by Edna Ferber, an (unmarried) American novelist, was “like death by drowning—a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.” Perhaps acceptance of ageing itself is a source of relief. “How pleasant is the day”, observed William James, an American philosopher, “when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”

Accepting, enjoying the present . . . 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Seven Intentions to Stay Mindful at Work

I have been working a lot lately, and not just at home as I usually do. No, instead, I have been involved in a whirlwind of meetings, small ones, large gatherings. The pace has been picking up with not a day in the week not busy, not responding to 'important' emails.  All for a very good cause.

And I am also noticing the mind slipping in its careful watch of mind itself. Even my dedicated morning sitting practice no longer suffices to carry me through the day. Today, I woke up with a sense of urgency of needing to really 'wake up'. I realized the importance of not trusting a typical work environment. Chronic busyness, an emphasis on doing, and a permeating culture of mindlessness are all inherent characteristics of the American workplace. All factors of dullness that can overtake anyone's mind.

Of course, the responsibility is on nobody else but myself. In the end, it is up to me to create a portable structure for my mindfulness practice.  I need to make room for the triple gems of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha:

I go for refuge to the Buddha (Teacher) 
I go for refuge to the Dhamma (the Teaching) 
I go for refuge to the Sangha (the Taught)

And I contemplate these words from the Buddhavagga Sutta:

But when, having gone 
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
and Sangha for refuge, 
you see with right discernment 
the four noble truths 
— stress, 
the cause of stress, 
the transcending of stress, 
and the noble eightfold path, 
the way to the stilling of stress: 
that's the secure refuge, 
that, the supreme refuge, 
that is the refuge, 
having gone to which, 
you gain release 
from all suffering & stress.

Remembering the path that leads to the cessation of stress and suffering. And that no work outcome is worth forsaking myself. 

Concretely, what does this mean on a daily basis?

Here are my intentions:

To continue with early morning sitting practice.
To reflect on one teaching every day.
To make time for connections with one of my communities of practice.
To plan for regular practice pauses throughout the day, either short sittings or walking meditation.
To resist the pull of busyness, reactivity, constant doing, and dullness.
To dwell in awareness, one step removed from usual worldly way.
To connect with breath and body sensations, often.

How do you stay mindful at your place of work?