Thursday, June 30, 2011

Being With the Knot

For years, before I knew about clinging, I used to hate the part of my body where tightness could be felt so strongly. Right in the pit of my stomach, a knot to remind me that not all was well. Intuitively, I knew there was more to the knot than just nerves. And I fancied a time when I could be without 'it'.

Then along came mindfulness practice. Under the lens of meditation, the knot made itself felt even more. And along with it my dislike of the physical sensation around it. Thanks to Dharma teachings, I could make the connection in my head. Knot equal clinging in the mind to what is not worth clinging to. 

From intellectual understanding to realization, though, lied a great divide. The more I sat with the knot, the more I hated the thing, and the stronger its grip. Another more subtle form of clinging had inserted itself. Deluded by the validation from the teachings, about the worth of a knot-free state, I mistakenly chased after an idea in opposition to the truth of the present moment.

Lately, I have had a change of heart about the knot. Sitting this morning, I could 'see' its sacred nature. This is the place where truth resides. This is where gentle investigation needs to happen.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Only Thirty Minutes, That's All

A comment made in passing by Jon Kabat-Zinn has made more difference in my practice than the many Dharma talks I have had the privilege to attend.

"It's very simple. Just get up 30' early every day and sit. There is not way around it."

This said in the context of a casual conversation on his way out of this year's Wisdom 2.0 Conference.

Every morning, as I lay in bed debating whether to sleep a little bit longer, I hear Jon, and I make the choice.

Giving myself the gift of quiet sitting to start the day.

I hope you will also.

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Last Encounter With Klout and Al . . .

Reading today's New York Times article on Twitter and Klout, I wasn't sure whether to laugh, or cry . . . Unbeknownst to me, and millions of other users of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, we are being scored in increasingly sophisticated ways on our influencing power. What started as a fresh social movement is now at risk of being perverted by the lure of money and the trap of power hungry egos. 

As an experiment, I signed up for Klout and was told:

I have an overall score of 47 and I am effectively using social media to influence my network across a variety of topics. However, my Klout score has fallen in the past month and I will need to keep engaging others, and continue creating engaging content to see my Klout score rise again . . . 
I have a network influence of 54 and I am engaged by influencers.
I have an amplification probability of 23 and I am more likely to have my message amplified than the average person.
I have a true reach of 1K and I have worked very hard to successfully build a large, highly engaged network.
I am an 'explorer', meaning 'You actively engage in the social web, constantly trying out new ways to interact and network. You're exploring the ecosystem and making it work for you. Your level of activity and engagement shows that you "get it", we predict you' ll be moving up.'
I influence 1130 users across the social web. 
I am influential about meditation, buddhism, law of attraction (what the heck?), alzheimer's, spirituality, yoga, psychology, huffington post, journalism, blogging.

Just reading the stuff, I could feel greed and fear taking hold. Wanting a higher score. Worried that it might go down if I don't 'engage' more and in the 'right' way. More suffering . . . 

And I decided this would be my last encounter with Klout and al. More important than chasing after influence is the joy of engaging in authentic, meaningful, mindful, rich, kind exchanges with other like-minded people. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Walking With Steve

I noticed Steve sitting by the front desk, and wondered if he was waiting for someone to walk with him. Yes, he was. Could he wait for a bit, 'til I was done with my chore? Steve nodded patiently.

I knew the routine. Walking six blocks up to Turk street and back. Off we went. Steve walks very, very slowly, a result of his condition. I had to adjust my pace to match his, perfectly. 

Steve also struggles with words, and I had to listen really hard to catch a few bits here and there. Needing to go to the bank, trying to remember the name of one of the volunteer's dog, his upper tooth giving him trouble, dream of meeting old friends at a bar he used to visit . . . 

Walking, listening meditation. Being aware of the whole experience. His, mine, and the city landscape surrounding us. 

Red lights to be obeyed, uneven sidewalks to be negotiated, construction site at the corner of Grove and Laguna, oblivious dogs to be averted, . . . The city landscape is full of dangers for one like Steve whose mind and body do not operate at full capacity. 

'Inside', thoughts and emotions, many, rushing through. Joy of being with Steve at every step, every word mirrored back. And the sobering realization once more, of the impermanence of life. One day, I could be walking in his shoes . . . and being at the mercy of someone else's goodwill. 

In the end, much gratitude for Steve, who reminded me yesterday to not take anything for granted. Oh! the freedom to go out for a walk any time I wish. The joy of letting words out exactly as I intend them to. The safety of mind that can retrieve memories as needed. 

Appreciating, knowing that I am not to cling to any of it either, as it could all be taken away.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Back to Work, Mindfully

Getting ready to go back to work after one-week hiatus in France, I notice a small twinge of apprehension. My workplace, any workplace is an ecosystem that is ripe for much mindfulness practice. Here are some wise seeds from U Tejaniya, collected during the flight back home.

The first seed:
Look at the thoughts you have when you do your work, look at the views and ideas you are holding, and also notice the feelings you have when these thoughts come up. You need to recognize that it is because there is too much effort that there is tension. You are using more effort than you need . . . The main reason why you are putting in so much energy is because you have anxiety . . . Now you need to understand why you are anxious. Are you not skillful in what you are doing?  . . . Whenever you get these feelings of anxiety, just recognize them. Ask yourself whether it is really necessary to feel anxiety. Is it necessary to have anxiety to finish a job? . . . You need to acknowledge anxiety every time it comes up. Watching these feelings will help you understand something and this will allow your mind to let go. Remember that the purpose of vipassana meditation is not to relieve you from what is happening but to help you understand what is happening.
Watching the anxiety rise, and how it feels in the body, in the mind. Investigating the troublesome thoughts at the root.

Now, the second seed:
When there is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, practicing becomes difficult. Try to learn from the difficulties at your workplace. What makes the mind agitated? Why do you lose mindfulness? Why does the mind become eager? Is it necessary to hurry? Investigating in this way will help you deal more skillfully with difficult situations and will prevent unwholesome mind states from taking over . . . Just do as much as you can. Take and appreciate any opportunity to practice. While you are working, try to be aware of how you feel, of what kind of mind states you experience. But don't try to focus, do it loosely, lightly. If you make too much of an effort to practice, you won't be able to do your job properly. If you focus too much on the job, you won't be able to be mindful. You need to find the right balance. 
Finding the right balance. Being mindful, but not obsessively.

And the third seed:
Every time you talk to someone on the phone or when someone approaches you, try to remember to check how you are feeling. What do you think and feel about that person? Throughout the day, whether at work or not, make it a habit to always check what kind of emotional reaction you have every time you interact with another person. How do you feel when the phone rings? Is the mind eager to pick it up quickly? You need to notice these things.
Every interaction an opportunity to practice.

Last, the fourth seed:
Every time you are confronted with an angry or demanding customer, check to see how your mind feels. Their greed and aversion is their problem, you need to see whether there is greed and aversion in your mind . . . When the object is positive the mind tends to react in a positive way and when it is negative it tends to react in a negative way. It takes practice observing the mind to understand these processes. Through understanding, the mind gains a measure of stability and will no longer be so strongly affected by either negative or positive objects or experiences. As understanding matures, the mind becomes less and less reactive. it also realizes that every time it blindly reacts, it is not free. For these reasons, the mind will become more and more interested in what is going on inside and will put in more effort to investigate. 
Owning one's share of reactivity and negativity, and then dropping it when the time is ripe.

Wherever your place of work, may you too reap the benefits from these few seeds, now planted in your consciousness.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Power of Emotions

During this trip away from home, and visiting family, I have found many emotions about what I left behind, and what has welcomed me here in my birth land. And I remember U Tejaniya's teaching:

But when you are experiencing strong emotions, put your energies into dealing with them; that’s the important issue at hand — forget whatever else is happening. If you ignore an emotion and try to keep track of everything else that is going on instead, it will remain at the back of your mind. But as soon as there is an opportunity, the emotion will come up again and give you a lot of trouble. The function of awareness is to recognize everything that is happening in the mind. Wisdom decides which issues need to be dealt with.

Being wise, being mindful of and investigating what needs the most attention, at this time. Lots of grief, anger, fear, sadness, and love also. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Letting Go of Her

This time visiting my mother has turned into a drawn out contemplation on impermanence and grief.

Mourning the way I saw her last time six months ago, when she was still able to accompany us for dinners out at La Roseraie, our lovely hotel. Mourning her still walking. Mourning her still joining in our conversations. Mourning her talking for the hundredth time about our old farm. 'I have a beautiful house. Two cellars, three gardens. Isn't it something?" Mourning her getting drunk on one too many glasses of the local wine, the same one her father used to make. Mourning her getting excited about the dresses I bought her at the local market. Mourning her delighting in my daughters' successes at school. Mourning her, or rather the idea of her I had stored in my mind.

Time has brought a new version of her, foretelling the end near.

My mother has joined the realm of the 'sitting' people. In her mind, she can still walk, and wonders why the physical therapist is coming to help her stand and make a few steps. Seeing her in a wheelchair was quite a shock. Never mind that I work all day in an assisted living community with folks like her, many in wheelchairs. This is my mother . . . We sit with her at lunch, and encourage her to eat. "I am not hungry anymore."She takes in a few of the bites I give her, and then that's it. She is done. Her appetite is leaving her. 

Inside, I get into a tug of war between grief welling up, and awareness of the truth of impermanence, so easy to see in this situation. And I sit with her and my daughter, and I choose to appreciate this moment. Sitting, being breathed, with two of my most dear people. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Many Kinds of Practices

Traveling with me, a hard copy of U Tejaniya's book, Awareness Alone is Not Enough - also available for free on the Web. A gem of simple and profound wisdom, including this how to guide to the different practices for each personality types:

If you want to practice with effort, think all the good things you can, say all the good things you can, and do all the good things you can. That's for the people who are effort oriented. For them this is very effective because they like to be working.

People who are awareness oriented, people who are very alert, sharp, very aware, should spend more time practicing awareness. 

Those who are wisdom oriented can make more use of the ideas of Right View and Right Thought.

People who have very good concentration can begin by doing samatha and then switch to vipassana. 

Faith oriented people can start by contemplating the qualities of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. 

The Buddha taught so many kinds of practices because there are so many different types of personalities. 

Reflecting upon my practice, I find that I naturally dwell in awareness, first and foremost. Concentrating on the breath (or the body some times) is only a technique to draw the mind in the present, over and over again, for as many times as necessary to settle the mind. Within that place of awareness, comes wisdom, and the discernment from adopting right view and right thought. Last is right effort, purifying the mind each time defilements and unwholesome thoughts arise. And occasionally, I do reflect on the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, as inspirations for the practice. 

Hence, my inclination to reframe U Tejaniya's last statement:

The Buddha taught so many kinds of practices, because depending on the time and place, the mind has different needs, that require different types of practices. 

What is your experience of practice? How does it align with U Tejaniya's teaching?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Which Type Are You?

Rather than continually blaming outer circumstances for my bad moods, I need to face the truth. I am what Jack Kornfied refers to as an aversion type. Knowing this comes as a relief. I am what I am, and there is no need to resist or add even more aversion to the fact that this is how my psyche works. 

From one of Jack's interview on the topic:

I've talked on some nights about Buddhist personality typology, which is based on our responses that come out of the sense of separateness itself; and the three roots in Buddhist psychology are the greed type, the aversion type, and the deluded type. Just to remind you in a simple way, we all have all of it in us. I'm a great example of the greedy type. The general response of the greedy type is to go into a new situation and see what we like about it, and see how we might get more of it, what's lovely about it or what we appreciate. Forget the rest. Now, the aversion type -- my wife is more in that category -- is somebody who goes into a situation and sees what's wrong with it, which is a very different response, painted wrong, the colors are wrong, and people are behaving wrong, and so forth. And then the deluded type whose tendency is to go into a new situation and not know what to make of it, not know what their place is. Does this make sense to you? Do you understand these types of either wanting or being critical or not knowing your place in it?

Of course aversion and greed are two sides of the same coin. Not far behind aversion is the greed for the opposite of the disliked experience. Today, is not liking being jet lagged after a long trip from San Francisco to Paris. And the wish for a rested state when body and mind could fully engage.  

I can see where I got to be so hooked on aversion. Both my father and mother were negative people who always saw the wrong in people and situations. Growing up, I remember hating the overall climate in our family, and swearing to myself that one day, I would apprehend life differently. Of course, I was underestimating the conditioning power of childhood family dynamics . . . 

The freedom comes from recognizing the hold of one personality over the self, and not letting it take over. Today, not liking the tiredness, and being with the not liking, and also appreciating the many blessings from this moment. Birds, many of them, taking turn to delight the ears. The wind, softly caressing the back of the neck, the hands. Flowers galore,  to  please the eyes. Joy of sitting next to my daughter, while enjoying it all. Gratitude . . .

Now, I want to know, which type are you? :)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sitting in Her Chair

Mindful care practice is a lot about putting oneself in the other person's place and acting on that awareness. This time was being in Pearl's walker/chair and realizing that eating in the conditions set up for her had to be a very frustrating experience. The communal table was too low for Pearl's chair to slide under. As a result, every bite looked like a precarious balancing act. Try bringing a spoon full of soup to your mouth from a bowl at arm length . . . 

The solution lied only a few feet away. A hospital tray table, the height of which could be adjusted to fit just on top of Pearl's chair. Pearl's eyes brightened. "Thank you for the table." Now she could relax and enjoy her food again.

The biggest gift was for me. An "I love you" from Pear, softly whispered, and a gentle kiss, blown my way.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Truth and Delusion of Mind Made Experience

Taking a walk this morning, I felt drawn to listen to an old talk from Gil, on the Dhammapada. The ancient text goes like this:

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
and suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.

"He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!"
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

"She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!"
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

The words and Gil's commentary came as much needed medicine for my unruly mind. Unguarded thoughts have been running havoc and brought much turmoil in both body and mind. Hence the severe pain in my right shoulder that reached a climax in the past few days. Muscles tensing to marble like hardness and compressing a nerve. I need to stop and take a look and change my ways of mind. Whining, hatred of outer conditions, identification with 'poor me' self have caused enough unhappiness.

I have little control over some circumstances. I also have little control over the mind. 

I can keep on practicing however. Over and over, bringing the attention back to the mind. What am I thinking? Is it wholesome? Is it helpful? Where does it really come from? How else can I view this moment? 

Not trusting the mind . . . 

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Like to Sing

Why I do the work I do:

Last Saturday, I witnessed Emma break into a smile, and start clapping, and singing "America . . . ". I kneeled besides her wheelchair, and clapped and sang with her. The musician leading our group had succeeded once more to open doors for residents like Emma who are otherwise walled into silence. 

A few days later, I stopped by her room, and sat by her as she laid curled up on her bed. I told her how much I had enjoyed seeing her so happy, singing the other day. And got her to smile. "Yes, I like to sing." 

I have been thinking a lot about Emma and her quiet suffering. 

"We've got to get you to sing more often, Emma."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breaking Their Bank

Found in my mailbox this morning, this offer from a mom from the Bay Area French group listserv:

Nous avons une tirelire où nous mettons l'argent que nous trouvons et nous avons décidé d'utiliser son contenu pour acheter un boom box pour vos résidents. Nous compléterons ce qui manque. Ce sera un modèle de base comme vous pouvez l'imaginer mais il pourra jouer des CDs. Etes-vous toujours prenante?

(We have a piggy bank where we put money that we find and we have decided to use the money to buy a boom box for your residents. We will make up the difference. It will be a basic model as you can imagine, but it will play CDs. Are you still interested?)

This in response to a call I put out to the group to donate unused CD players that we could use in activities with residents at assisted living community where I work.

Generosity is a wonderful thing, not just for the donor, but also for the recipients. In this case a whole circle of them. First me as the facilitator, then the activity coordinators who lead the music groups, then the residents who so much love to sing and dance.

Noticing barriers melting around the heart, and a sweet wave filling in whole chest. I imagine a bunch of little French kids gathered around their piggy bank, and counting their coins. And Anita, their mom teaching them what it's like to practice generosity.

I feel inspired. How about you?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Inescapability of Dukkha

Many moments today, I found myself surrounded, imbibed even, with great unpleasantness. First was the pain in the neck, down the right shoulder, the arm, the forearm, the wrist, the fingertips. A pinched nerve awaiting release . . . Then, a general malaise from difficult conditions, outside. I could (can still) feel the tightness in the stomach, the bitter taste in the mouth, the ball in the throat, the tiredness from fighting so much what could not be done away with. At least not now. 

Body and mind mirroring each other in endless ways. Acting out Ayya Khema's insight:
The Buddha also taught a supermundane, transcendental(lokuttara) series of cause and effect. That one starts with unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Dukkha needs to be seen for what it really is, namely the best starting point for our spiritual journey. Unless we know and see dukkha, we would have little reason to practice. If we haven't acknowledged the over-all existence of dukkha, we wouldn't be interested in getting out of its clutches.
The transcendental-dependent-origination starts out with the awareness and inner knowledge of the inescapable suffering in the human realm. When we reflect upon this, we will no longer try to find a way out through human endeavor, nor through becoming more informed or knowledgeable, or richer, or owning more or having more friends. Seeing dukkha as an inescapable condition, bound up with existence, we no longer feel oppressed by it. It's inescapable that there is thunder and lightning, so we don't try to reject the weather. There have to be thunder, lightning and rain, so we can grow food.
Dukkha is equally inescapable. Without it, the human condition would not exist. There wouldn't be rebirth, decay and death. Having seen it like that, one loses one's resistance to it. The moment one is no longer repelled by dukkha, suffering is greatly diminished. It's our resistance which creates the craving to get rid of it, which makes it so much worse.
~ Ayya Khema, Dukkha for Knowledge and Vision ~  
It's my resistance which creates the craving to get rid of 'it', which makes it so much worse. I know, I know . . . in my head.

And when I am really honest with myself, deep down, the delusion still holds for the promise of more pain free states. At the root is sensual desire and the wanting to feel good.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thinking of Charlotte Joko Beck

I got word today that Charlotte Joko Beck had entered hospice. Charlotte is one of the few remaining old grande dames of contemporary Buddhism, along with Ruth Denison and Toni Packer.

In her honor, I would like to share this video:

Yes, formal practice is not the whole thing. Just like practicing scales on the piano does not make one a great pianist. "It's not enough."

Nothing like the crucible of the daily hassles . . . Aren't we lucky?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No Need to Go to the Monastery

I used to fantasize about leading the life of a nun, in a monastery in Burma. A radical act, rehearsed many times in the privacy of my mind. 

No longer.

What has changed, is the realization that the path of service, right where I live, can be just as good as the monastery. When relating to someone with extreme forgetfulness, there is no other option but to be completely engaged in the present moment. The consequences for not showing up or for operating from some theoretical idea, can be quite severe, including getting punched, pinched, or yelled at. Yesterday, one of the resident called me "you, stupid cow", after I had checked out for a second, and failed to be right there, with her. Not quite as elegant as being hit by a zen master's stick, but just as powerful.  

If the Buddha was alive today, I am pretty sure he would advise his monks to spend time in assisted living communities or nursing homes. Being with the forgetful ones is one of the most intense practices I have come across. And one of the most freeing also! 

If you are ever so inclined, try it some time. Volunteer in one of those places and let the residents be your teachers. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Three Gifts

Just as I was about to leave for the evening, I caught his glance. A lonely figure resting in his wheelchair, Richard looked as if he could use some company. He did. 

Listening to Richard's speech, I stuck to my intention to stay present for him, no matter what. That I could not make sense of his speech was besides the point. More important was letting him know that I was willing to hang in there with him. Richard kept on talking. There was mention of him being in an ashram. Oh! yes the ashram . . . I repeated empathically, remembering his past as a spiritual teacher and his many travels to India. He smiled, then resumed his disordered discourse. Just when I was starting to tire, Eddy the housekeeper came to clean Richard's spot on the dinner table. And I heard, loud and clear, Richard's "thank you". Eddy kept on with his job, unfazed. I thought to myself, "wow!"

When it was time to end, I thanked Richard for the gift of our time together. And I got a second surprise. "Yes, this was very special. Thank you." Richard took my hand and pulled it to his face. "I have fear." That was all he could get out, before drowning again into a stream of made up words. 

Driving home, I got yet another surprise. In my heart, this time. Feeling so completely whole, and at peace.