Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cleaning Up This House

It is relatively easy to see and decide with clear mind, not this, not that.

A whole other matter is ridding the body from the accumulated imprints of years of hindrances, left unchecked. The causes of the original tensions are long gone, but their effects linger in the stomach, in the throat, the shoulders, the neck, the jaws . . . This is when the mind needs to help the body. Being with the discomfort, and little by little releasing the long held constrictions, the clinging against, or for something. 

The cleaning-up process, the purification process I have talked about, takes place in the mind. but you will also find you need to remove some old debris that has accumulated in the body because of our psychological responses. 
Imagine a person has been living in a room for the past twenty or thirty years and has never bothered to clean it. All the leftover food, all the dirty clothes, all the rubbish that's accumulated now reaches up to the ceiling. Trying to live among that rubbish is extremely unpleasant. But the room's inhabitant doesn't even notice it, until one day a friend comes along and says, "Why don't you clean up?" So together they clean up a little corner. Then our imaginary person finds that it's far more comfortable and easy to live in that clean corner. Now they start to clean out the whole room until eventually they can look out of the windows and get a better view and also find room enough to move. Feeling more comfortable, the person can use the mind freely without having to attend to any bodily discomfort. 
The house we live in is our body. It doesn't matter how many times we move from town to country, from apartment to home, from home to a room, or even from one country to another. We takes this body with us until it completely deteriorates, decays, and becomes a heap of bones, and then only dust. Until that happens, we carry it along with us wherever we move. Its' this house that we need to make a little more spacious and at ease. 
The psychological accumulation of obstructions and blockages has been deposited by our emotional responses. Mind has put them there, so mind can also remove them. In our meditative procedure this means "knowing the feeling, not reacting, then letting go of it."
~ Ayya Khema, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~
Retraining the mind, and consequently the body, one moment at a time. "Knowing the feeling, not reacting [in mind, and body], then letting go of it." The big challenge as I have experienced it, is having the courage to consciously explore the dirty old house, and feel the whole unpleasantness that's attached to it. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Body Sitting, Quiet, Being Breathed

'Body sitting, quiet, being breathed.' These words have become my mantra, as I sit, meditating. They help set the precise tone for practice, away from 'I', into the pure experience of sensing body. I also use those same words while guiding others. Ruth's words . . . I have made them my own. 

I am also very fortunate to spend much of my time in an environment filled with the embodied presence of 'Body sitting, quiet, being breathed'. When one becomes old and frail and forgetful, 'Body sitting, quiet, being breathed' gets forced upon one's way of being. 

Whenever I succumb to being too busy, sooner or later, the sight of an elder patiently sitting stops me. And I remember the spacious place where awareness reigns, outside of thoughts. How am I feeling? What is happening in the body? What am I hearing? Where is breath? Becoming reacquainted with myself. 

Every day at work, one hundred Buddha-likes to inspire me with their live images of 'Body sitting, quiet, being breathed' . . . I am so lucky.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Useful Twist on Loving Kindness

Rereading Ayya Khema's jewel of a book, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, I discovered a new, and very useful twist on loving kindness meditation. Right after starting to focus on the breath, and before setting the intention of loving kindness into the heart, Ayya Khema instructs us to:
Take a look into your heart and see whether there is any worry, fear, grief, dislike, resentment, rejection, uneasiness, anxiety. If you find any of those, let them float away like the black clouds that they are . . . 
This intermediate, and usually overlooked step can make all the difference between a meditation spent fighting the intended love,  and one that allows it. I have observed in myself, and also others, the difficulties in being able to directly go to a loving place. First the hindrances must be dealt with and integrated into the experience. The trouble comes from wanting to force love right away and dismissing the difficult emotions that may be present.

Now, the challenge is to 'let them float away like the black clouds that they are' . . . 

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Well Trained Teacher

The Huffington Post just published my article on the 13 Essential Tips for Dementia Caregivers, a summary for lay people about the main principles of the Presence Care approach. Here is an excerpt of the post, regarding the mindfulness practice part of the Presence Care training:
1. Start your day with a few minutes of sitting mindfulness practice, and end the same way.
Mindfulness practice, even for a few minutes a day, can reduce stress. It is also a good way to start your day from a calm, centered place, which is what your loved one needs most from you. If you're not sure how to practice, simply find a quiet place, close your eyes, sit in an alert yet relaxed posture, take a few minutes to check in with yourself and then turn your attention to your breath. Let your body breathe, and simply watch the in and out flow of your breath. You will notice thoughts and sounds coming and going. That is a normal part of the experience. When that happens, simply return to observing the breath. Sit like this for a few minutes.
2. Incorporate mindfulness into your routines: walking, doing chores, caring for loved one, etc.
The same way you were observing your breath while sitting, you can also pay attention to the sensations of your feet on the ground while walking. You can practice while walking alone or with your loved one -- the slower the better. While washing your hands, you can become aware of the sensations of the water running over your hands. While assisting your loved one with dinner, you can focus on the experience of filling up the spoon, bringing it to the person's mouth and their experience of eating. Remember, it is about being present for the experience in the moment, all of it and regardless of what it is. You may do this as often as you want throughout the day.
3. Practice recognizing and being with your emotions, including difficult ones.
When caring for someone with dementia, you are bound to experience many -- and sometimes difficult -- emotions: grief, anger, boredom, tiredness, fear, anxiety, frustration. A very powerful and simple practice is to simply acknowledge the emotion and its physical manifestations in your body. Where am I feeling it? How does it feel? What are the sensations? Also, recognize whether it is pleasant or unpleasant and feel the whole extent of the pleasantness or the unpleasantness. And when you need a break, focus your attention on the breath and watch it come and go. Lastly, identify the thoughts that come with the emotion and see where you are getting caught. Are there changes you can make in the outside world, or do you need to change your attitude?
4. Practice loving kindness for yourself, and also for your loved one.
When the fear or the anger get to be too much, mitigate with some kind energy of your own. Think about someone, something or a place that is very dear to you. Feel the love and kindness emanating from your heart and send it to yourself. While you may not "believe" in it at first, trust that it will make its way through to you eventually. You are working on rewiring your brain, and it takes time! Quietly say something like this to yourself: "May I be at peace, may I be at ease," and repeat a few times, wishing you well. You may then send that same kind energy to your loved one, this time repeating the words, "May you be at peace, may you be at ease," wishing him or her well. This is a simple yet very powerful practice if you do it often.
[ . . .  ]
What I did not mention in the article was the importance of having a teacher well trained in mindfulness practice in order for students to properly learn and integrate these practices.  With the popularity of mindfulness-based classes of all sorts growing, the risk of being taught by persons with a wrong or superficial  understanding of practice is also on the rise. For instance, the fact that an MBSR teacher has undergone the MBSR teacher practicum is no guarantee that that person has properly understood practice. I have met quite a few people who have come out of an MBSR program with a false impression of what it's like to do sitting meditation.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Retreating With Ruth

For some time now, I have felt the need to retreat. Giving mind the space to decant, and drop below its habitual chatter. 

Today, I took action and registered for Ruth Denison's upcoming Fall Women's Retreat at Dhamma Dena. Ruth is getting old, and I want to benefit from her deep wisdom, one more time. She is a living treasure not to be missed while she is still living.

Here she is, chanting and sharing with us during last year's retreat:

You would never know she was in great physical pain that day . . . 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Heart Does Not Forget

A few months ago, when I first met Alberto, I used to sit with him and do all the talking, mostly about small things, who I was, his nice shirt, the weather, the food on his plate . . . All I could get from him were a few occasional nods, and on good days, some yes or no's. In Alberto's chart, it said he had schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. He understood English but preferred to speak in Spanish, and he could hardly see, only the contour of people's faces. 

Alberto always sits in the same chair by the dining room window, where the noises from the busy street can be heard loud and clear. 

Talking to his nephew, I discovered that Alberto had learned French during his childhood, back in Peru. When I saw him next, he echoed my "Bonjour" and seemed to perk up as I ventured a few French words here and there. "Comment ca va?" got me "Comme ci, comme ca".  Alberto stared at me, and I asked if he could see me. "Just the shape of your hair." We parted with mutual "Au revoir"s and I left for ten days. A long time for someone who is not supposed to remember. 

On my first day back, I stopped by the first floor dining room, to check in with another resident. "Bonjour!" Sitting nearby, was Alberto welcoming back. We started talking and Alberto wanted to know "Quel age avez vous?" I was thrilled to oblige him, and in turn asked about his age. "Quatre vingt deux ans". 

Alberto sitting still, gazing at my face. I tell him I have to go now and I will see him again soon. Someone else wants my attention and I forget about Alberto. 

"Au revoir". Alberto catches me as I exit the room. 

Forgetfulness is a relative notion, that affects only certain parts of the brain, and certainly not the heart. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

No Words to Get in the Way

He and I exchange very few words. He, even less than I. Yet, there is no doubt about the love between us. Yesterday when I came up to his floor, I found him alone and sitting at an empty table. "Dr. Bob, Dr. Bob", I whispered. He kept his head down, for a while. I waited, kneeling down by his side. 

Body being breathed, I honed in on the rhythm, and watched mind empty itself of expectations. There was space, lots of it.

Dr. Bob lifted his head up, and turned towards me. "Dr. Bob, it's me, Marguerite." His eyes and mine locked. I let him know "I am happy to see you", and smiled. Dr. Bob smiled back and let out a raspy "Yes." He motioned to grab my hand and squeezed it with much feeling. 

Being with Dr. Bob reminds me of the times when I have been on silent retreats, and of the close bonds formed with other fellow retreatants, most of them strangers, without even exchanging a word. 

We should all be more like Dr. Bob. Less talking, more heart.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What Persuaded Me

I could have gotten upset today. And I chose not to. Even better, I was able to calm my friend down.

What persuaded me to dwell in peace was the memory of all the times before when I had been in similar situations. And I had let myself be had by the circumstances. Overtaken by fear, or anger.

What persuaded me to dwell in peace was the memory of how bad it had felt each time.

What persuaded me to dwell in peace was the love of this life, too precious to be wasted any longer, even for just a moment.

What persuaded me to dwell in peace was the possibility of deep, unconditional happiness, right here.

This is what happens when one pays attention, over and over again. This is the reward of practice. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Not Getting Up, Being Mindful

There is a school of thought that warns to be careful with lying down practice. One can fall asleep, and then that's the end (of the meditation).

This morning, I decided to take a chance, and stay in bed a little longer, and do my morning practice right there. Sure, there was sleepiness present from a night cut short and maybe I would doze off? It would be interesting to see.

Lying down, I put my hands on my belly, and watched the ebbs and flows of breath being received, and leaving. Sleepiness, yes, to be recognized. And a host of other phenomena. The sounds of sirens, dogs yapping, neighbors' door slammed, plane passing, . . . Thoughts about work. Suffering from long held constriction in the throat, and the stomach. And back to focusing on the experience of breath caressing the hands, in and out, gently.

Another time, I might have decided to sleep in some more, and bypass morning sitting altogether. Or I would have gone with the brutal awakening of the alarm clock, forcing myself to take place on my seat.

This morning, I discovered another more gentle way to start the day.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Sweetness of Anger

Alone in the house, with no one else to distract me,  the irritation inside came to the forefront. Body turned hot, and full of fiery energy. And surprised mind was trying its best to tap into resources of acquired wisdom. 

Anger requires action, in the form of either changes in one's outer life, or inside. Most often, both. In my case, I know full well where to look, and what needs to get done. It's just that I have become complacent and I waver in my resolve. I also forget the real source, deep within myself. 

Yesterday, at a conference for caregivers of persons with dementia, I met a woman, also dealing with anger. Courageous, humbled, raw, stripped of all pretenses . . . she was ready to do her work. She told me she felt bad for feeling this way. Of course, the words came easy, that assuaged her guilt some. It was so clear from the outside, that her frustration was there for a reason. She could no longer go on as she had. She needed help, and help there was, right there at the conference.

Sitting, I quickly came to the split moment when mind had to decide how to be with the anger. A friend or not? I have had my share of  feelings about anger, from fear, to hate, to anger about the anger itself, to annoyance, to boredom, to impatience.

That's when I came to see anger as a good friend. Not just in my mind, but in my heart also. Anger to protect, and warn, and nag. Anger telling that not all is well. Anger not tolerating foolishness, in myself and others. Anger, formidable. A force to be reckoned with, and listened to with discriminating wisdom and a gentle heart.

Anger, so sweet.

What is your anger telling you? Are you listening?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Does It Feel Good, Or Not?

Why do I spend so much time focusing on vedana?

Because learning about it and then becoming aware of it in my own meditative experience, has changed the way I dwell in each moment. Vedana was the missing piece I did not know about, and the awareness of which made the difference between being stuck, and experiencing the freedom from wholeness.

I like to hear different teachers' take on it. This morning, I reread U. Tejaniya - in Awareness Alone is Not Enough:
U Tejaniya: Vedana is an activity of the mind. There is a difference between this activity of feeling and our perception of it as pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. Vedana means feeling or 'sensing' something, feeling into something, wile pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is our interpretation of feeling. 
Student: So do we need to be mindful of this feeling process or the qualities of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?
U Tejaniya: We need to know both, and it is important to understand that they represent different functions of the mind, the aggregates of feeling and perception. The function of perception is to interpret feeling as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The function of vedana is just to feel.
Student: That means we need to be mindful of the activity of vedana as separate and distinct from the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral?
U Tejaniya: Yes, that's right. You can also make further distinctions between feelings. When the mind interprets a particular sensation as a bodily pleasant feeling, it will usually immediately give rise to a pleasant mental feeling. When the body sensations are interpreted as unpleasant (dukkha), it will usually give rise to an unpleasant mental feeling. The reaction to neutral feelings in the body will be equanimity.
Student: Do vedana and perception always work together?
U Tejaniya: Yes, vedana touches everything, together with consciousness and other mental factors. You experience the world through this activity of vedana.
Student: Is it difficutl to become aware of vedana? It is very subtle?
U Tejaniya: Yes, it is quite subtle. Neutral feelings are already quite subtle in comparison to pleasant or unpleasant ones. the process of vedana is even more subtle than that. It is not easy to become aware of it. Becoming aware of the mind at work takes a lot of practice; it is not an ordinary knowing, it is a very subtle understanding process.
U Tejaniya's description really speaks to my experience. There is the bodily sensing, and then the labeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or combination of both. I find the mind is programmed to hastily hone in on pleasurable or non pleasurable quality in the moment. We are pleasure seeking beings at the core, always in the process of figuring out, does this feel good, or not?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Art of Mindful Touch

My friend Irene Smith is an extraordinary healer. She practices the art of mindful touch with the dying and  frail elders. I first met her at Zen Hospice, and now I get to see her in action at AgeSong where I work. 

Tonight, she wrote a beautiful piece in her blog about 'Cultivating Presence in the Touch Relationship'. I encourage you to read the whole article. 

Tonight, I am taking those words from Irene, and storing them into my heart:
I have to trust what I feel in my heart, what I sense through my body and trust my ability to assess clearly from this current information. I also have to trust that the person I am touching will receive my touch in the wisdom in which it is delivered, and with eyes open, I have to trust in the moment. Cultivating trust is the way to cultivating presence in the touch relationship.
Mindful touch.  Yet another mindfulness practice, this time about touching the body, and the heart. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Urge to Love

Jane is up on the second floor, where folks are most challenged in their ability to communicate their needs. Jane also has a special friend, a small stuffed raccoon that she carries around. Yesterday, I stopped by and commented that this must be quite a special baby. "Yes, it is",  she said, and caressed it with much feeling. 

Real babies and children long gone, husband dead, friends scattered in various homes, other residents lost in their own world, the opportunities for Jane to love are scarce. Never mind, ever resourceful human spirit manages to get its needs met. 

"You love him very much, don't you?"  Jane turns to me and gazes at me deeply with her blue eyes and empathetically responds. "Yes, I do." and strokes her baby some more. Together we marvel at its sweet face. Does it have a name, I wonder? No, baby does not have a name, but Jane points to its glass eyes and black nose. She then puts him in its black pouch, and asks if  I want to hold it for a while. Very touched to be entrusted with such a precious bundle, I thank her. 

"I love you", she tells me. 

The need to love never goes away.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Four Important Mind Steps

A Twitter exchange with @Meryl333 got me back into reading Ayya Khema's 'Who Is My Self?', specifically the following mind sequence [page 76]:
The first aspect is "sense-consciousness", the five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.
The second aspect is feeling, which arises from sense-contact. This feeling is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral [or rather a combination of pleasant and unpleasant in my experience].
The third is perception, which can also be called labeling. For example, when the feeling is unpleasant, the label is "pain".
The fourth is mental formation, or reaction. If the mind has said "pain", the reaction is usually "I don't like it", or "I've got to get away from this."
. . . 
Most people are only aware of the first and the last step, the sense contact and the reaction.
. . . 
We should practice in the following way: having noticed our reaction, we go back to the sense-contact that led to it. We then try to become aware again of the feeling that followed the sense-contact, and then of the mind's explanation, its labeling (dirty, disgusting, delicious, boring). Notice these two missing parts, the feeling and the label. 
. . . 
We can also decide to stop to the sequence at any of the four points, particularly at the perception, the labeling. Then we will notice that we are not compelled to react. 
Very important stuff, worth verifying through thorough investigation of one's immediate experience.

I just wonder why Ayya Khema did away with the sixth sense-consciousness, the intellect-consciousness included in the Buddha's teachings? Today, I could see how through the cognizing of a certain idea, much unpleasantness arose. In my mind's haste, all I could notice  next was the "I don't like" part. The third step eluded me completely. Following Ayya Kehma's instruction, as I go back and try to retrace all of the steps, I can now see the part about perception, and all the "pain" that I attached to the unpleasantness. Pain is a loaded word that can't just be left alone . . . 

I need to spend more time at the edges between pleasantness and pleasure, and unpleasantness and pain. Letting go of the mind's habit to create stories around life cyclical ways.

Friday, August 5, 2011

When Are You Coming?

"So, when are you coming?" my mother asks.

I know that she needs to be reassured, right now, that she will see us soon. Hence, the truth, very much stretched, that I shall book my plane ticket as soon as my daughter comes back from Africa. Daughter has already returned from her trip, but I figured that the Africa trip is a good excuse that my mother can readily understand. She is curious. "What is she doing there?" 

I tell her, and it makes her proud to know that her granddaughter is doing good deeds. "So, tell me again, when are you coming?" She succeeds in having me pin down an approximate date. "In a few weeks, mother." That's too long of a window for her. "Can't you come sooner?" 

I need to better meet her sense of urgency. "Let me see if we can come sooner. I will let you know tomorrow." She seems relieved. "How long will you be coming for?" I give her my usual answer, that which always makes her happy. "A full week, mother." 

In this moment, my mother's heart rejoices. Tomorrow she will have forgotten my lie, but her heart will still be filled with the anticipation and the relief from our earlier talk. 

What is real? What is not? It's up to our mind to decide . . . with love as the only guide.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sitting 'Til the End

It's a physical and a mind thing
Sitting, feeling the full effect of Mara's attack
Cold blood coursing through whole body
Throat tightening, and the usual knots in the stomach
The Buddha, too, felt the same way, minutes 
before the light dawned on him
It helps to name the poisons of fear, and aversion
and to trace their source, back to the mind's doings
Thoughts about a perceived enemy, real close by,
and what might happen if, if I do this,
what might he do? and quick the wisdom to not linger
and choose a different place upon which to dwell
Loving kindness, yes, that he may be well, and at peace,
that I too, may be at peace, and at ease . . .
Not expecting too much too quickly, and feeling 
the full effect from the poison, unwillingly taken
Sitting 'til the end, sitting still 'til the bell ring.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Poking Fun at Zen

This video of Ruth, taken during last year's Fall women's retreat is one of my favorites!

May you enjoy . . .