Friday, September 30, 2011

Putting the Presence Care Project on the Web Map

Much of my time lately has been spent launching the Presence Care Project website. Here it is, all done in no time, thanks to the awesome design work of Anoki Casey, my Dharma friend and the guy behind BuddhaBadges and DharmaDots.

The Presence Care Project aims to bring mindfulness and experiential understanding to dementia care. For a taste, you may watch some recent videos from a recent training I gave at the Coastside Adult Day Health Program in Half Moon Bay, CA.

From now on, all my blogging about mindful dementia care will take place in the Presence Care Project blog. See you there!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Look At Me

Here is a gift, given to me by Jon, one of the readers of Mind Deep, who got it from another blogger. This is a gift that is meant to be shared:

(Kate the writer of this poem, was unable to speak but occasionally seen to write. After her death, her hospital locker was emptied and this poem was found.)

What do you see nurses what do you see?
Are you thinking when you are looking at me... A crabby old women not very wise,

Uncertain of habit with far away eyes, who dribbles her food and makes no reply, when you say in a loud voice 'I do wish you'd try'
Who seems not to notice the things that you do and forever is losing a stocking or shoe. 

Who unresisting or not let's you do as you will, with bathing or feeding a long day to fill. Is that what you're thinking is that what you see? Then open your eyes nurse you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am.... As I sit here so still, as I use at your bidding and eat at your will. I'm a small child of ten with a father and mother, brothers and sisters who love one another. 

A young girl of sixteen with wings on her feet, dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet: A bride soon, at twenty my heart gives a leap. Remembering the vows that I promise to keep.

At twenty five now I have young of my own, who need me to build a secure happy home. A young women of thirty my young now grow fast bound to each other with ties that should last. At forty my young ones now grown, will soon be gone but my man stands beside me to see I don't mourn.

At fifty once more babies play round my knee, again we know children my loved one and me. Dark days are upon me my husband is dead, I look at the future, I shudder with dread. For my young are all busy rearing young of their own and I think of the years and the love I have known.

I'm an old women now and nature is cruel, 'I' is her jest to make old age look like a fool. The body it crumbles, grace and vigour depart. There now is a stone where once I had a heart. But inside this old carcase a young girl still dwells and now and again my battered heart swells. 

I remember the joys, I remember the pain and I'm moving and living life over again. I think of the years all too few- gone too fast and accept the stark fact that nothing can last. 

So open your eyes nurses open and see, not a crabbit old women, look closer- see ME.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Revisiting the Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Connection

While preparing a training for professional caregivers, I was  looking for a simple explanation of the connection between mindfulness practice and stress reduction. What happens during the intimate process of practice that makes it possible to reduce one's stress level? Also, what do we mean by stress?

Floating in my mind were memories of explanations I had read about dukkha - sometimes translated as stress - in the Buddhist teachings, lectures from Jon Kabat-Zinn on MBSR, and scientific interpretations from neuroscientists like Philippe Goldin or Richard Davidson. Nothing that quite captured what I was after, though.

True to the spirit of mindfulness practice, I turned inside and this is what I found:

Stress happens when there is tensing against the flow of life - against the ending of what felt good, against the arising of unpleasant experiences, or in anticipation of their imagined occurrence. It manifests as tensions in the body, and tightness in the mind.

Mindfulness is an iterative process, about becoming aware of these tensions, and relaxing them slowly. Going back and forth between seeing, and relaxing, seeing and relaxing. Insight, or wise understanding facilitates the process of relaxing. Also important is bringing an attitude of relaxed alertness to the practice, so as to not further compound the stress, the tension. 

This is my experience of how mindfulness practice leads to stress reduction.

What is your take, in plain English?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Taste of Gotami's Medicine

I just met her, a little woman with a sweet smile. She is depressed. Very soon, she tells me her story. Her only son was killed two years ago. Ran over by a bus. And only sixteen years old. She recounts the whole scene. How she got home that night, and not seeing him, thought he had taken the dog out for a walk. Then found the dog in the laundry room, wagging its tail. She wondered, where is he? Then the phone rang, and a man's voice asked to speak to her. Something had happened to her son, and she needed to come right away. The stranger would not tell her more details. "I was shaking so hard, I don't know how I made it there." On her way, she kept hoping her son had only gotten hurt, nothing bad. Then she saw him lying on the ground, and she knew. She wanted to know who, who had done this to her son. She wanted to kill the bastard. They pulled her away. 

Today, she is still trying to cope. I asked her what has helped. "Going to groups and listening to other people. When you think you have it bad, you realize there is always someone else with an even worse story." 

Sitting this morning, I had felt my own grief, and a twinge of self-pity. I had reasons. And I remember wishing away the misery. 

When I left my new friend, there was only compassion in my heart, and hardly any trace of my earlier angst. 

Next time you feel sorry for yourself, have a taste of Gotami's medicine, and look around, and take the time to feel someone else's pain. It works.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Down to Earth Wisdom From Charlotte Joko Beck

Found in my mailbox this morning a wonderful article from Charlotte Joko Beck, about Enlightenment, Joy, The Meaning of Life, and Dogs. I am publishing it in its entirety, along with some of the thoughts that came to me as I read it. 

My dog doesn't worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn't get her breakfast, but she doesn't sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened. As long as she gets some food and a little affection, her life is fine. But we human beings are not like dogs. We have self-centred minds which get us into plenty of trouble. If we do not come to understand the error in the way we think, our self-awareness, which is our greatest blessing, is also our downfall.

There are many layers to our thoughts. I find the meta-assumptions that operate in the background of mind to be the most dangerous. One in particular for me is the belief that this moment is not perfect in itself. If only such and such condition was met . . . then I would be happy! Although I know this to be a delusion, the knowledge is only very superficial and does not reach to the core belief operating still. 

To some degree we all find life difficult, perplexing, and oppressive. Even when it goes well, as it may for a time, we worry that it probably won't keep on that way. Depending on our personal history, we arrive at adulthood with very mixed feelings about this life. If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless. We are caught in the contradiction of finding life a rather perplexing puzzle which causes us a lot of misery, and at the same time being dimly aware of the boundless, limitless nature of life. So we begin looking for an answer to the puzzle.

The closest I came to the realization of boundlessness was during a retreat last year with Ruth Denison. Many times I have returned to this memory of limitlessness experienced in body and mind. No knot any more . . . 

The first way of looking is to seek a solution outside ourselves. At first this may be on a very ordinary level. There are many people in the world who feel that if only they had a bigger car, a nicer house, better vacations, a more understanding boss, or a more interesting partner, then their life would work. We all go through that one. Slowly we wear out most of our 'if onlies.' "If only I had this, or that, then my life would work Not one of us isn't, to some degree, still wearing out our 'if onlies.' First of all we wear out those on the gross levels. Then we shift our search to more subtle levels. Finally, in looking for the thing outside of ourselves that we hope is going to complete us, we turn to a spiritual discipline. Unfortunately we tend to bring into this new search the same orientation as before. Most people who come to a spiritual centre don't think a Cadillac will do it, but they think that enlightenment will. 

I don't have the same attachment to enlightenment as some others. I am actually quite suspicious of it, and my conception of it is as of a gradual process. My main motivation for practice is the desire to lessen unnecessary personal suffering, and the knowledge that there is another way. 

Now they've got a new cookie, a new "if only." Our whole life consists of this little subject looking outside itself for an object. But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too. So you have something limited looking for something limited and you just end up with more of the same folly that has made you miserable.

I find it helpful to investigate experiences under the "if only" lens. There is so much suffering attached to this continual seeking. And a great sadness from dismissing this moment. I feel that very deeply, and more and more, I am deciding to dwell in the present, for life is precious, as the people I am privileged to work with keep on reminding me. Another great way to deal with the "if only" is to practice gratitude for what is already there. Walking, I am grateful for the gift of body still good enough to allow me to go out for a stroll. Realizing that one day, this body will be taken away. 

We have all spent many years building up a conditioned view of life. There is "me" and there is this "thing" out there that is either hurting me or pleasing me. We tend to run our whole life trying to avoid all that hurts or displeases us, noticing the objects, people, or situations that we think will give us pain or pleasure, avoiding one and pursuing the other. Without exception, we all do this. We remain separate from our life, looking at it, analyzing it, judging it, seeking to answer the questions, 'What am I going to get out of it? Is it going to give me pleasure or comfort or should I run away from it?" We do this from morning until night. As the years go by, it gets worse. What might not look so bad when you are twenty-five looks awful by the time you are fifty. We all know people who might as well be dead; they have so contracted into their limited viewpoints that it is as painful for those around them as it is for themselves. We have to see through the mirage that there is an "I" separate from "that." Close the gap. Only in that instant when we and the object become one can we see what our life is.

It is the whole tragedy of life isn't it? this seemingly irreconcilable difference between our pleasure-seeking nature, and the inherently unpleasant nature of life itself. I like Ajahn Chah's image of the beautiful flower, that carries wilted-ness within itself. Not accepting this fundamental nature of life is the primary delusion that we need to face. The Full Catastrophe of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it won't do a thing for us. We all have to practice, and we have to practice with all of our might for the rest of our lives.

Yes. Finding out for oneself. 

What we really want is a natural life. Our lives are so unnatural that to do a practice like Zen is, in the beginning, extremely difficult.But once we begin to get a glimmer that the problem in life is not outside ourselves, we have begun to walk down this path. Once that awakening starts, once we begin to see that life can be more open and joyful than we had ever thought possible, we want to practice.We enter a discipline like Zen practice so that we can learn to live in a sane way. Zen is almost a thousand years old and the kinks have been worked out of it; while it is not easy, it is not insane. It is down to earth and very practical. It is about our daily life. It is about working better in the office, raising our kids better, and having better relationships. Having a more sane and satisfying life must come out of a sane, balanced practice. What we want to do is to find someway of working with the basic insanity that exists because of our blindness. It takes courage to sit well. Zen is not a discipline for everyone.We have to be willing to do something that is not easy. If we do it with patience and perseverance, with the guidance of a good teacher, then gradually our life settles down, becomes more balanced. Our emotions are not quite as domineering. As we sit, we find that the primary thing we must work with is our busy, chaotic mind. We are all caught up in frantic thinking and the problem in practice is to begin to bring that thinking into clarity and balance. When the mind becomes clear and balanced and is no longer caught by objects, there can be an opening-and for a second we can realize who we really are. But sitting is not something that we do for a year or two with the idea of mastering it. Sitting is something we do for a lifetime. There is no end to the opening up that is possible for a human being. Eventually we see that we are the limitless, boundless ground of the universe. Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity and to express it. Having more and more contact with this reality always brings compassion for others and changes our daily life. We live differently, work differently, relate to people differently. Zen is a lifelong study. It isn't just sitting on a cushion for thirty or forty minutes a day. Our whole life becomes practice, twenty-four hours a day.

Yes, experiencing the rewards of mindfulness practice is what keeps me on the path. I cannot think of any greater gift to oneself. Practicing has altered the way I think, the way I am with others and myself, the way I work, and what I choose to focus on. Practice is the ultimate refuge. And sitting practice is just a way of strengthening the mindfulness muscle, so that it can be used throughout the day. 

I'm often accused of emphasizing the difficulties in practice. The accusation is true. Believe me, the difficulties are there. If we don't recognize them and why they arise, we tend to fool ourselves. Still, the ultimate reality-not only in our sitting, but also in our lives-is joy. By joy I don't mean happiness; they're not the same. Happiness has an opposite; joy does not. As long as we seek happiness, we're going to have unhappiness, because we always swing from one pole to the other.

Verified faith in the power of practice is what keeps me practicing. A faith informed by the joy that comes with practice. As pointed by Charlotte, joy is very different from happiness. In fact, many times I find great unhappiness and joy co-existing in my heart. Joy comes from clearly seeing and including all what is. I have become very aware of this in my work with the dying, and also the people with dementia. Many times, sitting with much frustration, suffering, sadness, boredom, . . . and the end coming out filled with joy, and lightness. A very paradoxical process.

From time to time, we do experience joy. It can arise accidentally or in the course of our sitting or elsewhere in our lives. For a while after sesshin, we may experience joy. Over years of practice, our experience of joy deepens- if, that is, we understand practice and are willing to do it. Most people are not.

Yes, that's the trick. Having had enough of a taste of  joy, to keep up with practice. The realization of suffering is another motivator. 

Joy isn't something we have to find. Joy is who we are if we're not preoccupied with something else. When we try to find joy, we are simply adding a thought-and an unhelpful one, at that-onto the basic fact of what we are. We don't need to go looking for joy. But we do need to do something. The question is, what? Our lives don't feel joyful, and we keep trying to find a remedy.

That's it. Joy is a byproduct of practice, of including everything in our awareness, not resisting anything.

Our lives are basically about perception. By perception I mean whatever the senses bring in. We see, we hear, we touch, we smell, and so on. That's what life really is. Most of the time, however, we substitute another activity for perception; we cover it over with something else, which I'll call evaluation. By evaluation, I don't mean an objective, dispassionate analysis-as for example when we look over a messy room and consider or evaluate how to clean it up. The evaluation I have in mind is ego centered: "Is this next episode in my life going to bring me something I like, or not? Is it going to hurt, or isn't it? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Does it make me important or unimportant? Does it give me something material?" It's our nature to evaluate in this way. To the extent that we give ourselves over to evaluation of this kind, joy will be missing from our lives.

This is why awareness of vedana (feeling tone) is so helpful. I find that it helps cut through this tendency of the mind to always assess experiences along the unpleasant-pleasant spectrum. 

It's amazing how quickly we can switch into evaluation. Perhaps we're functioning pretty well-and then suddenly somebody criticizes what we're doing. In a fraction of a second, we jump into our thoughts. We're quite willing to get into that interesting space of judging others or ourselves. There's a lot of drama in all of this, and we like it, more than we realize. Unless the drama becomes lengthy and punishing, we enter willingly into it, because as human beings we have a basic orientation toward drama. From an ordinary point of view, to be in a world of pure perception is pretty dull.

Oh, yes! How so fickle, the mind is . . . Lately, I have had to deal with a difficult person, and have had the opportunity to observe how vulnerable my own mind is to the woman's energy and words. Our mental states are so fragile. It does not take much to push us in one direction or the other. Mingyur Rinpoche's simile of the flag flapping in the wind - our untrained mind - and the flagpole - our center.

Suppose we've been away on vacation for a week, and we come back. Perhaps we've enjoyed ourselves, or we think we have. When we return to work, the "In" box is loaded with things to do, and scattered all over the desk are little messages, "While You Were Out." When people call us at work, it usually means that they want something. Perhaps the job we left for someone else to take care of has been neglected. Immediately, we're evaluating the situation. "Who fouled up?" "Who slacked off?" "Why is she calling? I bet it's the same old problem." "It's their responsibility anyway. Why are they calling me?" Likewise, at the end of sesshin we may experience the flow of a joyful life; then we wonder where it goes. Though it doesn't go anywhere, something has happened: a cloud covers the clarity.

Recognizing the mind's tendency to cloud over, quickly. And why it is so important to engage in formal practice, every day, and with the support of a sangha - community. 

Until we know that joy is exactly what's happening, minus our opinion of it, we're going to have only a small amount of joy. When we stay with perception rather than getting lost in evaluation, however, joy can be the person who didn't do the job while we were gone. It can be the interesting encounter on the phone with all of the people we have to call, no matter what they want. Joy can be having a sore throat; it can be getting laid off; it can be unexpectedly having to work overtime. It can be having to take a math exam or dealing with one's former spouse who wants more money. Usually we don't think that these things are joy.<

Joy is in the ability to rest in wise awareness, and not letting oneself be swept by the hindrances, or the unwholesome thoughts that inevitably arise. Knowing that one is dwelling just where one should be. 

Practice is about dealing with suffering. It's not that the suffering is important or valuable in itself, but that suffering is our teacher. It's the other side of life, and until we can see all of life, there's not going to be any joy. To be honest, sesshin is controlled suffering. We get a chance to face our suffering in a practice situation. As we sit, all the traditional attributes of a good Zen student come under fire: endurance, humility, patience, compassion. These things sound great in books, but they're not so attractive when we're hurting. That's why sesshin ought not to be easy: we need to learn to be with our suffering and still act appropriately. When we learn to be with our experience, whatever it is, we are more aware of the joy that is our life. Sesshin is a good chance to learn this lesson. When we're prepared to practice, suffering can be a fortunate thing. None of us wants to recognize this fact. I certainly try to avoid suffering; there are lots of things I don't want happening in my life. Still, if we can't learn to be our experience even when it hurts, we'll never know joy. Joy is being the circumstances of our life just as they are. If someone's been unfair to us, that's it. If someone's telling lies about us, that's it also. 

Not looking for suffering or lingering in it unnecessarily. And also coming to terms with its inevitability, and becoming familiar with it, not just intellectually but physically in the body. Stretching our tolerance for the aches and discomforts. And experiencing them for what they are, not more. Noticing our habitual ways of recoiling from what does not feel good.

Please chime in as well, and share. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Knot Again

One of the advantages of formal practice as in sitting still in the quietness of morning, or taking a mindful walk alone, is that it allows one to clearly see what belongs in this moment, and what doesn't.

This morning, sitting,  I sensed the knot (post on Ajahn Chah), once more. And I investigated. There was physical suffering for sure, from the tightness. And underneath, fear and aversion. To what? Nothing to be feared in the quietness of my home. Nothing to dislike in this late Spring stroll through the neighborhood. Objectively, only pleasantness. In reality, much unpleasantness. Digging deeper, I found mind doing its dirty work. A string of thoughts unrelated to the present moment, but rather linked to the past, and making up an anticipated future, with the illusion of a solid 'I' as the glue. Not just Elmer's glue, but SuperGlue.

Awareness as solvant for the attachment to the illusion of a fixed self that sticks through time.

Formal practice, a long controlled experiment that allows one to get down to the root causes of suffering, and to unearth those one by one, one nanometer at a time. 

How tight is your knot? Can you see it for what it is?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"I Have a Problem"

An overzealous turn of the wheel as I was parking my car left the steering wheel stuck in one position. I looked at the manual, followed the instructions. Try wiggling the key while at the same time turning the wheel in either direction. Nothing moved. 

When I got to work, I saw Bud sitting in his wheelchair, taking a smoke outside. Bud was a bus driver for thirty years, and he knows tons about transportation and cars. I was not going to let the opportunity go by. 

"Tell me, Bud, I have a problem and I am hoping you can help me." He perked up.

I told Bud about my car problem, and got the answer I needed. Yes, try again to wiggle the key and the steering wheel. And if that doesn't work, call AAA, they will have to go under the hood to unlock the security control.

For a moment, Bud got to be his old competent self again.

We all need to feel useful. 

And we all need to remember to give others opportunities to contribute also. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Blog or To Sit?

That's the question, often. I When time is scarce, I find myself having to make a choice. Either blog, or sit. There is something ironic about blogging about practice and forsaking actual practice because of it. In any case, this week I knew what mattered most and I chose sitting. 

Hence, no post for the past few days. And today,  just a short one.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pay Yourself a Visit, and Sit

Tonight, a sadness came over me. 
From having abandoned myself
for most of this very long day.
Entire chunks of time, lived but not really,
spent away lost in one task after the next.
Many good excuses for working away
still did not add up to much, 
as far as the real truth is concerned.
Something that cannot be named
yearned to be attended to, 
and now that I stop, grief in the heart.
Violence was done in the name of great aims.
A monk comes by my side
and looks at me with great gentleness.
Slow down, dear one, and take the time
to dwell outside of your office.
Unplug the computer, put away the iPhone,
and pay yourself a visit and sit long enough
to notice the steady flow of breath, 
and the whole experience of this time, this place.

Do you ever feel that way, too?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What Is Mindfulness?

Inspired by Gil Fronsdal's wonderful presentation earlier this week about, 'Making a Difference:  a Vision for the Role of Mindfulness in Society', I started thinking some more about one of the questions raised by Gil: what is mindfulness? And looked around for definitions.

First the definitions shared by Gil during his presentation:

Mindfulness is a type of meditation

Mindfulness is paying attention to daily life.

Mindfulness is the combination of particular approaches and attitudes for paying attention.

Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.  Kabat-Zinn, 1994

Mindfulness is the universal dharma that is so co-extensive if not identical with the teachings of the Buddha. Jon Kabat-Zinn (recent definition)

Mindfulness is the art of observing your physical, emotional and mental experiences with deliberate, open, and curious attention. 

Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment with compassion and open hearted curiosity.

Mindfulness is a way of life.

Next, other contemporary definitions I found on the Web:

Mindfulness is bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.  Mariatt and Kristeller, 1999

Mindfulness is a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.  Bishop et al, 2004

The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. Bishop, Lau et al, 2007

I asked my followers on Twitter to help, and got these two great answers:

Debra McCrea (@debraZERO) likes this definition from Thich Nat Hanh: Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred. Thich Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness)

And from Toni Bernhard (@howtobesick), the author of How To Be Sick, I got this, straight from the Buddha's mouth: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself - Bahiya Sutta.

I also turned to three of my favorite teachers:

It’s cultivating good qualities in the mind. It’s making conditions right so good qualities can arise. If, while sitting, you’re dreaming up things the mind can feel greedy about, I don’t call that meditation. That’s why I say that the mind working to do the meditation is more important than the posture. But people associate the word “meditation” with “sitting.” The two words have become synonymous, but this is a mistake. There are two kinds of meditation. In samatha [calm abiding], you need to sit and be still. My emphasis is Vipassana [insight meditation]. For Vipassana practice, sitting is not necessary. The purpose of practicing Vipassana is to cultivate wisdom. U Tejaniya

It refers to a plain and impartial attentiveness to the object of observation, free from conceptual thinking. Mindfulness restricts itself to having that penetrative attentiveness of noting the occurrence and disappearance of a mental or bodily object (nĂ¢ma-rupa) as it is. For instance, when there is the awareness of hearing, it is immediately noted as such. When the knowledge arises of what is heard, the mind marks just the fact of knowing and drops further interest because another process is already in the making. This, `letting go', not paying further interest is essential for the establishing of a sharp mindfulness. It enables one to follow precisely the arising and disappearing of all these processes. To understand what is mindfulness and to be able to apply it in the right way, one must make a clear distinction between the function of mindfulness and the normal attention people have, in their various activities. Mindfulness is not just a little bit more attention than one usually has . . .  Mindfulness is only facing what is in the present moment without giving a specific emotional value to the object. Mindfulness deals only with the present moment, here and now. Ayya Khema

That which "looks over" the various factors which arise in meditation is 'sati', mindfulness. Ajahn Chah

Many views, all pointing to the same stance.

For me, I like the image of choosing to dwell in awareness, one step removed from our habitual reality of being lost in thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. This is where the freedom is to be found, and the ensuing joy. I am no longer prisoner of the capricious nature of thoughts, and of my reactions to the ever changing, and therefore highly unsatisfactory nature of life. 

What is your experience of mindfulness, and how would you put it into words?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What To Do During Meditation

Gathered from Gil Fronsdal's talk the other night, these simple instructions on what 'to do' while meditating - my notes from the talk, not verbatim:

Using the image of the cowherd looking after his cows, we are presented with two options when sitting, looking after our thoughts.

First, is if the cows are out while the rice fields are not yet harvested, the cowherd needs to keep track of his cows very closely so that the cows do not damage the crop. Similarly, there are times when we need to watch our mind and thoughts very closely. Telling ourselves, don't go there, don't do that. Being like a vigilant cowherd with his little stick. 

The other way is taking on a relaxed attitude, being like the cowherd standing propped up against a tree,  and simply keeping an eye on the cows roaming around. We are letting go of our thoughts as they come, not getting involved.  

Part of the wisdom factor is to know when one way is useful and not the other. We learn this through trial and error.

In our modern Western culture, we are plagued with a variety of neuroses that may dictate which approach is generally best suited for our practice. If we are in the camp of  'I am inadequate, I can't do this', being told to practice diligently will be counterproductive and we will end up tying ourselves into a knot instead of becoming more free. What is needed instead in that case, is a message of radical acceptance. For others there is a risk of complacency if they let their mind think freely. This may result in supporting unhealthy attachments and perpetuating the state of bondage that keep us from finding inner freedom.

With proper attention, we notice the consequences of our thoughts and behaviors, and learn to discern which activities of the mind are skillful and which ones are not. To step back or to probe deeply and investigate like a surgeon, that's an individual matter. 

Actually, not just an individual matter, to be settled once and for all, but rather a moment to moment decision that needs to be constantly re-evaluated depending on one's constantly changing states of mind. I know for myself, there are days when I tend to be more on the tense side, and a relaxed attitude is what I need to cultivate. Other times, when the mind is dull or not concentrated enough, I need to err more on the side of putting effort into concentrating and gathering my thoughts. Also, when the hindrances are  strong and threaten to take over both mind and heart, I need to be extra vigilant and take a very active role with the thoughts. Hearing Blanche Hartman, "No, not getting into that train [of thoughts]." 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

We Must All File On

The old man was in pain, and I was called to check on him. When he first got here, he was able to make it to the dining room some times. Not so, now. He has been confined to his bed, with the oxygen machine as his constant companion. Pillows, lots, behind his back, between his head and the side wall. It's hard being comfortable, and it's the best that can be done. 

I asked if I could sit, and he said yes. 

How about the pain, I wondered? He grimaced. "An 8, it comes and goes, can I get more medicine?" Folks on hospice always want more meds. More morphine, more Vicodin, more Klonopin, more . . . How come we the living well get to decide when and how much? Who makes these laws? I get angry when I see all the suffering that comes with some endings.  The hospice nurse had been called, and we had to wait. 

I asked if I might touch his hand, and he said yes.

The old man is usually not very talkative, but this time was different, and he proceeded to tell me his whole life story. A sad one, filled with many tragedies, and also marked by great resilience in the face of so much adversity. The old man was not able to attend school, but he had spent his life in books, to make up. I got treated to Schopenhauer and Shakespeare, and this from Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

But one by one we must all file on. Through the narrow aisles of pain.

"The young ones, they don't think about it, but one day they too will have to file on". The old man looked at me. And I told him I knew, yes, one day my turn would come also when I would have to file on, through the narrow aisles of pain, I was very aware. The old man seemed to get comfort from knowing that we all got our turn. "Such is life . . . and I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up."

I asked if I should stay a bit longer, and he said yes.

Serena was playing a good game of tennis. I adjusted the TV so that the old man could have a better look. "Once, I was able to run, and jump like her . . ." 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Future, Past and Present

The majority of my time is spent thinking, worrying about, planning for the future. Another big chunk goes to thoughts about the past, usually regretting, remembering, rehashing, lots of re-(s) . . . Rarely, am I being here, in this moment, open to the whole experience of smell, sight, touch, hearing, tasting, and yes, thinking also.

Ayya Khema says, "We have to learn to actually experience living in the present".

Deafening sound of cars roaring on El Camino freeway, nauseating perfume of woman standing next to me, impatience of waiting for the AT&T store to open so I can get my iPhone fixed, a slight pinch in the lower back, contraction in fingers holding pen, some excitement about writing this post, a mixture of pleasantness and unpleasantness. Being in this present moment.

How do I (we) learn?

Through sustained attention, noticing again and again the mind's tendency to escape into thoughts. And through wise investigation of the suffering that comes attached. Sadness of moments not fully lived, this precious life wasted away, bit by bit. Superfluous, self-created anxiety about imaginary future. Craving for a different experience other than current one, and buried in it the seed of guaranteed unhappiness. 

Another moment. This time, noticing knots in stomach, bitterness in the mouth, street noise still, lots of it. Annoyance at the woman with the stinky perfume. "When are they going to open? Is it time yet?". Unpleasantness. Being in that present moment.

How about you? Where do you dwell most? In the present? Or do you get lost in thoughts? Do you favor the past, or the future? 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Creating A Mindful Society

I am gladly spreading the word about the upcoming 'Creating a Mindful Society' conference that will take place in New York on October 1st. The conference is organized by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli from U Mass Center for Mindfulness,, and Omega Institute. I had the privilege of spending one week with with Jon and Saki earlier this year for their annual professional retreat at Mount Madonna, and I have great respect and fondness for them both. 

The event is meant to address the spreading impact of mindfulness on many aspects of our culture: business, health care,  education, behavioral health, parenting, government . . . Here are Jon and Saki, giving us a little taste of the conference:

I will not be able to attend, but I will certainly be there in spirit. I hope YOU can make it!