Monday, October 31, 2011

Remembering to Take in the Good

Today, walking into Avenidas Senior Center for a meeting about the Presence Care Project, it hit me. Hundreds of bright specks of violet, scattered amidst other less luminous dots. What a wondrous sight it was, and an awesome way to start the day!

What could have been just petals on the ground became an occasion for tremendous gratitude. I had to take a picture.

Remembering to take in the good.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Creating the Space

(cross-post with Presence Care Project blog)

Amazing things can happen with folks who are living with dementia. They can start speaking intelligible words after months of muteness. They can start relating and smiling again. They can move their previously frozen limbs. They can sing entire songs. They can show flashes of insight. So many possible surprises.

However, the conditions have to be right.

First and foremost, the person needs to be given the time, and the mental and emotional space to BE. That means no rushing, no outpacing, no talking over, no ignoring, no assuming. Instead, we are to practice being present for them.

How does that work?

First I take a chair and I sit . . . down. Down at the person’s level, mirroring her own sitting. And I take the time to relax into my body, and to let my mind settle. Becoming aware of the sensations in my body, and of breath. Dropping below the habitual level of discursive thinking and emotional reactivity. I create space within my own mind. Sitting with her, I practice what is commonly called mindfulness.

Something usually happens then. Mindfulness starts working its magic not just on me, but also the person I am sitting with.

I notice my friend’s body starts to relax, and I can feel her mind loosening as well. There is an overall sense of joint resting within a vast expanse. For her this is especially important, as the newly created space and stillness gives the tenuous connections in her brain a chance to take again. She can ‘re-ment’. She was mute and now she tells me “thank you”.

If electrodes were taped on my friend’s brain, I am pretty sure, we would see dramatic changes in her brain’s activity and connectivity. Mindfulness by proxy . . . Maybe a new avenue for neuroscience research?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

6 Teachings on How to Be With the Dying

Ayya Khema's biography has been my late night companion for the last few weeks. Such an inspiring life, and so many wise teachings interspersed throughout. I especially appreciate her advice on how to relate to the dying:

1. When a person is dying, we should recall to him all his good deeds, so that he can die with a peaceful and happy mind. That is very important, for it very often occurs that on their deathbeds people are suddenly afflicted with regret and remorse, because they think they have done one thing or the other wrong. If you, as a doctor or a nurse, do not know a dying person very well, you should get information from his family so you can help him.

2. We should get in physical contact - hold hands with the dying person or stroke him, so he does not get the feeling he has been abandoned.

3. The sense of hearing is the last sense to go. Therefore we should not think that a person who seems to be lying there unconscious is not hearing anything. In his presence, only those things should be said that he should hear.

4. We can say to the person that we are all going to die. The body is not the most important thing. The mind and consciousness of the good and true are much more important. 

5. [We should not shy away from relieving or eliminating physical pain.] Consciousness is also present even when a dying person cannot answer or respond in the usual way. It is completely wrong to give a person over to pain - this only fills the person's mind with negativity and discord.

6. One should die at home in a good, familiar environment. One's dear ones should be present and know that they have to give the dying person permission to die. It is important to say to him or her: "Yes, we will miss you, but we're all completely okay, we're are just fine. We love you, but we can go on living." We should not try to hold on, since that makes dying more difficult.

6 great teachings for us to remember when the moment comes to midwife another person into dying. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

5 Ways to Practice Generosity

From Gil's recent talk on generosity, I have taken away these 5 practices of generosity (as part of broader mindfulness practice):

1. Do exactly what you are already doing, but infuse it with a spirit of generosity.

2. Look for opportunities for small acts of generosity that you would not generally do, and study yourself before, during, and after.

3. Look for situations in which you are inspired to give, and do it, and if you can't think of anything look at that.

4. Stretch yourself in being generous, and give in ways that are hard for you, even if just a little; explore what it's like.

5. Practice doing an act of generosity to someone you are in conflict with, and explore what happens inside.

And while practicing generosity, keep the following principles in mind:

When practicing generosity or giving, you don't have to FEEL generous.
Wise generosity is about how to benefit oneself, and how to benefit others.
We should give in a way that does not harm oneself, and does not harm others.
We should give out of obligation but because it feels like a beneficial things to do.
HOW one give is more important than WHAT one gives.

To Gil's points, I would like to add my own twist:

Paying attention to the body and mind's movements as one considers giving or not giving. Is there tightening, or expansion in the body, the heart, the mind? Tightening is clear indication of the need to bring ease into one's approach, either needing to relax into being more generous, or its opposite, withholding misguided giving.

For now, I shall focus on the first and fifth practices. The fifth one because of current circumstances. And the first one because it goes hand in hand with casual, moment to moment mindfulness. 

What is your relationship with generosity? How do you practice? Do you?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Hazards of Unguarded Mind

She's been my teacher for the last week. 

Being with Betty has been a dramatic lesson in the perils of mind, when it has been unguarded for too long.  Betty's got an anxiety disorder so severe that she can no longer function. Her throat closes up and  she feels as if she is going to choke. Her legs go numb, and she is overtaken by weakness. Her mind fills up with thoughts of death and she begs to be shot. Her heart vacillates between terror and occasional bursts of anger. She cannot be left alone. Only drugs, and the continuous company of doctors and nurses bring her a tiny bit or relief. 

Layers after layers of accumulated mindlessness, exposed and wrapped up in pathology.

Slumped over in the couch, her hands entrusted in mine, she begs me to please relieve her from her misery. She wants to know that I care, and that I believe in the reality of her suffering. That I can do. When she tells me she is going to die, I see deluded mind in action. And I tell her. It may feel as if you are going to die, because your breath's gotten shallow, and your mind is visited by terrible thoughts. I suggest, instead of saying 'I am going to die', tell yourself 'It feels as if I am going to die, but I know better, I am not. I am still breathing, and talking.' Also, give your mind a bit of rest, and practice new thoughts. 'May I be at peace, may I be at ease. May I be at peace, may I be at ease.' Relaxing the mind.

There is work to do also with the body. Tightness all over needs to be dealt with. First, recognizing it, which is no problem for Betty. Where she goes wrong is in what she does with her perception and awareness. Not seeing the tensing against the primary tension, and how it contributes to her feeling more and more out of control. Being aware of the whole experience: the body's long held habit of reacting with tension, overlaid with great dislike and fear about that experience, then leading to more tension, ending in a knot so tight that air, and blood can barely pass through. 'Don't talk to me about deep breathing anymore. It does not work, only makes me worse.' Somewhere, Betty has learned that breath is to be used for her condition. The fact that she has been taught wrong has turned breath into a new enemy. Figuring we have enough to deal with, I decide to leave that one aside, for now at least . . . and to use the body instead. Focusing on the hands, and the sensations there. 'I feel cold and warm.' In that moment, Betty's mind is no longer focused on the tightness. Giving the mind a rest, purifying it. 

"Give me a shot, now!" In this moment, Betty believes only drugs can relieve her from her suffering. Another delusion to be addressed. Using mind against mind, and the power of memory to remember the extra suffering by the use of drugs when they wear out. And reintroducing the knowledge that working with her thoughts is as powerful and without the side effects. "You are forgetting the power of your mind. There is a lot you can do with your thoughts, and how you choose to deal with the panic." She nods. I take it as a small victory. 

"What did you use to enjoy before the panic came?" "I like music, classical music." Getting the mind out of its rut. One wholesome thought, one wholesome action at a time . . . She is open to listening to a Mozart CD.

There is the panic, and what led to it in the first place. Digging down deeper, and accessing the anger beneath. Lots of it. Another hindrance that's been marching for years into Betty's life. Meeting with her relatives, Betty's voice grows loud and she tells them how she feels. Betty's got a lot of work to do. She needs to see a therapist. 

Betty did not know. She let her house get so dirty over the years, that she can no longer live in it. Now is the time for heavy cleanup crew, and she has to roll up her sleeves. 

No need to wait that long. The fresher the grime, the easier to remove. Betty is calling me (us) to the tedious work of ongoing mindfulness. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Shame of Envy

A recent event, my reaction to it and resulting actions brought forth last night what had been brewing for quite some time:

I have been feeling envy
Wanting what they have
and that I don't have

It's been taking me
down the wrong path
and I didn't even see it

Forgetting to focus 
on the real problem,
of craving mind

I don't like to admit
to such shameful leaning
so petty, so small

I was consumed,
and now, the freedom 
of chains broken.

U Pandita's teaching about 'The Ten Armies of Mara' comes to mind:

Meditation can be seen as a war between wholesome and unwholesome mental states. On the unwholesome side are the forces of the kilesas, also known as “The Ten Armies of Māra.” In Pāli, Māra means killer. He is the personification of the force that kills virtue and also kills existence. His armies are poised to attack all yogis; they even tried to overcome the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.

Here are the lines the Buddha addressed to Māra, as recorded in the Sutta Nipāta:

Sensual pleasures are your first army,
Discontent your second is called.
Your third is hunger and thirst,
The fourth is called craving.
Sloth and torpor are your fifth,
The sixth is called fear,
Your seventh is doubt,
Conceit and ingratitude are your eighth,
Gain, renown, honor and whatever fame is falsely received (are the ninth), 
And whoever both extols himself and disparages others (has fallen victim to the tenth). 
That is your army, Namuci [Māra], the striking force of darkness. 
One who is not a hero cannot conquer it, but having conquered it, one obtains happiness.

To overcome the forces of darkness in our own minds, we have the wholesome power of satipaṭṭhāna vipassanāmeditation, which gives us the sword of mindfulness, as well as strategies for attack and defense.

In the Buddha’s case, we know who won the victory. Now, which side will win over you?

What really got to me was my blinded-ness to the forces of envy. So focused was I on the outer object, that I got lost, and failed for a long time to fully investigate the source of my suffering. This is what delusion does to the mind. 
Envy, such a powerful teacher. 
When is the last time you felt prey to its twisted-ness?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Where I Go For Loving Kindness

From Jack Kornfield, my first teacher many years ago, I got my first training in loving kindness during one of the family days at Spirit Rock. I remember learning:

First start thinking of a person for whom I felt great love
Then get in touch with the love I felt in my heart
Then direct that same love towards myself 
'May I be at peace, May I be at ease, . . .'
Then to expand the circle of love further and further outside of myself until it included all the people in the world. 
'May they be at peace, May they be at ease . . .'

This did not work quite so well for me. Since then, I have found this optimistic approach about loving kindness is also difficult for many other folks. There are two problems. First is the fact that for some, there has never been the experience of feeling love for another person. Second, most of us in the Western world have a very hard time loving ourselves. Instead of loving kindness, anger or self-hate may arise with such practice. Not necessarily bad, as everything is grist for the mill in meditation practice, but still, not really the intent.

More workable I have found, is a more inclusive practice that goes like this:

First start thinking of a person, or a pet, or a place, or a thing for whom one feels great love
Then get in touch with the love felt in one's heart and hold it
Then try sending out some of that same love towards oneself
And become aware of all that is present in one's experience
Including other feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body
Relax the tensions in the body, and the mind, as much as possible
Meanwhile being aware of quiet body being breathed
Take it in all in, not pushing away anything, and wish one self well,
'May I be at peace, May I be at ease, . . .'
Enrobing all the feelings, thoughts, sensations, tensions
Enrobing them in the love found earlier in one's heart
Repeating the words as often as necessary,
Being aware still of body being breathed, in and out
Then expand the circle of loving kindness to at least one other person,
'May he/she be at peace, May he/she be at ease, . . .'
And continue expanding the circle, until one comes to a stop.
Not forcing anything, relaxing into the reality of one's heart,
And rewiring our brain with the words
'May I/they be at peace, May I/they be at ease, . . .'

The place I go to for love, is a memory of my maternal grandfather holding my hand, and the smell of the earth impregnating his farmer's clothes. How about you? What is your love person, place, thing, . . . ?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Persistent Guests in My House

It's become clear now who are the guests that linger in my inner dwelling. 

First is the workaholic who obsesses over what's next at the office. I encounter 'her' while I sit, while I walk, and in my dreams. She populates my mind with many thoughts, and preoccupies herself with planning and multiple projects. She acts as a barrier between myself and the present moment. She is not really a person, but rather a constellation of habits, emotions, and thoughts. She is driven by another, much older character, to do with my early years as a child. That one is a scared little girl, still living in what felt like an unpredictable home with a father given to unpredictable rages. Fear is her modus operandi and her first line of response. Those two guests take turn in dominating my day to day life. 

'Take turn' is no longer so accurate, though. I should say 'have taken turn' instead. Things are changing.

Another figure, much more powerful than those two is establishing itself. She is wise, and knows how to put the other two guests to rest, using the qualities of insight, patience, mindfulness, equanimity, concentration, investigation, and loving kindness. In this moment, there is only breath coming and going, and hands typing words on the computer, and body sitting a bit slouched in the office chair. The rest, the scared 'I' that makes itself felt in the pit of the stomach, is to be put in its place. A persistent guest, a product of automatic responses from body and mind in need of being calmed, using the breath, and concentration on the task at hand. 

How humbling to realize that this mind, this body do not really belong to me . . . Otherwise, right now, there would be only be the peace of breath, moving freely in and out of boundless body. 

Who are the guests in your house? How do you put them to rest?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gratitude Eight Times Over

Gratitude is about realizing what one has, and knowing it can be all taken away, just like that.
Gratitude is about noticing others' plight, and yes, comparing, and acknowledging one's good fortune.
Gratitude is about not taking anything, and I mean anything for granted.
Gratitude is about visiting several old folks' homes today, and seeing decrepit bodies, minds lost in another reality, and a place or two that made me want to flee, because it was so bad in there.
Gratitude is about appreciating my youth still, and my sound mind, and my independence, and the ability to contribute with my good work.
Gratitude is about realizing the control I have over my mind to host happy thoughts, or not.
Gratitude is about feeling so lucky to be able to speak, after hearing of a friend whose speech was taken away by a stroke.
Gratitude is about counting my many blessings, and holding them lightly in the heart.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

6 Rewards of Loving Kindness Practice

I am a big fan of loving kindness practice. It took me a while, years actually to warm up to it, but now I could not imagine life without it. Today, during his Dharma talk at IMC, Gil gave six reasons to give into metta:

Loving kindness is a way of protecting ourselves - from negative thoughts, ill will, greed,  . . . 
Loving kindness creates social harmony - through our kind thoughts, words, and actions.
Loving kindness helps us sleep better - falling asleep more easily, and waking up more rested. 
Loving kindness acts as reference point to see ourselves better - making it more obvious the things that need to be resolved, the anger that has been festering, etc.
Loving kindness can be used as a concentration practice - helping with fragmentation.
Loving kindness supports the practice of liberation of freedom.

May you be at peace, may you be at ease!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Nothing To Be Clung To

Sitting, the words come:
'nothing to be clung to'

Not getting into stories,
and from many times before,
the almost certainty of this:
'nothing to be clung to'

Breathing in, breathing out,
relaxing around the edges
of the habitual tightness:
'nothing to be clung to'

Years of tensing, grasping,
cannot be undone that quickly
It is only a matter of time:
'nothing to be clung to'

There is no need
to find out the object even,
for none is worth the desire:
'nothing to be clung to'

Sitting, the words come:
Nothing to be clung to.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs Was a Dharma Teacher Also

Steve Job's death yesterday came as a shock. We all knew he was dying, but were hoping that he would be a part of this world for a little while longer. As a tribute to him, I would like to share this video of him giving the Commencement Speech for the Stanford class of 2005.

I especially appreciated his story about death:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

And I thought of the wisdom of another man, not famous like Steve, but just as wise . . . 

This is the truth.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

16 Steps With the Breath

Following last week's talk by Gil on the Anapanasati sutta, I have been meaning to dig deeper and articulate for myself the 16 steps regarding mindfulness of breathing as a full practice. Here is what I understand, based on Gil's talk and reading the Anapanasati sutta:

By focusing one's attention on the breath, one can develop mindfulness, concentration, and insight. We alternate between just being present and changing the experience. Focusing on the breath helps with staying in the present. This requires an active use of our attention. This is not about being passive.

Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’ 
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ [1] 
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’ 
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ [2] 

The Buddha says, just know the quality of your breath. Breathing is used as a reference point, that makes it easier to see what the mind does. Also because the attention goes to breathing, one is starving the distractions. 

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’ 
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’[3] 

In the process, we become aware of bodily formations - what is there in the body because of activities of the mind. The various sensations.

He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’ 
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’ [4] 

Then we relax and soften those sensations. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing joy.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing joy.’[5] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing pleasure. 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing pleasure. [6] 

Some energy gets released, and we experience relief. We let ourselves feel the resulting joy and happiness.

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing mental formation.’
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing mental formation.’[7]

Same way, we became aware of the bodily formations, we become aware of the mental formations - the effects on the mind of how we use the mind. We feel what is going on in the mind. We look at what is feeding the mental activity: emotions, anxiety, worry. We get to know the overall state of our mind.

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in calming the mental formation.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out calming the mental formation.’[8] 

Then we relax what goes on in the mind little by little. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in experiencing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out experiencing the mind.’[9] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in pleasing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out pleasing the mind.’[10]

We have the experience of soft mind. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in concentrating the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out concentrating the mind.’[11] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in releasing the mind.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out releasing the mind.’[12] 

This is an iterative process, we get to watch what happens in the mind and the body when we tighten. We learn how to be aware and to relax. How to liberate the mind. We are not letting go of, but rather letting go into peace, into being more relaxed. We go between knowing something and doing something about it, back and forth. We are breathing with our experience of body and mental states. The breath is what keeps us centered. We are not only focusing on the breath, but we also track what is going on in the present moment. 

He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing impermanence.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing impermanence.’[13] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing dispassion.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing dispassion.[14] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing cessation.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing cessation.’[15] 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath in observing relinquishment.’ 
He trains himself, ‘I will breath out observing relinquishment.’[16] 

The last four steps are about cultivating insight. We realize the things we cling to that are not worth clinging to. The thing we cling to start fading away as we become disinterested. Knowing something well enough is sometimes all that's needed to let go. 

This in a nutshell was Gil's lecture.

Of course, the question that comes up for me, and that I did not think of asking after the talk, is of how to calm the mental formations? Many times throughout the sutta, the Buddha repeats "having put aside greed and distress for the world". I take it to mean that we take a stance and we decide to drop our habitual way. While sitting, we no longer get hooked into greed, ill will, worry, and sorrow. Instead we choose to dwell in the truth of breath, in and out, in and out, through body sitting still, and we do not linger in the mental formations that cause us unnecessary tensions and suffering. This is how I understand taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This is where (previously verified) faith comes in.