Friday, December 30, 2011

The Way Flowers Are

Is this flower pretty?... Do you see the ugliness within this flower?... For how many days will it be pretty?... What will it be like from now on?... Why does it change so?... In three or four days you have to take it and throw it away, right? It loses all its beauty. People are attached to beauty, attached to goodness. If anything is good they just fall for it completely. The Buddha tells us to look at pretty things as just pretty, we shouldn’t become attached to them. If there is a pleasant feeling we shouldn’t fall for it. Goodness is not a sure thing, beauty is not a sure thing. Nothing is certain. There is nothing in this world that is a certainty. This is the truth. The things that aren’t true are the things that change, such as beauty. The only truth it has is in its constant changing. If we believe that things are beautiful, when their beauty fades our mind loses its beauty too. When things are no longer good our mind loses its goodness too. When they are destroyed or damaged we suffer because we have clung to them as being our own. The Buddha tells us to see that these things are simply constructs of nature. Beauty appears and in not many days it fades. To see this is to have wisdom. 
Therefore we should see impermanence. If we think something is pretty we should tell ourselves it isn’t, if we think something is ugly we should tell ourselves it isn’t. Try to see things in this way, constantly reflect in this way. We will see the truth within untrue things, see the certainty within the things that are uncertain. 
~ in The Four Noble Truths, from Living Dhamma, by Ajahn Chah ~ 

Monday, December 26, 2011

End of the Year Wisdom

Left from my Catholic upbringing, the reminder every Christmas of the possibility lying dormant within each one of us,  of giving birth to a new attitude. An improved version of ourselves, filled with good intentions and the will to cultivate even more mindfulness, loving kindness, and wisdom both within and with others. 

As this year comes to an end, I am very grateful for the gift of practice that kept me safe from making hasty, and potentially very wrong decisions. I saw firsthand the blinding nature of anger wrongly placed onto another person, and the power of waiting, and not acting out on what seemed like a rightful thought at first. I look back on the past when mindfulness practice was not a part of my life, and when I fell prey to wrong convictions. I think of the time when I left my first husband, a good man, and caused havoc in my then young family.  I am still paying the price. One cannot escape the law of karma. There is much wisdom and love to be extracted however from the resulting suffering. 

The big lesson lies in not repeating prior mistakes. Been there, done that, I know better now . . . 

The marriage relationship is wonderful that way, as it presents us with multiple opportunities for personal transformation. Found in the February 2012 issue of Psychology Today, a great article on 'Are You With the Right Mate?':
At some point in every relationship, it's natural to ask whether your partner is the right one for you. But if that's as far as you go, you're missing the opportunity of your life . . . "Rather than look at the other person, you need to look at yourself and ask, 'Why am I suddenly so unhappy and what do I need to do? We do not look to our partner to provide our happiness, and we don't blame them for our unhappiness. We take responsibility for the expectations that we carry , for our own negative emotional reactions, for our own insecurities, and for our own dark moods.". . . "A lot of the thinking about being married to the wrong mate is really a self-delusion." . . . "We're all difficult. Everyone who is married is a difficult spouse. We emphasize that our spouse is difficult and forget how we're difficult for them."
Likewise, children keep us honest with ourselves. Mine have been brutally forthright in their feedback, and it's been rough seeing myself in their mirror. I have failed them in big ways once, twice, three times, and their young hearts are not ready to forgive yet. If I am not careful, the mind could make matters even worse with unnecessary regrets and remorse, or anger at them. No, better take a stand, and practice love instead. Forgiving myself for my misdeeds, forgiving them for their harshness. 

Coming to terms with one's imperfections. Thanking loved ones for the opportunity to polish away the impurities. Surrendering to the humbling ways of the heart.  

How do you experience the family crucible? How do relationships contribute to your practice? How does your practice enhance your life at home?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

'Tis the Time to Rejoice

The time has come again to rejoice and be merry. Carolers are doing their rounds of nursing homes and other not so jolly places. Amazon is reporting a record year. The UPS man is working over time. And the mailman's bags are overflowing with Christmas cards. 'Tis the season . . .

And just now, sitting and taking time off from readying the house for tonight Christmas Eve's dinner, I found grief right in my core. That's the truth.

Holidays are funny that way. Collective expectations of Hallmark like happiness take one straight to the heart for a reality check. Mind has being doing its number on me for the past few weeks. Taking me back to times years ago, when the children were little, and our family was still whole. Wishing the present cracks were not so. Hoping for this holiday to be over, quick, so the heart does not have to ache so much.

Loving kindness practice can bring the same emotions. Nothing like being faced with the possibility of love, to become aware of its absence in one self. 

Sitting,  I could feel much aversion to the overall unpleasantness. An experience ripe for more insight and wisdom . . . First dealing with foolish thoughts, words popping in the head and that are mired in the hindrances of desire, ill will, and restlessness (my top three . . . ). Much to do with 'others'. If only they could be kinder, more patient, less angry . . . If only they got along . . . If only they did not live so far away, and could be here to celebrate with us, me . . . If only they were not sick and falling prey to old age . . . A bunch of garbage thoughts to be discarded, over and over again. I should know better than to dirty my house that way. 
Very few people in this world have perfect situations. Everybody has something wrong in his or her life. Either the house is too small, or the salary is too low, or the relatives don't agree, or the street is too noisy, or the food is not good enough, or the education wasn't sufficient for the job one wants. There is always something wrong. Nobody has a perfect situation. Everybody tries to make it as nice for him - or herself as possible, which is all right. But if we do not take a stand now, and keep waiting for perfect situations, we will never change. We can't wait for perfect situations because they'll never happen. The perfect situation can only be created inside one's own heart and mind. There it is possible. ~ Ayya Khema, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~
'Tis the time to rejoice, indeed. 'Tis the time to rejoice, always. That's the truth.

My brother sent me this picture of him visiting my mother with his son: 

How do you experience these holidays?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sitting Right There

This morning, sitting in my favorite red egg chair, tweeting, I heard the #wannasit call from @DavidMAshton and @New2Buddha.  And I decided to join right there, on the spot. Not leaving my chair, not changing position, laptop still on my lap . . . I closed my eyes and discovered new sensations. New pain from curved spine kept still. Coldness, hard edges from the computer soon becoming  part of the body. Mind had to be alert for the potential for extra aversion.  

Realizing that not everyone has the luxury of optimal sitting conditions. The sick, the old, the dying are often stuck in less than comfortable positions. Slumped over in a wheelchair, or lying down crooked in a hospital bed, one has no other choice than to practice, right there. 

Not being attached to one's idea of the perfect sitting posture. Practicing for the times when sitting up straight may no longer be an option.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Reality of Bodily Suffering

Spinning this morning, there was music, heard, and instructions, heard also, and heat, sensed, from body working hard, and aversion to the effort . . . Mixed in and not belonging to the class, some tightness inherited from a prior interaction. Mind has moved on, or at least thinks so. But the body can't let go so easily. 

There is much research done on neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one's experience. While the mind-body connection is undeniable, and the mind can help loosen some of the tensions in the body, one is still left dealing with some reluctant spots. 

The Buddha tells us to calm the bodily formations by turning our attention to the ins and outs of the breath, meanwhile relaxing the tensions. The question is how much of the bodily formations can be calmed, and how quickly? The more recent the formation, and the more superficial, of course, the easier it can be undone. Also, the more one practices mindfulness, the lesser the chance of new formations forming. Still, one is left with the old stuff, habitual patterns of reactivity in the body, and deeply held tensions from emotions tied to unconscious or repressed memories. Through practice, one can learn to sense the knots, and get in touch with the suffering attached. Wishing to rid oneself of the pain, or actively trying to explain it away as is done in some forms of therapy may do us more harm than good.

Sitting with a friend, she tells me she has this thing in her body. She points to her chest. She shows me a collage she did about herself. Many disconnected images, neatly cut out from magazines. She analyzes her work. "This represents me perfectly". I am left feeling cold.  She is hoping for the day when will she will no longer have "this". "I will be free then."  She dreams of being an artist. 

We need to hear Ayya Khema:
Please be aware of the fact that this body does not have suffering, but that it is suffering. Only then can we begin to fathom the reality of human suffering. It is not that we have some discomfort sometimes, but that this body consists of suffering. It can't sit or lie still without becoming uncomfortable. Know the impermanence. Know the unsatisfactoriness, which is inherent in the human body. Know the fact that the feeling has arisen without your invitation. So why call it "mine"? ~ from Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~
With this realization, comes a reconciliation with oneself, wounds and all, and the wholehearted desire to not add more suffering to what is already there.  More fuel for mindfulness practice . . . and compassion for others. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Minding the Blind Spots

A meditator friend of mine tells me of her divorce from her then husband years ago. "He was part of my sangha. He was such a narcissist. One day I realized I was angry all the time. That's when I decided to split. I have never regretted it."

A well-known dharma teacher displays  surprising unskillfulness during a critical life event.

A man who speaks at length about mindfulness throughout many communities, is everything but mindful and kind in his dealings with his co-workers. 

Two men and a woman, each wrongfully convinced of their own wisdom. Each one with a shadow looming large behind their back, and clearly visible by everyone but them. Each using mindfulness as a shiny front for a not so pretty truth. Sitting on the cushion every day, even for long periods of time, is no guarantee of evolved consciousness. That much, I know.

Last night's dreams shed light on my own shadow. Parts of myself that I too easily project on to those who are closest to me, and now thrown back at me. I am not as loving as I would like to think. I've got work to do . . . 

How big is your shadow? What parts of your personality are not obvious to you? Would you like to ask your honest friends? Your mate? Your children? 

'The experience of the self* is alway a defeat for the ego.' ~ C.G. Jung

* Jung's notion of the self is very different from one referred to in Buddhist view of not-self. Rather it refers to the experience of a higher state of consciousness not bound by limitations of the small 'I', the ego.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Direct Connection Between Mindfulness Practice and Beneficial Changes in the Brain

From the lab of Harvard researcher, Sara Lazar, comes the most conclusive study to date, linking mindfulness practice with sustained beneficial changes in areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, introspection, and stress response. 

As reported earlier this year in the Harvard Gazette:
Participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. In a study that will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) reported the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.
“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGHPsychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical Schoolinstructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.
For the current study, magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation — which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind — participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of nonmeditators over a similar time interval.
Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses. The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.
This study is scientifically proving what all meditators know from experience, i.e. the long lasting effect of meditation not just during formal mindfulness practice, but more importantly, afterward, throughout the day. 

Another good reason to start each day with a 30 minute sitting! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Taking a Break

Today is the first day in a very long time, that is not filled with back to back meetings. I awoke this morning, with no emails to answer to. And my to-do-list did not include any close deadlines. Stressed mind, stressed body were overdue for a break. 

I will take the time to sit for forty five minutes. I will make it to my favorite spin class at 12.30. I will slow down and not rush. I will single task. I will resist the temptation to schedule more appointments, or make up new activities. I will pay attention to my steps. I will taste the food that I eat. 

Today, I am giving myself the greatest gift. Creating the conditions to practice mindfulness. For a whole day.

And I feel immense gratitude for the privilege of being able to control my own work schedule.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Notes From Facebook Compassion Research Day

Here are my raw notes from day spent at Facebook, focusing on fascinating presentation from  Dacher Keltner, researcher and evolutionary psychologist from UC Berkeley, Greater Good Science Center.

Sympathy Breakthroughs:
  • Jonathan Glover, Humanity
  • 75% of soldiers refuse to shoot at enemy
Principles of the spread of compassion:
  • emergence of care-giving system
  • reliable identification
  • contagious compassion
  • it pays to be good
  • from gene to meme
Signals of compassion:
  • a reliable signal of compassion: it's not in the face
  • the vocal register of compassion: amusement, awe, compassion, enthusiasm, interest communicated through voice
Self-less genes

Viral goodness: the spread of compassion
  • neonate distress cries
  • emotional, physiological convergence in friends
  • compassion inspires elevation
  • generosity spreads through networks (Fowler & Cristakis)
  • altruism increased in altruistic clusters
  • collective joys
Tactile contact: the first language of compassion
  • human skin is largest organ that gathers all kind of social information
  • touch: rewards, builds trust, signals safety, soothes
  • UC Berkeley study on emotion and touch: correct label, were able to identify emotion that was intended through touch
  • coding touch
  • women misread men's compassion signals through touch
  • men miss women's anger signals through touch
Vagal superstars:
  • richer friendship networks
  • more sympathetitc prosocial children
  • trusted more in interactions with strangers
Compassion deficits in US children: empathy has dropped, narcissism has risen

Making compassion a meme, a sticky idea:
  • oliners and rescuers
  • reading compassionate words like "hug" makes people more altruistic, less prejudiced toward outgroups
Competitive compassion:
  • compassion as a basis of status
  • reputation
Awe and the sacred:
  • transcendent experiences of beauty give people a sense of common humanity
  • experiences of awe trigger activation in the vagus nerve
  • experiences of awe trigger altruism, compassion
A compassionate, cooperative future:
  • Pinker and the rise of cooperation, compassion
  • Wright and the rise of nonzero relations
  • cooperation fares better than competition
  • the wisdom of the tit-for-tat (Axelrod, 1984): cooperates, forgives, not envious, strong
(I especially resonated with the parts about touch and voice. In my work with the dying and persons with dementia, I have found both touch and voice to be the primary channels for relatedness and also vehicles for expression of compassion.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More Good Stuff

Many seeds, planted over the year,
and diligently fertilized with lots of work.
Have brought many fruit, ripe for the picking,
and much pleasure to be had.
Something else being born also,
that's not so pleasant.
The pain of grasping, for more good stuff.
Sitting, walking, driving, lying down,  I can feel
the burning from holding too tight.
Mind is on a roll and cannot easily let go.
Hardly a part of the body left untouched
by the gluttony of the hungry ghost.
Feet and hands offer a bit of rest
Breath too close to fire in the belly,
for comfort. There is only one thing to do,
to convince the mind, and the flesh.
Sensing, seeing the misery up close,
and slowly, relaxing the tight grip.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Extreme Loving Kindness Practice

There is a reason why loving kindness of one's enemies is left for last by all who teach loving kindness. It is easy to love dear ones, or the sick, or the old, or the dying, or the generic all encompassing 'all beings'. It is another matter to practice loving kindness towards a person who has done you wrong, one for whom feelings of anger and spite are still brewing within the heart. 

Lately my mind has been populated with thoughts about one who has hurt me and many others. I have watched the many movies in my mind about him, and things he has done, and the wrong acts I imagine him perpetuating still. I do not like those movies. I want to change the channel, and I realize that besides sitting and waiting for the thoughts to dissolve under the laser beam of mindfulness, I ought to make use of another more active practice. I call it extreme loving kindness practice. A blend of good intentions, mindfulness, concentration, and investigation. 

Sitting, I give the mind a chance to watch the mind unleashed, and its effects on my whole being. I get to see anger, outrage, and fantasies of revenge do their work. Breath squished, stomach knotting, throat and neck tensing, temperature rising . . . and an overall unpleasantness. All brought upon myself. This does not make sense, and I love myself too much to keep it going. Mind gets tired of the same old, bad story. From there, it becomes easy to entertain a new train of thoughts. "May you be at peace, may you be at ease. May you be well, may you be happy." I see my 'friend' and I feel great compassion for his unconsciousness, and I sincerely wish him to become free from his own private hell. Meanwhile, body (my own) starts relaxing, and the mind also. And the energy previously tied up in anger gets freed up for all the good work I need to do. 

Extreme loving kindness, such a practical and beautiful practice. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Living on the Edge

Every moment,
living on the edge
between the misplaced hope
for a pleasing life always,
and the very real possibility of hell,
just like that.

Techtonic shifts,
the earth's does not care
about 'me'.
One day, old age and death
shall come and do their job
When, how, there is
no knowing.

As much as 'I' recoil
at the idea of pain,
there is no protection
to be had.
Each day, plenty of reminders
that fate's got no feelings.

Many brothers and sisters
bleeding, everywhere I turn
I see the anguish in their eyes
and I hear their silent screams
Gone over the edge,
they have, with not a chance
of returning.

I am learning my lesson:
no point in getting carried away
thank you very much
for every sweet moment,
with a grain of salt
'cause that's life.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Out of Five Stars

I tend to visit more plush communities. Yesterday was my first time visiting a nursing home for the poor with dementia. I had been forewarned. "It's a horrible place." There was also the ominous rating in the elevator. 2 out of 5, in huge white bold type. And in case one did not quite get it,  below, an explanation in small print: 'This facility has received two stars out of a maximum of five.'  

Four floors of desolation, and a string of open doors revealing rows of beds, with people in various states of undress. A fat woman waves and says hello from her bed. In the hallways, more older folks, sitting in wheelchairs, waiting, silent. A man with a helmet stares at me. I read the menu posted on the wall and can only imagine what canned fruit at every meal must taste like. Many of the residents are Asian. I wonder when was the last time they had fried rice? I am shown into the activity room and see elders parked around a rectangular table with a well-meaning young aide to watch over them. Markers, crayons, and colored papers strewn across the table. According to my proud host, two people got featured in the city's "Art for Elders" show. Lucky the few ones who can still access their gift of creativity in such dismal surroundings! 

The institution has a color code for each resident. A red dot means "that person is really advanced in their dementia . . ." Yellow, not so bad. Green and blue, in between. I can feel my mood darken by the minute. The bleak lighting is of no help. I wonder how long do folks usually stay. "This is a long-term care facility. Usually years." I don't even bother asking the usual questions. How many caregivers per residents? How about medications? I already know the answers. I am done. I just want to leave. 

This is what awaits those who have no money, no family, and a mind that's slipping, and a body to go down with it. 

There's got to be a better way. I am filled with outrage, and the desire to do something. I also turn inwards to look at the depth of my attachments, and the fragility of my happiness, so conditioned by unpredictable outer circumstances.