Tuesday, January 31, 2012

30 Minute Body and Mind Workout

I just discovered a new way to practice mindfulness  . . . 

This one takes place at the Y, on the elliptical machine. And it goes like this:

Set the time for 30 minutes. Pick a strenuous workout. I do 'Intervals', level 12. Hit start, grab the handles, and close your eyes. 

And practice mindfulness, for the whole time.

Focusing on the breath, the intense sensations from body being worked real hard. Body being breathed super fast, in and out, core temperature getting hot, droplets of sweat sliding, down the forehead, the temples, the eyelids, the cheeks, the upper lip, the back of the head, the back of the neck, and vanishing into the chest. Hands touching the handles, shoulders taking turn pushing, then pulling. Feet pressing, legs circling. And the feeling of thoughts trying to squeeze in, and not being given the chance. Same with sounds. Mind's taken by the phenomenon of internal combustion, and can no longer form opinion on bits of conversation, heard and quickly dropped. 

256 calories burnt. Mind completely refreshed. Body hot and happy. All in 30 minutes.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pulling Out Some Weed

This time, I was quicker at noticing the nascent weed.

It rose up, just like that, a few days ago. Just one thought, at first, soon followed by many more in the same 'worry' family. From worry to blame, to anger, to depression, only a short few steps quickly taken. It took me six days to get out of it. It was that strong.

Gil's recent talk on the hindrances was timely. Here are my notes:
It is important to see what can take us away from mindfulness, namely the hindrances. The meaning of the word 'hinder' is 'to cover over'. The challenge is in noticing when we are about to get caught and in not picking up the hindrance. There lies the possibility for release and freedom. 
We need to cultivate such moment, so that we can understand how we get caught.
The five hindrances:
sensual desire
ill will or aversion - to attack, blame, push away, not want, destroy
sloth and torpor - dull, sinking mind, depression, a response to aversion
restlessness and remorse
All universal tendencies that should not be taken personally. When we encounter them, we can tell ourselves, great, I get to study it. This way we understand our humanity. We can release ourselves little by little by stepping back and not getting caught. The hindrances can be seen as five unhealthy strategies we adopt when we are uncomfortable. The danger is in loosing ourselves if we focus on the object. The movement of mindfulness is to turn our attention to what it feels to be desiring or aversive. We can become aware of the cost of the anger to ourselves. Some times, looking is counter indicated if it triggers more agitation, more desire, more aversion. With aversion, we then practice loving kindness. With desire, we use our imagination as antidote, seeing the undesirable qualities of the object. With sloth and torpor, we don't give in, we study what it feels like. With restlessness, we make the radical move to sit still. With doubt, the most dangerous of all because so pernicious, we need to be extra vigilant.
This week, I felt the full power of the hindrances marching in pack, as they often do. And it was quite humbling, to say the least. The mind has ways of convincing itself that it is right, when it is indeed wrong. The mind has trouble owning one's troubles, and wants to put it 'out there', in this case, one person. 

Many weeds that keep growing back, and the constant job required of tending one's inner garden. 

How many weeds in your garden? 

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Space Between

While spinning, I am very aware of the times when things become unpleasant . . . 

Another request from the instructor to turn the knob one more notch. Another long climb. Another song, not on my list of favorites. It does not take much for the mind to start its habitual number. "Oh, no, this is tough, I don't like it, I can't wait for more fun moments." Throat and stomach tighten, and off I am thinking about work awaiting at home, or the next trip to Paris, or last night's dream, etc. Anything but right now. 
The teaching of dependent arising [. . .] shows us the cause and effect that exist within and outside of us. [. . .] Within that cycle there is one doorway through which we can step out, namely, the space between feeling and craving. All the other steps of dependent arising are automatic causes and effects. Unless we learn to live with unpleasant and pleasant feelings, without wanting to get rid of the one or keeping and renewing the other, we don't have access to that doorway - we continue to circle in samsara over and over again. Our training leads us to equanimity as the pinnacle of all emotions, so that our feelings no longer get the better of us. As long as we are victims of our feelings and our emotions, we are not really free. 
~ Ayya Khema, in When the Iron Eagle Flies ~

"Getting ready to head back to the Y." Joel signals the sweet ending of his class. Mind sighs with relief, at the well earned pleasure of  taking it easy after a hard class. Precarious happiness . . . 

Each time, an opportunity to practice stepping out through the doorway, the space between feeling, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and craving or aversion. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Uppers and Downers for the Heart

Twice lately, I came across stories that uplifted my heart.

The first one is about SOIL, a nonprofit organization led by a young Stanford grad, Sasha Kramer who  is helping solve some of the most pressing problems facing the people of Haiti, with one simple initiative: compostable toilets.

The second one features Dan Sudran, the founder of the Mission Science Workshop in San Francisco. Moved by his love of science and the will to make a difference, Dan developed a grassroot science education organization now serving over 250 city children every week. 

Each time, same expansion felt in the heart, and a great gladness that steadies me in my resolution to continue with my own work.

Uppers for the heart, I call them.

The heart, such a fragile organ . . . It does not take much for the tide to turn either way, up or down.

Down my heart goes whenever I let mind linger into stories that do me no good. 

Several times during the day, I catch myself thinking of a man whose repeated misdeeds continue to run havoc in a community. Although I have removed myself from the situation, there are still ripples to be felt from that person's actions. And each time, the danger of heart contracting in anger and fear. The mind has this malicious tendency of wanting to linger in filth. 

If not that man, another one also triggers me to go down a downward path despite all my good intentions. It does not take much. The mind grabs on to a few words, and off it goes. Once down, it takes a lot of mindfulness and will power to extract oneself from the pit. 

Up or down, which way do you want your heart to go? 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Not Born Equals With Feelings

What is the one thing:

that precipitates us 
into reacting right away
rather than pause, and respond?

that makes it hard for us to sit 
more than a few minutes 
before leaving our seat?

that causes us to bypass the present
and escape instead, into the future
or memories from the past?

that drives us to anesthetize ourselves
into oblivion, with alcohol, pot,
shopping, work, sex . . . ?

that puts us at odds 
with the person closest to us,
i.e. ourselves?

That one thing is our difficulty in tolerating feelings, particularly difficult of painful ones. We are naturally wired to shy away from physical and emotional pain. And we are addicted to pleasure. 

We are all born with different levels of feelings tolerance. Some of us rush to pain pills, others are more able to stay with unpleasantness of all sorts. I am somewhat in the middle. 

Of course, feeling tolerance can be cultivated. One sitting at a time, we can practice meeting the inevitable suffering that is part of life. Each day a little more. Each second, acknowledging the pain and staying with it enough to witness our resistance to it, relaxing ever so slightly around the tightness . . . before we turn away, and distract ourselves.

Where do you stand on the feelings tolerance continuum? 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Five Ways With Suffering

Nobody likes suffering, and yet life is suffering. Knowing how one is with it is of the utmost importance. Ayya Khema - in Being Nobody, Going Nowhere - tells us there are five ways to be with what pains us. And only one makes sense.

Here are the five ways that we react to suffering:
The first and common way is to blame someone else. That's the easy way. Everybody plays that game and it's childish.
Yes, I do. And the dangerous thing is how convincing the mind can be at tricking one in thinking how right one is in that game. To guard myself, I have learned to wait a while before taking action based on any such type of thought.
The second way of reacting to pain and dissatisfaction is to become depressed and get bogged down by it, indulging in unhappiness.
Oh! the power of a dark mood . . . I go there quite often also, although less so than I used to. To get out of it, I know of no better remedy than to remind myself that something is amiss in the mind. 'Another self-created mind state to be dealt with, right there'. Feeling the sensations in each foot, each hand. Or resting the awareness in each breath. Or practicing loving kindness. Purifying the mind.  
The third reaction is being sorry for oneself, having the idea that one has all the suffering in the world. Nobody else has anything comparable, which is obviously untrue. When one is feeling sorry for oneself, one also expects others to commiserate. It doesn't work. Nothing is learned. Nothing is gained. On the contrary, one becomes a burden to others. 
Another miserable and familiar place. Comparing mind looks around and pretty soon, I find myself wishing I had a different life altogether. A different family. A different house. A different body. More of this, less of that . . . Anything but this moment, this place. Sure recipe for unhappiness. From there to whining, of course, only a short step that I have often quickly made. Many afternoon coffees, I have spent whining to my girlfriends, and listening to their complaints. Chatter, chatter . . . 
Another way of reacting to suffering is to grit one's teeth, suppress emotions, and pretend it hasn't happened. That too doesn't work, because pretending never works. 
So subtle, so devious, that one. And imbued with self-loaded pride. 'I have made peace', I tell myself. Sure, I miss her, but there is nothing I can do. She's got to do what she has to do. It would be wrong for me to cling. Of course, I have closed the door a bit too fast on bruised heart filled with grief. Layers need to be peeled, one by one.  
There is a fifth method, and that is looking suffering squarely in the face and saying, "Aha. My old friend's here again. What am I supposed to learn this time?" That is right view. Then we have really understood why the human realm is the best realm for enlightenment. Suffering is our best teacher because it hangs on to us and keeps us in its grip until we have learned that particular lesson. Only then does suffering let go. If we haven't learned our lesson, we can be quite sure that the same lesson is going to come again, because life is nothing but an adult education class. If we don't pass the subjects, we just have to sit the examination again. Whatever lesson we have missed, we'll get it again. That's why we find ourselves reacting to similar situations in similar ways many times. However, a time does come when we notice this, and the right view arises, "I've got to do something about myself. I'm having the same problem over and over again."
Every moment, a teaching moment. Looked at from that perspective, life becomes less scary, and a lot more interesting. I just went through a long cycle of such 'going around again' and came really close to making another blunder. Only the awareness of the negative karmic results from my prior actions during the first time around, kept me safe. That's one more lesson learned. 

Which are your ways with suffering? 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Old Bags of Bones

I laughed so hard reading Susannah Bianchi's article in the latest issue of More magazine. Susannah talks about what it's like to be a woman of a certain age. Here is a brief excerpt, just to give you a taste:
Just when I got my brows under control, my jaw began to sag. I was stunned. What about all those upward-facing dogs I do, or the series of facial exercises (which, I'll admit, look more like tics) I perform, without fail, every day on the bus? [ . . . ] I did what any other hysterical, hormonally challenged 50-year-old would do: I became possessed. I spent most of my time in front of the mirror on a reconnaissance mission, waiting for the other jaw to drop. Out of nowhere, I seemed to have little satchels under my eyes, and laugh lines when I wasn't laughing. Add these to the occasional hot flash and a vagina as dry as a bran muffin, and I'll show you a weepy woman up on a ledge. I thought of all the ways I could handle aging without actually going under the knife. I could become a recluse like Greta Garbo, buying my groceries at the all-night Food Emporium, or just pack up and move to Japan, where they respect the elderly. ~ 'How George Clooney Saved My Self-Esteem', More, January 2012 ~
You will need to read the whole piece to know how George saved Susannah . . .

I can relate to Susannah's moments in front of the mirror. Not that I spend too much time there. But, yes, I too have had my share of surprises this past year. A few months ago, my previously smooth chin started to show some uncharacteristic bumpiness. Worried about cancer, I rushed to the dermatologist and was told to not worry. "It is just part of aging. Your skin is sagging unevenly, that's what's creating the dimple in your chin". More recently, my left knee has been acting out. A scan revealed a torn meniscus, worn knee cap, and a bit of arthritis. Yes, there is no mistaking the downward slide taken by this body that I call 'mine'.  This body is increasingly feeling like an old bag of bones in need of more and more maintenance. 

Not a big deal really. 

Of course, I have my practice to thank for this relative ease with what is objectively a rather unpleasant process. Without the understanding, and the acceptance of the true nature of this human life, and of impermanence, who knows how I would react?

How do you feel about aging?

Friday, January 6, 2012

It Was Fun, Sort Of

It was fun.

Kailua, walking on the crescent beach every morning.
Waikiki, watching the splendid sunset every evening.
And all the times in between . . .
Red papaya sweetness, ocean breeze softness,
Rainbows here and there,
Nothing to do, only enjoy.

It was fun, and also hard.

Despite all my good intentions,
I was not able to keep up my practice.
One, two, three . . . five days went by
without the safety from sitting still,
every morning, as I usually do,
back home.

Sure I minded my steps,
and I got in touch with my heart,
often, many emotions I felt.
Grief out of the blue,
followed by contentment
love also, then fear, and restlessness.
The heart did not know which way to go.

Worst of all,
was the diffuse sense
of being estranged from a big chunk
of myself.
Of not really living
life as I should.