Monday, December 31, 2012

Loving Kindness For the New Year

After the retreat with Leigh, I came back in a state of love. That was four months ago, and daily loving kindness practice for two weeks straight had done its work of opening the heart. I came back determined to make loving kindness a part of my daily practice. I kept my promise for a while, and then time, or rather lack of it, and other more mundane preoccupations had the upper hand. The urge to cultivate love in the heart vanished, just like that . . . I continued to sit diligently every day, but only with breath as an object. Not surprisingly, the heart resorted back to its old ways of door closing at the slightest provocation. It does not feel good. 

At the eve of this new year, I wish to be in love again. I want to experience the state of unconditioned love so beautifully articulated by Ayya Khema in her talk about 'Metta'. A love that does not depend on others' love, a love that does not expect to be loved in return, a love that does not discriminate, a love that does not set conditions upon its expression, a love that flows freely out of the heart. 

The good news is that kind of love is not some unattainable goal. I found out during the retreat with Leigh, that love is a simple practice, accessible to anyone willing. To kickstart the process again, I shall start my sitting practice this morning with 15 minutes of guided loving kindness with Ayya Khema. She has many to pick from. My favorite one is the Garden in Your Heart

Join me if you wish, and give yourself and others the gift of love. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

No Way of Escaping

One, two, three, four, and a few more times this past week, I was faced with unpleasantness. It started with a lost piece of luggage, and from there manifested in various ways, some minor, some  not so.  Each time, I heeded Ruth's teaching on vedana:

If you are not aware of the unpleasantness it will snowball and leave the door open for more unpleasantness. If you are aware of the pleasantness, it will also snowball, but in the direction of more pleasantness. Two big reasons to be aware of vedana at all times . . .

I also remembered Rumi:

Don't turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.

That is where the light enters you.

I made it a point to not turn my head, and to keep looking at the bandaged place. And at the same time, I did not go as far as welcoming the unpleasantness with a laugh:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Simply acknowledging the unpleasantness, and leaving it alone. Not turning away, and not embracing either.

Right now, there is unpleasantness, that's all. That is how life is, a constant roller coaster of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and more neutral states. We are all subjected to it, and our only freedom lies in not getting caught up in the angst from such a bumpy ride. 

Whether a suitcase at the mercy of Air France's very imperfect system, a constantly shifting relationship with  mother with Alzheimer's, a long held friendship threatened by cancer, precarious peace at home, a front door that won't open because of a key mistakenly left on the inside, the painful evidence of unreturned love from most dear one, the news of some nasty backstabbing at work . . . in each case, only one way but the recognition of the truth of the fourth remembrance:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. 
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

Setting the bar low. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lost Luggage, Gained Wisdom

A lost luggage, is all it took to show me the fragility of ordinary calmness.

At first, it was easy staying magnanimous. No suitcase showing up at Carrousel 30 at Charles de Gaulle airport was no reason to sweat it. I even joked with the baggage claim lady. My suitcase had not made it in the plane in San Francisco, but had been tracked by the Air France computer. It had been rerouted through Minneapolis, then Amsterdam, and was on its way to Paris. I was assured "It will be delivered later today or tomorrow morning at the latest. Just call this number to check."

Later that night, phone call to the Air France number was met with casual response. "It usually takes 24 hours." No problem, I told myself, it's only a suitcase, and I can wait an extra day. I washed my clothes in the sink, and was glad for the disposable toothbrush provided by Air France. 

The next morning, several phone calls, and the wait turned into 48 hours. My new hat and gloves, my two favorite pants, my precious pashmina shawl, I could not have, at least not until Air France got its act together. I made a quick run to H&M for an extra change of clothes. The suitcase was starting to take up a lot of place in my mind. I found myself getting restless and annoyed.

The day after, more phone calls, and still no luggage. From annoyed, I became frustrated and ranted at the Air France folks for not caring more. I had enough sense to realize the source. Attachment, attachment, attachment was the real cause of my upset. I could use this unpleasant occurrence to investigate the mind's trappings.  Wanting the comfort of being able to use my things as planned, and also mistakenly counting on the permanence of possessions. Both desires trampled by the reality of the lost suitcase.

By the third day it became clear, I better plan for the suitcase not showing up at all. I replaced my whole wardrobe. Some of the restlessness was still there, but not enough to spoil my time in Paris any longer. The mind was starting to relinquish its grasp on the idea of 'my suitcase'.

Six days later, the suitcase has not yet appeared. We are going back home tomorrow, and I have reconciled with the idea of my luggage lost maybe for good. Little time gets wasted thinking, agitating about the suitcase. A quick phone call to Air France this morning, that's all.

How much the mind adds to life's unavoidable unpleasantness!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Safety of Mindfulness

As I get ready to fly to France to go visit my mother, the word 'safety' keeps popping up in my mind. 

A note from my daughter on the kitchen table wishing me safe travels.

The horrific story of the Sandy Brooks shooting, and the shattered sense of safety it has re-awakened in our collective consciousness.

Safety as in loving kindness prayer:

May I be safe
May I be at peace
May I be at ease
etc . . . 

And last, and most importantly, the safety to be found in mindfulness practice.

Wherever I am, wherever I go, and regardless of external circumstances, dwelling in awareness is the ultimate refuge and protection from mind's troubled waters and from the unsatisfactoriness of an unpredictable world. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Body Can't Abide, Not Yet

I have been walking
on the edge of possibility.
To continue to grab,
as I have
Or to let go
of the painful grip?
The mind sees,
but the body can't abide,
or at least not yet.
Right now, it is just breath
and the evidence
of the power of mind's habits.
Nothing to do,
but watch with loving patience
and trust in mindfulness.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sticky Thoughts and Mindfulness Practice

Sitting, meditating on the breath, or the body, or another object, one gets a chance to become intimate with the mind. Sometimes, all is well, and there is peace, and moments of total ease with the present moment. More often, though, the mind is playing one of its favorite numbers, either wandering, or perseverating with troubling thoughts. The latter is the most difficult to deal with, and requires another medicine besides meditation.

Adapted from the root teaching on The Removal of Distracting Thoughts, are some clear instructions:

We are to reflect on the distracting thoughts. This is a different activity than meditation, and one that complements it. This reflection follows a five step process.

1) Substitution
When unskillful thoughts arise, one should, in order to get rid of them, reflect on a different object which is connected with skillful thoughts. For example, if one is overcome with thoughts of self-loathing, one can try to practice loving kindness, wishing oneself well. 

2) Reflection on cause and effect 
If the unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should ponder on the disadvantages of unskillful thoughts. What effect do these thoughts have on me? How much misery is created as a result? How does it feel in the body, and in the mind? 

3) Distraction
If the unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should endeavor to turn one's attention and reflection away from those thoughts. 

4) Investigation of the source
If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should reflect on the removal of the (thought) source of those unskillful thoughts. 

5) Forceful removal
If unskillful thoughts continue to arise, one should restrain, subdue and beat down the negative mind with the good mind. 

Closer to us, contemporary Vipassana teachers are dispensing similar teachings.

From U Tejaniya, in Awareness Alone is Not Enough, a teaching about difficult emotions that can also be applied to unskillful thoughts:

When trying to deal with an emotion you can ask yourself  four questions. 
1) First question: “When I am having this emotion, does it make my body and mind feel good or bad?” Does it feel pleasant or unpleasant? If you recognize the emotion every time it arises, and also recognize whether it feels pleasant or unpleasant in body and mind, the mind will start wondering whether it is worth having this emotion. Eventually your mind will realize that it does not have to live with this emotion. Once you know that something does not feel good, are you just going to keep indulging in it?
2) Second question: “What is the emotion about, what is it directed towards?” 
3) Third question: “Why am I having this emotion?” 
4) Fourth question: “Is having this emotion necessary or unnecessary?”

These questions support the practice because they create interest and encourage us to use our intelligence. The moment we get a real answer, when the mind really sees something, it lets go.

From Ayya Khema, in When the Iron Eagle Flies:

"What you could do at such time would be contemplation. Sit down where nobody will disturb you, and focus on the pain to find out its cause, why it should have arisen. Do not be satisfied with an answer such as "Because so-and-so said something"- that's only the superficial cause of it. That would have been the trigger, but there's no cause for mental pain unless there's something inside oneself that is reacting to that trigger. It is useful first to find the outer trigger, which is probably well known to you. It could be a sense of futility, anxiety about the future - any kind of trigger is possible."

"Then you need to find in yourself the reason for the reaction creating pain. The reason has to be "I don't want it the way it is." There can be no other."

But why don't we like it the way it is? Usually the answer is "Because my ego is not supported." The bottom line of the whole inquiry is always the "ego", but it's useless to say, "I know it is my ego" and then continue to have the pain. It is useful , however, to go through the whole process of the trigger, the personal reaction, the inquiry into the cause of the reaction and then the understanding that the reaction is our dukkha and not the trigger. I have a formula: "Don't blame the trigger." Never let the mind stay with the trigger; always investigate what and who is reacting. Unless we find the reaction to the trigger in ourselves, we are going to repeat the same performance with the same result over and over again, like a preprogrammed computer printout. Press the same buttons and the same printout appears, until we finally realize that it is nothing but a button being pressed, and that we don't have to have the same printout. We are in a position to be able to stop ourselves.

In the beginning that may be painful because we have to look at ourselves in a new way. We need no have this exaggerated idea of our own worth, nor do we need an exaggerated idea of our nonworth. We can learn just to accept the way things are. Sitting on the pillow at such a time is very good, but trying to meditate is often useless; contemplate instead. The subject of the contemplation is to be: "The cause of mental pain."

And also:

Some [feelings] are pleasant, some are unpleasant, some are neutral, but our reactions don't have to be preplanned, impulsive, instinctive. We can look at them with mindfulness and put the brakes on. Substitution is much easier than just dropping what is in the mind. Although dropping is the perfect way to get rid of clinging, it is more difficult because it is a letting-go aspect. In the beginning, substitution is a necessary response . . . When aversion, rejection, resistance, anger, jealousy, pride, greed, or craving arise within, we can take a moment to look at them mindfully. When we recognize their burdensome impact on us, we understand that we need not continue to let them exist. We can substitute compassion, or the idea that they are not important, or the understanding of impermanence, or corelessness. This is particularly true of anger, which makes life so very unpleasant for oneself and others. When we get angry with a person, we can ask ourselves first of all, "What am I getting angry at? Is it the hair, the nose, the eyes, or what? Am I getting angry at his words? If it is really unpleasant speech, it means the other person is unhappy. "Why should I get angry, then? Why can't I be compassionate?" If we can change our anger to compassion, we will feel good, the other person will feel good, and we will have taken a step forward on our spiritual path.

From Gil Fronsdal:

By sorting through the unwholesome and the wholesome, we can choose to cultivate the wholesome and let go of the unwholesome. If you feel an inclination to be generous, for example, you can choose to water the seed of generosity by following through on that inclination. You may be able to distinguish mean-spirited feelings and choose to let them go. With enough mindfulness and investigation, you can even choose which thoughts to pursue and which to drop. You may be able to recognize when you are thinking along unwholesome lines and choose to think about something more useful.

Since greed and aversion are deeply grounded, they do not yield easily; however, the work of overcoming them is not impossible if an effective strategy is employed. The path devised by the Buddha makes use of an indirect approach: it proceeds by tackling the thoughts to which these defilements give rise. Greed and aversion surface in the form of thoughts, and thus can be eroded by a process of "thought substitution," by replacing them with the thoughts opposed to them. The intention of renunciation provides the remedy to greed. Greed comes to manifestation in thoughts of desire — as sensual, acquisitive, and possessive thoughts. Thoughts of renunciation spring from the wholesome root of non-greed, which they activate whenever they are cultivated. Since contrary thoughts cannot coexist, when thoughts of renunciation are roused, they dislodge thoughts of desire, thus causing non-greed to replace greed. Similarly, the intentions of good will and harmlessness offer the antidote to aversion. Aversion comes to manifestation either in thoughts of ill will — as angry, hostile, or resentful thoughts; or in thoughts of harming — as the impulses to cruelty, aggression, and destruction. Thoughts of good will counter the former outflow of aversion, thoughts of harmlessness the latter outflow, in this way excising the unwholesome root of aversion itself.

Last, borrowing from the Vipassana tradition, and adapted for the Western psychology culture, are cognitive approaches to dysfunctional thoughts, that are now commonly used to treat depression. Cognitive therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) recognize the importance of becoming aware of negative thought patterns and approaching them in a way that loosens their grip, eventually leading to more skillful mind habits.