Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Limit Love?

Today, I visited a very old woman.
I thought she was a man at first.
Age does that, obliterates all traces
of vanity and feminine glory.
A big, oozing wart on her cheek
kept drawing my gaze, hypnotic,
and in my heart, disgust surged.
She reached out for my hand.
Right next to my not liking, love arose,
awakened by hers. She smiled.
"Have you had lunch?"
In her mind, I was her daughter.
I flashed back on my own mother
who died two months ago.
And decided right there, why limit love?
I could become a daughter again,
if only for that moment.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Loving Kindness and Compassion

Loving kindness and compassion both originate in the heart. Both evoke a warm, fuzzy feeling. And each tends to be confused for the other, and vice versa. 

Loving kindness, or metta, or unconditional love is the practice of generating love in one's heart towards all people, regardless of how lovable they are.
Far enemy: hate
Near enemy: attachment

Compassion, or karuna, arises when we feel sorry with someone. We feel their suffering. It starts with feeling compassion for our own suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of one's own life. 
Far enemy: cruelty
Near enemy: pity (feeling sorry for the other person)

While different, I find those two inclinations of the heart to be intimately related. Loving kindness practice naturally leads towards feeling compassion, and compassion for self and others facilitates the openness of the heart needed to feel loving kindness.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Clearing the Mind

Wherever I go, wherever I am, here it is, the hindrance of anxiety. The discomfort has been enough to make me want to figure out what to do with it. I have remembered Mingyur Rinpoche's teaching about turning the panic into the object of one's meditation. In between breaths, seeing the beast, and letting myself feel its whole effect on body, heart, and mind. Becoming further convinced of its invasive nature. I know I am holding the tiger by its tail, and I take heart. Sitting some more, I find two other hindrances trailing not far behind. Anger seems to be the source of the restlessness, and underneath the anger, desire for some guarantee of pleasantness. Hindrances often come in a pack . . .

Hindrances are part of the ordinary human experience. Our freedom lies in our ability to recognize them for what they really are, as opposed to falling prey to their deceiving ways. The mindfulness tradition provides us with a method for removing the hindrances:

1) Have a sense that the hindrance is an unbeneficial state of mind, e.g, I need not worry if there is nothing I can objectively do about the object of the worry. 
2) Separate the object of the hindrance from the hindrance itself, e.g, the problem is not the object of my worry, but the worrying itself. 
3) Let go of the negative thoughts that accompany the hindrance.  

To remove hindering thoughts, we are to follow the following sequence - from The Removal of Distracting Thoughts

1) Change the object of our thoughts to one that is skillful. Loving kindness is one such practice. We orient the mind and heart towards love. 
2) If still hindering thoughts, contemplate the drawbacks of those thoughts, particularly their effect in terms of stress on our body and mind. 
3) If still hindering thoughts, shift to ignoring the thoughts.
4) If still hindering thoughts, relax the fabrication of those thoughts. 
5) If still hindering thoughts, say a firm no to the thoughts. 

When feeling anger toward a person, we learn to subdue our anger, by practicing one of those five ways - from Subduing Hatred
1) Develop good will for the other person
2) Develop compassion for the other person
3) Develop equanimity toward the other person
4) Pay no attention to the person
5) Contemplate fact that the person is the in-heritant of his own karma

Other instructions aim at the same thing, namely to focus on the good qualities of the other person, and to realize our lack of control over another person's actions. 

In the end, letting go of the hindrances is the result of clearly seeing their detrimental impact on our own mental health, and of using skillful strategies to remove the disturbing thoughts at the root of the hindrances. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The First Day of Your Life

Ayya Khema asks us to contemplate:

"Think about today as the first day of your life. How do you want to live the remainder of your life? What changes do you need to make?"

I have been pondering that question.

The past is past and cannot be undone. At best, I can learn from it. I can view today as a chance to start anew, with mindfulness and acquired wisdom as my best allies. 

The more I age, the more life feels precious. Each day, each hour, each minute, each moment, a new gift that is not to be wasted with wrong action, wrong speech, wrong thoughts. There are long run decisions to be taken, and micro ones to be made every day. 

Doing the right thing requires seeing clearly within ourselves. Mindfulness can help shed some light, but it is not always enough. We need to stop, and probe deeply within. Armed with paper and pen, we can sit and reflect back on unhelpful patterns. Do we feel un-ease? Where does it come from? Can it be helped with changes within, or do we need to take action outside? What is in our control, and what is not?

We need to ask the big questions:

Which company do I want to keep?

Pema Chodron talks about the difficult ones as our teachers. Similarly, Ruth Denison often talks about her difficult relationship with her husband and how being his wife was a part of her spiritual path. Ayya Khema urges us to be careful and not haste to place the blame outside of ourselves. We are not perfect, and we need to first look inward before attributing our unhappiness to someone else's actions. I keep their advice in mind. I also remember the Buddha's admonition to only have noble friends. The Buddha is very clear on that matter:

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. 

We are to keep company with those who encourage us on the spiritual path, in whichever form that may takes.

Next is, which work do I want to devote myself to?

I have the good fortune of having found work that incorporates mindfulness practice, service, and creativity while at the same time allowing me to make a living. Of course, the danger exists of perverting the purity of the initial intention. Wanting more money, more prestige, more self-gratification. Looking around, I am reminded that  outer claims to 'mindfulness' and to serving a higher cause, are no guarantee. Always, going back within to check. What are my motives? Am I being honest? Has greed arisen?

Last, the most important question.

If practice is the most important thing, am I making enough room for it? And if not, why?

I had planned to go on a two-week retreat this coming week. I ended up canceling. It did not seem wise to leave in the midst of so many important work projects. I promised myself that I would reschedule and retreat in September instead. I rationalized that practice can take place anywhere. I could sit longer every day, redouble my effort to bring mindfulness in my daily activities. I could listen to more dharma talks. I could attend mini-retreats here and there. Being a lay person is not easy on practice. Distractions and good reasons abound, that take one away from inner freedom.

Three questions worth asking ourselves. How would you answer them?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Just Do It!

Every day, same thing. The mind looks for excuses:

I need some tea.
I am just going to check my emails, quick.
I am not quite awake yet.
I am too restless.
I had a long sitting yesterday.
I am too tired.
I am feeling under the weather.
I don't have time.
I am going to sleep for a few more minutes.
I will practice later.
I am hungry, I need to have breakfast.
I don't feel like it now.
One day off is ok.
. . . 

The mind is clever when the time comes to sit. Every day, seeing the mind's tricks for what they are, hindrances to practice.

Every day, telling the mind, "Just do it!", and quickly going to my seat. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Peeling the Onion

Not self has been my favorite entry door into mindfulness practice. I know it is different for everyone. Others connect more with the characteristic of suffering. And yet others use impermanence as their primary source of insight. 

Today, sitting in the midst of turbulences, I could see clearly the importance of bringing the mind back over and over again on the immediate experience of breath, and unpleasantness, and aversion. Not adding more suffering with  extra thoughts about 'I'. Eventually, mind grew more calm.

Ayya Khema has this to say about not self, or rather corelessness as she calls it:

"Why are we practicing? To find freedom within. Our lack of freedom arises because there is pressure, stress, dissatisfaction, wishes, hopes, plans. There is the idea of becoming different from what one is. All these ideas put pressure on ourselves and we often (mistakenly) think that pressure comes from outside. We can never come to the end of our desires. They keep on arising. But we can come to an end of desires by first reducing, and then eliminating them. The self as we ordinarily see it is like an onion. Try to peel off the identifications. See who I think I am. See what's left after peeling off. See that there is someone that knows what's left after peeling off 15, 16 identifications. Who is this knower? Usually the last bastion that we hang on to, that is totally unreliable. That knower most often knows nothing, or knows the wrong thing, or is very unreliable. Where is this knower? Certainly not in the big toe . . . Most likely in the mind. Does it have a definite seat there? Does it have a solid entity or is it a mental formation? We cannot say who knows, but what knows. We make up an image that we call me. How did we get the idea that this thing that's sitting on the pillow that's the body is called me. That's a mental formation. Why would we want to change that mental formation? Because we notice 'me' is the source of all our problems. No 'I', no problem." 

An ongoing process of dis-identification. Letting go of the compulsion of mind to form self-thoughts.