Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Mind Curator

Dwelling in one's mind and heart,
one gets to be a curator of the space within.

Sifting through the constant influx of thoughts,
checking for quality. This, yes. That, no.
And so on . . . constantly watching.
Swiftly discarding that which might blemish 
the otherwise pristine blank walls.
Taking the time to appreciate the occasional treasure,
and giving it the space it justly deserves.

Same with probing the heart, acknowledging
each visitor. Then deciding whom to welcome,
and whom to usher out the door. And how to go about it.
Wide open love, compassion, rejoicing, and peace
are equally welcome to stay. Not so anger, craving,
and their cohort of other disruptive accomplices.
Even so, being patient, and understanding.

The mind curator never gets to rest.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Top 5 Regrets of the Living

A dear friend died yesterday, someone I was supposed to do a project with. As always, the news of death rings the alarm for those of us still living. We may ask, am I living my life well?

For answers, let us turn to those at the end of life. These are the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying:
  1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
  3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
No need to wait for the end to become wise. Looking back on my life, I have my own list of regrets, mistakes made along the way that I wish to not repeat. Here it is:
  1. I wish I had spent less time in fear
  2. I wish I had spent less time in anger
  3. I wish I had been more wise in some of my choices
  4. I wish I had discovered mindfulness earlier
  5. I wish I had understood loving kindness earlier
What is your list?

Friday, August 16, 2013

How to Be With the Breath

U Pandita says to watch the abdomen rise and fall:

Now place your attention at the belly, at the abdomen. Breathe normally, not forcing your breathing, neither slowing it down nor hastening it, just a natural breath. You will become aware of certain sensations as you breathe in and the abdomen rises, as you breathe out and the abdomen falls. ~ In This Very Life ~

Ayya Khema instructs us to pay attention to the nostrils:

This [breath] is ideally experienced at the nostrils. Breath is wind, and as it hits the nostrils, there is feeling. That feeling helps us to focus at this small point. ~ Being Nobody, Going Nowhere ~

Ajahn Chah is more inclusive:

Simply take note of this path of the breath at the nosetip, the chest and the abdomen, then at the abdomen, the chest and the tip of the nose. We take note of these three points in order to make the mind firm, to limit mental activity so that mindfulness and self-awareness can easily arise. When our attention settles on these three points, we can let them go and note the in and out breathing, concentrating solely at the nose-tip or the upper lip, where the air passes on its in and out passage. ~ On Meditation ~
It seems that every teacher have his or her own way with the breath.

I find the Buddha's way to be the one most in accord with my own experience:

He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' 

No need to restrict the field of our investigation with the breath. The natural flow of inhale and exhale touches every part of our body, and we need to embrace it all.

How do you sit with the breath?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Joyful Emotional Contagion

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of presenting to an assembly of Catholic nuns at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California. These women are all doing wonderful work in the world, and it was great sharing with them about mindfulness-based dementia care, and ways that they can use the approach to better serve their ailing sisters and others also dealing with the illness. 

I want to talk about something else though . . .

What struck me, once more, is the powerful impact on oneself, of keeping company with those deeply immersed in the spiritual life. I felt uplifted, literally, and filled with gladness during my whole visit at Mercy Center. This morning, the joy is still there, coursing through my whole body. Emotional contagion is very real. It can go both ways and one needs to guard oneself from toxicity or just plain unconsciousness in one's close networks. Conversely, one is to cultivate friendships with others whose whole life is devoted to the pursuit of inner happiness.  

Again, I ask myself, which company do I want to keep? Which people do I want in my life? Which place do I want to dwell in? Which activities do I want to keep? Which ones to I want to let go of? One very good friend whose life was nearly taken away by cancer, shared the same concern this morning. "I feel that God gave me another lease on life. And I ask myself, am I to continue as before? I know the answer is no. I just need to figure out what to do differently" 

Sure, we want to have compassion for those with dust in their eyes. We want to extend loving kindness to them. And, at the same time we need not, should not seek or maintain their company. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

5 Forgotten Mindfulness Practices With the Body

The body scan as currently taught, is not a part of the traditional teachings. Yet, it has now become the practice of choice for mindfulness of the body. This has gotten me curious. In this post, I would like to review the various mindfulness of the body practices as explained in Mindfulness Immersed in the Body. Here they are, along with my commentaries:

1. First is awareness of breath, body sensations, and tensions in the body:

[He] sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out. "Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.' Or breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.' 

Currently, the awareness of breath practice is most often split from the awareness of sensations in the body as taught in the body scan. Also, many teachers stay clear from any active involvement with areas of tightness in the body. We are told to mostly notice the 'bodily fabrication', and not do anything about it. Here, according to the traditional teachings, the meditator is to use the breath to 'calm' bodily fabrications. I find this more aligned with my experience of the body. Sitting, paying attention to the breath, the attention gets drawn to some discomfort, or pain in a part of the body. I do not fight the distraction, but instead choose to be with it, giving it space to be within each in breath, and letting it dissolve as it may with each out breath. A reminder that mindfulness practice is very much an active practice. It is much more than just sitting . . . 

2. Second is mindfulness of physical activities:

When walking, [he] discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.' Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it. [...] When going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away... when bending & extending his limbs... when carrying his [belongings]... when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring... when urinating & defecating... when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert. 

We are so conditioned to think of mindfulness practice as mostly sitting, or walking. We forget that opportunities for practice are with us at all times. Sitting now at my desk, I can become aware of fingers tapping the keys. Mindfulness is a 24/7 practice, minus the time we spend sleeping.

3. Third is awareness of the repulsiveness of the body:

[He] reflects on this very body from the soles of the feet on up, from the crown of the head on down, surrounded by skin and full of various kinds of unclean things: 'In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.' 

To which I will add the practice of witnessing the results of aging on the body, ours, and that of others. Working with sick, old, and dying folks, I get a chance to see what awaits most of us in the end, if we live long enough. The stench of human feces and urine, all mixed in, in the middle of the night  . . . Youthful beauty, disintegrated, and giving way to an ugly bag of bones. Faces, contorted from pain everywhere in the joints, the organs . . . Minds, gone and struggling to make sense of each moment. We all try so hard to disguise the repulsive nature of our body and the fact that we are walking, defecating machines. 

4. Fourth is awareness of the 4 elements in the body:

[He] contemplates this very body — however it stands, however it is disposed — in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.' 

Standing, I feel the solidity of my feet against the ground beneath. Once mind steps aside, there is only earth element. Taking a shower, I sense the water running down my body, and within, inside the mouth, the viscosity of saliva. Outside, inside, same fluidity. Sick with a fever, I feel fire within. Out and about, the sun warms the outside of my skin. Spinning at the gym, I feel the air from the fan, caressing my face. Meanwhile, the breath comes and goes, inside the nostrils, the chest, the belly. Air all around. The body, our body is not separate from the environment, but instead a different configuration of the four elements. 

5. Fifth is contemplation on the fate of the human body:

As if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground — one day, two days, three days dead — bloated, livid, & festering, he applies it to this very body, 'This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate'...

Yes. Today's charnel grounds are to be found in hospices and nursing homes. Tending the dying, we get to see what happens to the body after death. We may want to beautify corpses, and make them look as if life had not left. That is missing out on the opportunity to contemplate the profound truth of impermanence as it relates to the body. 

Which of these five practices do you feel most inclined to take on?