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Book Review: Beyond Happiness March 22, 2012

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A book I recently finished reading is called Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment by Ezra Bayda. Ezra is a Zen meditation teacher from San Diego. I just happened to stumble across this book at the public library, and have been drawn to Zen these days so I thought I would check it out.

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I really, truly enjoyed the book, every moment of it. I read through it twice to take notes because it was filled with valuable knowledge. I noticed while reading it that I think I have a lot in common with the author, which may explain why it seemed like the book spoke directly to me.

One of the things I loved about the book was it contrasted personal happiness with genuine happiness. Personal happiness is associated with positive emotions, feeling good, satisfying desires, etc., but these fulfillments do not last and are not truly satisfying. Genuine happiness, on the other hand, is being at peace with things as they are, not needing to change anything, regardless of whether you are feeling positive or negative emotions. I loved that the book talked about how personal happiness is only temporary and based on a benevolent environment that supports the state of happiness, while genuine happiness is available to us all the time.

Some practices I picked up in the book that I am trying to implement as much as I can are the practice of breathing into an unpleasant emotion to return to the breath, the physical body, and the immediate surroundings. In particular, I will be trying my best to take the advice to avoid analyzing or intellectualizing why the negative emotions are present as a way to avoid being present with the emotion itself, which is something I’ve noticed happens often if not most of the time.

I particularly appreciated the descriptions of how the thinking, analytical, intellectual mind is a component of the ego, and an aspect of survival that is bent on controlling our world. When we let the minds consume our experience with thinking, the thinking takes over and “shuts life out.” This is something that I found to be completely true for myself.

I also appreciated the criticism of some conventional self-help techniques that are aimed primarily at changing thoughts instead of changing behaviour or cultivating new habits.

Some favourite quotes:

“Genuine happiness is our natural state when all of the things that impede happiness–expectations, judgements, attachments, fears–no longer get in the way.”

“Whenever we seek special experiences to bring us happiness we are caught in striving, in the self-centred pursuit to feel a particular way, which undermines any aspiration to feel our true nature.”

“Formulas for happiness can only give us superficial fixes, they can’t deal with the complexity of human emotion and behaviour.”

“Changing our attitudes works primarily on the mental realm, but real change must address the deeply seated conditioning in the body.”

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Book Review: Women and Zen March 22, 2012

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I just finished two excellent biographies by women authors who also happen to be Zen (Buddhism) practitioners.

The book I first read was called Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America by Natalie Goldberg, who apparently is a well-known author and writing workshop leader. I really enjoyed this book I think in part because I identified with the author quite a bit. She wrote about being introverted during her childhood which led her to do a lot of reading and writing on her own. As a writer, she found herself being quite independent and often alone most of her life. She also spent quite a bit of time in the midwestern U.S. and describes trying to deal with the freezing cold temperatures. In contrast, she ends up moving to the hot, sunny, Arizona desert, and falls in love with the wide open landscape.

One passage I particularly enjoyed was her criticism of “New Age” spirituality and workshops offered by different teachers, which she contrasts with her diligent Zen meditation practice. She describes New Age spirituality as commercialized and consumerized by giving people what they want to hear, but letting them off easy without providing a daily, disciplined practice, which results in people forgetting everything they learn in the workshops and always needing to come back for more.

The book described some very intruiging stories of strange “coincidences” or happenings that couldn’t just be explained by chance. One story I really enjoyed was where she started writing a book about Zen Buddhism and relationships in a restauraunt near her house. She wasn’t sure why she was drawn to that particular restauraunt of all the places she could go to, but just found she could easily do her writing there. Only later did she find out that almost everyone who worked at the restauraunt (servers, cooks, owner, etc.) were Zen practitioners themselves! Crazy!

Another quote I really liked was where she told her teacher that she felt the more she sat (meditated), the more Jewish she became (her parents were Jewish European immigrants to America). Her teacher said, “That makes sense. The more you sit, the more you become who you are.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

The other book I was so happy to come across by chance at the library wasHand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for An Ordinary Life By Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and stay-at-home mother. I had read about this book on the internet recently and didn’t know I would find it on the shelves so soon. The book is basically an autobiography of how the author found Zen Buddhism practice and how it changed her life for the better. I could identify with this author, as well, because she found herself caught up in trying to achieve a perfect professional career, which only ended up in her becoming depressed after her divorce. Also, in the book, she criticized psychology as an option for helping people, because she claims it doesn’t make people end up any different from what got them in trouble in the first place (thinking in order to understand ourselves, and understanding ourselves in order to change the way we think).

A main message of the book is a criticism of the materialism and consumerism of modern society and western culture that makes us always strive for money, social status and achievements and leaves us feeling we have never been able to find our “life.” The message is to value and be satisfied with the simple things in daily life, instead of always trying to achieve something better or become a better person.

It also emphasizes doing things like housework and chores yourself instead of just hiring other people to do them for you (or, as Karen puts it, “outsourcing”). According to the author, doing things yourself is an act of love and care towards yourself and the people close to you. A very intruiging concept that I have been contemplating a lot lately…

And, as always with any book on Zen, there is a huge emphasis on slowing down, stopping, and taking the time to savor life’s daily joys and pleasures. The author contrasts this with her life before Zen, where she viewed time as money and was always trying to cram as many things into as small a space of time as possible.

There you have it, two highly recommended books for anyone interested in biographies, spirituality, or meditation.

Lovingkindness Practice March 15, 2012

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After feeling very burdened by a lot of self-judgement and criticism, I’ve decided to practice lovingkindness meditation. I have tried lovingkindness  on occasion many times but never made it a regular practice. I always wanted to because I’ve always noticed how powerful and effective the practice is when I do get around to doing it.

I had thought about incorporating a daily lovingkindness practice in the evening while doing my regular daily morning mindfulness practice, but never made the time or got into the habit. Now I decided to replace mindfulness meditation with lovingkindness meditation for my morning practice.

Another reason to try it is it was covered in an excellent book I recently read entitled Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment.

So far I have noticed that it is harder to stay concentrated during lovingkindness practice than my (what a surprise!) concentration practice. It is hard fo rme to keep my attention on the prhases, the visualization of the person, and the breath (I recite the phrases with each breath).

Nevertheless, I still find it worthwhile and am determined to continue the practice.

I’ve already noticed after a few sessions that some days the practice can be very powerful, where I feel very strong emotions arise during the session. Other days, I feel nothing or almost nothing. I try not to judge and decide whether it has anything to do with my technique or effort, I am just determined to continue and see what happens.

The Meditation Challenge While on Vacation March 15, 2012

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This past week I noticed was an almost constant state of “nexting”: “What’s next? What’s going to happen?” A state of anticipation, planning, expectation. Its hard not to do this when I am doing things out of the ordinary that are enjoyable and could be anticipated, and I am also trying to make choices about how to best spend time in a short period.

I found it difficult to be present, to be still, to savor and enjoy the moment, without a lot of thoughts about what’s happening next and how to prepare for it. “What’s happening? Who’s all going? When will we live? What should I bring? Will I forget anything?”

This happens often whenever I travel, so I didn’t find it a problem to try not to identify with it. I knew things would return to being more present once I got home.

Another thing that came up during the trip was a whole lot of anxiety. Numerous people have lately told me in person that I look so calm and collected. I tell them I might look that way on the outside but inside be silently struggling with anxiety. That certainly was the case this past week (with the exception of a couple of instances where anyone could visibly see I was not at all collected).

I noticed that the times I was most anxious were when I made a day trip with my relatives, all 10 of them at the most, to somewhere I’d never been before or to do something I’d never done. This was difficult for two reasons:

1) I’m not used to being around other people and coordinating my activities with others. When I spend my days alone or self-directed, I don’t need to do anything according to anyone’s wishes. So if something arises that I have a problem with I don’t need to make anyone else aware of it.

2) When I’m doing something I haven’t done I don’t know what to expect and this causes a lot of fear of the unknown. I don’t know if “something bad” might happen, how to prevent it, or how to do something about it should it arise. In short, I feel out of control, out of my comfort zone of my usual routines and activities.

Another thing I had difficulty with was not judigng or identifying with my experience when anxiety was present. Probably because I’ve had similar experiences of anxiety with most of the same group of people a few times in the past. I noticed a storyline about my anxiety: “This is who I am, this is who I’ve always been in the past, and this is who I will always bein the future. I haven’t been able ot fix it yet so I never will, it is too big for me to handle.”

I can remember at least one time trying to separate the anxiety from the storyline, and was able to notice a sharp difference between the two. I tried to stay with anxiety in the present moment, the emotional reaction, the physical sensations in the body, the way the breath felt. But when the storyline appeared, I was flooded with thoughts and judgements: “Why is this happening? what should i do about it? I also noticed a great deal of shame and fear where I didn’t want others to know what was happening. “They would never understand, they’ve never had to deal with anything like this.”

 

Notes from Vacation March 15, 2012

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Here are a few notes on my practice I took while on vacation in Hawaii in February:

Meditation – sweet, beautiful, enjoyable, much needed relief from dialogue in mind that carries me a long. I can put a stop to it for a moment.

I can feel inside of me the pieces being fitted together, but I don’t know what those pieces are and I don’t know how exacty it works. I feel the energy flowing the way it should—more easily, no blockage.

I can let go. Let go of the body tensions, of the mental stories. And I can let go of my worries and attachments that usually feel so powerful.

Watching: anxiety and then story about anxiety that connects is to a bigger narrative about who I am, who I have “always” been, and who I will “always” be. Versus just anxiety.

Meditation is about being able to know and understand a bit more clearly what is truly fulfilling and satisfying for me versus everyone around me. Not an achieved state but a constant process of self-inquiry. I realize this as I sit on a tropical beach with sailboats and surfers in the background, and old, fat, white people walk across my field of vision. This is a place I’m told should be ultimate, the pinnacle, a sense that I’ve arrived and this is enough and I’ve made it. But it doesn’t seem any more magical than a field of wildflowers on a summer’s evening in East Central Saskatchewan with the birds singing, butterflies flitting about, my dogs chasing after gophers, and the late evening sun creating a band of yellow and pink and blue sky on the horizon.

 

Stuck in the Practice March 3, 2012

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These past few days I have been feeling a little bit stuck in my practice. Something that I have noticed just recently is that, along with many other things in my life, my meditation and spiritual practice is one area where I am judging myself. It has become just another area that I hold expectations of myself for how I should be, and lately I find that I fail to measure up to those expectations.

A few days ago I had a difficult time with feeling very constrained and trapped by an overwhelming amount of my general expectations and self-judgments (not necessarily spiritual). Right now I feel like I need a break from any area of self-judgement, I just need to get away from that as much as I can. Therefore I don’t feel as strong an urge to be diligently practicing sitting meditation or mindfulness in daily life, or to be reading dharma books.

Another reason I don’t want to read dharma books, despite the fact that I have an excellent one out from the library right now, is that I am seeing the limits of knowledge, or dharma books as a source of knowledge. I find that I tend to be overwhelmed by too much knowledge in my mind. I know that knowledge in and of itself isn’t powerful. Knowledge can be present after coming in contact with a source of knowledge, but when it isn’t used, it passes away.

What’s more powerful are skills and techniques. The meditation practice is a technique and a skill that I am developing, and I apply it to my life to see how it works. Thus far it has been working.

Feb 17: Replaying the Past, Anticipating the Future March 3, 2012

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I meditated on campus this morning in a meditation room, and I had just come from some conversations with people I knew. I found that at the start of my sit my mind was still in these conversations, where I was replaying them in my mind and trying to determine if I said the right thing.
I was unable to focus my attention on my breathing for any longer than a few moments during my sit, my mind kept wandering off much too easily. There were just a lot of thoughts wandering through my mind, so I found it almost impossible to get concentrated.
When the bell went off this morning, I was making up a story about my vacation, in particular how this is a rare occasion for me to be going on a tropical vacation, compared to other people I know.
Before I leave today I want to share some thoughts about privacy and disclosure. I am a very private person and find it difficult to disclose any personal information about myself to just about anyone, including my closest friends. For myself, I  recognize how valuable it is when I know that other people share similar experiences with me, and that I am not alone in my difficulties. Something I have been trying to do lately is be more open and honest with close and trusted friends and family, as well as acquaintances.
This writing project has been challenging for me to disclose things in writing I wouldn’t even tell people in person. I’ve really noticed how I am still holding a lot of things back, where something happens but I decide I don’t need to write about it: “People don’t need to hear that.” Let’s just say it has been eye-opening for me to see how much I still am trying to keep things inside! But I do enjoy writing, so maybe with more practice I can get better at sharing my thoughts and experiences for others.

Feb 16: Smiling to Planning Thoughts During Sitting March 3, 2012

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Two more sleeps until a week-long vacation and my sit this morning was filled with planning thoughts. I felt like much of the time I was on alert or on guard, trying to predict future problems or trying to foresee what could go wrong. Despite consciously deciding to try my best to stay concentrated during my sit, these thoughts still were arising. I saw that being in this alert, on guard state is really not pleasant at all. But it seemed there was a part of me that felt I had to be doing it, so it was very hard to let go of this need to plan.

Somehow I managed to slow the thought process down enough to notice these patterns in slow motion: Planning thought arises. Awareness of planning thought. Judging thought arises. Smiling to the self-judgement (“Yep, this is what happens”). Returning to the breath.

I noticed today how much a calm body is so helpful to calm the mind. I can try to concentrate on my breath in order to calm my mind at first, but it isn’t until my body becomes calm and still as well that my mind can start to truly relax. It is as if my mind can’t be calm or still unless the bodily state is corresponding to that. It was a very good illustration of the mind-body connection.

When the bell went off today, I was lost in thoughts about how I value the trait of honesty in others.

I also wanted to mention that the past two previous days I was pushing myself quite hard at work, trying to get as much done as I can before I leave on vacation. Unfortunately, when I got home in the evening, I was too tired from the day’s exertions to do anything else (I usually end up just lying in bed or on the couch, maybe reading). This happens very often for me but somehow I keep trying to push myself during the day. It’s quite unfortunate to see how the rest of the day is unproductive when I am trying to be too productive during the day. Hmm… maybe the problem is being attached to productivity in the first place?

Feb 15: Letting Go of Thoughts March 3, 2012

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It was easy for me to get concentrated and still at the start of my sit this morning, without really trying very hard. After a few minutes, however, my mind started to wander, and I relied on my familiar mindfulness of breathing phrases to come back to my breath.

During my sit, I was caught up in planning another writing project, and it took quite a bit of effort to let to of the thoughts. I could sense how much I was energizing my thinking by getting excited about the project and planning it from all different angles. I had to tell myself that I could let it go and come back to it later.

By the end of my sit I became quite drowsy and was starting to nod off. When the bell went off at the end of my sit, I was trying to figure out why my hand made a random twitch.

Before my sit, I spent some time at the gym and then went for a run on the track. It was nice to go from the noise of the busy gym to the silence of an empty track surrounding an empty gym. I purposefully didn’t bring my music player, so all I could hear was the sound of my breath and my shoes hitting the track.

Later today I went for a walk outside and tried to focus on my steps and the present moment. I wasn’t able to stay in the present for very long before thoughts started arising in my mind and taking me away in stories. Usually I can stay quite mindful of my surroundings when I’m outdoors.

Feb 14: Day of Lovingkindness March 3, 2012

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What a treat today to purposefully do a guided lovingkindness meditation. I don’t often do lovingkindness meditation, as I find it a bit more helpful to be aware of the thoughts that are already occurring in my mind before I try to add more thoughts to the mix.

I decided today would be as good a day as any to practice lovingkindness, so I put on Sharon’s guided lovingkindness meditation. I really enjoyed the guided meditation, and can say I certainly noticed strong feelings of love and warmth arising when I pictured a loved one as the object of my kind wishes.

I will admit, however, that the feelings weren’t nearly as strong when I was directing lovingkindness toward myself, but that is typical for me when I practice lovingkindness. I guess its a sign that I’m the most in need of my own lovingkindness.

I spent the rest of the sit using my own familiar lovingkindness phrases. When I was finished, I didn’t feel quite as calm-minded as I often do after a concentration meditation, but it was still worthwhile. I noticed I felt quite a bit differently as soon as I started interacting with people as I went about my day. I also felt that the lovingkindness was a nice break from the usual self-criticism and self-judgement that was following me around until my sit that morning.

I told my friends that today was my day of lovingkindness proudly, instead of saying happy Valentine’s day. For myself, its important that there is a practice to cultivate love and kind wishes toward all living beings, regardless of whether those living beings are the object of my romantic affections. In a sense, lovingkindness is the boundless, generous love that gives, rather than just transactional love that gives only to receive.