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Living Simply…Simply Living? April 28, 2012

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The other night I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a local discussion group/ meet-up called a conversation cafe organized by the university and held at a downtown coffee shop/ art gallery. The theme of the talk was “Can we live more simply?”, and as soon as I saw the title I knew this was something I would find worthwhile. I would certainly say it was one of the best events I’ve ever attended!

The main premise of the talk was for people to get together and talk about living more simply, whatever that means to them, how we might be able to do that, as well as why we should be doing it. For some people, living more simply meant giving up activities or objects (vehicles, technology, TV shows, always having the newest things), for others it meant doing other activities they never did before (getting to know their neighbours, making things yourself, visiting local tourist attractions).

I noticed during the talk that some of what was said by other people actually touched on very Buddhist concepts, or concepts that coincided with meditation. For instance:

– one woman described how much she enjoyed travelling in her youth, where she didn’t carry a cell phone or laptop with her. She described how enjoyable it was just to be by herself, with herself,  and not have any major distractions taking her attention away. To me this is similar to meditation and Buddhism because there is an emphasis on solitude and taking the time to pay attention to yourself without distractions.

– someone talked about how they saw that other people seem to be consuming or acquiring objects in order to fill a hole inside of themselves using external objects, instead of trying to find satisfaction internally. They also described how consuming can be a way to avoid having to face questions that can actually be quite scary, such as what is the purpose of my life, or why am I here? I think that meditation is a technique used to look deeply into the reasons why we are consuming and what satisfaction we get out of it, in order to determine whether those reasons are skillful or unskillful.  And certainly, spiritual practice is a way to address the bigger questions of one’s purpose in life, and meditation helps to do that. I think that a daily meditation practice gets me in touch with those deeper questions a little bit each day, maybe not even directly but indirectly (which might perhaps be better in some ways?).

– the fact that everyone was talking about the objects or activities that they were giving up in order to live more simply addressed the Buddhist principle that dissatisfaction/ suffering is caused by attachment, so letting go of objects and activities is a way to let go of our attachments and relieve our dissatisfaction.

I think another aspect that I really enjoyed about this talk was I got a sense of community, or of a group of people who were similar to me and shared similar values and lifestyles, that were getting together for the same purpose and goal. I really got a lot out of that, and this sense of community and similarity is really important to me. I find that I rarely get to meet many people in my day to day life who share my values of living simply and giving up consumerism and materialism, so it really is a treat for me to meet these types of people.

Most people I meet in meditation groups are much older than me, often middle-aged or retired. It seems that retirement makes having a regular meditation practice a lot easier. Rarely do I get to meet people my age or even younger than 40, so when I do meet someone my age, I really treasure it. The group that had gathered for this event was a mix of younger and older people, with a few people my age and younger (20’s or early 20’s), so it was really great to see that.

Also, this event couldn’t have come at a better time for me, because living simply and having an “alternative” lifestyle is something that has been on my mind since the retreat. I found that on the retreat one of the topics that really came up as the answer to the question, “What gets in the way of my being truly happy?” was feeling pressure to live a life that I didn’t want to live in terms of my lifestyle, my job, and where I live. Lately, I’ve been trying to embrace the vision or dream I have of my ideal lifestyle and really try to make it manifest in reality. It seems that the most important thing I can do is relentlessly search for what makes me truly happy.

So for me, being truly happy is one that allows me to have a lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I see around me as the “norm.” I don’t want to live a commercialized, consumerist, technological lifestyle. I am trying to embrace that as who I am, and live it with confidence that I am able to find what makes me satisfied.

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Happy Listening: Little Big Town – Life Rolls On April 21, 2012

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Life Rolls on by Little Big Town

I don’t know, but I’ve been told
If you ain’t busy livin’, then you’re getting old
That always seemed to make good sense to me

So I’ve been running my whole life
Diving in; never thinking twice
Chasing down what life had in store for me

Ain’t nothing gonna stop this train from moving
Gonna grab hold & keep on singing

La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On
La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On

I don’t know but it seems to me
A chair & the sand & a summer breeze
And a sunset, Man, that’s where I belong
So sit down here right next to me
We’ll toast to love and living free
And watch the tide roll in all night long

As sure as the sun & the moon keep shining
We’ll be here & we’ll be singing

La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On
La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On
Yeah Life Rolls On

As sure as the sun & the moon keep shining
We’ll be here & we’ll be singing

La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On
La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On

And we’ll be singing
La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On
La, La, La, La, La, La, Life Rolls On

Yeah Life Rolls On
Life Rolls On
Yeah Life Rolls On

I don’t know, but I’ve been told
If you ain’t busy livin’, then you’re getting old
That always seemed to make good sense to me

Freedom from a “Career” April 21, 2012

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The other day I was contemplating some of the things that I am attached to: “Can I let go of money? Can I let go of planning? Can I let go of a social life? Can I let go of productivity?” I see how I have been attached to them for a long time and am not sure if I will be completely unattached from them anytime soon.

Later on, I had a spare moment at work where I was finished some of my other duties and had some anxious thoughts about how to spend this time. I had some very anxious and urgent thoughts that I should do some more career research. Lately I have been spending quite a bit of time researching career options, job titles, salaries, and informational interviewing, but I still feel like I have a lot of work to do before I enter the “real world.”

I was able to notice how the thoughts about my career were filling me with quite a bit of impatience, anxiety, and dread. It wasn’t until later, while I was out for a walk or a bike ride outside, that the thought suddenly popped into my mind:

“Can I let go of a ‘career’?”

In my mind, a career represents a certain classification that I fit into based on my years of training, my previous work experience, and a job leading towards some promotion or advancement in a field.

This thought was quite new and quite exhilarating, while at the same time being quite scary. I’m sure it has come up before, but not lately, and not since I have been doing more preparations for applying for jobs. It seemed to give me quite a bit of happiness and peace, because letting go represented freedom.

I think the thought represented freedom because it gives me the freedom to work at whatever interests me. I am not constrained specifically to what I have had training in.

It also gives me the freedom to leave a job I don’t like. For some reason I anticipate this happening because I seem to get bored with subjects I work on easily.

It gives me the freedom from trying to earn a promotion or advancement at a job, where I don’t have to be attached to an outcome. I wouldn’t be working to get a promotion, I would be working just to work.

Finally, I think it gives me the freedom of trying to meet others’ expectations. Fulfilling others’ expectations of me is a surprising one to come up, because I tell myself that I am completely independent in how I arrange my life. Apparently not, because in the back of my mind there is a need to find a good job to impress others.

Of course, freedom from a career also fills me with anxiety and dread, because it might mean I don’t make enough money, I don’t get enough prestige or advance anywhere in my field, and it might mean a lack of job security. In all, I guess I’m not sure what exactly it means, maybe because I’m trying too hard to look into the future.

Maybe its just good to have the idea of freedom in the back of my mind while I am doing my job preparations, just to be able to touch it and feel like there is a way out from this rigid, anxiety-filled activity.

Inner Wisdom April 15, 2012

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The Dharma teacher on the retreat I recently attended said something that really struck home for me and really resonated with me. I believe she was quoting the Buddha when she said, “You are looking for beauty, truth, and goodness everywhere but inside yourself.”

As soon as she said this, I realized for me that it certainly was true as of late. I had been looking for things outside of myself for happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment. “Maybe if I just read the right book or come across the right quote, I will finally be happy. Maybe if I just find the right dharma talk. Maybe if I just rearrange my life to have the most pleasant things happen…”

I see now that this is only going down the wrong path, only feeding craving and desire in me that can never be fulfilled. I see now that to feel truly happy and content I need to come back to myself in the present moment, come home to the breath and the body, and look deeply to see whether I am fostering positivity or negativity in myself.

The sad part is that I feel that, since returning from the retreat, I am leaning more towards seeking fulfillment outside of myself again. I see desire arising in finding pleasurable experiences to make myself happy. I also feel dissatisfied with the practice in that it doesn’t give me immediate joy or happiness, so I am not exerting as much effort to stay mindful and in the present moment.

Something else that I noticed the past few months was that I was feeling more and more constricted and obligated in my practice, where I felt like I had to be doing my meditation in order to be happy. I felt that if at any point I was starting to “slip” in my meditation or things weren’t working out the way I wanted or the way they had in the past, I would be slipping backwards and losing my only route to happiness.

I spoke about this to the Dharma teacher, and she said that instead what I can do is trust in my own inner wisdom to wake up. In other words, I don’t have to make a momentous effort to practice in order to be happy, and I don’t need to add the practice as another burden that keeps me from being content.

Instead, I can trust in my own wish and desire to be happy and free, in my own ability to wake up to the true nature of reality. This is also referred to as “Buddha nature,” where each of us has within us the ability to wake up and become Buddhas.

Nevertheless, I see now that I still need to put in the effort to stay mindful every day, during the day, and to practice skillfully during my sitting meditation. I also need to make the effort to seek out the good things in my life and around me, and to cultivate positive thoughts and feelings in myself.

I had a very vivid, moving experience last week that was a perfect illustration of my inner wisdom inside of me. It was two or three days after returning home from the retreat, and I had spent a full very trying day dealing with a lot of fear that had arisen after trying to get back into my daily life and routine. I came home at the end of the day and sat down for a sitting meditation practice. After a while, all of the fear and pain and despair that I had been dealing with all day started to come up, and I had to face it head on and acknowledge it. Starting to feel quite overwhelmed and upset, I embraced it wholeheartedly with compassion and mindfulness. As soon as I did that, I saw very vividly in my mind a picture of a tiny gem inside my chest that was covered in a dark layer but had tiny streaks of light start to burst out. I saw that this was my inner wisdom trying to be free from suffering and be let out into freedom and lightness, and when I embraced my suffering with compassion, this inner wisdom shone through.

What a vivid and moving experience! I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt this, and it was so amazing and incredibly inspiring. I could put my trust and my faith in this energy and power that was inside of me, instead of seeking the answers outside of myself.

Craving April 13, 2012

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Since I returned from the retreat I have been slowly but steadily working with a lot of things in  my practice. There are quite a few things that were causing suffering for me before the retreat, but I didn’t have the confidence to transform them or work with them. Now I feel like I have a lot more strength and determination to face my suffering and transform it.

One thing that I have been noticing for the past while has been a lot of craving arising and creating a lot of difficulties. First off, I will say that overall, I am pretty health-conscious and have a healthy diet. Nevertheless, I have a…bit?…of a sweet tooth, and can fall into some pretty bad habits of eating sweets. So these past few weeks I have been eating sweets (candies, chocolate bars, cookies, desserts, etc.) at least once a day. It’s not making me terribly unhealthy, but I notice the effect it has on my consciousness. I feel like I am not being kind or gentle to my body or treating it well. I also find a lot of fear and guilt in my mind, not to mention the craving itself, that plants some negative seeds in me.

I remember quite a while ago coming across an article or book excerpt online by Thay that discussed craving specifically. I am so happy I came across this and that my spiritual tradition has teachings like this that are so direct and applicable to my daily life. Thay discussed how craving is not happiness, even though it wants you to believe it will provide satisfaction. When applied to food, this means that the craving is trying to tell me that eating the candy will provide me with satisfaction, when in reality it won’t. I won’t be truly satisfied, but instead it will only feed the craving further, and the craving will come back later. So by giving into the craving, I am only continuing an endless process.

Over the past few days, I have been feeling more and more exasperated with trying to deal with this, and finally have built up the courage to tackle it head-on. I really do see craving as quite a negative mental formation, and not something that I would like to have any more. I have been trying to look deeply into it and see that the craving is made of fear. I am afraid a state of being tempted to have something to satisfy my sweet tooth but not being able to get that satisfaction.

I know how to use my mindfulness techniques to transform craving into more positive states: transform fear into equanimity when I see that these feelings arise, are present briefly, and eventually pass away. All I have to do is tackle the craving head on, face my fears, and fully experience the craving in the moment. I feel like I can do this with the confidence and faith I’ve gained from the retreat.

I know how to do it, the question is can I put these skills and tools to practice in the moment when craving arises?

Lessons from the Retreat April 8, 2012

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This past week I’ve been gently reflecting on my practice, and how I was doing before the retreat. I’ve noticed a couple of changes before and after, and I’m hoping these insights might keep my practice going well for longer.

One thing I noticed that was happening before I went on retreat was that I had gotten quite lazy in my practice, and almost holding onto negative thoughts. I think I had expected some sort of sudden realization or magical phrase that could just snap things into place and make me feel joyful and free. I really don’t think such a thing exists for me right now, and I’m seeing that it takes quite a bit of steady, diligent work to keep my mind in positive places. I noticed this on the retreat where it took quite a bit of mental effort to maintain the energy of mindfulness all day long.

Also, I think one thing that kept me in a negative state of mind was dwelling in a lot of self-judgement about myself in general, but also my practice. I felt disappointed in myself that my practice wasn’t going as well as it had been at other points in my life. I was also overwhelmed by self-judgement and -criticism about myself in general, and I didn’t feel like I had the ability or skill to overcome it, that it had just become my personality, who I was. Now I am determined to steadily, gently, day-by-day become more aware of self-judgement and criticism and work to transform it.

Gratitude is another thing I’m really noticing that has changed since I returned from the retreat. During the retreat, and since I got back, gratitude has started seeping into my daily life and filling me with such warmth and joy. Before the retreat, gratitude would drag me down and pull me into a negative state, where I felt that I was entitled to such basic things as a roof over my head and water to drink. Before, contemplating people in the world who don’t have the basic things that I have would have left me feeling guilty and miserable, and I wanted to avoid those negative thoughts.

I think this was also an example of feeling lazy, and not taking the effort to actively seek out the positive things in my life. I was holding onto the negative things and making them the most important thing in my life. Now I see that it will require some effort to be grateful and appreciate the good things in my life, even if at first inclination I don’t want to. I know that entitlement is not a good place for me to be in.

I remember a quote from Hand Wash Cold where she compares her life to her Zen priest robe, a delicate garment: Hand wash cold, more work than you’d like, but its worth it if you want to keep it.

Staying positive is more work than I would like to take care of my life, but its worth it if I want to keep it.

Happy Listening: Give Yourself To Love April 4, 2012

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Give Yourself To Love by Kate Wolf

(play song on Grooveshark)

Kind friends all gathered ’round, there’s something I would say:
That what brings us together here has blessed us all today.
Love has made a circle that holds us all inside;
Where strangers are as family, loneliness can’t hide.

You must give yourself to love if love is what you’re after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

I’ve walked these mountains in the rain and learned to love the wind;
I’ve been up before the sunrise to watch the day begin.
I always knew I’d find you, though I never did know how;
Like sunshine on a cloudy day, you stand before me now.

So give yourself to love if love is what you’re after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

Love is born in fire; it’s planted like a seed.
Love can’t give you everything, but it gives you what you need.
And love comes when you’re ready, love comes when you’re afraid;
It’ll be your greatest teacher, the best friend you have made.

So give yourself to if love is what you’re after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

Give yourself to love, if love is what you’re after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love, give yourself to love.

5-Day Mindfulness Retreat April 4, 2012

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I recently returned from a 5-day Mindfulness meditation retreat organized through a nearby sangha. The overall experience was amazing, and worth every minute. I’m so grateful that I was able to take the time off my studies and work to go. I returned home feeling refreshed, renewed, energized, and completely fulfilled.

Nevertheless, I did have my difficulties during the retreat. I had only ever attended weekend retreats before, which would amount to two full days (Friday evening to Sunday afternoon). This was my first 5-day retreat, and I had been wanting to attend a longer retreat for some time now. I noticed on the recent weekend retreats that I felt like I was just getting into the practice before I had to go home.

There were about 30 people on the retreat, and most people were quite young, in their 30’s or 40’s, although there were some younger people in their 20’s there as well. I think I was the youngest attendee there, which was a unique experience for me. I really enjoyed the presence of all of the practitioners on the retreat, I think it was one of the most valuable benefits I got out of it.

I currently practice with an Insight meditation group that is mostly middle-aged people or older. Additionally, the group I practice with currently doesn’t have dharma sharing or discussion as part of the weekly group meeting, so I really feel like I lack a sort of emotional connection to the other people there.

It was great to be around amazing people and rely on the support of their collective wisdom and experience. As always, I came home feeling so inspired and supported in the practice, knowing there were so many people that were incorporating the practice into their daily lives.

Five days was a long time to be maintaining mindfulness, although it was quite an easy-going schedule and arranged to be not too intense. I noticed that by about the second day, a lot of difficult emotions and memories were arising, and it took a lot of effort to stay composed and deal with them skilfully. By the end of the retreat, I felt a bit drained by the mental effort to stay mindful and aware, and it took quite a bit of effort to stay in the present moment.

Another part of the retreat that I appreciated so much was having a wonderful teacher there. I had a one-on-one consultation with the teacher, which I have never used before on retreats, and it was so great to ask a question that pertained to my own personal practice. I really valued the personalized response I got.

I gained so many valuable insights on the retreat, but as always, I’ll just have to wait and see how many of them will last once I return home. There was so much to take in I don’t see how I can retain all of it in my memory. Instead I am just trying to relax into it, let things go, and just see whatever skills and insights will come up when I need them the most. I took some notes from the dharma talks and from my own reflection, but not very much, and I’m not going to spend time reading them for a little while.

I am trying to take it easy since I returned home. I feel quite sensitive since I got back, and it seems like taking too much on in my usual everyday life might be overstimulating. I noticed a lot of fears that were brought up on retreat that haven’t quite been resolved, and I’m still dealing with them several days later. I’m just trying to take it slow, one day at a time, and not make a big story out of them.