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Review: Peace is Every Breath May 31, 2012

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I recently read the book Peace is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives by Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought the book would be a newer, revised version of Peace is Every Step, a classic which I also own, but instead the book was quite a bit different. I really enjoyed the book because it was very well written and concisely explained in very clear language how to incorporate mindfulness into everyday life.

Thay went over some of the more “simple” practices of mindfulness such as mindful breathing and walking. At the start the practices were presented in such a way to reflect how mindfulness would look in someone’s daily life throughout the day, from waking to eating to working and finally to sleeping.

Thay also included some more practices for dealing with deep suffering, and also presented some important Buddhist teachings. I had come across many of these teachings before, but they were explained in the book in a new fresh way, so I got a lot out of them this time.

I liked that Thay included a lot of things in a small book using excellent clear language. It was well presented to get to the important points without getting lost in too many details.

I found parts of the book very inspiring and confidence-building while reading them. Thay outlined practices for how to deal with difficult situations using mindful breathing:

“With the three jewels protecting you, you have nothing more to fear. In this calm and focused state you will know what action to take to stabilize the situation.”

I was inspired to try my best to practice this in times of stress, instead of letting my mind worry about it and ruminate over a problem to fix it.

Thay also talked about how to take refuge in ourself, as well as how to take care of the present moment in order to not have to worry about anything arising in the future. These instructions made me feel quite solid and firm in my practice because I know it has brought me so many benefits:

“You have a spritual path and you know you’re walking it so you have nothing more to fear.”

I particularly enjoyed some of the sections on how to stay in the present moment. Thay talked about how to pull our mind back after letting it wander into the future, but also to avoid letting the past continue to shape us in the present moment when it no longer exists as a reality.

“Meditation is the practice of living deeply in each moment of life.”

Some other quotes:

“Know how to shake off the worries and live joyfully. This is an art. Practice to let go of unimportant things that don’t bring happiness.”

“We too are flowers. We’ve allowed ourselves to get weighted down by life’s hardships and lost much of our freedom.”

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How I Came to the Practice: Part 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally to Me May 26, 2012

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(How I Came to the Practice is a series I am writing to fully explain the story of how I came to Buddhist meditation–starting at the very beginning! This is part 2, read part 1 – My Christian Roots here.)

To encourage people, I like to assure them that meditation seemed to come quite naturally to me, because I possessed a certain number of factors that are related to meditation. Four areas toward which I was already predisposed, and which are related to meditation, were self-awareness, psychology, solitude, and non-activity.

First, meditation is related to self-awareness, and I think I have been very self-aware for as long as I can remember. It was usually quite easy for me to identify what was happening internally for me, for my thoughts and emotions. I was also quite sensitive, and it was easy to get me upset or to start crying.

I can remember being self-aware of my thoughts. When I was a teenager, I used to lie in bed at night waiting to fall asleep and I would actually trace my thought patterns one by one as I went down a long train of thought. I would catch my mind ending up at some quirky, random thought, and I would go, “Wow, how did I get there?” Then I would trace my pattern of thoughts all the way back to the initial thought that seemed to arise out of nowhere. The whole process was fascinating and fun for me!

Second, meditation is also a solitary practice, and I have been quite solitary for much of my life, and even more so when I was younger. I am quite introverted and am usually unable to be around people for large amounts of time. My fondest childhood memories were spent alone, where I would be outdoors for hours at a time “exploring” (wandering around in a field or forest, seeing new places I had never been to before).

I also had a deep need for solitude as I got older and spent more time with friends as a teenager. I actually used solitude as an antidote for too much socializing or to restore myself after spending large amounts of time with other people. I felt that when I spent time with other people, I really put on a false front in order to please others and was therefore not being true to myself. I used solitude after these times to come back to myself, or to feel more authentic. I think that I was tapping into a larger cultural discourse aimed at teenagers emphasizing “staying true to yourself” and “not changing for anyone else.”,

A time when I especially needed to be alone was after partying and drinking. As a teenager, I used alcohol as a way to be more outgoing, more energetic and lively, in order to please others. Extraversion was highly valued in high school, so I used alcohol to achieve that. But I knew that I wasn’t truly an extrovert, so I needed to spend time alone to feel okay just being myself.

Third, meditation is also closely related to the field of psychology, and both concern investigating the patterns of the mind in order to understand behaviour. I have been interested in psychology for quite a long time, probably mostly to understand myself when I was a teenager, but as I got older also to understand other people around me. To satisfy my curiosity, I took out a textbook from the high school library on introduction to psychology, and I read through most of it just for fun and personal interest.

I think another reason I was drawn toward psychology was to help come to grips with my own struggles with mental illness, as well as to deal with the history of mental illness in my family. Psychology gave me the tools to deal with these challenges, and it gave me confidence to skifully face the future when these issues might come up again.

Finally, meditation can be described as a “non-activity” because the point of the practice is, for the most part, not to actually “do” anything. I am sitting still, right where I am, and noticing what happens. For some people who are energetic and restless, meditation can be torture. But for someone like myself, who is already quite laid-back and relaxed, meditation was a needed break from the hassles of daily life.

I am quite easy going, and seem to have always needed to take time off just to be still and relax. People have described me as appearing quite calm on the outside (even if I am filled with anxiety inside). Even as early as high school, one of my teachers once described me as “calm, cool, and collected.”

So there you have it, some reasons why I was drawn toward meditation and why it came naturally to me once I started trying it out for myself. I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t have these qualities shouldn’t consider or practice meditation, but that they might face more challenges than I did.

Read on to part 3 in the series on Asian exoticism and Zen for Dummies.

Quote: Aimlessness May 21, 2012

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“A flower does not try to be something else to be happy. To be like that is already a wonder. You are already what you want to become. You are a wonder…When the wave realizes that she is water, she can enjoy every moment. She doesn’t have to go to look for water.” Thich Nhat Hanh, “The River of Mind” Dharma talk

How I Came to the Practice: Part 1 – My Christian Roots May 16, 2012

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I would like to take a few posts to fully explain the story of how I came to Buddhist spiritual practice, starting at the very beginning! This post is part 1.

I have met many people in many different meditation groups across the country, and many of these people share that they grew up in strict Christian traditions, either Catholic or strict Protestant traditions such as Presbyterian, before coming to meditation. An experience I share with these people is that I, too, grew up in a Christian family.

At an early age, I took part in saying prayers nightly with my other sibling and one of my parents. My extended family that I was very involved in also said grace regularly before meals.

I don’t remember going to church until I was about 10 or 12. Unfortunately, the church I attended was the remnants of a once active French-speaking Metis community, so it wasn’t the same community I attended school, and the services were sparsely attended. The priest was French, so he had a thick accent, and I had a difficult time understanding him, as most other children did. The language barrier did little to help my already waning attention. Additionally, very few children attended the church, and there wasn’t a youth group or Sunday school set up.

I don’t remember people taking the time to really explain to me many of the Christian teachings. I remember hearing Bible stories, but not really understanding the messages they were supposed to mean.

As I grew older, I started to become more insistent that I didn’t want to attend church. I don’t remember ever really wanted to attend for religious or spiritual reasons from the beginning. One of my parents made me go even though I didn’t want to, saying I would be punished otherwise. I went anyway, partly to avoid punishment, but I think partly to make my parents and family happy. Well, let’s just say that that is not exactly the best way to motivate a stubborn child to have faith in their religion!

It only got worse later when I was made to attend catechism classes in preparation for confirmation, one of the passing-of-age rituals in the Catholic church. The classes weren’t offered at the church I had been attending, so I had to travel to yet another community, different from the one I attended school, to take courses with a large group of students I mostly didn’t know. I also recall an arrangement with one of my parents that I could only play on the school volleyball if I attended the classes (although my parents don’t remember this!).

One Christian experience I do remember positively was attending bible camp as a young teenager. I only attended the camp to take part in all of the fun activities not available to me in my small town (kayaking, wall-climbing). The “bible” part was just an extra detail. I passed as much as I could, pretended to fit in like everyone else, despite my Gideon’s bible that contrasted with many other kids’ special edition children’s bibles.

I was swept up along with the crowd when I attended bible camp, inspired by the strong faith of the counsellors and fellow campers around me. I really wished I could be like them, that I could have such strong beliefs. My aspirations never lasted, though, past a week or two once I returned home.

I was also a feminist at an early age, so it never sat right with me that women couldn’t be leaders in the Catholic church, or that god was the father and referred to as “he”. I read historical fiction avidly, so I was critical of the historical Catholic church an institution that persecuted women during the Inquisition, and indigenous peoples as part of colonization.

By the time I was a teenager, I became more insistent in my independence from my family’s religion. If I didn’t want to go, I was old enough to make that choice and not go. If church helped them, then so be it, but it had nothing to offer me. By now I was getting absolutely nothing out of the masses, I just sat through the empty rituals bored stiff, the meanings of the sermons completely missing their mark for me.

My separation from Christianity was complete by the time I was in high school. I had given up on it, I had decided that it had nothing to offer me. I see now, though, that I was never really given the opportunity to learn about the teachings the religion had to offer. I also never had social support available, where I could share my spiritual traditions with other kids my age.

By now, I’m able to appreciate my Christian background and what the religion has to offer. Now that I’ve learned much more about the Buddhist religion, I’m able to see endless similarities between the two religions, not to mention between Buddhism and other world religions. I see now that many different religions exist to serve many of the same basic purposes, meeting the same human needs for belief, optimism, community, and explanations for an unexplainable and incomprehensible universe.

I’ve also learned some lessons about sexism and other instances of structural violence present in religious institutions (thanks in part to a feminist religious studies university class), so I’m quite quick to jump on the sexism I see and know is present to this day in Buddhist traditions.

Now I don’t believe in Jesus the god, but I do believe in Jesus the historical person (man? woman?) (and am surprised to meet Christians who agree with me!). What little I know about Jesus, I can see that Jesus tried to teach people about living in the present moment, as well as about radical notions of the time of  interconnectedness, interbeing, and equality. I also appreciate that Jesus appeared to value practice before belief, or making sure that actions spoke louder than words.

Finally, I’m tremendously grateful to parents and family for their efforts to give me a religious upbringing and background, and for supporting my early spiritual development!

Read on to part 2 in the series: Why Meditation Came Naturally To Me.

Quote: Love is Possible May 16, 2012

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“There are those who are so discouraged that they no longer have the courage to love. They suffer a great deal just because they made an attempt to love and failed. The wounds within them are so deep that it makes them afraid to try again. We are aware of the presence of these people among us, all around us. We have to bring them the message that love is possible. Our world desparately needs love.”- Thich Nhat Hanh, Taming the Tiger Within

Wake Up Toronto May 10, 2012

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Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend my first ever Wake Up event. This was the first Wake Up event I had heard of that was taking place in Canada, and possibly the last Wake Up event I will be able to go to, so I wanted to check it out while I had the chance.

It was the first time I met monks or nuns from Thay’s sangha, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. There were about six or seven monks and nuns who came, and I really enjoyed all of their smiles and laughter, they all seemed very joyful and happy. They also spoke about mindfulness practice, and you could tell that they were firmly enthusiastic about everyone taking up the practice to enjoy the benefits. It was very encouraging.

It was also nice to be around such a large group of people my age. There were about 40 people in attendance, as well as four people who helped to organize it. I was very excited and inspired to see so many people my age who were interested in meditation and mindfulness.

We spent over an hour in dharma sharing, and almost everyone took a turn speaking about what brought them there that day. I could see a huge variety of reasons and personal situations that affected different people. There was even some discussion about mental illness and difficulties, especially panic disorder and substance use.

At the same time, I was mindful of how many people might have wanted to come but couldn’t make it for various reasons, either because they were too busy or had to work, or were afraid of a new situation. These types of thoughts came up the last time I was on my retreat, and I think part of it is due to feelings of inadequacy, like I don’t really deserve to be “taking time off” of my usual life to attend events like these.

I could see from the dharma sharing that people do have a lot of reasons for meditation practice even at a young age. I realize now that I hadn’t really spent much time thinking about the certain causes that might make young adults even more likely than people of other ages to turn to the practice. At the same time, I haven’t really thought about the obstacles for practice for young adults.

A deep relaxation guided meditation was part of the event, and I really enjoyed it. One of the monks led it and he included many mindfulness songs, and he had such a beautiful singing voice. There was a moment where I enjoyed incredible peace and joy and I felt completely nourished and supported right where I was. A thought suddenly arose: “I am not my work.” I had been trying to leave my worries about my work behind and just enjoy the moment. It was during the deep relaxation that I felt that I was connected with my deepest self, and I felt gratitude that I had made this day more important than my work. It fulfilled a need that goes deeper than work and money.

Overall, I’m glad that I was able to meet some new people my age and feel a sense of social support in my practice. Nevertheless, I have been contemplating that maybe it might be a weakness of mine to place too much importance on needing to be around other people who share my spiritual practice. I think I let myself get discouraged in my efforts when I don’t see other people around me doing similar practices or appearing to place similar values on what I value. I know for certain that I have difficulties having confidence and faith in my own path and on making it on my own. I know that, in the past, I would seek out sources of knowledge to justify my values, for instance through reading up on environmentalism, voluntary simplicity, and feminism. I think I need to cut myself some slack, though, because I have spent the past year and a half without a local sangha or teacher. I think I have been doing all right! 🙂

Quote: Well-Being and Wholeness May 7, 2012

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From a dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal “On Retreat”

“To experience a kind of sense of well-being or peace that is not depend on anthing, is really one of the sweetest things. And it gives people a very different perspective about how to go back into normal life again because then you know that in your heart there’s a capacity, there’s a place where you can be phenomenally at home, have a deep sense of well-being, feeling of being complete, being whole that doesn’t require anything in your environment to be different than what it is. Nothing has to be fixed adjusted, things don’t have to be better or worse. It doesn’t mean you stop improving the world or doing other things, doing things in the world. But you know that your deepest happiness and well-being is not dependent on the things of world, on activities in the world that we often engage in. And so then there’s a a whole different quality of freedom that goes into our activities and our possessions and everything. Because we’re not going to kind of depend on them for our deepest sense of well being, we know its not dependent on those things.”

Happy Listening: This is My Now May 4, 2012

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This is My Now – Jordin Sparks

There was a time I packed my dreams away
Living in a shell, hiding from myself

There was a time when I was so afraid
I thought I’d reached the end
Baby that was then
But I am made of more than my yesterdays
[Chorus]
This is my now, and I am breathing in the moment
As I look around
I can’t believe the love I see
My fears behind me, gone are the shadows and doubts
That was then, this is my now.

Had to decide was I gonna play it safe
Or look somewhere deep inside
and try to turn the tide
Find the strength to take that step of faith

[Chorus]

[Bridge]
And I have the courage like never before, yeah
I’ve settled for less but ready for more
Ready for more

[Chorus x2]

This is my now

Depression and Anxiety: Reasons for my Spiritual Practice May 4, 2012

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I once heard a meditation instructor or Dharma teacher quote someone saying that people come to spiritual practice for different reasons: they are running away from the light, they are running toward the light, they are running away from the darkness, or they are running toward the darkness. I knew when I heard that that I was running away from the darkness.

I have a personal history of both major depression and anxiety. I also share a family history of major depression and anxiety.

I have experienced major depressive episodes twice in my life: once when I was in high school at age 14 and again when I was in university at age 19. At both times I had suicidal thoughts but never suicidal intentions. I found both of these experiences to be quite painful and extremely scary, and I know for a fact that I am not completely over them or I haven’t completely made peace with what has happened in my past.

I experienced a great deal of social anxiety in high school, in part influenced by bullying as well as being what the psychologists label as “neglected” where my classmates didn’t pay attention to me, both of which started as early as elementary school. I can recall in high school sitting at the breakfast table having to force myself to eat because of a pit of nausea and tension in my stomach at the thought of going to school.

My social anxiety started to improve gradually, and much faster once I went to university. After I recovered from my depressive episode in university, all of the negative energy I was carrying in my consciousness turned from depression into anxiety, and I noticed eventually that my symptoms fit the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder.

It was at this stage of my life that I came across Buddhist meditation. At the time, I had made a change in my life to start being more positive in my thoughts and actions as well as with the people and activities which I surrounded myself. I remember wearing a rubber bracelet from a website I saw featured on the news called “A Complaint-Free World,” where the wearer was committed to not complaining for as long as 30 days!

I found Buddhist meditation to be a framework to support my intentions to have positive thinking. I also found valuable aspects to the spiritual tradition that my earlier reliance on self-help and clinical psychology couldn’t offer: Acceptance and compassion.

Before coming to meditation, if I was depressed, I couldn’t accept it and I judged myself for somehow bringing this on myself. I also judged my family for passing down the tendency to me in my genetic inheritance.

The Buddhist spiritual practice allowed me to just accept what was happening in the moment as what I had been handed in life, and that was what I had to work with. It gave me a way to help free me from judging myself, and instead allow myself to have some compassion for my suffering.

There are so many other important aspects that the Buddhist spiritual and meditation practice offers that helps me to heal my depression and anxiety. One other aspect I will mention is the need to not make up a story about what is happening to me. I don’t label myself as a depressed person, a survivor of depression, or an anxious person. I make every effort not to focus on my family history of these disorders or else I feel that there is no way to avoid inheriting them myself. I try my hardest not to focus on my lifetime history of what has happened to me, or to project into the future: “If this has happened for so long in my past, it must mean that it will continue to happen for a long time in the future.” Nothing fills me with more despair and grief than this type of thinking or feeling shackled down with an unbearable burden. Thankfully, I’m able to recognize the effect of these kinds of thoughts and try my hardest to not spend time there.

I continue to work on these memories of the painful times in my life, and know for certain that they have been transformed and will continue to heal. All I know now is that I can say my motivation for my spiritual practice is to run towards the light: I have known the joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling experiences that make up human life, and I have started to trust this as my true self.