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How I Came to the Practice: Part 3 – Asian Exoticism and Zen for Dummies June 21, 2012

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(This is part 3 in a series on the full story of how I came to Buddhist meditation practice. Read part 1 and part 2 here.)

My exposure to Buddhist meditation first came through Asian culture in the media. As a teenager, I had somewhat of an exoticism for Asian culture. I was fascinated with a culture from a different part of the world that was so different and so far away from where I was living and the culture I grew up in.

I can remember enjoying Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which played on TV often. After seeing that movie I sought out similar movies with many of the same cast, including House of Flying Daggers.

I got the book Memoirs of a Geisha for an Xmas gift one year. I also played many video games during high school, believe it or not, and some of them had Asian settings or characters.

I also read my mom’s women’s style magazines and saw that Asian styles of interior decorating were in fashion at that time, particularly the “zen” simplicity look. I think the “zen” style appealed to me growing up in a very small and cluttered home.

I was also an avid reader of historical fiction throughout high school, and loved books set in different historical periods and locations. One day I came across the ridiculously long book Shogun about a Portugese trader who shipwrecked and is taken prisoner in 15th century Japan. I really enjoyed the book and learning about the setting and the culture portrayed. The book also included brief sections where the main character was introduced to Zen meditation and Buddhist religious beliefs, as well as other Zen practices like the tea ceremony.

Later I watched The Last Samurai and noticed similarities between the movie and the book Shogun. The movie also portrayed the main chracter being taught Zen meditation.

My interested was piqued. I wanted to learn more about this meditation technique. At the time, I was living on a farm near a small town in rural Saskatchewan and didn’t know a single soul who had ever tried meditation. I didn’t know a single Buddhist. There were no meditation teachers, groups or Buddhist temples. I turned to my familiar source of information: books.

I ordered a book called Zen for Dummies to be shipped to the tiny local library from a nearby city. I really enjoyed the book and learning about meditation, and still remember the metaphor of the finger pointing at the moon. I actually kept a list from the book of the top 10 things to remember about the Zen of romantic relationships.

One thing the book couldn’t do was connect me to any local resources, because none existed. I was left on my own. I tried practicing meditation at home according to the book’s instructions but wasn’t able to get the hang of it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t feel like it worked, it didn’t do anything. I wasn’t able to concentrate on my breath, and my mind was constantly wandering. (Little did I know at the time this is exactly what was supposed to happen during my first attempts at meditation practice.)

But I hadn’t completely given up on meditation. Somehow the underlying idea behind it seemed to intuitively make sense to me. I felt like there was wisdom there to offer me. I just had to find a way to access it, to learn it.

I moved away from home and sporadically would try practicing meditation on my own for short periods, sitting on a half-folded pillow on the floor of my room. I had yet to meet another single person who practiced meditation or was a Buddhist.

My connection would be through a university elective course.


“I Am A Practitioner” June 14, 2012

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In the space of 12 days I have to complete my oral thesis defense, pack up my belongings, and move across the country…

Currently showing in the theatre of Andrea’s Mind is a new series entitled “Fear and Anxiety,” featuring such attention-grabbing titles as “Will I humiliate myself at my oral defense?”, Will I have time to pack all of my posessions?”, and “Will I miss my train?”–plus many more!

Somehow I have managed to continue a routine that I have kept since returning from my most recent retreat of practicing meditation twice a day, mornings and evenings, and this is the longest period of time I have been able to do this. I am determined to work with my suffering and face it head-on, as much as I can.

I am trying my best to stay mindful, to stay with my breath, to stay within the body rather than let the mind take over, and be grounded in the present moment without letting the mind travel far into the future and contemplate worst-case scenarios.

My efforts don’t always work. I still have periods of doubt and confusion, where I wonder what I need to do to handle the situation.

Its in these times when an insight occurs to me that changes my state of shrinking up in fear to expanding in possibility:

“I am a practitioner.”

This affirmation comes to me at the most unlikely of times, and I am able to remember where I am in the present moment. I am a meditation practitioner. I have taken refuge in the three jewels. I have received the five mindfulness trainings.

Suddenly I picture myself sitting up straighter, standing tall and proud and determined. I know what to do. The answer will come to me when I let it, when I am not clinging in fear but breathing mindfully in the present moment. I am on the the spiritual path and I will continue to the best of my capacity at this time.

Dharma Talk: Letting Go June 12, 2012

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Did you know the Buddha described 7 ways of letting go? Neither did I until I listened to a dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal entitled “Right Effort: Letting Go of Unwholesome States”. A great find!

You can listen to the talk by clicking this link:

AudioDharma: Gil Fronsdal – Right Effort: Letting Go of Unwholesome States

Contemplative Developmental Science June 7, 2012

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I recently attended an event entitled Contemplative Developmental Science. The field of Contemplative Science is a relatively new field that I have been following a bit, but I had never seen an event or program before that incorporated development, so I was quite excited to see this event taking place. Also, this was the first event I had ever seen taking place in Canada, and it was conveniently close to where I am living.

The event featured talks by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson, whom I had never seen before in person, so I was eager to take the opportunity to attend the event. The main idea of the event was to discuss how the benefits of practices from various contemplative traditions (meditation, mindfulness, yoga, etc.) could be extended across the lifespan, especially to children and adolescents.

The conference itself was quite enjoyable, and I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to attend it. This was the first time I was able to experience being in the same room with a large group of people who were all researchers or psychology professionals AND had some sort of meditation practice. It was like two worlds colliding!

I found the talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn very insightful and inspiring. At first I was taken aback by his statement that we should “leave the kids alone…you’ll kill it forever!”, which was in direct contradiction of the purpose of the conference! Nevertheless, he went onto explain that mindfulness does have a great potential to benefit children, but the application of mindfulness to children also has a huge potential for great dangers or mistakes.

JKZ’s main message was that as practitioners, we need to create the environment and culture that would support mindfulness for children. We need to embody mindfulness for them, and they will receive the benefits when we are present for them, or “get it by osmosis.” In other words, “the real practice is how you live your life in every moment.”

I noticed that when someone asked JKZ a question, he would close his eyes for a few moments and appeared to be thinking. However, when I was able to see him in person in a group conversation, I noticed that what he was doing was breathing deeply for a few relaxed breaths. This fact might not sound that exciting, but in a loud room full of people engaged in conversations, it seemed like quite a feat! But to me, it would be one of the best illustration of incorporating mindfulness into one’s daily life.

JKZ also made an excellent point about technology, where if we want to learn “how to improve being human we have to first experience it.” Well said! How can technology improve our lives if it prevents us from experiencing our lives fully?

Review: The Art of Power June 7, 2012

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I recently finished reading The Art of Power by Thich Nhat Hanh. When I first picked up the book I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it surprised me by turning out to be an excellent read.

The main message of the book was to change our ideas of true power from external forms of power to internal power. In other words, from the idea of power as controlling or influencing others or acquiring wealth or possessions to the power to be able to be happy in the present moment and free from afflictions.

I was surprised by the book because it seemed to be so applicable and relevant to living in a modern, industrialized society. Thay tries to convince us of the dangers of placing high values on materialism, or achieving status, wealth and material possessions. I think in this culture, this is the common assumption that the way to become powerful is to gain wealth, status, and possessions.

Nevertheless, Thay tries to convince us that there is a better way to live, and a better way to gain power. Mindful living is a more wholesome way to live and become successful in all areas of our lives, not just in material aspects.

Some of the ideas that Thay describes seem to be contradictory at first, but I think this reflects our cultural conditioning. For instance, the idea that slowing down or doing one thing at a time can allow you to get more work done. When Thay explains ideas like these more fully, and I remembered lessons from my own experience, I was able to see that they do make quite a bit of sense.

I really enjoyed the piece describing how money might be seen as power: When we have lots of money we have power over other people because we can pay them to do things that we want. We also feel more powerful because we have more choice available to us in how to spend our money and what services and products to buy.

To me, this was an excellent description of how democracy has become commercialized in Canada, and perhaps to a larger extent inNorth America. Currently, the phrase “one dollar, one vote” is commonplace, and reflects the idea that we exert power by buying things. So really, our power is “buying power”. But the message is that this type of power isn’t true power, and actually can cause a lot of problems in our lives.

Thay included a lot of practical suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into work life and work settings. These suggestions seemed quite practical and simple, and made quite a bit of sense in Thay’s descriptions. A lot of emphasis was placed on leading by example, instead of using direct suggestions. Thay discussed using a different viewpoint of our coworkers as a kind of family, and the best way we can work is when we care for our coworkers.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for ways to live a healthier, more wholesome life in a materialist and consumerist society.