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Review – Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes July 25, 2012

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I recently picked up the book Solitude: Seeking Wisdom In Extremes by Robert Kull. I had only heard of the book for the first time a week ago and suddenly I saw it in a bookstore and the library. I should thank my dharma buddy Paulette for recommending the book during sangha.

The book is a firsthand account of one man’s year-long experiment to see the biological, psychological and spiritual effects of solitude.  The author set out to live for an entire year off the coast of Chile for an entire year in complete solitude, where he had no direct human contact.

The book is one part wilderness survival and one part psychospiritual development. The author actually was an experienced Buddhist meditation practitioner, and used meditation techniques daily as a way to develop a clear mind and control the psychological effects of having to survive alone in the wilderness. Another aspect of the author’s spirituality was a deep connection to wilderness and nature, including the elements (wind, rain, ocean, clouds, etc.) as well as the plants and animals he relied on for survival. A large part of the author’s time on the island was spent reading many books including meditation and Buddhism books.

The book was quite satisfying and very fascinating to see how the content changes over the course of the year. The entries are chronological, and the author made a journal entry every day.

I quite enjoyed the spiritual themes and questions that the author struggled with in his account. The questions were ones that I have sought answers myself, so I enjoyed reading another person’s explorations. Some of the themes included: aloneness/solitude versus social interaction, Big Mind versus little mind, activity as distraction versus inactivity and stillness, mystical experiences in the wilderness,

depression, anxiety, and dealing with physical pain. You might be as surprised as I was about the answers or resolutions that the author finds to some of these questions.

It was also great to hear another person put great emphasis on spirituality as an important aspect of human life.

Some great quotes from the book (there were many other great indirect quotes throughout the book from other authors and Buddhist teachers that I didn’t include here):

We have seriously confounded luxury with necessity in our culture, and can no longer differentiate between what we want in order to maintain a particular lifestyle (with its social relationships and sensual pleasures) and what we actually need for physical survival. We have confounded social identity with biological and spiritual being to the point of believing we will die if we lose our social standing, which is often based on the material wealth we have accumulated. This accelerating spiral of desires becoming necessities is driving our suicidal rush to destroy the Earth we depend on for our actual physical survival.

Are you remembering to remember and notice Life living in you?

A few comments to make about what I didn’t enjoy in the book were the long, often tedious accounts of wildlife and the weather, in part due to the author’s training in biology. Because each entry in the book is a daily journal entry, some of the descriptions became quite repetitive.

In all, I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in nature and wilderness survival and/or meditation and spirituality.

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Happy Listening: Anyway by Martina McBride July 17, 2012

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Marina McBride – Anyway

You can spend your whole life buildin’
Somethin’ from nothin’
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

[chorus:]

God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good
When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway

This world’s gone crazy
And it’s hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway

You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away
love ’em anyway

[chorus]

You can pour your soul out singing
A song you believe in
That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway
Yeah, sing it anyway
I sing, I dream, I love
Anyway

Dealing with Uncertainty: What to Rely On? July 15, 2012

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For the first time in my life I am searching for a “real job,” a permanent full-time job reflecting all of my education and training. Consequently, I am also face-to-face with uncertainty, as I really don’t know what the future brings with regards to my location, my job, my coworkers, my friends, my sangha, and my distance from family.

Here in this incredibly uncertain future is where my usual tendency to resort to projecting into the future and building myself up with planning is no longer applicable. I have to admit that I no longer am in complete control of my future. I can’t simply decide an answer to all of the above open questions.

I’m seeing quite clearly how this sense of not knowing is uncomfortable, it makes me uneasy. It is not a place I am used to. The blessing of my modern life is that I can have a great deal of control over my own personal situation.

My usual reaction to dealing with anxiety is to resort to routine in my daily life. I structure what I do, the tasks I complete, where I go, the people I spend time with, as a way to cushion myself against the unpredictability of human life. I take comfort in the familiarity of going through each day exactly as I can plan it, and as a result, I get stuck in grooves, repetitiveness, and habitual patterns.

Therefore, the curse of this modern life is that the control can create an illusion of certainty. It can always appear that I have things entirely planned out, arranged, put in place, but then something will come along and tip the boat, shake things up, take the rug out from under my feet.

I am seeing exactly the type of situation that this routine is explicitly trying to avoid:

I haven’t encountered this situation before/ recently.

I need to make a decision about what to do, the best way to proceed.

I only have a limited amount of information at this present time about what is the best decision.

Any decision I make has no guarantee that it will achieve my desired end result.

For me this circumstance of uncertainty and novelty is quite scary. For that reason, I’ve carefully and purposefully engineered it out of my life situation.

This type of job search is new and uncertain for me, as I’ve never before had to look for a “real job. I have no guarantee that in this whole process I am proceeding in the “right” way or making the best decisions.

Although I think that so far I have been doing better than I expected in dealing with the uncertainty of not having a job lined up, I do experience some low points. At times I feel hopeless, my mood becomes more depressed, and I lose my motivation:

I give up. I don’t care. I’m not doing this right now.

I’ve also been noticing some thoughts and feelings that I suspect may be due to what I label “internalized classism.” The thoughts and feelings go somewhat like:

I don’t belong here. I don’t fit. I’m not wanted. I have nothing to offer.

At other times in my life (applying to university and graduate school, applying for awards, working in an academic setting), I’ve had similar feelings where I’m not the right type of person (i.e., not the right social class) to be accepted here. I see how these thoughts have been a story that has been playing for much of my life, and is a result of deep conditioning.

What else do I rely on to tell myself that things are working out exactly the way they are supposed to?

A sense of hope and optimism for the future.

Faith in the process unfolding before my very eyes.

Faith that the world I perceive outside of me has a place for me.

Faith in myself and my abilities, skills, and personality.

Faith in other people who have helped me thus far, who have shaped who I am. In all of my past experiences that have shaped who I am, I carry their instructions, their example, and their teachings inside of me.

That sense of faith is actually a familiar place for me from when I was struggling to complete my degree. Often I felt so much like giving up, and I wanted to stop pushing myself to work to finish. I wanted desperately to stop using fear, anxiety, shame, and guilt as motivation to push myself to complete the work I found dissatisfying.

As much as I could at these times, I tried to motivate myself to complete my work by having faith that my talents and abilities would combine with an intrinsic human need to direct activity outside of oneself. Now I am trying to use a similar motivation on my job search. I am trying to have faith that there is a place I can align myself with to receive my talents and abilities.

 

The Story of My Stuff July 10, 2012

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“The things you own end up owning you” – Fight Club

I like to think that I don’t own that many possessions, or that I am not very materialistic and don’t get attached to “things.” For the past two years I have tried my best to either delay buying certain items until I was finished another move, or to not buy items altogether.

Well, I started packing my things in preparation for another big move, and found out—surprise, surprise—I do have a lot of possessions. This realization was a bit of a shock to me, maybe because it showed how much the trait of ‘anti-materialist’ had become part of my identity, or how I saw myself as a person.

The moving process took an entire week altogether. It was a very laborious, sweaty, and at times stressful week for me, because I had a deadline when I had to be done. By the time I was getting closer to the end of the moving process, the phrase I quoted at the start of this article started to come to mind.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, apparently the things I owned had started to own me. I was spending a great deal of time organizing, arranging, and planning moving my possessions not to mention the mental energy and effort keeping the whole process under control.

During that week there were so many things I wanted to do instead of moving (go outside for a walk, go pick wild berries, visit friends, go to music shows, go to meditation groups, go to a pow-wow, the list goes on), but instead I was confined to my hot, sweaty, non-air-conditioned apartment for much of the day, fitting things into cardboard boxes.

When I realized just how many items I was trying to pack into boxes and move back to the west, I decided I had had enough. This was ridiculous. I went through a frenzied process of throwing out a lot of items I had kept after considering whether I really wanted them or not. Turns out I didn’t want them that bad. I knew I was doing the right thing because I felt free and lighter after getting rid of the items.

Goodbye.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

I don’t care.

I don’t have to think about you any more.

Get lost.

A few days later, my boxes arrived at my parents’ home, and suddenly I was stuck with the task of fitting the boxes into storage in my bedroom. My parents’ home is a trailer, so my bedroom is one of the smallest rooms I have ever seen. So I had to get rid of some old items that were being stored in my bedroom in order to move the new items in.

By this time I had been doing the process of purging and de-cluttering for a few weeks already. At the start, the decision to get rid of something was painfully slow, as I deliberately made a mental decision whether to keep it or junk it, weighing the pros and cons.

By the end, the drawn-out mental process had become an easily-identifiable feeling upon looking at an item:

I feel heavy, burdened, and/ or irritated = I get rid of it. I don’t really want it in reality. (Or the only reason I am keeping it is because someone gave it to me and I don’t want them to think I got rid of it. If they truly love me, then they wouldn’t want me to be burdened by something they gave me, so I still get rid of it.)

I feel energized, or excited, or have longing for it = Its a keeper, its something truly valuable.

I noticed these feelings coming up as I unpacked my boxes from the move. The feelings were similar to “Why did I bring this back?” or “Oh, its so great that I still have that!” Clearly, there were a few items I still should have ditched that I didn’t.

The moving process was a real awakening for me.

I realized just how much stuff I do own.

I learned how to identify the feeling of being burdened by an unused item.

I saw how I keep things that aren’t truly of value to me.

I saw how easy it is to shove possessions away into storage and forget about them for years.

I saw how easily and quickly my collecting items that never get used can get out of hand (“I might use this…one day…maybe…”).

On a lighter note, I realized the joy of giving unused or no longer wanted items to friends who would use and appreciate them.

Maybe these lessons and insights will stay with me a while as I continue to be tempted with buying or collecting new things to bring into my home, as is inevitable in a materialistic, consumer culture. Maybe they won’t stay with me. Maybe I will just have to keep re-learning these lessons all over again…

Happy Listening: Beautiful Life by Doc Walker July 4, 2012

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Beautiful Life by Doc Walker

This old house, It’s covered in dust
This old house, has seen better days
This old car has turned from red into rust
This old car dreams of the old highway

This old river it still twist and turns
This old river used to run untamed
This old town well it’s heart still burns
This old town it still runs through my veins.

Chorus
It’s been a beautiful life
Oh I’ve been along for one hell of a ride
Even though I may be falling apart
Oh it’s been a beautiful life

These old shoes they’ve walked for miles and miles
These old shoes they’ve walked through life unafraid
This old guitar I got it when I was a child
This old guitar well it still has something to say

(chorus)

All of these eyes have seen laughter and tears
And these eyes have seen something new
This old heart it still has a few more years
This old heart will always love you

(chorus x2)

Such a beautiful life

Thesis Defense as Practice July 4, 2012

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I recently had to prepare for and complete my master’s thesis defense/ oral examination. I had a good friend of mine say to me how much they were anxious and worried about the defense, so much so that they were unable to even think about the future event. At the time I was talking to my friend, I had a few pieces of advice. But I wanted to write up a more complete account of how I used my mindfulness practice, and all of the tools I’ve been developing these past few years, to get me through the event.

From the beginning of my preparations, I had quite a bit of fear, stress, and anxiety about the defense. As much as I could, I tried to cultivate self-compassion toward myself  for experiencing these unpleasant, and even at times painful, emotions. I tried my best not to judge myself for being afraid or anxious, or to tell myself that I shouldn’t be experiencing these emotions. I have been practicing lovingkindness daily toward myself and others, so I spent my usual time practicing lovingkindness to instead cultivate a lot of self-compassion: “May I know freedom from fear…anxiety…stress…worry”

The fear that I was experiencing around the anticipation of the defense was quite constricting, I could feel myself closing up and shutting down (“I don’t want to do this, I want to get as far away from this as possible, I’m sick of this…”). What I tried to do was act out of love, not fear. Instead of motivating myself from this place of constricting fear, I tried my best to act out of love and abundance, telling myself that I would succeed, and that there are many people supporting me and wishing me the best.

One practice that I try to use as much as I can (but really have a difficult time with) is non-attachment to outcome. I try to work on a task just for the sheer joy or satisfaction of putting my effort into it, with no (or as little as possible) expectations for what will be the results of my efforts. I tried not to place attachments on the success or failure of my thesis defense. In other words, I tried not to say that my happiness will only be possible if I succeed at this task.

Another tool I found particularly useful was practicing non-self, or trying to see how there is no permanent, separate self. A phrase came to me that I remembered from a similar situation a few months ago: “This does not contain me.” I realized that who I am is not contained in my success or failure of a master’s thesis defense. In other words, my identity as a master’s student was not my complete identity.

If someone were to describe me by saying that I am a master’s psychology student, it cannot come close to capturing the totality and complexity of who I am, of my being. Instead, I realized how much bigger I was than this single event in my life, and how many other parts of myself are still present in me, and will continue after my defense.

My usual lovingkindness practice towards others was targeted specifically to the people involved in the event. I cultivated lovingkindness to the professors who would be examining me and to everyone else in the room. I tried my best to imagine the situation with as little hostility or judgement, and instead with a calm and peaceful atmosphere. This is a practice I have found really useful applying to my situation at work, so I thought it would help for this specific event.

Finally, I felt quite a bit of social pressure to perform perfectly, or to the best of my ability, for the sake of everyone there (my supervisor/boss, my professors/ instructors, my classmates, my friends and acquaintances). I felt quite anxious about being judged by others as being incompetent, or not as smart as they might think I am.

I remembered a phrase that one of my dharma buddies uses and who has passed it along to another friend of mine: “The people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.” If people want to judge me for not trying hard enough or not meeting their expectations, then that is fine, I probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. And their judgements don’t concern me, I know how hard I worked at it so that is all the information I need to evaluate how I will do. If they truly are my friends, they will still be my friends even if I fail miserably and make a fool of myself.

These are all of the tools that I can think of, but I am sure there were many more that I wasn’t aware that I was using at the time. I still found the event quite stressful and anxiety-provoking, but I managed to get through it. I’m happy to say that it was a success, I did very well and managed not to make a complete fool of myself. Everyone who was there complimented me and said I did a really good job.

All I can say is a phrase I have heard my sangha members say time and time again: Thank goodness for the practice!