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How I Came To The Practice: Part 5 – Running Away From The Darkness September 24, 2012

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(This is part 5 of a series on the full story of how I came to meditation practice. Click on the links for part 1 – My Christian Roots, part 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally To Me, part 3 – Asian Exoticism and Zen for Dummies, and part 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction).

A few months after my first meditation instruction, I worked for a summer at two jobs, fell into a deep depression, then started a new university semester and broke off my first ever committed romantic relationship. I spent hours at a time crying in bed, I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings, and had to go through some suicidal thoughts. This scared me into spending a few sessions with a counsellor who helped me get out of my depression using a primarily cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) approach (a technique which I later learned is promoted by insurance companies by its “quick and easy” results). The CBT approach primarily focuses on uncovering negative thoughts and distorted thinking patterns (cognitivethat lead to negative behaviours (behavioural). I began a journey of self-healing that included grieving a loss, taking a break from mood altering drugs (alcohol) and the hard work of facing the tidal waves of negative, self-pitying thoughts in which I had indulged.

I tried my best to work on being more positive. I was very strongly motivated to change my negative habits I had taken for granted so often. I was doing it to avoid another episode of depression. The episode of suicidal thoughts had a very deep impact on me, and I had felt a deep sense of terror–the terror of self-destruction. The experience is still with me today. I later realized that I was strongly motivated to save my own life and I was willing to do whatever it took.

I made little room, time, or space in my life for practicing meditation. Other commitments got in the way of travelling to any regular sitting groups. What little sitting practice I was able to do seemed to have some effect. I enjoyed the emphasis of letting go of thoughts while sitting. I was starting to feel empowered over my compulsive anxiety. What a relief to be trapped in a never-ending tangled web of thoughts, to notice it, and consciously and effortfully let them go. Aaaah, relief…  It was a lot of work and at times uncomfortable, but I could see some potential.

The busiest semester of my undergraduate career ended and summer approached. Memories of a painful previous summer made me motivated not to repeat history. There were a number of factors (working a new job with new coworkers, new training, lots of overtime) I could foresee as possible risks to leading to another depressive episode, and I was motivated not to let it happen.

At the time, I was surrounded by friends and peers that seemed to be endlessly complaining in a self-centered fashion about their final exams and reports: “I have three exams in two days,” “I won’t be done until the end of the month,” “I have to write organic chemistry,” on and on and on. My life is so awful, this life of scholastic and financial and social class privelege… (Ooops, sarcasm…not right speech!) This was not the environment I wanted to be in if I wanted to avoid falling into old negative thought patterns and attitudes.

On TV late one night I happened to come across a news episode on A Complaint-Free World. Someone had made a vow not to utter a single complain for a span of 30 consecutive days, eventually achieved their goal after several months, and found it so personally rewarding they were spreading the message to others. Sign me up! I ordered a free rubber bracelet online and wore it proudly for a long period of time, happy to share the message of positivity to anyone who asked.

I’m happy to report that I didn’t experience a depressive episode that summer (despite many 70 hour work weeks), nor anytime since. My past experience with professional counselling showed me the usefulness and effectiveness of therapy and psychology. Yet I was still aware that there was a whole other realm of experience that psychology missed, and I was still seeking some answer or place that would show me the way.


Quote: Widening Our Circle of Compassion September 24, 2012

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“A human being is a part of this whole called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. She experiences herself, her thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical illusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desire and to a portion for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to force ourselves to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

A Weekend of Lovingkindness September 16, 2012

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Less than an hour ago I ended a weekend lovingkindness Vispassana retreat. This was my first metta retreat, although I have been practicing metta on and off for quite some time. Back in March after a particularly difficult time in my own practice, I started practicing both metta and concentration in my daily practice. My metta practice took a break during the stressful transition across the country, but I have been back at it.

The opportunity to take part in a metta retreat couldn’t have come at a better time for me. These past few months, I am becoming more and more aware of being in touch with my heart, or my feeling centre as the teacher described it this weekend, or a deeper, more sensitive part of me that is usually covered up in my day-to-day busy-ness.

More and more often lately, my heart has been feeling quite vulnerable and tender, which is a new experience for me. I think I’ve always been more aware of my thoughts and my mind than my feelings, which probably hasn’t been helped by years of psychology training. So lately it has become a challenge, an open question that invites exploration, of how to take care of this vulnerable heart centre that is becoming more and more awake with more presence, more mindfulness, more awareness of myself.

Listening to my fellow retreat members describe their experience with the teacher’s instructions, it eventually became clear that some people are more in touch with their heart than others. Some people can just drop right in and find out what is happening. I’m not sure that it is quite so clear and easy for me at this point in time. Instead, it seems like it is only after a long period of sitting, or when a particular feeling is being stirred up, that I am able to be aware of my heart.

What I particularly liked about the teacher’s instruction this weekend was that the instruction of dropping into one’s heart, to become aware of it, doesn’t have to have a particular word or feeling name attached to it. Instead, it can be described as simply as open or closed. Am I feeling open, relaxed, receptive, spacious, loving, kind, generous? Or am I feeling closed off, tight, blocking, retreating, small, anxious, fearful?

For me, open or closed is a simple question that is easier to access. In a previous post I described how this comparison had become so useful in an application of sorting through physical junk and possessions. The awareness of open or closed feelings has become more and more accessible to me, and I am learning to put more trust in it.

As someone who seems to lean stronger in the direction of mental awareness, trusting feelings is a new one for me. I’m not used to trusting feelings. I’m used to using my linear, rational brain to sort things out, figure it out, get this analyzed and find the answer. Instead, trusting feelings is much more subtle and harder to tap into.

Another instruction I appreciated from the weekend was emphasizing the pleasure, the pleasant experiences of formal sitting practice. I think I have enough diligence and self-discipline that I can afford to be a little indulgent in my practice. In fact, taking pleasure might be exactly what is missing. Too often I think I am practicing out of a sense of “I should be doing this,” or even, “I have to.” Instead, the teacher said that you can do it because it feels good, its enjoyable, how can you not want to do it?

The other thing the teacher mentioned along this theme was to spend time being aware of the pleasantness of sitting practice in order to be familiar with it. In fact, we should make it our “home”, the place where we want to return to, where we belong, where we feel comfortable and safe. The more we know and recognize what it is like to feel relaxed, calm, spacious, and warm, the more easily we can recognize when we’re not that way—when we’re tense, tight, and worrying.

Finally, I wanted to add a very important note of how wonderful it was to come into the hall on the first night and see so many wonderful friends and dharma buddies that I have known and sat with for so long. Everyone was so friendly and so happy to see me, I felt so welcome and so happy to be back in my “home city.” I felt a lot of belonging, a lot of warmth, and a lot of love from all of my sangha members. I’m sending my metta to you all! You are all in me very deeply, everyone I’ve sat with has touched me in a very profound way.

Poem: Knowing and Wisdom September 16, 2012

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Knowing and Wisdom

Maybe I will go to the library

and look up some books

on mystical experiences

find all the authors

the mystics, the saints, the sufis

like a good scholar

familiarize myself with all the terms

emptiness, ecstasy, presence,

divine grace, born again, the light at the end of the tunnel

read through firsthand experiences

historical accounts, phenomenology

and critical analyses

discover what factors lead to these experiences

all the research,

the evidence, the empirical support

I can fill myself up with this knowledge

strengthen my mind for a while

arm myself with the necessary tools, the gear

prepare myself to enter the wild again


Isn’t not knowing

part of it as well?

isn’t that the entire point?

maybe not knowing makes me feel

small, too human

too cut off from the source of life

maybe not having the words

means I can’t identify myself

as different, as special

maybe not having a label

means I can’t stand up

and identify myself

and feel ready

to claim my true heritage

as a child of the universe

no, on second thought

I think I’ll abandon

that endless maze

that pointless rabbits chase

and just sit

right here instead

and feel the sun on my skin

– 09/07/12

Of What, Exactly, Can I Be Certain? September 11, 2012

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For the first time in as long as I can remember, I don’t have my life situation decided for the next year. Many circumstances are up in the air right now: What city I’ll live in, what company I’ll work for, what people I’ll work with, who my friends will be, what my job will be.

A result of this lack of concrete plans is that I am living more in the moment. I’m taking action right now in hopes of a future event taking place, but I have no guarantee that the future event will occur. All I am certain of is what is happening right now.

The lack of a seemingly secured future life situation provides me with some freedom, specifically freedom from planning mind. Oh, planning mind, my dear old friend: How familiar I am with you, as you are such a frequent visitor of mine.

Typically, with a more stable life situation in place, planning mind is off every possible chance, making plans, strategizing, scheduling time, analyzing, comparing scenarios, working hard to secure the Best Possible Outcome. And it will run off days, weeks, and months in the future, reading as far as it can, sometimes even years. It holds me hostage in the meantime, cutting me off from experiencing the present moment and from fully living my life.

In my current unique circumstances, I am experiencing some freedom from this planning mind taking hostage. Notice that I’ve said some freedom, not complete freedom. I can still catch planning mind going off on its typical tangents, into the future (“Oh, wow, this would be a great park to visit in the summer, just a quick bike ride…”). Then it would catch itself once it realizes that the planning is completely unnecessary and non-applicable (Oh, right, I might not even be living in this city, never mind close by. I guess I can scrap that idea then…). Its not planning for a practical, functional purpose–its planning just to plan! Just because that is the habit energy running its course. Its almost amusing how much this is a habit for the mind, and its almost sad how out of control it can get.

Along with a sense of freedom is also a strong sense of constriction or tightness. The planning mind can’t stretch itself fully into the future, instead it is just stuck with right now and the next little while. I feel constricted and claustrophobic. I feel as if I’m wearing clothes that are a few sizes too small, and don’t have a full range of motion. Or as if I’m cramped inside a tiny room and can’t stretch out.

I link this claustrophobic feeling to a strong, unfulfilled desire to plan. I want to jump into the future, I want to build up scenarios and situations towards which I can work, towards which I can look forward.

The freedom from planning mind brings anxiety from insecurity. I don’t know what the future holds, so I feel anxious. If I’m not certain of what my job will end up being (assuming I will get a job) it holds the possibility that I’ll end up with a “bad” job (it also holds the possibility of a “good” job, a point I usually overlook).

I want certainty so I can feel secure and know that my life situation is turning out okay, that things are going well for me. But I’m not supposed to want it because that is being attached and clinging to conditions and situations…

My experience has been a real awakening to open myself up to some deep, fundamental questions I overlook at different times. Specifically, is anything ever certain? Do we ever really have a secure life situation in place? When I ask of what am I certain of, I ask what is real? What is true?

Stability and continuity over time provide an illusion of security. But as interdependent animals with the capability of falling ill or dying at any moment, nothing is secure. The Buddha taught this as a fundamental law of nature. Everything is constantly changing.

Fundamentally, then, what is certain? This moment, my direct experience. Breathing in, breathing out. Being alive right now. This human life. The world unfolding before my eyes. The ground of being I can access at times of deep stillness and know is always there. That is all that is certain. The rest is faith.

Quote: True Love September 10, 2012

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From Breaking Up With God: A Love Story by Sara Bareilles:
“True love is loving what remains when all that beauty is gone, when all that is left is bareness.”

Quote: The Well is Within Us September 3, 2012

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(A quote from the book Savour by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Enlightenment, peace and joy will not be granted by someone else

The well is within us

And if we dig deeply in the present moment

The water will spring forth

Review: You Are Here September 3, 2012

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 Review: You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I recently finished You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. Much of what I read, I have come across previously in other books by Thay, but this book has been arranged so that the main focus and message of the book is specifically the present moment. The book is very small and very easy to read. It is an instruction manual for how to dwell fully in the present moment, and explains all of the benefits we can receive if we know how to do this.

If I could sum up the main message of the book, it would be this:

“I am here.”

If we are able to say this and know that it is true, then we know we are practicing skilfully. To be able to say, “I am here. I have arrived.” is the main practice offered in this book. It is a simple (perhaps not so easy) practice that can have immense benefits.

“The Buddha said, ‘The past no longer exists and the future is not yet here.’ There is only a single moment in which we can truly be alive, and that is the present moment. Being present in the here and now is our practice.”

The book also describes the miracles of mindfulness in the present moment, both for ourselves and for the other.

The miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can heal from the past. Thay explains how to practice skilfully with our past and not be lost in regret. We can also practice in the present moment to make right any unskilful actions from our past. If we have a painful past, we can practice to heal from it and enjoy freedom and happiness.

Another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can skilfully handle the future. Thay says it best in that:

“The future is being made out of the present, so the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment… Spending a lot of time speculating and worrying about the future is totally useless.”

Finally, another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we are able to handle difficult emotions if we are able to dwell in the present moment. Thay uses the metaphor of a tree blowing in a storm that appears as if it might be uprooted by the strong winds. The base and roots of the tree are firmly rooted in the earth, and not shaken by the storm. For ourselves, we can handle storms of difficult emotions by focusing our concentration on our bodies, in the space below the belly button.

Thay also describes how our dwelling in the present moment can be a miracle for others. In the book, the ability to stay in the present moment and focus all of our attention on another person is love. Our presence and undivided attention is a wonderful thing we can offer to others. There are some wonderful examples and stories of students who have learned this important lesson. I would agree that I feel most loved when I am acknowledged and appreciated by others with their full accepting attention.

Another part of the book I particularly enjoyed was a description of the benefits of practicing with a sangha. Thay suggests that a sangha can help us to handle storms of difficult emotions, and can help us to cultivate our own power of mindfulness, especially if we are just beginning.

Finally, the book ended with the story of a monk comforting a dying person (Teachings to be Given to the Sick), an anecdote I have always enjoyed the few times I have come across it. Here are some quotes from this section:

 “We are in the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies, ‘This body is me and I am this body.’ But we are not just this body, we are much more than that… We are life, and life is far vaster than this body, this concept, this mind.”

 “We should never forget that dying is as important as living.”

A point that I really appreciated was that we can ask an experienced sangha member how to improve our practice. Thay firmly instructs that our mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, with no struggling. If we are finding this is not the case, we are not practicing correctly, so we can ask someone else how improve our practice. For myself, this was an eye-opener, because I think I started out my mindfulness practice with the idea that if it wasn’t working or bringing benefits, I should stop practicing. Nevertheless, I understand the suggestion that perhaps I just wasn’t practicing skilfully or completely understanding the instructions. So instead of abandoning my practice that doesn’t provide immediate results, I could ask someone else for help (a difficult instruction for me, as I am quite an independent learner with a preference to read more books than ask someone for advice).

I would recommend this book for someone who is beginning the practice, or for someone who would like a short, easy-to-read reminder of the benefits of present moment awareness.

One final quote I enjoyed:

 “Our bodies and minds are sustained by the cosmos. The clouds in the sky nourish us; the light of the sun nourishes us. The cosmos offers us vitality and love in every moment. Despite this fact, some people feel isolated and alienated from the world.”