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Embracing the Sangha October 29, 2012

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Recently I attended a meeting with other members of my sangha for sangha planning, and I wanted to record some of what I shared there with my friends about two things: having a sangha and dharma sharing.

Having a Sangha

I really appreciate being able to have sangha in part because I know what it is like to go without one. For the past two years while attending school, I was living in a city where a mindfulness sangha didn’t exist, and I found this challenging. I was able to attend a local Insight group, but there wasn’t as much emphasis on socializing, and it just didn’t feel the same as my mindfulness sangha to which I belonged before I moved. Not having a vehicle, I was at the mercy of others to offer me rides to other mindfulness groups, which I really appreciated. In a way, I feel that my current mindfulness sangha to which I belong, which was the first sangha I joined on a weekend retreat, is my home sangha.

I had the opportunity after finishing my school program to make a decision to go anywhere in the country, as I wasn’t tied down by partners, children, pets, or any other dependents for whom to care. I made the decision early on in my post-graduate planning to live in a city with an active meditation community, and I remained (almost completely) firm on a mindfulness sangha.

I could go into detail about why I find that the mindfulness tradition fits best with me compared to the other groups I have attended so far, but I won’t (and I’ll save it for another post). Instead, I will just say that when I am in these groups and on retreat, I have the distinct feeling of “I belong here” and “This fits for me, for who I am.”

The only way I want to explain my priority on sangha is that I have made spiritual practice a central part of my life situation. Over the past few years, it seems to me that the more I practice, the more all or most of the other aspects of my life situation benefit, albeit somewhat in unknown and mysterious ways.

Dharma Sharing

Dharma sharing is one part of sangha and weekly practice that I most appreciate, and this seems to have been the case as long as I can remember attending sangha. It seems that language and words are very powerful for me and provide me with a lot of meaning. When I can hear another person explain some aspect of the practice or the dharma in a different way (different words, phrases, examples, definitions, metaphors) it can provide a whole new world of meaning and perspective to me. Often I will think, “Oh, that’s how you can describe it,” “When you put it that way, it really makes it different,” or “I never saw it that way.”

I’ve read many meditation and dharma books since I started practice, and I can absorb a great deal of information just from text. Nevertheless, reading a dharma book with all of its ideas and concepts can be entirely different from applying that information to my own life situation. I have a unique life situation compared to other people, I have my own personality, personal history, job, relationships, friends, routines, obligations, duties, etc.

Also, authors of dharma books are usually either lifetime practitioners or prestigious scholars (or both!). The people that write the books are the “experts.” When I started practicing, I had feelings of inferiority, which created skepticism: “Oh, sure, you can tell me all about the dharma, but what does it mean for me?” To hear about practice from other people is quite rewarding when these people are “equal” to me. They are just regular, everyday people, too, living where I live, and they also have their own jobs, families, and personal responsibilities. So when I can hear an actual real live person speak about how different teachings and practices fit into their unique life situation, it opens up my awareness to new possibilities for how to apply these teachings and how to skilfully make adjustments for my own opportunities and limitations.

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How I Came To The Practice: Part 6 – Seeking Spirit October 22, 2012

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(This is part 6 of a series on the full story of how I came to meditation practice. Click on the links for part 1 – My Christian Rootspart 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally To Mepart 3 – Asian Exoticism and Zen for Dummies, part 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction, and part 5 – Running From The Darkness).

In the few months of taking my recovery from mental illness seriously, I made an effort to spend some time outside every day. If you know me today, this might not sound significant, but it was at the time. I was living in residence where I never had to go outside at any time to attend class, visit the cafeteria, or see any of my friends. I was also taking school very seriously, considering it the priority in  my life situation, and often felt that I had little free time to spare. Maybe the break from drinking had somewhat freed up my schedule.

I would go for walks alone, sometimes listening to slow music on an mp3 player, and walk the paths dusted with light snow among the old stone campus buildings. It was on these walks that I found the Divine again.

In the privacy of a bench on the riverbank, while looking out over the water at the birds, I let the tears wash down my cheeks touched by the pale winter sun. I felt something else there with me on the river bank, something in the steady wind that caressed my face, in the clouds moving across the sky, and amidst the snow decorating the grey twigs and branches of the bare stubby shrubs. I felt something else I had known before, on my farm, on my far away, long ago home where I had spent almost all of my life at that point. I was reconnecting to something long forgotten, I was remembering something I once knew and felt deeply.

Back in my warm residence room, when I set the textbooks and scribbled papers down and donned the outside costume of winter jacket and toque, I left Andrea behind–that is, Andrea the student, Andrea the psychology major, Andrea the single woman, Andrea the insecurely attached, depressed Andrea. I was just me, myself, and I had a moment to breathe, a pause, space. I felt freedom. Freedom from the small self and a connection to the “big self.” I write this now with Buddhist words but at the time my interpretation was with Christian theistic language, the only religious or spiritual language I was familiar with: God, holy spirit, soul, sin.

I became a seeker. Psychology had helped me get back to start, to reset and heal my sorest wounds. But counselling only went so far. It couldn’t explain my experience on the riverbank, it couldn’t provide me with something else I needed, a way to fill a hole I felt inside.

I attended a few church services alone, but the heavy trappings of ritual and dogmatism and moral prescription turned me off when they reminded me of painfully dull Catholic masses of my youth. Any reference to God as he or him just made my stomach twist in revolt. Ugh. I couldn’t take it.

I spent some time seeking for something. School would overwhelm me for periods and serve as a wonderful distraction, but periods of pause and rest would bring up the same old questions, the familiar hunger. It was starting to be so familiar I was nearly taking it for granted. But luckily enough, I didn’t give up, I continued to seek until I found an answer that satisfied me.

Quote: Primary Meditation Instruction October 18, 2012

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"Let the mind-body settle into the natural state of peace and ease that is the natural state of peace and ease of the mind-body. Stay there as long as possible. Notice whatever arises to disturb that state of peace and ease." – Sylvia Boorstein’s primary meditation instruction

Learning from Difficulties October 18, 2012

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October 6th, 2012

I write this post by hand today but I have no idea when it will be posted online. A setback I am currently dealing with is severe eye strain, brought on by excessive use of a computer screen, and have decided to forego any online blogging until it has been resolved.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced eye strain, but this is the absolute worst I remember having it. I have tried all of the recommended solutions but nothing seems to still allow me to use a computer screen. This is happening to me now because my new job is primarily done on computer. This setback makes my new job a mixed blessing.

My job is a blessing because it provides me with a steady income (provided I will be able to actually perform my job tasks), lets me use my training, provides me with enjoyable, satisfactory work to complete, gives me more experience in my area of expertise, and allows me some stability in knowing what my life situation will be for the next while.

My job is a curse because it causes me physical pain, and in turn I feel stress and anxiety over not being able to perform my duties. It also disrupts the lifestyle I was used to, as evidenced by my blog post written on paper as of right now.

With all of the changes I’ve been experiencing, I am reminded once again how no single aspect of my life situation can ever be completely “perfect”, with all “good” and no “bad” or at least not for long. I’m trying to stop looking for perfect. I’m trying to say, “good enough,” and be satisfied with what I have right now.

My current circumstances have provided me with some learning opportunities. First, I have been able to notice how the mind runs off into the future at breakneck speed to create disastrous scenarios. In doing so, a bad situation becomes absolutely awful.

Example: Right now my eyes are hurting. Recalling my past experiences, I conclude that my current state has gotten progressively worse over time. Travelling into the future, this can only mean that my eyes will only get progressively worse, and the situation will not resolve itself, the problem will not go away. I will never be able to use a computer again. Since my job requires computer work, I’ll have to quit my job. My career is over. I’ll have no money, I’ll have to move. I’ll have to find a new job. I’m no disabled, homeless, unemployed, and unable to use my career training.

As Thay would say, “Are you sure?”

Yes this is what I’ve had to endure these past few weeks. Not that I want to endure it, I don’t consciously choose to be filled with anxiety and dread. But the mind goes off on its habitual paths, and I don’t have the skill to stop assisting in the process. So, to paraphrase Karen Maezen Miller, its hard to find any suffering these days that isn’t self inflicted, that isn’t caused by my own actions and beliefs and views of the world. In sum, the first lesson is how staying in the present with what is happening makes a situation much more bearable.

My second opportunity for learning is how mental stress and tension manifests in the body.

Example: I am at work looking at a screen. My eyes might not be hurting right now but I have the expectation that eventually they will, its only a matter of time. I view this future possibility as bad and it needs to be avoided. There is tension between what I am doing and what I want to happen. I create mental tension by trying to speed up what I am doing to still get work done but avoid potential pain. When I stop to take a break, I suddenly become aware of my body. My leg muscles are tense, my face is in a scowl, I`m barely breathing, and my shoulders are tensed high up toward my ears. I try to relax my body but when return to working the physical tension returns, and accumulates throughout the day. I go home in tight, constricted knots that won`t worsen at will.

I`ve also noticed that the physical tension can be created by and built up in one situation and be carried into another situation later. I’ve also found that being in a sstate of physical tension can leave the mind tense, nervous and anxious, even though there is no reason for the mind to be so at that particular moment. I’m seeing how clearly mind and body are linked.

I’ve also noticed how tension and stress as well as emotional pain gets stored in the body. Parts of my body release in emotional pain during practice when I try to relax my body in places where I never would have guessed emotional pain was being stored. When I release physical tension with relaxation and stretching specific muscles or the whole body, emotions, along with their respective thoughts, come flooding out: Hurt (“Someone’s trying to hurt me”, “I can’t take this”), anger (“I’m so sick of this”, “I shouldn’t have to deal with this”), frustration (“I’ve had enough”), despair (“I give up”, “I’m so tired”).

I’m reminded that difficult circumstances are an opportunity to develop patience. I need to just wait and see what happens and how this will resolve itself. Ultimately, I know it will be resolved in some form. Either my eyes will get better and I can return to work at some eventual point in the future, or I will leave the situation and quit out of an inability to endure the physical pain.

At lighter moments, I can also appreciate the fact that this is the biggest challenge in my life right now. This is an appreciation that is almost always helpful for me when it happens. I have enough perspective to know that other people are much more worse off than me, and that many other things could be going “wrong.”

As I close, I hope this post will one day be published as a confirmation that my eyes have gotten better enough to post it online.

Creating Reality October 18, 2012

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October 14th, 2012

Today is a Day of Mindfulness for me, my first real DOM in two weeks. I thought I would share one insight of many I have had lately. A worry that was bothering me recently was feelings of exclusion and alienation. (In part this may have been related to my difficulties at work that made me consider the possibility of leaving my area of work and training. In a sense, I eventually saw this represented a dying of my professional self, the loss of Andrea the researcher, and an alienation from that area of society. Feelings of exclusion also come up when I visit close family, when I see how some of my family belongs to a grouping of society I feel I can’t avoid and is a part of my self.)

I came to the realization that having a worry of, for instance, being excluded from an aspect of society, is created and fostered in the mind, and in turn further cemented there each time I return to that worry. Having a worry about one day in the future possibly being excluded is only an image, a mental construction. It can’t necessarily be completely true because the mind never has a complete vision of reality, able to see a situation from every perspective (to quote Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends”). My fear is based on my past conditioning that I project onto the future.

Furthermore, when I worry about myself falling victim to a possible future scenario, that vision is also a limited mental construction. That is, my idea of myself is a mental construction. I never see my complete, true self from all possible perspectives. My idea of who I am is always incomplete and limited. Therefore, I have no absolute certainty that I will be a person who is susceptible to falling into a certain scenario. Maybe I have a hidden capacity within myself that will allow that never to happen. Further, I have an idea that a scenario will be “bad” and will cause me pain and suffering, but I have no way of knowing that this will be true. One piece of knowledge that gives me great hope are accounts of other people’s life situations that sound absolutely devastating and dreadful, yet these people can amazingly report still being content and free from deep suffering and anguish.

Finally, each time I bring up and dwell on a fear of something happening to me, I further make concrete both the scenario being possible and myself being susceptible to that and suffering as a result. Which in turn makes it more likely the worry and fear will arise again in the future, and then further making the constructions real in the mind. And so the wheel of samsara ever turns, over and over…

What if there is a different way of imagining what could happen? What if instead of dwelling on bad situations being likely to happen, I create and add mental energy to wholesome and beneficial ones? Not to say that the beneficial ones will happen with absolute certainty, but that I’m going to give food to an expectation that they could. Anything is possible. I’m placing my bets on a different set of cards. I’m changing my default views and operating set of assumptions of reality, the world, and how I fit into it. If I give energy and intention to what is good being possible, I know it is more likely that they will happen.

Ultimately, I know that both “good” and “bad” scenarios are illusions and mental constructions, and thus not entirely real. What is real is what is directly happening now, which is beyond concepts and mental constructions. But I know that how I view the world and reality can drastically change what does end up happening. Now the challenge is how to strengthen and foster this insight and let it spread into all aspects of how I view the world, how I interact with and respond to what’s happening. Or at least to spread it to as many aspects as possible.

Poem: Morning October 18, 2012

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Sunrise

pink clouds across the sky

warming to the new day’s light

tiny birds fly across the window

suddenly there is more

than this kitchen

this breakfast

this body

so much more

Poem: I am not a facebook profile October 18, 2012

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I am not a facebook profile

I am not a profile picture

I am not a status update

I am not a series of status updates

I am not my likes

I am not my pages

I am not my relationship status

whatever a domestic partnership means anyway

I am not a gender binary category

slotted into either her or his

I am not  what TV shows I watch

I am not what movies I am going to see

I am not my favourite quote

 

I am not what music I listen to

I am not what books I read

I am not my webpage

I am not my blog

I am not my photo album

I am not what clothes I wear

I am not Gap, Levi’s, Plum, or H&M

I am not what car I drive

I am not Ford, Hyundai, or Mitsubishi

I am not the places I’ve travelled

I am not Thailand, Ireland, or France

little plastic magnets covering a fridge door

I am not what sports I play

I am not my religious or spiritual preferences

when you’re all spiritual but not religious anyway

I am not what I eat

low-fat, high-carb, gluten-free, locally-sourced

I am not my corporate sponsor

I am not Nike Adidas New Balance Reebok

I am not my disorder, my special label

I am not lactose-intolerant, seasonally-affective, bipolar

 

Who the heck am I?

Am I this body?

These eyes, this hair, this skin?

Am I my story?

My manufactured past?

My carefully planned future?

Am I what I do, my repeated actions, day by day, moment after moment?

Who am I?

Who is this?

What is this?

 

Well that’s easy:

Put down your cell phone

Close your laptop

take out the earbuds

shut off the TV

 

Breathe in.

 

Breathe out.

 

Open your eyes.

 

Stay

HERE

a while and let’s find out

Drowning Out My Inner Voice October 1, 2012

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Drowning Out My Inner Voice; or Music versus Noise

The path of practice can bring about some wonderful and very fascinating transformations. One transformation I would like to share is my use of music.

Before starting practice, I listened to music quite regularly. I would have music playing in the background while doing other things, such as housework, cleaning, laundry, surfing the internet, etc. (except reading, because lyrics disrupt my processing of written words). I had an mp3 player that had to be playing anytime I was walking anywhere that took more than 5 or 10 minutes. Music was my entertainment. I used music as motivation to be happier, as consolation when I felt down, and an energizer at the gym.

Lately I have been finding that music is often just noise. I still love to listen and/or sing along to my favourite songs, and enjoy the energizing feeling from time to time of upbeat music. But I’ve noticed that when I listen to music, that’s often all that I will be doing. I don’t need to have music in the background all of the time while I am doing other tasks. I don’t need to have music in my ears when I am walking somewhere—especially when it drowns out the sounds of birds singing, the other kind of music!

And I have especially noticed that my toleration of music has dropped. Whereas a few years ago I could listen to song after song, for hours on end, now I shut it off after a handful of songs with the thought, “ugh, it just sounds like more noise.”

Why the change? Is it just pressure from the Buddhist/ meditation community to enjoy and appreciate silence? Or Thay’s insistence that every moment of our waking lives is an opportunity to practice and enjoy our breathing?

No, I think its something else. Specifically, I think I have made friends with the voice in the back of my mind.

Before meditation practice, I think music was a way to drown out that inner voice that we all hear in the back of our minds constantly narrating our lives, giving the play-by-play commentary. I certainly heard it, loud and clear. And that voice so often was judgemental, critical, impatient, and filled with time urgency.

So music was a way to turn that switch off. I had a lot of other off-switches as well, including alcohol (a very effective off-switch), the internet, and reading. In other words, music was more than just entertainment, music was a distraction from my mental life, my inner life. Music was a way of ignoring what was happening in my mind.

Music still is a distraction for me. I still have plenty of distractions, some of them I am aware of, some of them I am still discovering.

But I think there has still been a big shift towards how I handle that inner voice. The voice of my mind is still critical, still judgemental, and still gets impatient. But not quite as much, I think. And I’ve also been able to tolerate it more, I’m able to handle the criticism and impatience. Because I just see it as part of a mind that is being used to do a lot of things all at once to fulfill a large number of desires.

And I enjoy silence so much more now. Silence allows me to relax, it allows my awareness to sink in to my surroundings. Silence can be a breath of fresh air, a huge relief. Silence seems to be more normal to me, more of the default than it ever has been before.

I have also made a big switch in the type of music I listen to. I still have CD’s leftover from my high school years filled with angry hard rock. I still have many songs of women pining over their only one true love, their only life (gimme a break!). Except for the rare trip down memory lane, I listen to songs that make me feel good, songs that lift me up, energize me, and make me see the world in a positive way. Feel free to check out some of these songs on my page, Happy Listening. I find that the lyrics to these songs come to me even when I’m not listening to them, and when those phrases and lyrics are in the back of my mind it starts to make me see the world a whole lot differently.

Quote: If You Die Tonight October 1, 2012

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(A quote from the book Learning True Love by Sister Chan Khong)

Thay to Sister Chan Khong:

“If you were to die tonight, are you prepared? You must live your life so that even if you die suddenly, you will have nothing to regret. You have to learn how to live as freely as the clouds or the rain. If you die tonight, you should not feel any fear or regret. You will become something else, as wonderful as you are now. But if you regreat losing your present form, you are not liberated. To be liberated means to realize that nothing can hinder you, even while crossing the ocean of birth and death.”