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Mindfulness Meditation: Perspectives from a Young Adult Practitioner January 25, 2013

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As a young adult who practices meditation, I think I might possess a unique perspective compared to my many less young dharma sisters and brothers. I often find myself being the odd woman out due to my age while attending various sanghas and retreats. Nevertheless, I think I might be in an advantageous situation by being treated favorably as a relatively young practitioner in an ageist society. I have also heard some thought-provoking comments from other people who can project a younger version of themselves onto their perception of me.

Let’s face facts: meditation is not something my age-mates are lining up in droves to try. Meditation seems to be part of the life stage of middle age or retirement, or “the kids have moved out and all of a sudden I have some ‘spare time’ on my hands.” As a young adult, I can often feel out of place taking part in sanghas and retreats when I can look around me and sometimes see only people twice my age or more.

I will admit I can become self-conscious of not fitting in with the rest of the crowd, but perhaps more so when I was starting out in my practice. Feeling out of place due to my age alone used to raise a fair amount of doubt in me, leaving me to wonder whether meditation really was the right path for me, or if I should throw in the towel, give in to (self-perceived) peer pressure, and spend my evenings watching TV or drinking at the local pub. Now I have just accepted meditation as what works for me as a person, regardless of how young I am.

I have sometimes found it difficult when the times for socializing with my dharma friends leave me with little opportunity to contribute, when conversations topics can center on living with spouses, in-laws, or children, dealing with coworkers or bosses, caring for aging parents, or managing a home. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer my perspective here! I am grateful, however, to listen in on these conversations when I am better able to understand my parents’ perspective of having a relationship with adult children.

On the other hand, one nice aspect of being a relatively young practitioner is that I think I am treated favourably or more “special” in sanghas because of my young age. In a youth-centered society, younger is better, because youthfulness and its abundant energy offers more possibility for doing and achieving, as well as more potential for acquiring skills and knowledge. The wisdom and accumulated life experience of our elders is discounted in a society that is rapidly changing and evolving. I can’t quite describe exactly how I might be treated differently, but I have a few examples.

People have told me more than once after asking me why I came to the practice that I have a “head start” on them for being so young. An unspoken assumption here, I think, is that starting to practice “sooner” at a younger age would be better. Could this be identification with “doing mind,” where more experience with a skill is inherently better because it leads to more expertise?

Another phenomena I have noticed while meeting so many fellow practitioners less younger than me is that people seem to have a tendency to project their younger self onto their perception of me. I have heard numerous comments similar to, “Oh, I wish I had been practicing when I was your age!” The funniest comment I will always remember was from someone who applauded my ability to practice despite my young age: “I’m just amazed that you are able to practice meditation. When I was your age, I wouldn’t have been able to sit still for two minutes!”

One problem I have with the projection of a younger self onto meditation is that it ignores all of the causes and conditions that bring us to the practice. Perhaps the subtext here is, “If I had been practicing sooner, I could have avoided experiencing a great deal of suffering.” But isn’t suffering what brings us to the practice in the first place? I will speak for myself by saying that if I hadn’t undergone the difficulties at the age I did, I wouldn’t have discovered the practice, nor would I have stayed with it with such determination. It is like Thay says, “No mud, no lotus.”

Another problem I have with people projecting themselves onto their perception of me is that it ignores impermanence. Yes, I will certainly admit that as a younger person I have the potential to enjoy more years than my less young friends, all things considered. Nevertheless, potential is far from reality. As someone very close to me has often liked to remind me very matter-of-factly, “We might all be dead tomorrow.” I may have no more of a chance to practice in the future than people two or three times my age. All we ever have is the present moment.

Finally, I want to end with a mention of higher education as a doorway to the dharma. I think many people, myself included, come to the practice as a form of stress relief, and university and college education brings a great deal of stress. Therefore, I think mindfulness can be a powerful and welcome practice for many university students struggling to complete their programs.

One reason university was particularly stressful for me was that I felt I had so much on the line. One low mark on one assignment wasn’t just one assignment, it was my entire future: a low mark on an assignment meant a low mark in the class, and a low mark in the class meant not getting a job or scholarship or not getting into a graduate program, and not getting a job meant not having a career, and not having a career meant that “my life would be over,” or so I used to tell myself at the time.

Clearly this type of thinking creates much more stress and suffering than it needs to. But I will add that although mindfulness might be used as a stress-relief tool initially, to receive the full benefits of the practice one has to cut to the very root of the disease instead of just using coping strategies to simply cover up the symptoms.

While practicing meditation as a young adult has brought some unique and often challenging experiences, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to gain perspective on applying the practice to this stage of my life. I am inviting some of my fellow dharma buddies to add any comments to this post. I am curious for some other voices to let me know if I hit the mark and spoke to their experience, or if there was anything I missed that would better describe practicing meditation as a young sangha member. Thanks in advance for your input!

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fog lights January 19, 2013

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fog lights.

Reflections from Weekend Mindfulness Retreat January 18, 2013

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Recently I had the opportunity to organize and attend a weekend mindfulness retreat where I am living. It was a wonderful experience overall, and I wanted to share just a few of many reflections from the weekend, including opening my heart, restoring my confidence, and hugging meditation.
Opening My Heart
On the retreat I was able to enjoy many periods of dwelling in an open heart. Numerous times I would be making my way around the retreat, as well as during walking and eating meditation, and I would notice or see my fellow retreat attendees, some of whom were complete strangers to me. I would feel an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for these wonderful living beings directly in front of me, simply for their presence. I also experienced a softening in compassion at the same time of their vulnerability to suffering.
This sense of dwelling in an open heart felt amazing: very warm, peaceful, natural, satisfying, spacious and expansive. It is only recently in the past few months since my weekend lovingkindness retreat that I have been able to recognize when my heart is open to others.
I think that an important factor to help these feelings arise might be the incredible safety and comfort I usually feel on retreat of being in a safe, quiet place, surrounded by fellow practitioners, and watched over by a dharma teacher. I am grateful that I was able to get a glimpse of that place of open-heartedness. I hope that I can use it as an experience to remember, and to which I can refer later: Oh right, this is what an open heart feels like.
Restoring My Confidence
The teacher asked us at the start of the retreat to really take some time to consider our intention for coming. To ask ourselves: Why am I here? What do I hope to get out of this? I spent some time trying to narrow down and clarify a few thoughts or themes going through my mind up until that point. One intention that came out that really spoke to me was my intention to strengthen and restore my faith in the practice.
I had a difficult time over the winter holidays sustaining my practice, to which I’m sure many people can relate, and I returned feeling quite depleted in my typical trust and confidence in practicing mindfulness. Specifically, I felt that maintaining my mindfulness practice was taking more effort than it was “worth”, or that I was putting more into it than I was getting out of it. Looking back now, I think I can see that I may have been lost in confusion and despair.
Regardless, I remembered from past retreats that these weekends usually left me with a stronger sense of faith and confidence that I am on the right path. I will say that my faith and trust was completely restore as soon  as I had the chance to practice mindful breathing and walking in a supportive environment. A large part of this restored faith also was due, I think, to sharing or enjoying the expressions of deep faith and heartfelt aspirations of others, especially of those who were new to the practice. I felt genuinely moved and touched by the sincerity of other people’s aspirations and the bare honesty of what people shared during dharma discussion and question & answer sessions. Maybe it reminded me that I, too, have turned to the three jewels in deep humility of not knowing all of the answers and turning to something outside of myself for help and refuge.
Enjoying Hugging Meditation
One part of the retreat I especially enjoyed was hugging meditation. I had the sense that I was really able to grasp the full meaning behind Thay’s instruction on the purpose of hugging meditation. This wasn’t my first opportunity to enjoy hugging meditation on retreat, but it was one time I felt deeply moved by it.
From my understanding, hugging meditation can be an opportunity to enjoy sharing the presence of another person. When we practice hugging meditation, we can be completely present for that person and recognize that they are here with us. I was able to relate to Thay’s connection of impermanence to the practice of being able to say, I know that you are here and I am so happy. Realizing that every moment of our and another’s life is precious, and all we really have is the present moment.
I try to really appreciate and savour every moment I share together with my loved ones. It is a chance to recognize that all of the infinite causes and conditions that had to come together for ourself and the other person to be here, alive and well, in this moment. I really was able to get a good sense of all of these teachings during hugging meditation. Perhaps it helped that I was so moved by the deep aspirations of others who took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and knowing that many more were considering taking the trainings. I was really able to see the good heart of everyone shining through and reflecting in their eyes.
Something I have been trying hard to do is to practice this with my family, and to not take for granted as much that my family members will always be here with me when I spend time with them, but that every moment I have with them is precious simply because we are able to be together. This intention is something I continue to explore and practice.
These are just a few reflections from my experience of a great weekend retreat. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to take part and to help organize the retreat. My task now is to integrate these experiences and insights into my everyday situations. Wish me luck!

Nourishment and Healing: Being in Wilderness January 11, 2013

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For as long as I can remember, being able to spend time immersed in wilderness and natural settings has provided me with an abundant source of wholesome states of joy and restoration. I would like to describe how I have incorporated wilderness into my personal situation, what this process looks like for me, and what effects I regularly notice. While I possess a need to be in wilderness that could be viewed as a weakness or a limitation, I have had to look at this tendency as a definite strength at the same time.

Thay puts emphasis on being able to come home to ourselves—body, mind, and heart—in the present moment in order to restore ourselves and to not be swept away by circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have always really treasured this emphasis and I will readily support the benefits of the practice of stopping, calming, resting, and healing.

When I consider the many different strategies or tools I use to take good care of myself—mind, heart, body and spirit—wilderness is certainly a prominent one. I have repeatedly and consistently found that our Eearth and wilderness has profound effects to restore myself in times of feeling severely depleted of well-being, health and energy and from burdens of anxiety, stress and fear. I could even call it my own form of “wilderness therapy.”

How does this process of restoration in wilderness occur? It has happened regularly enough for me these past few years that I am at the point where I have consciously built it into my personal situation. First, I am able to recognize feelings of separation from our Earth, alienation, loneliness in myself, the effects of anxiety and tension, and exaggerated self-focus of a modern urban lifestyle. Even if these states don’t happen to be present, I will go into wilderness anyway to receive a good “boost” to last for some time.

I make arrangements to spend any length of time, from at least 20 minutes, to a few hours, to most of a day. I avoid any distractions (talking on cell phone, listening to music) in order to give my full attention to my surroundings in each moment. I take my time while I explore and move around (walk, cycle, canoe paddle, ski, snowshoe) at a slow pace, enjoying opportunities to stop, sometimes to sit or lie down, and take in everything: to look around, listen to sounds or just the silence, enjoy the smells, feel the air and wind or my body against the ground. When I go into wilderness, it is a full sensory experience and I am fully immersed in our living world.

The effects after such an immersion are immediately noticeable and I consistently find that I am more relaxed and energized, optimistic, carefree, open-minded, and content. Of course, the “r” words usually come to mind most easily to best describe what happens: I feel refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, revitalized, and restored.

I used the word healing in the title deliberately; I do experience being healed when I am in wilderness. I don’t mean a cure for some disease, but healed in the meaning of the word “to make whole.” I am made whole again when I come back to and integrate a vital aspect of myself and my experience of reality or what is most real.

When I first moved to the city and experienced the split in myself as a result of being cut off from wilderness, I thought that I possessed some sort of weakness, or some defect in my makeup that put me at a disadvantage over other city-dwellers. And I believe this to be true; I am limited in a sense. I can’t live completely indoors without being able to get around outside daily (and sitting inside of a vehicle does not count!). I can’t go for any length of time, such as a few days, without returning to spend time in—at the very least—some sort of green space (a park, a forest, a riverbank, a field). I have to accomodate my regular short- and long-term routine around taking trips into wilderness. I can’t handle long, extended trips in an urban setting, such as downtown Montreal for example, or where I am stuck inside. And finally, I can’t live in the city long term. Also, I find that my need for wilderness and having the living world as my ground of reality leaves me not completely satisfied by the Buddhist teachings and material across which I’ve come so far.

Nevertheless, as a source of self-assurance and a coping strategy to deal with living in the city, I have had to acknowledge that my need for wilderness can also be a strength. First, my source of healing and nourishment is, thanks to my current circumstances, free to acquire and simple to fulfill. It doesn’t cost anything to go for a walk in the forest, or a bike ride along the river. I am empowered when I don’t have to give my power over to a corporation to be nourished, in contrast to purchasing material objects or services, such as an iPhone or paying for a massage.

Second, I think that my way of finding nourishment actually reflects a lifestyle that is more human in that it better represents how we can live happily and healthily according to our basic needs. I think humans have a need to be around other living beings—both plants and animals— and immersed in the natural elements, cycles, and rhythms of our Earth. This is how our species has existed for all but the tiniest fraction of our evolutionary time on the planet, and it is to what we are adapted.

Finally, I think that it is a strength because the wilderness is where I find the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings reflecting the true nature of reality. I find the law of impermanence in the shifting and moving clouds across the sky, the decay of an old tree trunk, the steady erosion of a riverbank, and in a cracked and mossy boulder. I discover the law of interdependence in a handful of living soil full of decayed plants and microorganisms, admidst the frenzied activity of a still forest, and in the soil to which a flower is rooted for its entire life. I see clearly the teachings of nonduality when I cannot draw a straight line between the wetness of the lake and the firm dry land of the shore, between the crisp warm air of late summer and the changing leaves of autumn or between the low prairie and the tall encroaching forest.

My need to be in wilderness has offered a profound and powerful way to be nourished and restored as a result of living an urban lifestyle. This trait has brought its difficulties in having to make accommodations for it by spending extended periods of time outdoors, but it is who I am and I have learned to embrace its benefits.