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Where Did My Breath Go? July 19, 2013

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These past few weeks have given me a few challenges to continuing my mindfulness practice, and I am able to see what these challenges are. As a result, my mindfulness practice isn’t coming as easily to me lately, and I feel that I have lost my breath and my present moment awareness. I am trying to motivate myself skillfully to restore my mindfulness without shame or fear or guilt.

I lost my breath. While it seemed not so long ago my awareness of my breath came so much more easily to me, recently it seems that awareness is largely gone. I’m going through my days these past couple of weeks almost completely in my mind, lost in thought, oblivious to my experience of the present moment within and around me.

I suspect losing my breath may have happened as a result of recently spending five full days out of town visiting relatives. Also, I’m sure my preparations for my upcoming trip are contributing to the tendency to be lost in planning thoughts. Finally, an important factor is that I’m working a new part time job that requires me to be rushing and keeping track of multiple objects of attention at once. I find it difficult to get out of these tendencies even after I’m off work.

I have been paying attention to what it is like to have less awareness of my breath, and I am finding that the state of mind in which I have been lately is not all that enjoyable. I feel that I am just rushing or moving from one task or duty to another. I can’t really sit still or be really comfortable with not doing anything but just being. I feel like I am missing out on life, the life that can be deeply experienced and enjoyed. I feel quite agitated and restless, and like I am mostly up in my head and disconnected from my body.

I can go great lengths of time without remembering to return to my breath. When I am rarely able to return to my breath, my mind is soon off wandering to thoughts and plans. My sitting practice sessions have been difficult when I see my mind wander off so easily and so often. It requires a great deal of effort not only to return to the breath but to stay there.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been making up a story about what this means for myself as a practitioner, including details about what I think has happened in the past and will happen in the future. I’m using my mindfulness practice as a criteria for self-judgement and applying labels of lazy and bad. This story only adds to the difficulty and the challenges posed by my present circumstances.

As an experienced practitioner, I know that motivating myself through shame and far is a very negative and unskillful way to be diligent in my practice. Instead, what I want to do is motivate myself positively and skilfully using confidence, faith, and patience. I want to get out of the story I’ve created in my mind about what a bad practitioner I am. I’m remembering a joke my dharma teacher said at a recent retreat: “I’m a little piece of shit and I’m the centre of the universe.” Its exactly that type of thinking that I would like to avoid.

The fact is, losing my breath or my present moment awareness has happened before. This is not the first time. All it means is that different conditions have arisen that do not support my mindfulness practice. And I’m able to see what some of these conditions are.

Therefore, I have been putting quite a bit of effort lately into restoring my mindfulness, my breath, and my present moment awareness. In my sitting practice especially, I have been trying so hard lately to be really interested in my breath. What’s breathing in? What’s it really like, not just my idea of what its like? What does it feel like? Where exactly do I feel it in my whole body?

I’m also reminded continually of some meditation instructions given to my by a recent dharma teacher on retreat: “Be present for this moment. Not regretting how much you weren’t present in a past moment, or plans for how much you will be present in this moment, but completely present, right here, right now.” When I heard my teacher say this, I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh! She’s reading my mind! How did she know that those are the exact thoughts going through my mind when I am practicing mindfulness!”  Her instructions are a helpful reminder to just be in the present moment without the added stories I contribute.

But I know that I’ll regain my present moment awareness, and I will reconnect with my breath and my body. I know I will because I have absolute faith in the three jewels. I know that when I sit on my cushion and I return to my breath and my body, centered in my safe island of mindfulness, that I am home. I have felt that feeling of groundedness and at-home-ness enough times that it has become internalized.

These past few weeks have offered a few conditions that aren’t supportive of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve noticed my breath and my present moment awareness is not as strong as it has been previously. Nevertheless, I am continuing to practice in order to cultivate and restore my awareness, but I need to remind myself to do it skillfully without shame and fear.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice sitting meditation!

Quote: Happiness February 15, 2013

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“We either make ourselves happy or miserable. The amount of work is the same.”

– Carlos Castañeda

Facing My Fears with the Five Remembrances February 15, 2013

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The Five Remembrances are a practice which I have found incredibly powerful in helping me to face my fear and to try letting go of my attachments. I have also found the practice helpful in allowing me to recognize and appreciate the many conditions for my well-being that are already present.

The Five Remembrances were suggested to me by one of my teachers on retreat to help me to handle unskilful habits. I have been reciting them regularly for the past several months. I silently recite them to myself every day at the very end of my morning formal sitting practice. I find that starting off my day with the big perspective like this helps me to not get as lost or stressed out by the small details.

I have modified the wording and rearranged the order of the five phrases to suit my own preferences.

Illness

The first phrase I say is:

I am of the nature to become ill.

There is no way to avoid illness.

This phrase brings up fear of being in physical pain and of being disabled by disease or injury. It also helps me to recognize the many wonderful conditions that make up my physical well being when I see just how completely healthy and able-bodied I am. I feel incredibly lucky to have enjoyed such great health for so long—almost as if I have “cheated the system.”

On the rare occasions when I do experience an ache, pain, or infection, I remember that I am not immune to these experiences but that they come with being a living being.

This phrase has also helped me to recognize sickness around me, not only in my loved ones and other people, but also animals, plants, trees, and the living world. When I do recognize sickness, I feel a connection to these beings when I know that I share the same nature.

Aging

The second phrase is:

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to avoid growing old.

This phrase helps me recognize the fears I have associated with old age, and to realize that the aging process is happening now and has been every moment of my life. As one illustration, I have a stronger eyeglass prescription and more dental fillings than I did 10 years ago!

The recognition that I am an aging living being is very humbling in that I feel a stronger connection to aging people, animals, and plants around me. I realize that that will be me one day if I live long enough.

The phrase helps me to recognize and appreciate the wonders and pleasures of youth. I see more and more how youthfulness provides me with power in an ageist society. Youth offers self-reliance and the ability to take care of myself with out the need for others to cook for me, or to feed, bathe, or dress me.

Death

The third phrase is:

I am of the nature to die

There is no way to avoid dying

I am able to face the fact a little bit more that my death is an inevitable reality, not just some vague idea that might happen one day far away. Death could be right around the corner, and human life is incredibly delicate and fragile. This one is a wonderful way for me to really let go when I see how impossible it is to make anything last or to keep any belongings.

Separation & Loss

The fourth phrase is:

All that is dear to me and everyone I love

are of the nature to change.

There is no way to avoid being separated from them

This phrase allows me to really look at what it is onto which I am holding on. Its a great way to wake myself up to unconscious assumptions that my current circumstances will continue into the future.

I see that I’m holding onto relationships when I am relying on the support and love of others in a greedy and needful way, assuming that these people will always be there for me.

I’m holding onto various circumstances and conditions for which I have preferences, such as my sangha, where I live, my job, arrangements for being outdoors and in wilderness, money, as well as my most cherished and prized possessions which I tell myself “I cannot live without” (this computer, my camera and photos, bicycle, etc.).

Karma

The fifth phrase is:

My actions are my only true belongings.

I am the owner of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Whatever actions I shall do,

whether for good or evil,

of that I shall be the heir.

The last set of phrases reminds me that, despite my inability to grasp the shifting and changing conditions that affect me, the one area on which I do have a firm control is my actions. I can decide whether to act for “good or evil,” although I prefer the terms positive/wholesome/skilful and negative/ unwholesome/ unskilful.

This phrase is a daily reminder to turn myself toward embracing the wholesome qualities within me, such as generosity, lovingkindness, and interbeing. I am reminded that unwholesome seeds, such as far, craving, greed, isolation, self-pity, and materialism lie deep in my consciousness, and I can take efforts to transform them into more beautiful qualities.

The phrase says actions, but I don’t consider “actions” to be limited to physical behaviour, but encompasses thoughts, speech, and actions. This phrase is empowering because it allows me to see that every single moment is an opportunity to practice the path and nurture positive qualities.

The Five Remembrances have been a very powerful practice for me, and I’ll continue to use them probably for some time as long as I find them effective. I would highly recommend them to anyone who wants to work with fear, help to let go of attachments, and to be grateful for the good conditions you enjoy.

Only One Dish At A Time February 8, 2013

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I have found a few instances where being mindful of the present moment can bring a great deal of relief from the stress of a mind overwhelmed by a huge task to accomplish. The title refers to being mindful of only being able to wash one dish at a time in order to complete the task of washing a whole sinkful of dishes.

Note: This is my 2nd post on the theme of washing dishes. Originally I had intended to include this piece in last week’s post Insights from Washing Dishes, but the post was getting a bit lengthy and I decided to use it as a 2nd post this week.

I often go through spells of doing a big batch of cooking at once to last for a few days, and this baking and cooking from scratch can create quite a pile up of dirty pots and pans. It probably doesn’t help that I am tired from a stint of cooking, but I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of making my way through a sink full of dishes to be washed. It can often require me to muster up a great deal of encouragement to convince myself to actually complete the task, instead of just procrastinating and leaving it for “later.”

This thinking about washing a sinkful of dishes is exactly the problem. I can’t wash a sink full of dishes. When I am really mindful, I know that I only have one hand to hold the dish cloth and one hand to hold a single dish at any given moment. In reality, my body can only wash one dish at a time.

Nevertheless, my mind tries to wash an entire sinkful. It takes in all of the information of the entire job to be done start to finish, projecting far into the future. In a way, the mind is “biting off more than it can chew”. And so the result is feelings of dread and overwhelm.

Mindfulness of the present moment can bring quite a relief to the burden of an overwhelmed and stressed mind when I can see that I only wash one dish at a time. And then one more dish. And one more. And one more…And so on  until finally they are all done! All that I have to do is to take care of this moment.  And this moment. And this moment. Wow, its so much easier! Suddenly I feel light, and a sense of ease; washing dishes really is more enjoyable.

I soon had an opportunity to apply this insight to another aspect of my personal circumstances. I dislike marking student term papers. Personally, I think its an impossible task, but I only think so now after trying very hard to do the impossible and undergoing a great deal of stress. In the midst of all of this, I was able to see that it was much more stressful to try to read through and mark the entire stack of papers from a whole class.

Instead, I could simply take one paper at a time, do the necessary work, and reassure myself that I can reevaluate at the end whether more time was available for further additions. Although the more methodical strategy requires me to trust in my capability to do the job efficiently and satisfactorily.

Nevertheless, I was successful in applying this insight to marking papers when I could concentrate only on the task at hand. I gave my full attention to a single paper at a time, and when I was done I set it down and let it be released from my mind. While I wouldn’t say marking was suddenly enjoyable, it was a great deal easier without constantly fighting with and pushing myself to work faster, or worrying about how long it was going to take to be done.

The insight of only one moment at a time can be applied to so many activities in my everyday circumstances in order to feel a sense of freshness, lightness, and ease. When I’m walking, it’s just this step, just one foot in front of the other. Just one piece of clothing to fold. Just this e-mail to write. To me, this approach embodies Zen when I give my full attention to whatever I am doing at any given moment.

I hope that I can find more and more activities to apply the perspective of only one moment at a time. It does take some mental effort, I will admit, to let go of the other preoccupations that visit my mind, and focus on the task at hand. In my opinion, this mental effort is an investment: it may take an input of some energy at first, but once it becomes more habitual, it pays off in the end when I use less energy and therefore have more energy and attention to give to the other activities and people I love. Thay has described it as an art to know how to live freely in the present moment by casting aside our worries. It is an art to know how to be skilful in where to focus my attention.

Insights From Washing Dishes February 1, 2013

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At the last sangha meeting I facilitated, I read the chapter “Washing Dishes” from the book Peace is Every Step. I had the chance to listen to great perspectives from others on the topic. I also was able to share some of my insights, including a reflection on the non-dual nature of dishes and the miracle of being alive in our day to day circumstances.

 

The Non-Dual Nature of Dishes

When I returned from a recent retreat, I took the opportunity to look for the dharma in as many different and new aspects of my everyday situations. I spent some effort trying to find some lessons in washing dishes, as I felt Thay put a strong emphasis on these and other daily activities. I really tried to pay close attention to my experience of the present moment with a very curious attitude. After a long period of time, I had a realization that I felt was the meaning behind what Thay was trying to teach.

In the middle of the process of converting a dirty dish into a clean dish, I realized that “dirty” and “clean” are just labels and concepts I apply to some experience of reality, when the ultimate reality is that they are just dishes. Also, my preference for clean dishes is only in reference to their opposite. I only want clean dishes because I don’t want dirty dishes; I want the opposite of dirty, which is clean.

This preference for “good” over “bad” can extend to so much of my experience. I want “happiness” without “suffering” and “pleasure” without “pain,” but the definition of happiness necessarily involves its opposite, the absence of suffering. Happiness and suffering are just two ends of a spectrum when the reality is the whole thing, the bigger picture.

I know that I can’t have happiness without suffering, just like I can’t have clean dishes without dirty ones. They go together. Unfortunately, I was told and believed the societal message that I can have one without the other. I can have happiness without suffering.

Applied to the example of dishes, I can put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and it will clean them for me. Thus I am absolved and avoid the “messy” task of cleaning dirty dishes. But as soon as I do that, I don’t appreciate having clean dishes, and I don’t know how to clean dirty ones! Which is a metaphor for so much of society and many of the problems that we collectively face today.

I don’t appreciate the conditions for my well being that are present in every moment: clean dishes; a meal of fresh healthy food; a strong, vital body; a safe, inviting home; a family that supports and looks out for me. All of these wonderful conditions take time and attention in order to enjoy their nourishment.

As a result of my insight into the interrelatedness of dirty and clean wishes, I was much more happy to wash dishes (at least for a short period of time!). I recognized that without the task of washing dirty dishes, I would have to be deprived of the pleasure of eating a meal. So when I was washing dishes, I was also eating, because washing dishes and eating inter-are. And because the meal I eat inter-is with everything I do with my energy from the food, washing dishes is also doing everything else.

Thus, I found a similarity to Thay’s story about his attendant fetching him to give the dharma talk and found Thay planting seeds. Thay was in no rush to hurry to the meditation hall, because he explained that if he can’t plant the seeds, he wouldn’t be able to give the dharma talk.

 

Washing Dishes As A Miracle

In the chapter, Thay says that washing dishes is a miracle. Unfortunately, I have usually found that my experience of reality does not fit with this statement from Thay. Nevertheless, now I am able to recognize that Thay is a poet, and much of what he writes is in poetic language for the purposes of sounding lovely.

In contrast, my experience of washing dishes usually couldn’t be farther from what Thay is telling us. To me, it usually feels like I am just washing dishes. No miraculous feeling here. Nothing more. Nothing special. It feels “blah,” boring, mundane, and unsatisfying.

More and more I am trying to see how the discrepancy is due to my idea of what a miracle or satisfaction or happiness should feel like. I am caught in craving for something other than my mundane, everyday circumstances. Or, as one author puts it, in wanting “a bright and shining moment.”

My idea of happiness is that it should be a lights-flashing, bells-ringing moment of “HAPPINESS!” This idea is what has been sold to me by my culture that happiness is excitement, as energetic and stimulating.

I am craving the excitement to overcome the dullness of my everyday circumstances. I have to remember that when this time of craving is indulged, it can never be fully satisfied but only keeps me searching for more, leaving me finally collapsed in exhaustion, my senses frayed and my mood sullied.

On the other hand, Zen teachings explain that happiness is peace, ease and contentment. My experience coincides with this, because the moments when I have felt that life—being alive—truly is a miracle has come from a place of deep stillness, silence, and peace. Moments when my present moment awareness was so strong that it spread out to encompass everything around me.

I will close with a confession that I continue to struggle with my dissatisfaction with the dull mundane feeing of my everyday circumstances. I realize that trying to ‘get away’ from these moments has actually already resulted in missing out on a great deal of my life.

Oh, and I still don’t really like washing dishes…

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!

May I Be Free From Tension: Practicing with Chronic Tension December 28, 2012

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A challenge that has recently arisen in my meditation practice is a great deal of physical tension that is causing quite a bit of pain and suffering. I have had the opportunity to look deeply into its causes and to come up with some strategies to alleviate the tension. Some changes I have had to make to help alleviate the tension and pain include changing my daily formal sitting practice, bringing awareness to the body off of the cushion, and cultivating compassion and equanimity.

For the past three weeks I have noticed chronic tension in my upper shoulders, an area that has given me trouble since I was a teenager. It is the area of my body where I hold any tension. The tension can get built up quite a bit and become quite painful. It seems the tension is there all day long, I even wake up and find that the tension hasn’t gone away completely overnight.

I wanted to look deeply to see the cause of this tension, to determine why it has arisen all of a sudden, when a few weeks ago I never noticed it. I realized that it started when I was given a new work assignment, where I had to complete a very challenging task over a one week period by a certain deadline. The work I did was very rushed, and I find being crunched for time is a situation where I often experience physical tension.

The work assignment was also difficult to complete because I never found that I was satisfied with the work I was doing. I was almost always or always producing less than ideal results. I finished the assignment over two weeks ago, but it has taken me at least that length of time to release all of the tension.

The first strategy I used to try and alleviate the tension was to change my daily formal sitting practice. I decided to use a concentration practice, and the object of my concentration was the specific area of the body that was holding the tension. I tried to pay attention to any sensations that were arising in my shoulders, which was difficult to do because it seemed so silly and informal.

I tried to pay specific attention to whether there was either tension or relaxation in the muscles, as well as pain or comfort/ absence of pain, and to try to focus on the exact specific area of the body. I am finding this practice to be quite challenging, because it is so difficult to maintain the focus of my concentration on such a small part of my body that often doesn’t seem to have any sensations arising to notice.

Another strategy I have tried to use off of the cushion is to try to maintain that awareness of any bodily tension in my shoulders. At times I can do this easily, but most of the time it seems I really can’t bring awareness to my shoulders at all. These practices have shown me just how much I can be numb to my body, or at least numb to specific areas, and how often I am dwelling in the mind and thinking.

It is difficult to try to maintain awareness of the body while trying to do other things at the same time. There are times when I am able to feel tension arising in my shoulders but I am not able to relax the tension. This is quite alarming and challenging to deal with, because it is that familiar situation of “I know that I am doing it but I can’t stop myself.” I know from experience that this can go on for some time before the next stage occurs where I am able to stop doing the unskilful behaviour altogether.

Another strategy is to cultivate compassion for myself. Ah, yes, compassion, that quality that I seem to be needing to develop more and more lately. I like the phrase I just came across from Jack Kornfield’s book, “May I be held in compassion.” I sometimes add, “May this/my sore, tired body be held in compassion.”

I also have had the chance to apply a reminder given to me by a teacher at a recent Day of Lovingkindness event that I am not my own fault. I did not knowingly choose to have this tension arise, but it is instead a result of the causes and conditions that made it happen, including my own habit energy. This reminder really helps alleviate the frustration I experience.

Off of the cushion, I like to use phrases to help relieve the tension, especially when I am walking. The two that seem to work best are, “May I be free from tension,” and “May I be relaxed.” I say them on the out breath and try to focus on releasing the tension as I exhale. One thing I noticed while using these phrases is that tension doesn’t necessarily only refer to physical tension. Instead, I recognize that mental, emotional, and spiritual/ existential tension can also cause a great deal of suffering. So using these phrases can be applied to any type of tension that builds up in the body or mind.

I have noticed that at times, usually the end of a formal sitting practice period, equanimity will arise and bring a lot of relief. I can hold the tension and pain in awareness and recognize that its just pain. Its just tension. There is no self identifying with the pain, it is just what is happening in this moment. It is not my pain. And I can hold it all with a calm, relaxed attitude and even a small gentle smile. The thought can arise that, “Its no big deal.” This is quite a relief from a habitual anxious, frustrated attitude about the whole thing.

Yet again, I am happy to be sharing what is arising in my practice and the ways that I am able to deal with it. This situation has given me challenges, but I am also able to recognize the positive aspects that are coming out of it. I recently listened to a podcast that reminded me that the Buddha taught according to each person’s individual circumstances and capabilities. So for me, right now, this is what I am applying my practice to. I also remember Karen Maezen Miller’s reminder that my life is my practice. Chronic tension is what is arising in my life, and that is what I will practice.

Its HARD Being Gentle November 23, 2012

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The past few months I have been paying a great deal of attention to how I am gentle with myself, or rather as is more often the case, how much I am not gentle with myself. I am harsh with myself in a number of ways, which I am sure I share with many people:

– I have very high expectations of myself, kind of an all-or-nothing attitude. If I can’t achieve a self-image or value all the time to the best of my ability, then I shouldn’t do it at all. I get quite idealistic about how I “should” be.

– I am harsh with how I spend my time. I can get quite caught up in paying meticulously close attention to how much time I take to do certain things, and I can get quite rushed and impatient.

– I am harsh with my energy levels, where I push the limits of how much energy I can drain out of myself in order to accomplish a task. I tell myself at certain times that it doesn’t matter how hard I have to motivate myself, I have to push my energy to get a task done.

– I am harsh with my body when I find myself a large amount of the time holding onto at least some degree of physical tension, usually in my upper shoulder/ lower neck muscles.

What I have been trying to cultivate is a great deal of self-compassion and love for myself. I try to use the phrase as often as I can “May I be gentle with myself.” The way of self-compassion is the way out of the suffering caused by harshness with myself.

What I have been trying to practice is gentleness, by trying to relax tension in my body, slow down, and ease up on the harsh expectations. Nevertheless, as simple as it sounds and as clear and effective an answer it seems, I am finding that it is hard being gentle. So why am I finding this so hard to do?

Perhaps it is because I have a great deal of very strong habit energy built up that is still playing itself out. Even when I can see myself being harsh with myself and I have a deep desire to live in a state of more gentleness, the habit energy still plays itself out and I feel powerless to stop it. I know I mention it frequently, but I spent six years as a full-time university student, and I know this experience has shaped who I am today.

Perhaps it is because I am becoming more familiar with wanting mind and wanting mind still has a strong hold over me. I am greedy for more “stuff”, “things”, tasks, events, achievements and accomplishments. I am seeing more clearly lately how I can be caught up in “creating a self” where I am still identified with what I do. I feel a need to “prove myself” because it simply isn’t enough to just be.

Perhaps it is because I find it so difficult to be flexible and make exceptions to my “rules”, because this means admitting defeat or failure and falling short of my ideals of perfection. It makes so much sense, but can be so difficult to do, to say that a task can’t be done because I am ill, not feeling physically or emotionally well, stressed, running late, I have low energy, or I made a mistake or simply forgot with too many other ideas on my mind.

Finally, the more I reflected on the question of “Why is it so hard to be gentle?” an answer I came up with was maybe having it all come down to feeling that I don’t deserve to be gentle with myself. I am not worthy enough of a person just as I am to deserve some rest, some relaxation, some imperfection or mistakes. Related to this is a feeling that being gentle means being a lot slower with myself, and that a perception that slowness would lead to a number of things: failure (I cannot be “successful” as in material success and status), lazy (and therefore being slobby and wasting away one’s time), and irresponsible (as in carefree and forgetful).

What does it look like to be more gentle with myself, when I actually am able to achieve it on the rare occasion? I find it requires a great deal of diligence and mental effort to maintain that state of mind, as well as compassion. I slow down and fewer tasks seem to get done, that is, the unimportant ones—accompanied by feelings of failure and disappointment. And there is a constant running thread of “no” being said: no, not now.

How I Came to the Practice: Part 7 – Finding Sangha November 20, 2012

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(This is the final post in 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 Dummiespart 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction, part 5 – Running From The Darkness, and part 6 – Seeking Spirit).

Some time after receiving meditation instruction, I received an e-mail list from the local meditation community list for which I was signed up. The e-mail let me know that a weekly meditation group was starting up again for the year, and it happened to be very close to my house. I saw this as my chance to check out a nearby meditation event to see what it was like.

I had never heard of the teacher, but I later learned that the teacher was someone who had taught meditation classes for some time. The teacher held the Buddhist weekly meditation group for people who either had never tried meditation, or those that had taken the classes and still wanted more instruction and guidance.

I biked over on a fall day and just showed up to the meeting place, a nice quiet little room in a basement of an old church. I really didn’t know what to expect, and I felt quite awkward and shy to meet complete strangers. There was only one or two other people there on that first day because it was one of the first sessions of the year. More people would show up gradually as the year went on.

The teacher led a half hour guided meditation. I found the meditation very easy to follow, in contrast to my own silent sitting periods. Afterwards, there was a dharma talk, and I forget the exact topic but I think it touched on suffering caused by attachment and clinging. This dharma talk really resonated with me, because I had the distinct feeling that this was true and applicable for myself: I knew that I was attached and clinging to certain things, and I knew that it was causing me suffering. Up until this point, I had been able to experience the relief and freedom of being able to let go of my anxious, worrisome thoughts during my own attempts at formal meditation.

Whether it was this first dharma talk I heard from the teacher, or whether it was during the few upcoming sessions I would attend over the next few weeks, I eventually had the very powerful feeling of truth. I felt that the teacher was speaking my truth, they were providing an explanation that described how I experienced the world. It was the sense that there was words being put on what I had always known, or known so long, but hadn’t been able to express it myself. Never before had I come across someone expressing these types of ideas that provided me with a sense of truth.

The discovery of the dharma was a very exciting moment for me, because I felt a shared understanding between myself, the teacher, and all the people who were following these teachings. I had the first taste of the dharma, and I needed to know more. I was eager to seek more knowledge to gain a better understanding. It was the sense that my truth was out there and I would be able to find it.

Being able to attend a regular meditation group provided me with the support to begin a regular daily formal meditation practice. Where I had gotten discouraged and given up before, I was now more determined to “get it” and master the meditation techniques for myself. There are likely a number of reasons why my practice was supported by the group.

First, I had the guidance of an experienced teacher, a real live person who I could ask questions if ever I needed. Not that I did seek the teacher out for questions very often, but just the fact that the teacher was regularly available was a big reassurance.

Second, I had the support of a group of people who shared similar goals with me and had a great deal more experience with meditation. I was supported by the group because I didn’t feel that I had to measure up to them or compare myself to them in any way. They were all very humble in how they described their own personal practice. Over time, I was able to gain the sense that, even when people had been practicing for a number of years, they still had challenges and struggles, too, in many different ways. What a relief not to have the expectation to be perfect.

Third, there was a social aspect to it that provided a sense of bonding. These people who regularly attended the group together took the time to get to know each other as friends. After the meditation sessions, there was always tea, where everyone had the opportunity to just sit and visit with each other. I felt very welcome by the group because it seemed that people were genuinely interested in who I was and where I came from. It was a nice feeling to have a very friendly group of people wanting to get to know you more.

Some time after first attending, I approached the teacher asking for suggestions on a book to read for more information about meditation. (I think the first dharma book I read was Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein). The teacher would also make announcements about upcoming retreats in the community, and, along with others in the group, would encourage people to attend retreat to deepen their meditation practice. I was quite intrigued, and very curious to see what a retreat was like. After attending my first retreat, there was no going back.

And the rest is herstory!

Being in Conflict With Myself November 12, 2012

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I had a very challenging experience last week that left me feeling quite upset for a while. It happened during the weekend where I sat down to do my formal sitting practice in the morning. As I sat, I became more aware of a general feeling that had been building up throughout the previous day. The entire practice session seemed to be quite difficult to get through, and I had a vague sense of some unpleasant feelings happening in the background. By the end of the session, the full force of these emotions hit me and I was left feeling quite rotten.

It seemed that I was feeling the full, burdensome, and heavy weight of a force trying to push myself to get a lot of tasks done (clean, organize, exercise, write, etc.). I felt impatient and rushed to be busy, so sitting still was in direct defiance of that drive, and therefore quite uncomfortable. It seemed I was holding onto a whole set of rigid expectations of what I “should do” and was “supposed to do.” But at the same time, there was another part of me that didn’t want to do any of the tasks out of a forced, almost violent, obligation.

It was as if there were two parts of me in conflict. The practice session felt difficult because these two strong energies were constantly battling each other out, dragging me along with them. The feeling of a forced compulsion to do did not feel wholesome, but instead felt rigid and forced, with negative motivations behind it (namely fear or anxiety and unworthiness). On the other hand, the other part of me wanted to be free of the constant burden of self consciousness. I wanted to be free of the weight of someone monitoring my behaviour to see if I measure up to my ideal self-image. In opposition to the need to do was the knowledge and wish that I am happiest when I have nothing in particular I “have to do” at any specific time. Instead I can just enjoy being in the moment, free from any rigid obligations.

I should mention that a difficulty I have had for some time now is this unwholesome compulsion to do as much as possible in a set amount of time. It seems this habit was continually reinforced in the six straight years I was enrolled as a full time university student. That environment required me to set my own schedule and plean ahead for deadlines in the far-off future, months in advance. I had to hold myself accountable for my own behaviour whether I accomplished tasks or not, so it was all very self-directed. …But that was then and this is now.

So how do I resolve this conflict? What I have been relying on as guidance for some time now, at least as often as possible, is a quote from a dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal on lovingkindness. First, the teacher revealed that in order to be kind to others, we have to have the time. Gil described how many people used a lack of time as an excuse not to be kind, or not to cultivate lovingkindness. The teacher countered that excuse by posing this question:

“Do you want to be really productive and get lots of stuff done, or do you want to be a more loving person?”

This way of posing the conflict really hit home for me. Even if I put happier or more free in place of more loving, I find that all of these qualities are what I really desire. This perspective allows me to let go of the desire to get lots of stuff done, and remember my deeper aspirations for my spiritual practice. Then letting tasks go undone and being less productive are worthy sacrifices in exchange for peace, happiness, love, and freedom.