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Understanding and Compassion Born in Suffering and Vulnerability July 5, 2013

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Recently, I went through an experience of a great deal of fear and anxiety that left me in a state of suffering. While I was able to take the time to generate compassion for myself, I still found the whole ordeal to be very difficult and unpleasant. Nevertheless, I did notice some important insights that came out of the situation when I saw that I was cultivating understanding and compassion for myself and others.

One day the other week I had an incredible amount of anxiety due to certain circumstances all coming together at once. Some of the circumstances had to do with making plans to go travelling (planning for trip, buying supplies, meeting up with fellow travellers), as well as other unrelated events (starting a new part time job the next day, roommate suspecting bed bugs in our house). A great deal of anxiety and fear about what I should do and what would happen in the future had accumulated all day. By the evening I felt awful. To top it off, I felt frustrated with myself for not being able to keep all of this anxiety under control.

At the end of the day, I set aside the time for myself because I decided that what I needed the most at that moment was to practice compassion. This decision to intentionally practice compassion was a huge difference compared to a year or a few months ago, because previously I would have more likely chosen to distract myself from my suffering.

It was really  challenging to stay with myself with compassion for as long as it took to feel better. I was amazed later at how much I avoided the temptation of losing myself in distraction in order to get away from my  suffering. But I still noticed judgement of myself that I didn’t have enough compassion to fix myself and make the painful feelings and thoughts stop right away. And these self judgements only added to my level of suffering, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

I had to hold the huge amount f fear and anxiety in compassion, which soon left me in tears. I twas probably the worst I have felt in a long time. I noticed that the fear was so strong that a lot of other feelings and thoughts were arising.

One feeling that came up was a sense of alienation. I felt alone and abandoned in my suffering with no one to help me. It reminded me of feeling like an elementary school kid on the playground when I’m being picked on by a bunch of classmates. Reliving these memories, I take the aggression personally and feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with me that leaves me rejected by others around me. I feel like “everyone” is out to get and to hurt me, and I’m not safe hear. I want to run away from this hostile situation.

Similar to this, the other feeling that arose was a strong sense of betrayal by others, as I mentioned above. I also felt betrayed by life, by this world in which I live. My expectation of the world and this human life as happy and benevolent was shattered when I experience this much suffering.  I felt humiliated and deeply regretting the stupid mistake of thinking that by paying attention to the positive I could be happy. I felt that I couldn’t trust life anymore to deliver happiness. Whatever happiness I had experienced before was a mistake and I shouldn’t count on it again.

Finally, in this deep state of fear, I also felt like I regressed or went back in time to a younger self. For a short while I felt like I was just a crying toddler again who just wants her parents to hold her and make it all better. All I could do was send out a powerful wish with my whole being to the universe, “May I be taken care of.” In that moment, I didn’t feel like I could take care of myself, but I needed to be looked after by someone or something outside of myself.

I was getting in touch with my vulnerability, and I will admit that in the moment I didn’t like it. I hated it. It was nothing but bad news. Here I thought as an adult I was in control and independent. But the wake up call that inside me is a needy, dependent, helpless, crying toddler was very painful to see.

Afterward, when I had recovered my sanity and felt much better, I realized that this vulnerability isn’t all bad news. It has good news, too. It has good news because it wakes me up to the truth that I am interdependent on everyone and everything around me to keep me alive, safe, healthy, and happy. I am not 100% independent and in control. I can’t do it all myself, all the time. Understanding was being born.

It is good news because seeing my vulnerability only makes me tender and gentle in response. I see that I am a fragile, precious living being, and I need to be cared for with great kindness. The hard rough hands that were gripping me in harsh self judgement earlier now get transformed into softness and gentleness. And I know that all living beings have exactly the same vulnerability and I can only treat others with the same kindness. Compassion was being born.

I share these thoughts in the hopes that others won’t feel alone when they feel the same way. And I hope to not feel so alone myself when I openly acknowledge these feelings that are at times too difficult to see.

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Listening to My Heart , Surrendering to Pain – Part 3 June 28, 2013

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(This is part 3 of a series entitled “Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain,” continued from my last post, part 2. The theme of the series is learning to listen to my heart by turning toward fear and trusting that I am aligned with the force of love.)

I gave into the pain that was building for so many months. I surrendered to it and decided to leave the cycles of suffering caused by my separation from our Earth. In a way, the decision had already been made long before, I was just making it official by consciously acknowledging it. The decision was made each time I felt the pain of being separated from wilderness and desparately wished to be free from that suffering. When I saw the way out of not living in the city, I took it.

I made up my mind to listen to my heart. What for so long had been felt as a wall of building fear and pain was now transformed into incredible relief and peace. Tears were streaming down my face and I let out sobs of relief. I still felt fear, but it wasn’t as paralyzing as what I had felt before. Now it was simply the fear of the unknown and wondering how the details would turn out.

I knew that I was listening to my heart by simply accepting what was being told to me. I knew that the force that was driving me to make my decision was the force of love. I was learning that this force is the most powerful force in the universe. As long as I am guided by it and aligned with it, as long as I am letting it push me downstream like someone being pushed in the currents of the river, everything would work out just fine.

My decision to leave the city wasn’t something I was about to do right away. I let any thoughts or fears about how I would make it happen drop away. It wasn’t necessary to do it right now. I would keep my intention and let things unfold as they would. I had absolute faith that the right opportunity would arise at the time I needed it.

My decision to leave the city did end up killing the professional self. I had to let Andrea the researcher die. All of the stories I had made up about her, all of the roles I would play, the accomplishments I would have, were now not going to come true. I let them unravel and fall away. A great deal of confusion was happening during this process. It seemed that I was mourning or grieving a lost self, a self that had once been carefully created but was now withering and dying. Strong emotions of grief and disappointment were coming up for me for quite some time during the period of grieving.

Since that day I have experienced a great deal of doubt and isolation because I feel that I am distancing myself from so many people I know. Because I believe myself to be “going against the stream” or in opposition to the widely-held values in my current wider society, I fear people would label me as weird or crazy. I haven’t told anyone about my decision except one person close to me when I wanted to express my doubts. As for anyone else, I’ve kind of hinted at the possibility and left it at that. I have only merely stated, “I’m not sure if I want to live in the big city in the long run,” and let people use their own definition of big city (which I’m sure is much different than mine!).

I feel isolated and facing some doubt because I don’t have a way to express myself in my need to be in wilderness. This article certainly helps. But the fact remains that wilderness, outdoors, and connection to our Earth and plant and animal sisters and brothers are not widely held values in my mainstream society. There is no language for me to speak about these values that are more real for me. So I am silenced until the time I can find a way to speak my own truth.

In the months since I made my decision, I have felt the doubt and isolation dissipate a little bit. I have come to see from conversations with my fellow urban-dwellers that these people probably want to live outside of the city as much as I do. Unfortunately, there are likely many reasons holding them back: commitments to partners, children, or aging parents; having to work in a certain job to pay off debts including student loans; less education or training and therefore fewer options for earning money; or just perhaps lacking the courage to make the decision to leave behind the luxuries and conveniences of the city. I have to feel compassion for the people who desparately wish to be closer to wilderness, but don’t have the options and freedom that I currently enjoy.

As I write this post, too, I have to remember the wisdom teachings of impermanence. Just because I have an intention to do something in the future, and even if my current circumstances are pointing in a certain direction, impermanence tells me that anything could happen to intervene with my plans. Life happens, circumstances arise, and perhaps I may have to let go of this idea once again. Who knows, maybe I will leave the city and find out that there was too much here that I would miss, but I wouldn’t know until I do without. Only time will tell, and the only way I find the answer is by doing it.

Listening to My Heart , Surrendering to Pain – Part 2 June 21, 2013

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(This is part 2 of a series entitled “Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain,” continued from my last post, part 1. The theme of the series is learning to listen to my heart by turning toward fear and trusting that I am aligned with the force of love.)

I felt intense fear because I was afraid of living without that self-image of my professional self. To be without all of those labels and self images onto which I had held for so long was scary. I wouldn’t know who I would be without them, they were the definitions by which everyone mostly knew me. To be without the self-image posed to much uncertainty, too much that would be unknown. It was as if I would have to reinvent a new self, and that was very scary and confusing.

Because I identified so strongly with my education and training and what I did, without them it seemed like I would be nobody. I wouldn’t exist. The message I had learned was that being a person or a human in my society is to live out one’s professional identity or career.

The possibility of letting my professional self die was also scary because it just felt wrong. I felt like it would be making a major mistake which I would later regret. It seemed that so much of what I had been told to do by so many people around me and so much of society was that letting my professional self die was wrong, it just was something people didn’t do. Following one’s professional training was how I was supposed to fit into society and follow the rules. If I continued to follow the messages given to me, then I would have no alternative but continue in my professional training. It was something I must do.

My fear at abandoning my professional self was related to my ideas of success. I had learned that a professional self and one’s career represents success in my society. A person succeeds at “life”, for the most part, when they succeed at their career. As a 21st century feminist, I certainly identified with that idea of not wanting to identify myself in relation to others or as a role I serve to others, such as girlfriend, wife, mother, etc. Instead, I wanted to be successful as an independent woman. If I didn’t use my professional training, I would not be successful as a person, and therefore I would be viewed as a failure by others.

Nevertheless, no matter how afraid I was at considering not living in the city, or how much I rationalized the logical sense of my decision, I still felt the pain of being separated from wilderness while living in the city. At what point does my tolerance for the pain give out, and I surrender to it by turning toward fear and the unknown?…

One cold winter day on the farm I went for a walk down the road and went off the road to walk into the forest. I came across a small clearing where some trees had fallen or been cut away, and there was an open space with the bright sun shining through. I spent some time standing and breathing, feeling the silence and taking in the white snow. A few feet away stood some young trees that were tied with ceremonial flags from my native neighbours. The once bright colors were now bleached from their exposure to the direct sunlight. The flags, left there intentionally and purposely in the space so long ago, added to the feeling of the space as sacred and meaningful.

I looked up at the trees circling around me, tall thick dark spruces amidst bare light-colored poplar. A breeze came up and suddenly the trees came to life for me. The wind gently moved the trees back and forth, swaying steadily side to side. Their branches rustled up and down like arms waving to me. The trees were dancing for me. Their arms moved in an urgent gesture to send me a message of encouragement. 

I knew what I had to do, and the Earth was speaking to me through the trees to give me the courage to do it. The Earth was giving me the courage to listen to my heart, even though to do so was scary and painful. I had to face my fears and do what I knew was right.

To be continued next post…

Listening to My Heart, Surrendering to Pain – Part 1 June 14, 2013

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What do you do when listening to your heart means facing incredible fear and pain? Do you turn toward the fear, trusting that your heart is being aligned with the force of love? Do you give into the pain when the pain of not following your own heart is many times more unbearable?

Several months ago, I landed my first job out of university and moved to the city. My new job has been in an office for part time hours, where I spend the majority of my work indoors staring at a computer. The long hours spent indoors has meant that I had to get out of the city as much as I could. I started to get sick of my surroundings after any length of time. I took the few chances I could to escape the city and stay a weekend at my farm several hours away.

When I was back in the wilderness, I would be healed from the sickness that too much city had created in me. This sickness was simply due to being separated from Earth, from the ground of my being that is real and wholesome. I experienced healing as both joyful and painful at the same time.

Healing and being restored to wholeness was joyful when I could again rest in what felt real and true. But healing was also painful because it revealed that I had a sickness or a wound up until that point that needed to be healed. Otherwise the sickness would be hidden and denied for me to see, festering below awareness. This wound had to be hidden or avoided in order for me to function in an urban setting.

After many experiences of the same painful revelation of wounds that seemed to happen in such a similar repeated pattern, I started to question why I was letting this happen to me. Why was I allowing the wound to be inflicted in me in the first place? If this is so painful, why do I continue to repeat the same behaviour that creates it to begin with?

I wanted freedom from suffering, from going around and around in circles of healing and pain. I wanted out. I wanted to cut the pain at the root and avoid the whole process altogether.

The problem was that I felt completely trapped and stuck in this cycle of suffering. I didn’t feel that I had any real choice at all but to stay living in the city. My education and training meant that the jobs that would match my qualifications would be almost all found in larger urban centres. If I wanted to make a “living,” I had to do it in a city.

(Note: Many people have suggested to me the option of living on an acreage just outside of the city and commuting into work, but for the past several years I have decided not to take that option myself. Right now, I consider it unethical for me to use anything other than human-powered or public transportation for daily commuting, due to the effects on my health and our environment.)

Eventually I started to question my hard and firm decision to only make a living in the city. I started to chip away at the huge block of stone that was my firm resolve. I wondered if I really had to earn money using my education and training.

As soon as I really started to seriously ask myself this question, I suddenly felt an intense amount of fear and panic. To consider abandoning my education and training was at the same time to consider killing the professional self, so to speak. The professional self represented the image of Andrea who was a psychology student, a researcher, a master’s degree graduate. That self had all of the labels I had attached to myself as part of my university career, such as smart, intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful, educated, analytical, and expert.

The professional self had so much invested because I had built up that self image through so many years of very hard work. I had to put that huge investment to good use by working in my field of training. I had to earn money back that had been invested in paying tuition. To throw away or kill that professional self would be similar to throwing away all of that hard work and effort. If I threw away that self, all of the labels attached to that self would be thrown away, too.

To be continued next post…

Be Still and Heal June 9, 2013

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I have experienced incredible healing from deep suffering in my meditation practice, and the healing process is a challenging one to handle skilfully. First, I have to create an environment of stillness and stability in order for past pain to arise on its own. Then I have to turn toward difficult emotions in compassion. Perhaps the healing happens on its own, its not really me, Andrea, doing it. I just create the conditions for it to happen.

In my last post I described how I experienced a great deal of healing from past suffering using my mindfulness practice. When I wrote that post, the section describing how I experienced the healing process had become quite long, so I decided to write it as a separate post.

calligraphy

At the moment, my meditation “altar” consists of a paper copy of the above calligraphy by Thay taped to my bedroom wall. I truly treasure this calligraphy as an altarpiece because I do believe my meditation practice is the work of healing. Healing is making whole, as the word heal comes from the root word meaning restoring to wholeness. I am restored to wholeness when I can transform past suffering into peace and freedom.

The first part of these instructions is to be still, and stillness needs to happen first before healing can take place. I need to be still in body by sitting and not moving around. I stop interacting with and reacting to stimuli in my environment. I need to be still in mind by considerably slowing down the endless tracks of discursive thought that keeps me going around in circles, accumulating anxiety and tension along the way.

When I am still, my mind-body-heart knows that I am safe. I am free from potential dangers, free from self-judgement, self-criticism, and harshness. I am in a place where I feel supported and protected. In this safe place, I can truly rest, and my guard is let down.

These are the conditions I create in order for the healing to take place on its own time. It isn’t really me doing the healing, but I let it happen on its own accord. When my guard is let down, suffering that has been accumulating will suddenly resurface, out of nowhere and without warning.

This suffering has been accumulating from past circumstances when I didn’t have enough awareness or resources to take the time to deal with the suffering. Past suffering have could been caused by an experience where I was overwhelmed in despair or confusion.

In a safe place of grounded mindfulness, I can see that a moment of despair is not the whole truth. It was just a moment, and I can take refuge in a place of clarity and stability. I rest in a new moment where despair or confusion is no longer present.

The suffering resurfaces because it needs to have new meaning made out of it. It needs to be expressed in at atmosphere of mindfulness and compassion. Past suffering resurfaces in the form of difficult emotions so that it can express itself and be released.

Emotions of fear, grief, sadness, or despair will arise, sometimes with a past memory attached to it, sometimes not. When these emotions arise, the real work of meditation practice takes place. Usually, when a difficult emotion arises, my first instinct is to run away or close down. “It hurts, its too painful, I want it to stop, it feels wrong.”

On the contrary, the solution lies in turning toward a difficult emotion. I move toward it, open up my awareness in interest and curiosity: “Oh, fear is arising. Fear is present. What’s this like? What’s happening here?”

A very important ingredient, perhaps the most important ingredient, is compassion. I have to make very sure that turning toward difficult emotions is done out of love and compassion, not out of sadistic self-torture or to fix my broken self. It is very challenging to skilfully make this distinction. I have to make sure that I do it because I love myself and I don’t want to be in unnecessary suffering. I care about myself and I take good care of the difficult emotion.

To skilfully handle difficult emotions, I have to stay grounded in the present moment. I try to only handle one moment at a time, to slice up the stream of experience into a razor-thin slice of moment by moment experience. This is what is happening now. I try to steer clear of adding the dimension of time to what happens, which only adds fear and exacerbates the hurt. I try to avoid thinking about how this emotion has happened before or has been with me for so long. I try to avoid thinking about how the emotion will stay with me “forever” or at least a long time into the future.

To me, healing is real, I have experienced it as a reality. Interestingly, images can come to me that perfectly illustrate the healing that I feel is happening internally. I’ve had images come to me of a closed lock being opened by a key, or of jammed gears loosening up and turning. I will state what I have been taught and now accept as true for me: suffering can be transformed into freedom, liberation, happiness, and peace.

My meditation practice has offered me the opportunity heal a great deal of past suffering. But before healing can take place, I need to be still in order to have a sense of stability and security. Stillness is a condition I create in my meditation practice, and once difficult emotions arise, I have to know how to handle them with great compassion and care.

Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 4 May 24, 2013

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(This is part 4 of a series on how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. Read part 3 here.)

Then something unexpected happened.  I had expected that letting my mother know I had forgiven her would bring a great deal of relief. I assumed I would feel better and that energy being held up inside would be freed.

Instead I felt noticeably worse for a good week or two. I was quite emotionally upset, bearing through waves of great sadness, grief, and fear. My mood was depressed, and I lacked my usual amount of energy. Seeking solitude, I stayed in my room at home to try and deal with what was coming up. I was starting to get worried about what was happening, and wanted to know what the cause was.

It didn’t take long to see that the difficult emotions were a result of opening up a part of my awareness that before had been hidden for so long. A very vivid image came to me that best illustrated how I felt. The image was of a light being turned on in a large room to reveal an entire corner of the room previously cloaked in darkness. The light was the light of my conscious awareness seeing clearly and directly. The room was my mind or my consciousness, and the hidden corner was my storehouse of memories. The sudden change in my awareness seemed to be as explicit as the switch of a lightbulb.

I now had access to an entire block of memories from very long ago that were memories of my mother. Somewhat surprisingly, these memories were pleasant memories, or if not pleasant than at least neutral. The memories were far different from the painful ones that I used to be convinced were the only memories I had of my mother.

Why had these memories come to me so suddenly? They were tied up in the pain I had felt at an earlier age, pain that had left a lasting effect on me. The anger and hatred had been keeping the pain locked in place, hidden safely in forgetfulness so I didn’t have to face the pain. As long as the pain was still there, as long as I refused to face it, the memories were invisible as well, as if they never existed.

As soon as forgiveness entered the picture, the anger and hatred could dissolve, and the pain was opened up. The sadness, grief, and fear I was feeling were from this pain being exposed.

So if these were pleasant, or at least not painful, memories, why was I still feeling such difficult emotions? It was as if I had to reprocess each one of these memories one at a time. When these memories came into my awareness, I re-experienced the pain associated with each one that I had felt at the time when the memories were locked away.

I was being healed, or perhaps more accurately, I was allowing the healing to happen on its own.

What was so absolutely amazing to me is that there actually are real happy and warm memories of my mother. A few years earlier I would have been absolutely convinced beyond a doubt that such memories weren’t possible. I couldn’t believe how much mental energy was being used to keep these memories hidden! My mind was trying so hard to tell me the memories weren’t there, and trying to prevent me from facing reality.

A huge insight from this whole process was that memories are not real. They are only constructed images of the past meant to serve a purpose at the time that they are remembered. If I am in a depressed mood when I try to remember what has happened in the past, depressed memories will be brought up. On the other hand, if in the moment I am in a happy mood when I look back on the past, happy memories will be brought up. The more time spent in one of these moods, and these memories are brought up, the more these memories begin to shape our perceptions of reality.

This insight into the non-solidity of memories has allowed me to let go of the past more and embrace being grounded in the present moment. I am also more likely to qualify what I say, as I have throughout this series of posts, with “or at least, that’s how I remember it,” because I know that my memories are not the absolute and final truth.

Quote: Losing Control March 30, 2013

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Most people move in constant opposition to themselves because they are afraid that if they do not oppose themselves all the time they will lose control and something awful will happen.

– Alan Watts, in Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life

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.

Staying True to My Inner Purpose November 30, 2012

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Recently I had to make a difficult decision, and I was incredibly grateful for my sense of my own inner direction that has been cultivated through my mindfulness practice. At the same time, I am finding it challenging to stay the course of the values and priorities that are important for myself, when it seems I am contradicting what is expected of me.

It happened last week when I had a meeting with a researcher with whom I had previously made arrangements to do some part time work. The hours I was anticipating I would work for her would be an addition to my current part time job. Nevertheless, when I showed up for the meeting, she told me that she didn’t have any extra hours for me to work, but instead she wanted to offer me a job. She explained that one of her staff members had just quit, and she wanted to give me the chance to consider and accept it.

The whole situation was a complete surprise, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell her yes or no on the spot. Any difficult decisions I have made lately have always been slow and deliberate. I knew I would need to take the time to think it over and decide what I really wanted to do. I was incredibly grateful that I could rely on my practice to be able to clarify what exactly my inner purpose is and how to make the right decision.

I knew that I needed to go home, away from work and the office, and spend some time letting it all sink in without trying to think about it too hard (I was going to do be doing that anyway without trying). I needed to see the situation for my whole self, not just my professional or work self. I needed to clarify just how exactly this decision would fit in with the rest of my life situation and the commitments in which I am involved.

I was quite torn when trying to make a decision, because there were great reasons to accept the offer, but also some important reasons to decline. I wanted to accept the offer to get more hours and more money, and also because I could see it leading to a career path I wanted to go down. At the same time, accepting the offer would mean there would be other things that I would have to give up in order to work the job.

After some time, I connected with my inner self and found the answer I was looking for. I knew that at the times when I was really still, calm, and quiet, that a tiny voice had been speaking up and telling me ideas about what I should do that were completely different than where I am now, and where this job would take me. I still felt quite scared because I felt an major conflict in the decision. I knew what I wanted, but what I wanted seemed to be in direct contradiction of what I thought I should do or what was expected of me (by society and by those closest to me).

In the end, I came up with my answer: No, I wouldn’t take the job. Declining the job felt like a failure, and at times I ended up feeling ashamed and that I had lost a valuable opportunity. I felt quite sad because it seemed that other people wouldn’t be able to understand where I was coming from, even though I knew that I understood for myself what I needed to do. There was some reassurance, though, for me because I had a strong sense that another opportunity would fall into place and come to me without me trying too hard. I just had to be patient and it would eventually all work out just fine.

After spending so much time worrying about my decision, and dealing with the feelings that came up after, I finally remembered an insight I had months earlier while job searching. It happened at a recent meditation retreat I was on, which was the canoe trip this past summer. On the retreat, I spent the first full day in complete silence, and at the end of the day we had a chance to share anything with the group. I expressed to the group a thought that had come to me out of the silence not long before:

“Maybe the world just wants me to be happy and at peace.”

A statement that was quite radical for me, as it seems to be quite different from the way I have been living for as long as I can remember. But now I can look back at that statement and still put importance on it.

I try to take pride in the fact that it takes a lot of courage to stay true to my own inner purpose when it seems that I am going “against the stream,” so to speak, or against the cultural and societal values and norms I perceive around me. The reality of my current consumer capitalist culture and society is that the most important values that are promoted are money, achievement, career, status, and the future. My values are in many ways the opposite of these, and it takes a strong will to stay true to them.

While trying to make my decision, I felt reassured that another opportunity would come my way eventually, though I can’t exactly say why. On the very morning that I contacted the researcher to decline the job, I received an e-mail from an previous professor offering me a short job and a promise of more work to come if I need it. The timing couldn’t have been better. Yep, I think this is all going to work out just fine. Just as long as I continue to rely on my practice to help me tackle these difficult decisions.

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.