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Mindful Consumption of Food: Trapped in Past Suffering July 29, 2013

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In a previous post I mentioned that I would like to heal suffering from the past in the form of negative body image and unhealthy eating. I said that I need to heal past suffering in order to be free from suffering in the present. The suffering I’m experiencing in the present is struggling with mindful consumption edible foods, because I’m trapped in an unhealthy way of eating when I experience cravings for food. I find myself eating for emotional satisfaction when mental cravings are present, because I feel that not giving into the cravings is repeating past harmful behaviour of denying my body the nourishment it actually needs.

I find myself trapped is eating for emotional satisfaction in a very unhealthy way. As a contrast, the Five Contemplations include the sentence “May we eat only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.” This aspect of mindful eating has been and continues to be a challenge for me because I know that I eat food often to only satisfy my sweet tooth or relieve boredom. I get quite bad cravings for food, especially sweets, when I’m not truly hungry, and I give in more often than I should.

I can recognize that this craving is a habit energy of the mind, and not genuine physical hunger. I know that giving into these cravings is a form of emotional eating or eating for emotional satisfaction. I know that I eat foods that are not nourishing for my body or to relieve genuine physical hunger, but inatead to make myself feel good.

When the habit energy of craving arises, I know that the skilful behaviour to do is to not give into the cravings. However, I feel trapped in this unhealthy form of eating because not giving into cravings feels like it is repeating past harmful behaviour. The past harmful behaviour was not relieving genuine physical hunger when it was present. If I decide not to give into cravings, then I feel like I am repeating past behaviour and harming my body.

Although, the important difference between my past behaviour with consuming food was that in the past I actually had genuine physical hunger rather than habit energy from the mind. Allowing myself to continue to crave food in the present doesn’t feel like being kind to my body or treating my body with respect because of my memories of the past harmful behaviour. Not giving into craving feels like self harming and pathological because I incorrectly associate the craving with physical hunger. I can sense a subtle fear that I might slide back into a pathological relationship with my body.

I know that the skill I need to cultivate and practice now is to be able to determine whether I have mental cravings or genuine physical hunger. Unfortunately, I have thus far been mostly unable to stay with the experience of craving long enough to make this distinction. It is too painful when I relive memories of suffering from my past and I fear that I am repeating the same harmful behaviour. I know that deep looking needs to be done into my past suffering, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to do this with enough compassion and kindness.

My intentions for writing my previous post about negative body image and unhealthy eating was to end the silence and shame that continues from the past. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is that simple to end the shame and the suffering. Even reading my last post now feels quite painful, and I know I am still feeling shame when I don’t want to talk about what’s happening with others.

In my previous post I mentioned that I feel nothing but compassion for my past suffering, but unfortunately this isn’t entirely true either. I know that there is still harshness present in the way I react to my being caught in suffering when I experience anger, self-judgement, and impatience towards myself. I have been noticing how I am still caught in the story about my suffering, which elaborates on how I have had this suffering for so long and will continue to experience suffering and never be truly free from it.

Being trapped in an unhealthy way of eating is the current suffering I’m experiencing as a result of past suffering from negative body image and unhealthy eating. Nevertheless, in this and my previous post, my intentions are to be able to be more open about what is happening in order to heal and be free from suffering.

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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 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.

Wilderness Dharma: The Wilderness is Already Enlightened April 26, 2013

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The word “Buddha” means the awakened one, and the goal of Buddhist practice is enlightenment, or to become awakened. To be enlightened means to come to a full and direct understanding of the true nature of reality. The more time spent in wilderness, the closer one can get to enlightenment, especially if mindfulness is intentionally practiced while in wilderness. The wilderness is enlightenment itself because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddha’s teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening.

One reason I think I feel so comfortable in the Buddhist practice, or why I feel like I just fit right into the tradition, is perhaps because the wilderness already taught me the Buddha’s teachings. I was already learned everything at some point long ago, but just not in Buddhist terms. In a sense, I feel I already “know” the Buddhist interpretation of truth. My discoveries on the path have only allowed me to “remember” what I already knew, or to put into words what was beneath language. In that sense, I am coming home to the dharma when I return to what is most familiar and real for me.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment is the elimination of all concepts. In the wilderness I see clearly that boundaries and lines used to split up or separate our reality into clear distinct parts and pieces cannot be truly applied here. Instead everything blends into everything else, and all things around me are wiggly and messy instead of square or straight. I can’t draw an exact line where the forest ends and the field begins, where the cloud separates from the sky, or when the snow stops and turns into rain.

Concepts are eliminated because no concepts can ever fully contain the sheer immensity of everything around me. Concepts draw clear boxes around reality and capture it into pieces of meaning, but when concepts do this they kill reality. The wilderness is alive, dynamic, moving, and flowing, always shifting, morphing, and changing. Therefore, it can never be captured in a concept because living things and life itself cannot be killed or contained. As soon as one concept is applied to it, it has already shifted into something else.

The wilderness is enlightened because enlightenment involves eliminating the concept of self. When I am in the wilderness I can rest in non-self. I feel the self of “Andrea” that is almost always present drop away, and instead I experience myself as just a human being, as a living being, and as part of life that is all around me. The constructed ego or small self drops away because in this place the labels and ideas that are attached to “Andrea” have no place to rest or no hold onto which to grasp. What do the concepts of “researcher,” “Buddhist,” or “Canadian” have to do with this place? While they might have weight in human reality, they cannot change the laws of nature that still exist here and still apply to me. Such concepts fall silent when they have no reality here to be reflected back at me.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is wisdom, the ancient, unspeakable wisdom of our Earth. There is such vast and deep wisdom already contained within our Earth that has been here longer than any living species. I might use the words natural selection to point to the way all beings and living elements come together to support life. Life occurs when the wisdom is being acted out and everything is just taking care of itself. This process doesn’t come from intellectual thinking but out of the knowledge and wisdom already contained inside of everything. A wonderful and unexpected adventure and discovery of the practice is learning to open myself to this wisdom and to put my trust in it. I know that the wisdom around me in the wilderness is the same wisdom inside my true self that is realized each moment I am alive.

The wilderness is enlightened because it is awake, already manifesting consciousness. And I am awakened when I go into the wilderness. My awareness opens up and expands to accommodate the vastness of my surroundings. I am awakened because I directly experience the physical reality of the changing conditions. I cannot stay asleep or ignore all of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of shifting temperature and pressures.

The wilderness is already enlightened because it is a physical manifestation of the Buddhist teachings of the elimination of concepts, of non-self, of wisdom, and of awakening. I can tell that the more time I spend in wilderness, the more easily I come to realize these Buddhist teachings. In fact, I am not sure I am realizing them in the sense of learning them as completely new, but instead remembering them as something already learned long ago and now just putting into new words. I am grateful for my experiences of spending time in the wilderness

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote: If You Die Tonight October 1, 2012

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

Thay to Sister Chan Khong:

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