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Interbeing with Our Earth: Eating with the Seasons. April 12, 2013

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I would like to write a few posts about living in harmony with our Earth, specifically living gracefully with the changing seasons. This post is on eating seasonal food, and I plan to write at least one more post on other aspects of living connected to the seasons.

Eating seasonal food has made the activities around food into an adventure, and I feel more humbled in my abilities as a human being. Some other advantages of eating seasonally I have found are a deeper appreciation for the food when I have the chance to enjoy them, and feeling more closely connected to my ancestors, our entire Earth, and the whole universe.

I have made some changes to my personal circumstances the past few years to be more closely connected to the seasons. One change is eating seasonally. I try my best to eat only, or almost only, foods that are local and in season all year round.  In fact, some of the foods I eat I take directly off of the land, and I have no choice but to enjoy these in season. Wild berries, mushrooms, and nuts, as well as herbs for my teas, are only possible to harvest while they are fresh and ripe. I make an effort to eat seasonally out of respect for our earth and my responsibility to ensure my fellow human global citizens have access to resources. While in some way, this decision could be viewed as constricting, there are many advantages I have come to appreciate.

One advantage is that I have had to be more open to new experiences. My eating habits have become almost an adventure. There are so many new foods I have had to learn how to shop, buy, store, prepare, cook, eat, and preserve.

Another advantage of eating seasonally is that I am able to savour and appreciate the foods I do eat because they are only available for such a short time of the year. To take advantage of this opportunity, I am able to freely and completely go “all out” and eat my fill until I have had enough. Week after week I will restock on precious fresh asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, nectarines, eating every single day for weeks on end. Finally by the end I have satisfied my craving until the same time next year. I enjoy the foods more while they are in season because I know they won’t last. I might be eating the food and think to myself, for example, well, this might be the last nectarine I eat for another 10 months.

Another advantage of eating seasonally is that I’m able to recognize and appreciate the ability of plants to store energy and nutrients for me. When the ground is hard and frozen outside in winter and incapable of supporting vegetation, I can still be nourished by the healthy nutrients of the winter foods. They have been adapted and developed by my ancestors to store nutrients and keep me healthy all winter long.

An advantage of eating seasonally is that I am humbled by my need for food that comes from the earth. I realize the limits of my power as a human being when I see that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make a strawberry plant grow in February. Such conditions are out of my control. Instead, I have to give my power over to our Earth to provide that for me. As a result, I feel more alive as a human being.

Eating seasonally makes me feel more connected to our earth, to the whole universe, and to my ancestors. I feel more connected to the countless generations of ancestors who had no other choice but to eat seasonally. They learned infinite ways to adapt themselves to the changing seasons in order to survive. They didn’t have the luxury of modern conveniences that allows my generation to preserve and ship out-of-season foods.

I feel connected to our Earth and to our entire living world around me that provides such wonderful food. When I am able to know and understand why certain foods only grow and bear fruit under certain conditions, I feel more connected to the rhythms of nature and the shifting life-giving elements. I feel more connected to the living fertility of our Earth that is always providing such abundant fruit.

I feel more connected to our entire universe when I am directly affected by the movement of our planet. The transitions of equinoxes and solstices have a salient reminder to me of how I am moving out of one season and the next. In between these landmark events, subtle changes that might seem so simple as air temperature growing colder or the position of the sun in the sky has a more real meaning for me. These signs mark a transition to shift or change a real and tangible part of my personal circumstances.

A few of the changes I have noticed since deciding to eat in season foods almost exclusively are a sense of adventure in preparing food, as well as deeper humility that makes me feel more alive. I have also found that I appreciate in season foods more when I only have a short time to enjoy them. Finally, my interbeing with my ancestors, our Earth, and the whole universe has become much more salient to me. I hope that these changes will only become more pronounced in the future as I plan to enjoy many more delicious in season foods!

 

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Wilderness Dharma: The Weather as My Teacher March 8, 2013

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The weather is one of the best teachers I have for showing me the dharma, the true nature of reality. Weather is an excellent teacher for me personally because I spend so much time outdoors and come into direct contact with the elements. Here are some of the ways I have realized the meaning behind the dharma while experiencing the weather. The weather teaches me that conditions I experience are unpredictable ,impermanent, happening in the present moment, and without a solid reality. I also learn from the weather how to be grateful for what I do have, and how to recognize what’s here while it is manifesting.

The weather teaches me how to experience the present moment. The weather is completely, 100% absolutely unpredictable. Sure, a forecaster can say with some percentage of certainty what conditions might be like, but she can never know for sure. There are too many unknown causes and conditions.

Exactly like all of the conditions I experience are unpredictable. All I can say with absolute certainty is what is happening this instant. As soon as I leave the razor’s edge of this moment, I am in unknown territory.

So there is no security in any forecast or prediction into any part of the future. There is no security, no solid ground on which to stand. All I have to do is learn to swim in the river.

Weather teaches me impermanence. Just because conditions are a certain way right now doesn’t mean they cant change in an instant. Patterns are always shifting, systems are always moving, and different conditions are all interacting with each other in unknown ways.

Impermanence is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned when current circumstances aren’t going the way I would like. The message would be summed up as: Wait it out. Just wait, wait a second, wait a minute, wait as long as I need until its bearable. Sometimes the waiting is longer than I’d like, and compassion is key here.

Knowing that impermanence exists allows me to try to patiently bear the storm. I remind myself nothing lasts forever, no conditions last, however unbearable they may be.

An experience I’ve had over and over again, enough that the message is starting to really sink in, is a beautiful bright morning after a long dark night of struggling with my own challenges. So many times now I have walked outside, marvelled at the fresh, clear, blue morning sky, and said out loud: “And the day will dawn clear and bright.” Oh right, now I remember.

The weather teaches me how to savour wonderful conditions when they are present. As the song goes, the sun can’t shine every day. Knowing that weather includes the possibility for storms and clouds means I can recognize what’s enjoyable and appreciate it. I try to recognize the presence of good conditions because I know they’ll eventually fade.

This also makes many weather conditions more enjoyable because I try to see how even the “bad” conditions have some positives: the sound of spruce trees breathing during a windy day; the glint of sunshine on wet grass; the peaceful quiet of snow falling; or even an excuse to stay inside, feeling safe and warm during a terrible storm.

In my own personal circumstances I try to apply the same approach by recognizing as many nourishing conditions as I can. I know that all conditions I ever encounter will eventually fade: My health, a good meal, an inviting, safe home, the company of wonderful friends.

The weather teaches me gratitude. Even in less than ideal conditions, I can catch myself asking the question, “Why the heck do I live here? Its so _____ (cold, hot, windy, dry, etc.), its not even meant for human habitation.”

Aaah, but there it is: a lack of appreciation for where I live. I live in Canada, a place for which an endless amount of my fellow global citizens would risk their lives in an instant to trade places with me.

I’d like to quote my father here for one of his lessons: “We don’t have to live here, ya know? No one’s holding a gun to our head.” (His way of saying I’m not being forced to do anything against my will). Thanks for the reminder that of all of the places in the world and in the country to live, I made a conscious and voluntary decision to live where I am now. And for good reasons, so its great to remember those reasons.

The weather teaches me not to make real passing conditions, or not to give patterns and fluctuating rhythms a solid reality.  Sure, its raining or hailing or blowing wind right now, but that doesn’t mean these conditions have any lasting permanent reality. There isn’t a “wind” essence that’s suddenly appeared and will stay forever to characterize the air. Its just the wind blowing itself. The rain is just the rain raining itself.

It offers me an example for my own internal weather that I need not take any passing inner states as real, or as solid and permanent. According to the teachings, these states are just arising in response to various conditions and will eventually pass. I remind myself I am not my thoughts, my feelings, my sensations. The thoughts are just thinking themselves.

To paraphrase Pema Chodron, I am the sky. Everything else is just the weather. I try to relax and sit back and watch it all happen without trying to make up a story about who “I” am.

These are some of the ways I have seen the Buddha’s teachings expressed perfectly in the weather. As someone who spends time in direct contact with the elements in the living world that are clear, concrete reality, I have learned in a more profound way how conditions are impermanent, unpredictable, and without a “self”. Gratitude and savoring the present moment are also excellent lessons I’ve received from the weather. Because I won’t be spending any less time outdoors as I am used to, I expect many more wonderful and hard-earned lessons are to come.

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.

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…

What Are My Gifts To Others? December 22, 2012

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It’s that time of year again, the holiday season where we are expected to demonstrate our love for others by buying material objects. In this season of giving, it is expected that, in order to prove that we really do love them, we buy others gifts that we know that they will love. In this sense, our care, interest, and attention is objectified into a material object, the gift.

 This is the second year I am participating in Buy Nothing Xmas and instead, I am donating the money I would use to buy them a gift to donate to each person’s community food bank. Hoping that those dearest and nearest to me will not be offended when I refuse to buy them a gift, I am left wondering how else do I give without buying gifts? What are my gifts to others? Just a few of my gifts which I want to mention are my presence, my positive influence, using my favourite talents, direct help, and my paid employment.

 My presence is one way that I give to others. I offer my loved ones my presence, which in the mindfulness tradition means the exact same qualities used during meditation. I am firmly rooted in the present moment, giving my full, undivided, nonjudgemental, accepting awareness. It is to be able to say the phrase, “I am here with you,” and know that it is true. I have to be able to recognize that sitting right in front of me is a living, breathing, human being, and I have the opportunity to connect with them in this moment.

 To be present with someone means that I care about them. It means I am physically in their presence, or with them while on the telephone. To care about someone means to be interested in them, in who they really are (not who I think they are!), what they want and value, and what suffering or happiness they might be currently experiencing. Presence is the opportunity to practice deep listening, a very difficult skill at which I am always trying to get better.

 My positive influence on others is another quality I consider one of my gifts. By positive influence, I mean that I attempt to embody positive qualities that I hope spread to others. The phenomenon of “social contagion” is well known in psychology, which refers to the way moods can spread between people or groups of people. If I am smiling and others can see it, my smile will spread to others and there is a higher likelihood that they will to want to smile, to feel like smiling, or to just be in a happier mood.

Just a few positive qualities I hope to share are happiness, posivitiy, appreciation of beauty, a sense of humor, gratitude, appreciation, humility, positive mood, abundance of energy, and inspiration. I love being able to make people laugh and smile by telling stories or jokes about myself and the silly mistakes that I have made,. Of course, these are all qualities that help me to feel better and happier, so it is an extra motivation when I can embody them not just for myself but for others as well.  

Another way I try to give to others is by sharing my favourite talents, the skills that I myself most enjoy using that others might also be able to enjoy. I love writing my blog, sharing my poems, giving gifts of my photography, telling interesting stories, and baking and cooking my favourite healthy recipes.

This kind of giving is really special because it can really benefit both sides, the ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver.’ I benefit because I love using and practicing these skills, and it is wonderful to have an excuse to use them. And the other person benefits from a genuine gift that expresses who I am. These types of gifts are more genuine, I think, because I took the time and effort to make them myself using my own creativity and inspiration, instead of just running to a store to buy something someone/ something else made.

One more obvious way of giving is by directly helping people by offering assistance, favours, or providing practical solutions to problems. This type of giving is what I think of when people refer to practicing ‘random acts of kindness.’ These are the gifts that most often are given to random strangers I come across, when I just happen to be in the right place in the right time.

Some examples that come to mind are picking up something somebody drops and returning it to them, returning an item to lost and found, giving directions if someone is lost, or opening doors for people especially when they are carrying heavy loads or have limited mobility (crutches, wheelchairs, etc.).

A few weeks ago I helped a lady put up posters to a couple of lampposts at a crosswalk on my way to work. All I did was put my hand on the posters to hold them down in the cold winter wind while she wrapped them in tape. Last week I helped a mother and another random stranger helper hoist her big baby stroller onto the bus from the sidewalk that was covered in a pile of snow from the snowplow.

These are such a simple act that are so helpful. The tricky part about these gifts are that it seems I have to be in the right moodto have the opportunity come along. I am more likely to help when I am in a relatively good mood, open and aware of my surroundings, and—most importantly—not rushed!

The last way that I consider I offer my gifts to others is actually through my paid work, my job (in contrast to all of the other work I do for which I don’t get paid). I try to have my job be not just a way to show up and get some money that I ‘deserve’ to have a standard of living. Instead, I see my paid job as an opportunity to give to others, both directly and indirectly.

Many Buddhist teachers describe work as ‘service.’  So my job can be a form of service to others. I am giving to others directly by serving my boss and my coworkers. My boss relies on me to provide skills and services that she needs to do her job, and I can do this in the right way by being a good employee. Being a good employee also includes being assertive and standing up for my rights.

I serve others indirectly by giving to the population being helped in my research. I give to these people with the hope that the work I do will one day, somewhere down the road, benefit them by improving the quality of their lives. In this way, I need to tell myself that my efforts are valued and appreciated, and maybe even needed. I can give to these people even if I never meet them or know who they are.

These are just a few ways that I consider I can give to others, both my loved ones, and other people in the world who I may never meet or receive gifts from. Writing this post has been a nice reminder during this time of year that I don’t need to go to the store to buy material objects in order to give. Giving and generosity is so much bigger than that! It just takes a little bit of imagination. It also takes time to recognize that I benefit from others when I can enjoy other people’s presence, positive influence, and direct help.

Embracing the Sangha October 29, 2012

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

Having a Sangha

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

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

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

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

Dharma Sharing

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

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

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

Learning from Difficulties October 18, 2012

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October 6th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Thay would say, “Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautifully Inspiring Video: Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability August 8, 2012

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I came across this video several months ago while browsing the Ted talks site for a little entertainment, something I don’t do often at all. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and it really stayed with me for some reason. I looked it up again recently, and found it as moving and inspiring as the first time I saw it. There are so many truths and so much dharma in it! I hope you find it as valuable as I did.

Book Review: Women and Zen March 22, 2012

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I just finished two excellent biographies by women authors who also happen to be Zen (Buddhism) practitioners.

The book I first read was called Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America by Natalie Goldberg, who apparently is a well-known author and writing workshop leader. I really enjoyed this book I think in part because I identified with the author quite a bit. She wrote about being introverted during her childhood which led her to do a lot of reading and writing on her own. As a writer, she found herself being quite independent and often alone most of her life. She also spent quite a bit of time in the midwestern U.S. and describes trying to deal with the freezing cold temperatures. In contrast, she ends up moving to the hot, sunny, Arizona desert, and falls in love with the wide open landscape.

One passage I particularly enjoyed was her criticism of “New Age” spirituality and workshops offered by different teachers, which she contrasts with her diligent Zen meditation practice. She describes New Age spirituality as commercialized and consumerized by giving people what they want to hear, but letting them off easy without providing a daily, disciplined practice, which results in people forgetting everything they learn in the workshops and always needing to come back for more.

The book described some very intruiging stories of strange “coincidences” or happenings that couldn’t just be explained by chance. One story I really enjoyed was where she started writing a book about Zen Buddhism and relationships in a restauraunt near her house. She wasn’t sure why she was drawn to that particular restauraunt of all the places she could go to, but just found she could easily do her writing there. Only later did she find out that almost everyone who worked at the restauraunt (servers, cooks, owner, etc.) were Zen practitioners themselves! Crazy!

Another quote I really liked was where she told her teacher that she felt the more she sat (meditated), the more Jewish she became (her parents were Jewish European immigrants to America). Her teacher said, “That makes sense. The more you sit, the more you become who you are.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

The other book I was so happy to come across by chance at the library wasHand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for An Ordinary Life By Karen Maezen Miller, a Zen priest and stay-at-home mother. I had read about this book on the internet recently and didn’t know I would find it on the shelves so soon. The book is basically an autobiography of how the author found Zen Buddhism practice and how it changed her life for the better. I could identify with this author, as well, because she found herself caught up in trying to achieve a perfect professional career, which only ended up in her becoming depressed after her divorce. Also, in the book, she criticized psychology as an option for helping people, because she claims it doesn’t make people end up any different from what got them in trouble in the first place (thinking in order to understand ourselves, and understanding ourselves in order to change the way we think).

A main message of the book is a criticism of the materialism and consumerism of modern society and western culture that makes us always strive for money, social status and achievements and leaves us feeling we have never been able to find our “life.” The message is to value and be satisfied with the simple things in daily life, instead of always trying to achieve something better or become a better person.

It also emphasizes doing things like housework and chores yourself instead of just hiring other people to do them for you (or, as Karen puts it, “outsourcing”). According to the author, doing things yourself is an act of love and care towards yourself and the people close to you. A very intruiging concept that I have been contemplating a lot lately…

And, as always with any book on Zen, there is a huge emphasis on slowing down, stopping, and taking the time to savor life’s daily joys and pleasures. The author contrasts this with her life before Zen, where she viewed time as money and was always trying to cram as many things into as small a space of time as possible.

There you have it, two highly recommended books for anyone interested in biographies, spirituality, or meditation.

Feb 3: Grateful for the Breath March 3, 2012

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Overall, I found it difficult to get concentrated on the body and the breath today. My thoughts seemed to be particularly strong, and I noticed this for much of the morning.

At the beginning of the sitting, an image came to my mind that seemed to describe my experience. I’m familiar with the comparison of the mind as a jar of muddy water that becomes settled with time to create a layer of mud at the bottom and clear water on top. Today, I felt like I was one of those jars, being shaken and agitated every few moments with thoughts, and I was determined to keep returning to the breath to become still again.

There was one instance in my sitting where planning thoughts took over completely (“I have to meet with my professor to prepare for next week’s seminar!”). It actually felt like a noticeable relief to come back to the breath and calm this suddenly tense, tight, agitated body. Am I ever grateful for the breath!

I have to admit I was a bit pleased when I realized I had made it through the sitting for a total of 39 minutes, but this was a total fluke because I set my timer wrong by mistake. It is common for meditators to have the worry that the time is up but the timer is not working, so we are stuck sitting here for what seems like an endless amount of time. In some cases it actually happens that the timer won’t go off!

Outside of my sitting practice, I noticed I was absorbed in thought most of the morning with a conversation that happened the night before. Late last night I got into a debate with my dad about some controversial issues, and spent a great deal of time today rehearsing rebuttals and counter-arguments in my mind. I found it quite difficult to be mindful of my surroundings while these thoughts were going on. A typical scenario for someone who often gets absorbed in deep, abstract thought…