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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.

Quote: We Are Bleeding At the Roots June 28, 2013

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“Oh, what a catastrophe, the maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and the setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the Earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.”

– D.H. Lawrence, Phoenix II (as quoted in Buddha’s Nature by Wes Nisker)

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!

 

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.

The Sun as Love March 1, 2013

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The sun is part of me. She is so essential to me that I need her as much as I need air to breathe. When I am cut off from the light and warmth of the sun, I feel as if I am suffocating.

To me, there is nothing more amazing and glorious than to stand outside in the sunlight and feel her warming my skin. This is love, bathing in the sun’s rays. I feel embraced and loved and whole. This brings me so much joy, and I try to take the joy of the sunshine with me and spread it wherever I go.

Standing in the sun’s rays, I know love directly. The sun’s power is clearly felt in the midday sun of a hot summer day. It feels to be the most powerful force I know. The sun is everlasting, burning constantly every moment I have been alive. Even in the darkness of my night, she is still burning bright on the other side of our Earth. The power of the sun is infinite, eternal, everlasting, and unchecked.

 

The sun is my outer heart because when the sun goes down, my heart aches for the light. As soon as the sun is gone in the evenings, a little bit of my own light leaves me. My energy sags, my mood dips into a more sullen tiredness, and I feel lonely and cut off from my plant and animal sisters and brothers. In the darkness I retreat into myself. I turn down the lights, get ready for bed, and curl up in a corner with a book to lull me to sleep.

Mornings are the happiest time of the day for me. My energy is highest and I am awake and open to the possibilities of a brand new day. The sun’s lightness and energy is my energy. My body, mind, and whole being respond to her rhythms in ways I cannot control.

November is one of the most difficult months. Our Earth dips into darkness and the sun is leaving me for a long cold winter. The leaves on the trees are gone and there isn’t enough snow to reflect what little sunlight I can enjoy. The holidays are too far away to which I can look forward. The brightness and warmth of spring now seem so far away, and I brace myself for the months of winter.

The sun is love and warmth not only when I am directly in her rays, but every moment of my life when I am protected by other indirect forms of her warmth. The fuel to heat indoor spaces comes from the sun’s energy, keeping me comfy and cozy all hear round. The warmth and light of the fire is the energy of the sun released from its storage in the wood of the trees.

The warmth of my own body is the sun. She feeds and grows the plants and animals I eat, and my body takes in this fuel to burn every moment I am alive. What could be a more direct example of the love of the universe: The sun’s energy that touches every living being, creating and sustaining all life, and supplying me with every amount of energy I have ever enjoyed.

The sunrise is awakening for me. The sun rising acts as a mindfulness bell. The day begins and the light starts to gradually glow brighter and brighter, incrementally and so slow and gradual I can’t visibly notice it. But I wait and the sun’s rays start to touch the high clouds, bathing them in warm, glowing light. Finally, the sun rises from the horizon, bringing light to our Earth and casting aside the darkness of night. She bathes everything around me in permeating, glowing light. Her rays shine directly onto our Earth, touching everything in light. Suddenly what was covered in darkness and imperceptible during the night is illuminated, visible and clear. With the sun, I can see everything around me. She reveals our Earth to me. A new dawn is a call to awakening: “Wake up! Look and see what is before you! The whole world available in every moment underneath your feet.”

When I see a burning red sunrise, I see the process of awakening. At first before the sun comes, everything in black and hidden in darkness. The sun begins to show herself and reveals a sky of red clouds. Awakening happens with the First Noble Truth: Suffering exists. The red of sunrise is the burning red of hurt and pain that causes suffering. But only when the suffering is brought into the light of awareness does release happen. After the glowing red sunrise, the morning sun comes and shines white and clear, filling the entire sky.

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…