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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…

Quote: Letting Go of Yourself April 12, 2013

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“Gurdijeff once said, ‘If anything would possibly save humankind from its idiocy, it would be the clearest possible recognition by every individual that they, and all others around them, are most certainly going to die.’ When this thought becomes perfectly clear to you, surprisingly it becomes a source of intense joy and vitality. When you have accepted your own death in the midst of life it means that you have let go of yourself, and you are therefore free. You are no longer plagued by worry and anxiety. You know that you are done for anyhow, so there is no need to fight constantly to protect yourself. What’s the point? And it isn’t just that people spend all their time doing something to really protect themselves, like taking out an insurance policy or eating properly. Instead it is what we do that doesn’t cause any action at all: the constant worry that leads to no action except more worry. That is what is given up by a person who really knows that they are dead.”

– Alan Watts in Eastern Wisdom Modern Life

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.

Only One Dish At A Time February 8, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insights From Washing Dishes February 1, 2013

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

 

The Non-Dual Nature of Dishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Washing Dishes As A Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nourishment and Healing: Being in Wilderness January 11, 2013

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For as long as I can remember, being able to spend time immersed in wilderness and natural settings has provided me with an abundant source of wholesome states of joy and restoration. I would like to describe how I have incorporated wilderness into my personal situation, what this process looks like for me, and what effects I regularly notice. While I possess a need to be in wilderness that could be viewed as a weakness or a limitation, I have had to look at this tendency as a definite strength at the same time.

Thay puts emphasis on being able to come home to ourselves—body, mind, and heart—in the present moment in order to restore ourselves and to not be swept away by circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have always really treasured this emphasis and I will readily support the benefits of the practice of stopping, calming, resting, and healing.

When I consider the many different strategies or tools I use to take good care of myself—mind, heart, body and spirit—wilderness is certainly a prominent one. I have repeatedly and consistently found that our Eearth and wilderness has profound effects to restore myself in times of feeling severely depleted of well-being, health and energy and from burdens of anxiety, stress and fear. I could even call it my own form of “wilderness therapy.”

How does this process of restoration in wilderness occur? It has happened regularly enough for me these past few years that I am at the point where I have consciously built it into my personal situation. First, I am able to recognize feelings of separation from our Earth, alienation, loneliness in myself, the effects of anxiety and tension, and exaggerated self-focus of a modern urban lifestyle. Even if these states don’t happen to be present, I will go into wilderness anyway to receive a good “boost” to last for some time.

I make arrangements to spend any length of time, from at least 20 minutes, to a few hours, to most of a day. I avoid any distractions (talking on cell phone, listening to music) in order to give my full attention to my surroundings in each moment. I take my time while I explore and move around (walk, cycle, canoe paddle, ski, snowshoe) at a slow pace, enjoying opportunities to stop, sometimes to sit or lie down, and take in everything: to look around, listen to sounds or just the silence, enjoy the smells, feel the air and wind or my body against the ground. When I go into wilderness, it is a full sensory experience and I am fully immersed in our living world.

The effects after such an immersion are immediately noticeable and I consistently find that I am more relaxed and energized, optimistic, carefree, open-minded, and content. Of course, the “r” words usually come to mind most easily to best describe what happens: I feel refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated, revitalized, and restored.

I used the word healing in the title deliberately; I do experience being healed when I am in wilderness. I don’t mean a cure for some disease, but healed in the meaning of the word “to make whole.” I am made whole again when I come back to and integrate a vital aspect of myself and my experience of reality or what is most real.

When I first moved to the city and experienced the split in myself as a result of being cut off from wilderness, I thought that I possessed some sort of weakness, or some defect in my makeup that put me at a disadvantage over other city-dwellers. And I believe this to be true; I am limited in a sense. I can’t live completely indoors without being able to get around outside daily (and sitting inside of a vehicle does not count!). I can’t go for any length of time, such as a few days, without returning to spend time in—at the very least—some sort of green space (a park, a forest, a riverbank, a field). I have to accomodate my regular short- and long-term routine around taking trips into wilderness. I can’t handle long, extended trips in an urban setting, such as downtown Montreal for example, or where I am stuck inside. And finally, I can’t live in the city long term. Also, I find that my need for wilderness and having the living world as my ground of reality leaves me not completely satisfied by the Buddhist teachings and material across which I’ve come so far.

Nevertheless, as a source of self-assurance and a coping strategy to deal with living in the city, I have had to acknowledge that my need for wilderness can also be a strength. First, my source of healing and nourishment is, thanks to my current circumstances, free to acquire and simple to fulfill. It doesn’t cost anything to go for a walk in the forest, or a bike ride along the river. I am empowered when I don’t have to give my power over to a corporation to be nourished, in contrast to purchasing material objects or services, such as an iPhone or paying for a massage.

Second, I think that my way of finding nourishment actually reflects a lifestyle that is more human in that it better represents how we can live happily and healthily according to our basic needs. I think humans have a need to be around other living beings—both plants and animals— and immersed in the natural elements, cycles, and rhythms of our Earth. This is how our species has existed for all but the tiniest fraction of our evolutionary time on the planet, and it is to what we are adapted.

Finally, I think that it is a strength because the wilderness is where I find the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings reflecting the true nature of reality. I find the law of impermanence in the shifting and moving clouds across the sky, the decay of an old tree trunk, the steady erosion of a riverbank, and in a cracked and mossy boulder. I discover the law of interdependence in a handful of living soil full of decayed plants and microorganisms, admidst the frenzied activity of a still forest, and in the soil to which a flower is rooted for its entire life. I see clearly the teachings of nonduality when I cannot draw a straight line between the wetness of the lake and the firm dry land of the shore, between the crisp warm air of late summer and the changing leaves of autumn or between the low prairie and the tall encroaching forest.

My need to be in wilderness has offered a profound and powerful way to be nourished and restored as a result of living an urban lifestyle. This trait has brought its difficulties in having to make accommodations for it by spending extended periods of time outdoors, but it is who I am and I have learned to embrace its benefits.

Poem: Morning October 18, 2012

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Sunrise

pink clouds across the sky

warming to the new day’s light

tiny birds fly across the window

suddenly there is more

than this kitchen

this breakfast

this body

so much more

Quote: The Well is Within Us September 3, 2012

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(A quote from the book Savour by Thich Nhat Hanh)

Enlightenment, peace and joy will not be granted by someone else

The well is within us

And if we dig deeply in the present moment

The water will spring forth

Letting Go of Burdens, Shaking Off Worries August 13, 2012

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In a previous post, I shared this quote from Thay in his book Peace is Every Breath:

“Know how to shake off the worries and live joyfully. This is an art. Practice to let go of unimportant things that don’t bring happiness.”

This quote was and is still meaningful for me because I find it a constant challenge to feel that I am allowed to let go of my worries, that I can actually let go of my “problems” and just live mindfully in the present moment.

I am also reminded of a quote from the book Solitude that I just read that “life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.” This quote was and is also meaningful to me, because it often seems that that is the way I approach life: Problems keep coming up that I have to solve, and once all of my problems and issues are sorted out and figured out, then I can finally relax and actually be happy and content.

My tendency to act this way has become quite apparent because of recent events. Last week I spent several days out of town visiting family and didn’t have access to the internet. I brought some notes with me for job hunting but didn’t look at them once. So I spent almost a full week not spending any time working on job searching. (The worry came up after a few days that I hadn’t checked my e-mail: “There might be an urgent e-mail right this minute that needs a response!” I couldn’t do anything about it, though.)

It seemed that for much of a week, because I was travelling and away from where I was staying this past month, that I could drop the burden of looking for a job. And it has become a burden much of the time. I can get feeling quite stressed out and worried about whether I’m doing the right steps or spending enough time on it. Sometimes my fear builds that I won’t find a job or I will run out of money.

So coming home from my trip I noticed that my stay with family was very relaxing in the sense that I had dropped the worries when I left on the trip, and experienced relief and some sense of peace. Nevertheless, it seemed that the closer I got to home from my trip, the more burdened and anxious I got. Sure, I might have dropped my worries when I left, but I picked them right up as soon as I got back.

I’ve noticed similar experiences on meditation retreats. I make all of the arrangements to spend a few days away from home to focus solely on my spiritual practice. I feel confident enough that everything is in place until I get back that the retreats are experienced as a huge relief from the usual daily burden of my worries and “problems.” And of course, the struggle after the retreat is how to continue my life after I get back without picking up the burden of my worries and concerns as soon as I return home.

But perhaps this is why meditation retreats, and vacations as well, are so successful. I am in a different location so all of my usual reminders of my worries and problems are gone. I’m surrounded by people that I only or mostly know through meditation. Finally, I’m completely taken care of on retreat in terms of a place to stay and sleep and all of my meals prepared. Of course I don’t need to worry about my usual problems in a such a setting!

I also find it amusing how I thought that the act of moving would somehow magically make my problems disappear. I noticed in Ontario that I frequently had the thought that when I move I won’t have to worry about certain problems or issues I was facing. I would be leaving the cause of the problems behind, when the causes came from where I live. At times I had the wisdom to notice, “No, the problems will follow me wherever I go, unless I am truly able to transform my difficulties wherever I am in the present moment.”

Sure enough, my foresight came true. Of course, I left my degree program behind now that I’ve finished with all of its struggles and challenges, but the same habit energy is still in me: The same behaviours and strategies I used to work on my school work are now directly transferred to my job search. I worry about spending enough time on job searching, I am obsessing over strategies to use to achieve my goals, I worry about what other people think and perceive of me, and I feel impatient and rushed because I have to many things I “have to do” and not enough perceived time to do it.

What I’m trying to explore now is how to practice the art of shaking off my worries and living joyfully and freely in each moment. I want to try to not worry about my “to do’s” if I’m not actually doing them in that moment. I want to offer myself gentleness, lovingkindness, and compassion by deciding that I am allowed to let my projects go, and everything will be just fine if I do that. I hope I can experience more peace, freedom, and joy by doing this.