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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where Did My Breath Go? July 19, 2013

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These past few weeks have given me a few challenges to continuing my mindfulness practice, and I am able to see what these challenges are. As a result, my mindfulness practice isn’t coming as easily to me lately, and I feel that I have lost my breath and my present moment awareness. I am trying to motivate myself skillfully to restore my mindfulness without shame or fear or guilt.

I lost my breath. While it seemed not so long ago my awareness of my breath came so much more easily to me, recently it seems that awareness is largely gone. I’m going through my days these past couple of weeks almost completely in my mind, lost in thought, oblivious to my experience of the present moment within and around me.

I suspect losing my breath may have happened as a result of recently spending five full days out of town visiting relatives. Also, I’m sure my preparations for my upcoming trip are contributing to the tendency to be lost in planning thoughts. Finally, an important factor is that I’m working a new part time job that requires me to be rushing and keeping track of multiple objects of attention at once. I find it difficult to get out of these tendencies even after I’m off work.

I have been paying attention to what it is like to have less awareness of my breath, and I am finding that the state of mind in which I have been lately is not all that enjoyable. I feel that I am just rushing or moving from one task or duty to another. I can’t really sit still or be really comfortable with not doing anything but just being. I feel like I am missing out on life, the life that can be deeply experienced and enjoyed. I feel quite agitated and restless, and like I am mostly up in my head and disconnected from my body.

I can go great lengths of time without remembering to return to my breath. When I am rarely able to return to my breath, my mind is soon off wandering to thoughts and plans. My sitting practice sessions have been difficult when I see my mind wander off so easily and so often. It requires a great deal of effort not only to return to the breath but to stay there.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been making up a story about what this means for myself as a practitioner, including details about what I think has happened in the past and will happen in the future. I’m using my mindfulness practice as a criteria for self-judgement and applying labels of lazy and bad. This story only adds to the difficulty and the challenges posed by my present circumstances.

As an experienced practitioner, I know that motivating myself through shame and far is a very negative and unskillful way to be diligent in my practice. Instead, what I want to do is motivate myself positively and skilfully using confidence, faith, and patience. I want to get out of the story I’ve created in my mind about what a bad practitioner I am. I’m remembering a joke my dharma teacher said at a recent retreat: “I’m a little piece of shit and I’m the centre of the universe.” Its exactly that type of thinking that I would like to avoid.

The fact is, losing my breath or my present moment awareness has happened before. This is not the first time. All it means is that different conditions have arisen that do not support my mindfulness practice. And I’m able to see what some of these conditions are.

Therefore, I have been putting quite a bit of effort lately into restoring my mindfulness, my breath, and my present moment awareness. In my sitting practice especially, I have been trying so hard lately to be really interested in my breath. What’s breathing in? What’s it really like, not just my idea of what its like? What does it feel like? Where exactly do I feel it in my whole body?

I’m also reminded continually of some meditation instructions given to my by a recent dharma teacher on retreat: “Be present for this moment. Not regretting how much you weren’t present in a past moment, or plans for how much you will be present in this moment, but completely present, right here, right now.” When I heard my teacher say this, I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh! She’s reading my mind! How did she know that those are the exact thoughts going through my mind when I am practicing mindfulness!”  Her instructions are a helpful reminder to just be in the present moment without the added stories I contribute.

But I know that I’ll regain my present moment awareness, and I will reconnect with my breath and my body. I know I will because I have absolute faith in the three jewels. I know that when I sit on my cushion and I return to my breath and my body, centered in my safe island of mindfulness, that I am home. I have felt that feeling of groundedness and at-home-ness enough times that it has become internalized.

These past few weeks have offered a few conditions that aren’t supportive of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve noticed my breath and my present moment awareness is not as strong as it has been previously. Nevertheless, I am continuing to practice in order to cultivate and restore my awareness, but I need to remind myself to do it skillfully without shame and fear.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go practice sitting meditation!

Be Still and Heal June 9, 2013

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

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

calligraphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote: Noticing Your Life May 24, 2013

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“What you begin to see is that the place where you thought your life occurred–the cave of ruminaton and memory, the cauldron of anxiety and fear–isn’t where your life takes place at all. Those mental recesses are where pain occurs, but life occurs elsewhere, in a place we are usually too preoccupied to notice, too distracted to see:

Right in front of your eyes.

Lift your arms up to eye level, wiggle your fingers and see for yourself. That’s where your life is, that’s where your life always has been, in front of you.”

– Karen Maezen Miller, Hand Wash Cold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shining Awareness in the Dark Corners – A Story of Forgiveness, Part 1 May 3, 2013

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This a story of how my mindfulness meditation practice helped me to find forgiveness, and how I uncovered an entire place in my awareness that had previously been completely hidden in darkness. You might not think it is a particularly unique story. In fact, you might even be able to guess how it unfolds. But its my story, and that’s all that matters. And its my story, so I get to tell it.

My relationship with my mother has changed dramatically over my life, but perhaps the most dramatic change has occurred at the same time as—like many of my other relationships—beginning my meditation practice. To tell this story, I’ll start at the beginning.

My relationship with my mother was quite good when I was younger—or so at least I remember, and so I was told by many people around me. My mom stayed home on the farm to raise me and my sibling, so I got plenty of attention. I was looked after and taken care of. I had homemade clothes, home-cooked meals from the garden (including home-canned fruits and wild berries, and homemade bread), and a home that was kept mostly tidy and well decorated. I also had many family camping trips, and was taken to activities and to visit friends. These early years would become the standard or ideal to which I would later compare my circumstances.

By the time I was in middle childhood, many of the attention and duties provided to me were taken away. It was then that I started to notice and be told that my mom was suffering from the mental illness of depression. It followed that many of the circumstances I had enjoyed at an earlier age started to slip away, and some of them disappeared altogether. The activities mom used to do were more and more replaced by her lying in bed, sleeping.

Consequently, the lack of attention affected our relationship, and I became more distant from her. I had to start making my own school lunch, and cooking my own meals. I had to clean up after myself and my family, and the pantry wasn’t as well stocked with fresh food from the garden or groceries anymore.

As a child, I adapted to the changing circumstances. I made do with what I had. I still had my dad looking after me as best he could, and grandparents next door on the farm to which I could go for lots of attention and support, not to mention other relatives. I had other ways of coping. What’s more, I learned the valuable lesson that would become deeply instilled in me for many, many years:

If I want something done right, I have do it myself.

I seemed to be making out just fine. And then I became a teenager. Ah, yes, those oh-so-fun times of adolescence. And with adolescence comes the ability to think more abstractly beyond my immediate experience of childhood awareness into ideas of what my circumstances could be. As I said earlier, my memories of my early childhood with my mother became the ideal with which I would compare my current circumstances.

And also coming with adolescence is a great deal of idealism of thinking how things could be in a better version of my reality. So thinking idealistically was what I did—and oh, how I did it. So my relationship with my mother became idealized into how it should be, and my personal circumstances at home and my mother’s role in creating those circumstances became idealized. I wanted the good times back, or at least my memories of the good times.

But I didn’t get the good times back. I wasn’t about to any time soon, by all signs. And so we know that another characteristic of adolescence is anger. Anger, aggression, and violence when their idealized versions of reality don’t match up with their actual immediate reality. Plus, although I’m simplifying the story a bit here, there were other aspects of my overall personal circumstances that weren’t working out well for me (school, friends, etc.), so I felt that I had other reasons to be angry. But, not surprisingly, my anger and blame was directed at my parents, and my mother in particular because she was an easy target, and partly because that’s what I was learning to do from others.

(Continue to part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness Dharma: My Love for Trees April 5, 2013

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Developing mindfulness while outdoors has allowed me to have a greater appreciation for trees. I love trees because they offer me safety and refuge, they are my good friends, and they symbolize perfect self-acceptance.

Last week as part of a presentation I did for a group of students, someone who was co-presenting with me said proudly, “You can call me a tree-hugger, I’ll gladly admit it. I love to walk up to a tree and wrap my arms around it. I take energy from them.”

They could have taken the words directly from my mouth. I feel exactly the same way. I’m a tree-hugger and I love trees.

I love trees because they give me safety and a source of refuge. Going into the forest is a way I take refuge, and I take refuge in these places regularly. I walk into a clearing, lie down on the soft moss or bed of fallen leaves, and stare up at the tree tops and the sky. I watch the trees dance for me in the gentle breeze, trying to hear their silent music.

Forests are a place where I can truly rest. I spend time in forests to rest, and not only to let go of what is causing me stress and anxiety. I also take something away from the forests. I absorb the energy and vitality of these sacred spaces. I am enlivened by the presence of the living beings and living elements around me.

Forests are the ultimate place of safety for me. For my lovingkindness practice, the phrase “may I feel safe and protected” automatically elicits an image of being in a forest. The highest most perfect feeling of safety is sitting on the forest floor, my back against a trunk, completely surrounded in every direction by trees. The wind can be blowing hard above the forest and make the tops of the trees sway, the sound of roaring wind noticeably loud. But I am safe deep in the shelter of the forest. I am protected from the elements of sun by the shade, of heat in the coolness of a thick tree cover, of wind by the study trunks and boughs and leaves, and by rain from the roof overhead.

To be surrounded by trees is to feel a warm loving embrace, a close warm hug. My heart is nourished by the presence of all my plant and animal sisters and brothers. I am restored by the sounds of the birds singing and of the trees breathing in the wind as my outer lungs.

I love trees because they are my good friends. I appreciate their friendship the most while living in the city. While I walk or bike down long, straight, paved city streets and sidewalks, I feel the presence of these fellow living beings. At the same time, all of the harsh fabricated buildings and fences are surrounding me in all directions. I can still sense the life energy of the trees. To have their thick, gnarled trunks beside me is to feel my friends are standing firm and tall beside me and with me. They comfort me and reassure me that I can be okay in this foreign place. They let me know that not all life is killed, destroyed, taken or captured in cement and steel.

I have to rest my awareness on trees when I am surrounded by human constructions of straight edges and square angles. I need to keep my attention on something alive and fluid. I can breathe more easily when my eyes can rest on the living patterns of tilted trunks, twisting branches, twigs, and spreading leaves.

The trees offer me a symbol of how I wish to be. They are fully alive, completely rooted deep into the life energy of our Earth and reaching up to the sky. I long to be truly closer to our Earth, and at the same time reaching up to the sky away from the cement and pavement.

Finally, I love trees because they teach me perfection. They help me understand Thay’s teaching of accepting ourselves when he says the rose is already perfect. I look to the trees as an example of a model of how to embody this self acceptance.

When I look at a tree, I see that it is already perfect just as it is. It might be leaning or lopsided, it might be turning brown or losing some needles or bark. But it is still perfect exactly as it is. It still stands there, proudly displaying and proclaiming its wonderful tree-ness to the entire world. To me, I can’t imagine that the tree has any feelings of inferiority, of needing to change or fix itself to be a “better” tree. It probably doesn’t feel bad about what it is and doesn’t try to change anything about itself.  It probably doesn’t try to be straighter or taller, more lush or any different than it already is. A pine tree probably doesn’t spend its days wishing it were a poplar tree, or even an animal or another species altogether.

When I look at trees this way, I try to accept myself for who I am instead of trying so hard to make myself into somebody different. I try to remember that there are so many aspects of myself that I ultimately cannot change. Instead my energy could be better spent in a humble acceptance and trying to work with what is present.

A few reasons I can capture in words for why I love trees so much is that forests are a place where I can feel safe and take refuge. I also love trees because they are my good friends standing firm and tall beside me in the city, and they embody the spirit of self-acceptance. This post can’t quite capture all of the ways that I love trees, but I am happy to share with you in hopes you feel the same.

Wilderness Dharma: Snow as Peace March 30, 2013

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After a long Canadian prairie winter, the snow is finally starting to melt. I thought I would write a few of my thoughts on how much I appreciate the beauty of the snow, as well as its teachings of the dharma. The snow embodies the Buddha’s teachings because it is a symbol of peace. The snow is silent, colourless, still, and pure, and I see myself in the snow’s delicateness and impermanence. Falling snow reveals wisdom to me and hints at the ultimate reality.

The snow is peace because the snow is silent. The snow is the epitome of silence, where it is so silent it is loud. I know of little else that is as quiet as waking outside on a calm winter day amidst freshly falling snow. It’s as if the snow on the ground, above in the sky, and in the air is absorbing all possible sounds.

The snow is peace because the snow is colourless. Snow has no colour of its own, but reflects back the full spectrum of white. It looks white, but on a sunny winter day, it reflects the colour of the sky as blue. The winter sun low in the horizon is reflected in the golden yellow brightness that sparkles and shimmers like an ocean of a million diamonds.

The snow is peace because it is stillness. On a calm winter day, a field of snow just lies there, calm, still, and unmoving, covering everything underneath it. The snow is blank, it has nothing in it. It is not busy when it doesn’t contain anything to tarnish it. It can look “boring,” but at the same time beautiful in its simplicity.

The snow is peace because it is pure. A field of perfect colourless snow is as pure as the purity of a peaceful heart. It is a symbol of the pure goodness that is present in all beings and all life.

I see myself in snow because in it I see that I, too, am delicate. I am fragile as a precious living being. Just like a soft layer of freshly fallen snowflakes is fragile and easily crushed by the lightest weight touching it. I see my vulnerability as a human being who constantly depends on so many conditions to be a live and well in each moment.

I see myself in snow because in it I see that I, too, am impermanent. While it may be hard to believe for us prairie folk, with five months of it in a year, the snow won’t always be here. It will melt.

I see my impermanence when I see that I, too, will eventually fade away. But, just like me, the snow doesn’t cease to exist, it simply manifests in a different form. The snow becomes the runoff of spring and the water I drink all through the hot summer months.

When I see snow I see wisdom because the snow falls where it lands. There is no “snow-self,” no snow director who controls where each and every snowflake lands. The snow just falls from the sky and falls where it lands. Any number of infinite causes could make each flake land in a certain place.

The snow is wiggly and random, it has li. Li is the Chinese word describing the organic pattern present in all natural things, such as falling snow, waves on an ocean, and markings in stone. To me, things that exhibit li are themselves alive.

Falling snow is precious to me because it is a portal, a gateway to the ultimate reality. I urge you to step outside on a calm winter day when the huge, fat flakes are falling from the sky. Make yourself still and stand amidst the activity all around you. Feel the presence of the snow, feel all of the space filled with it. Maybe you’ll feel yourself slip away, get lost, swept up in the movement.

Or maybe you won’t.

Cultivating the Paramis: Reflections from Weekend Insight Meditation Retreat March 15, 2013

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Last weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a weekend insight meditation retreat organized by my sangha. Overall, the weekend was very beneficial, and I feel that my practice has definitely been strengthened. I enjoyed the teacher’s wonderful presence, her unique contributions to the effects of meditation on physical health, and of course, her dharma talks around the theme of cultivating the paramis.

Presence

The presence of the teacher herself was one of the most valuable parts of the retreat for me. Usually I feel threatened by a new teacher and don’t like them initially. I was drawn to this teacher immediately. I absolutely absorbed her presence of joy and lightness. I think that this is because I’m drawn to what I desire most in myself.

For me, the teacher was a living Buddha, an example of the teachings in practice. She embodied incredible lightness and a wonderful sense of humour. She was very gracious and light, and her teaching style was incredibly gentle. I absolutely loved being on retreat with her because my own practice is usually harsh and rigid so her approach was very balancing.

I especially appreciated her humility and willingness to openly describe her difficulties and challenges. I think I had a misperception that teachers and long-term practitioners are immune to these types of struggles. But, reflecting on my own practice, I see now I was sorely mistaken.

Meditation and Health

The teacher is actually a practicing medical doctor, so I appreciated the physical health piece she brought to her wisdom. Several times she was able to complement her wisdom teachings with more recent evidence in neurobiology. I was glad to have the reminder of how meditation is so directly linked to the parasympathetic nervous system and can counteract the harmful stress response. She was able to masterfully blend the descriptions of the teachings in practice with what these effects looked like as patterns in brain activity. I will admit that I take this “scientific evidence” with a grain of salt. But she reminded me that I myself have a unique appreciation for the neurobiology aspect of meditation given my psychology background.

Paramis

The theme of the retreat itself was cultivating the paramis, the qualities of character to be perfected to awaken our Buddha nature. While we didn’t go through all of them in detail, there was some discussion of the paramis overall. I didn’t spend too much energy on the retreat working with the qualities about which she taught. I did appreciate the mention that these qualities arise organically as a result of the mindfulness practice itself. In fact, when the teacher went through the list, I found this to be true. I have never formally familiarized myself with the paramis, but I recognized that some of them had naturally been strengthened as a result of my practice.

A theme I discovered in all of her talks about each of the paramis was that we cultivate them by recognizing and exploring their opposite. We build each quality by noticing when its opposite is presence. Its not only recognizing that its there, but getting in touch with it, looking deeply into it, and most importantly, holding it and myself in compassion.

This may sound counterintuitive, but after some reflection I saw that it was certainly true for me. I believe that this applies not only to the paramis, but to any Buddhist quality to which I aspire. only when I move toward what was causing difficulty for me did I find the solution or the solutions found themselves. As Thay says, “No mud, no lotus.” Only by recognizing and embracing my suffering can I transform it. The only way out is through. It sounds harsh, but I believe it to be the truth.

The teacher’s presence as a living example of the teachings, her experience in healthcare, and her instructions on the paramis were just a few of the many benefits I received on this weekend retreat. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this event. Now I am looking forward to putting the teachings to practice!