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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!

Wilderness Dharma: Living in Harmony With the Seasons April 19, 2013

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Here is another post to follow up my last post on seasonal food that is also on the theme of living in harmony with the seasons. In many ways, I live in direct contact with the living world, and by extension the changing seasons. I have had the opportunity to notice how the seasons influence me. I notice both the teachings of dualism, and—somewhat contradictory, perhaps—of dualism, as well as the teaching of impermanence. I can also recognize the seasons of my life as part of the greater rhythms of the living world of which I am a part.

Because I have such a strong need to be outdoors and spend so much of my time in the living world, my personal circumstances are directly affected by the seasons. The time of year determines how I get around because I lack a vehicle, whether this is walking, biking, or taking the bus. My leisure activities are determined by the seasons when it affects whether I’m able to be biking, canoeing, camping, fishing, and picking berries, or whether I can be skating, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. Finally, how I stay active depends on the type of year, or if I’m able to be running, biking, walking, or practicing yoga. As a result of my personal circumstances affected directly by changes in seasons, I have had opportunity to notice my reactions to changes in these natural rhythms.

When living closely with the seasons, I see the lesson of dualism: this is because that is. There is summer because there is winter. We define something in terms of its opposite. We know what summer is because we contrast it with winter. And I will love summer because I don’t love winter, or rather, the more I love summer, the more I hate winter.

However, I think that getting attached to one or another season can be problematic when we base our happiness on external conditions. In fact, buying a plane ticket to “escape” winter for two weeks in the Caribbean would make me hate winter to a more extreme! I would hate winter before I leave when I daydream and crave the warm tropical weather I expect to go to in the future. While I am there, because I just dropped hundreds of dollars just to be there, I would make darned sure I really enjoy the conditions: the exhausting heat and the hot blistering sun. I would hate winter when I got back when I would contrast my past memories of the paradise I was just at with being at home.

The trick is to love every season, or to at least love something or some aspects of every season. At any time of year, I can enjoy the lush green vitality of summer, the beautiful fall colours, gorgeous winter hoarfrost, or baby calves born in the spring.

Another dharma teaching I’ve noticed clearly in the seasons is nondualism. Nondualism states that we can’t draw a clear line to separate two objects or concepts when in fact they are both one. Both objects we try to label as separate are just two parts of a bigger whole, so “summer” and “winter” are two words used to describe the whole, which is “seasons.”

I notice nondualism in the changing seasons when I see that there isn’t a clear way to draw a line between the two seasons. It\s not the case that one day I wake up and one season is completely over, and the other season is completely here. They blend and blur into each other. Moving to another season isn’t like the way I would pull a new page open on a calendar to move from one month to the next.

Which leads me to my next observation, that living directly with the seasons teaches me the dharma teaching of impermanence. The seasons are always impermanent, changing, shifting, moving from one into the other. Each new day of one season is one step away from the past season, and one step closer to the next. We can never capture one season completely by stopping time, but instead they are always in constant flux. Also, when one season ends when we move into the next season, that past season isn’t permanently over. It will be back next year as the rhythms and cycles of the living world continue.

I also can apply my experience of the seasons to my own personal circumstances when I recognize the “seasons of my life.” I see that my personal circumstances and the situations in which I find myself are constantly and continually shifting, moving, and fluctuating. Over the few decades I’ve been alive, I’ve moved through the stages of “good” and “bad” of happiness and depression, of sickness and health, of success and failure, of doubt and faith, and of light and darkness. What’s more, I know that if I live long enough I will see the movement of this human life through more seasons of birth and death, of youth and old age, and of maturing and decaying.

I am able to see more and more each day Thay’s teaching that my joy and pain are one. I only know one side of these shifting seasons when I have already experienced the other. As just an example, I can only truly appreciate my health when I have directly experienced sickness. This gives me more confidence and encouragement to work with my suffering, to embrace it in order to transform it and be healed.

Living in direct contact with the living world allows me to notice very clearly and vividly both the teachings of dualism and nondualism, as well as the teaching of impermanence. I have also been able to notice the teachings of our Earth in my own personal circumstances of this human life when I reflect on the changing “seasons” I’ve lived. Hopefully by being able to accept the changing seasons of the living world as just the way things are, I can accept the changing seasons of my human life as gracefully and humbly.

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.

What Are My Gifts To Others? December 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its HARD Being Gentle November 23, 2012

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The past few months I have been paying a great deal of attention to how I am gentle with myself, or rather as is more often the case, how much I am not gentle with myself. I am harsh with myself in a number of ways, which I am sure I share with many people:

– I have very high expectations of myself, kind of an all-or-nothing attitude. If I can’t achieve a self-image or value all the time to the best of my ability, then I shouldn’t do it at all. I get quite idealistic about how I “should” be.

– I am harsh with how I spend my time. I can get quite caught up in paying meticulously close attention to how much time I take to do certain things, and I can get quite rushed and impatient.

– I am harsh with my energy levels, where I push the limits of how much energy I can drain out of myself in order to accomplish a task. I tell myself at certain times that it doesn’t matter how hard I have to motivate myself, I have to push my energy to get a task done.

– I am harsh with my body when I find myself a large amount of the time holding onto at least some degree of physical tension, usually in my upper shoulder/ lower neck muscles.

What I have been trying to cultivate is a great deal of self-compassion and love for myself. I try to use the phrase as often as I can “May I be gentle with myself.” The way of self-compassion is the way out of the suffering caused by harshness with myself.

What I have been trying to practice is gentleness, by trying to relax tension in my body, slow down, and ease up on the harsh expectations. Nevertheless, as simple as it sounds and as clear and effective an answer it seems, I am finding that it is hard being gentle. So why am I finding this so hard to do?

Perhaps it is because I have a great deal of very strong habit energy built up that is still playing itself out. Even when I can see myself being harsh with myself and I have a deep desire to live in a state of more gentleness, the habit energy still plays itself out and I feel powerless to stop it. I know I mention it frequently, but I spent six years as a full-time university student, and I know this experience has shaped who I am today.

Perhaps it is because I am becoming more familiar with wanting mind and wanting mind still has a strong hold over me. I am greedy for more “stuff”, “things”, tasks, events, achievements and accomplishments. I am seeing more clearly lately how I can be caught up in “creating a self” where I am still identified with what I do. I feel a need to “prove myself” because it simply isn’t enough to just be.

Perhaps it is because I find it so difficult to be flexible and make exceptions to my “rules”, because this means admitting defeat or failure and falling short of my ideals of perfection. It makes so much sense, but can be so difficult to do, to say that a task can’t be done because I am ill, not feeling physically or emotionally well, stressed, running late, I have low energy, or I made a mistake or simply forgot with too many other ideas on my mind.

Finally, the more I reflected on the question of “Why is it so hard to be gentle?” an answer I came up with was maybe having it all come down to feeling that I don’t deserve to be gentle with myself. I am not worthy enough of a person just as I am to deserve some rest, some relaxation, some imperfection or mistakes. Related to this is a feeling that being gentle means being a lot slower with myself, and that a perception that slowness would lead to a number of things: failure (I cannot be “successful” as in material success and status), lazy (and therefore being slobby and wasting away one’s time), and irresponsible (as in carefree and forgetful).

What does it look like to be more gentle with myself, when I actually am able to achieve it on the rare occasion? I find it requires a great deal of diligence and mental effort to maintain that state of mind, as well as compassion. I slow down and fewer tasks seem to get done, that is, the unimportant ones—accompanied by feelings of failure and disappointment. And there is a constant running thread of “no” being said: no, not now.

Learning from Difficulties October 18, 2012

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October 6th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Thay would say, “Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating Reality October 18, 2012

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October 14th, 2012

Today is a Day of Mindfulness for me, my first real DOM in two weeks. I thought I would share one insight of many I have had lately. A worry that was bothering me recently was feelings of exclusion and alienation. (In part this may have been related to my difficulties at work that made me consider the possibility of leaving my area of work and training. In a sense, I eventually saw this represented a dying of my professional self, the loss of Andrea the researcher, and an alienation from that area of society. Feelings of exclusion also come up when I visit close family, when I see how some of my family belongs to a grouping of society I feel I can’t avoid and is a part of my self.)

I came to the realization that having a worry of, for instance, being excluded from an aspect of society, is created and fostered in the mind, and in turn further cemented there each time I return to that worry. Having a worry about one day in the future possibly being excluded is only an image, a mental construction. It can’t necessarily be completely true because the mind never has a complete vision of reality, able to see a situation from every perspective (to quote Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends”). My fear is based on my past conditioning that I project onto the future.

Furthermore, when I worry about myself falling victim to a possible future scenario, that vision is also a limited mental construction. That is, my idea of myself is a mental construction. I never see my complete, true self from all possible perspectives. My idea of who I am is always incomplete and limited. Therefore, I have no absolute certainty that I will be a person who is susceptible to falling into a certain scenario. Maybe I have a hidden capacity within myself that will allow that never to happen. Further, I have an idea that a scenario will be “bad” and will cause me pain and suffering, but I have no way of knowing that this will be true. One piece of knowledge that gives me great hope are accounts of other people’s life situations that sound absolutely devastating and dreadful, yet these people can amazingly report still being content and free from deep suffering and anguish.

Finally, each time I bring up and dwell on a fear of something happening to me, I further make concrete both the scenario being possible and myself being susceptible to that and suffering as a result. Which in turn makes it more likely the worry and fear will arise again in the future, and then further making the constructions real in the mind. And so the wheel of samsara ever turns, over and over…

What if there is a different way of imagining what could happen? What if instead of dwelling on bad situations being likely to happen, I create and add mental energy to wholesome and beneficial ones? Not to say that the beneficial ones will happen with absolute certainty, but that I’m going to give food to an expectation that they could. Anything is possible. I’m placing my bets on a different set of cards. I’m changing my default views and operating set of assumptions of reality, the world, and how I fit into it. If I give energy and intention to what is good being possible, I know it is more likely that they will happen.

Ultimately, I know that both “good” and “bad” scenarios are illusions and mental constructions, and thus not entirely real. What is real is what is directly happening now, which is beyond concepts and mental constructions. But I know that how I view the world and reality can drastically change what does end up happening. Now the challenge is how to strengthen and foster this insight and let it spread into all aspects of how I view the world, how I interact with and respond to what’s happening. Or at least to spread it to as many aspects as possible.

Love and Positivity versus Shame and Guilt: Applying Mindfulness to Work August 26, 2012

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Over the past several months I’ve been making an increased effort to apply the practice to different areas of my daily life, or as many aspects as I possibly can. One area that I have found especially challenging and fruitful at the same time has been my work, both paid and unpaid (school).

I have made a vow to myself to motivate myself to work only (or as much as I can) with love and positivity. I guess the vow was due to seeing just how much suffering I cause myself by using shame, guilt, and fear as motivation to complete my work. This suffering has manifested in multiple forms, including but not limited to stress, physical pain, exhaustion, and aversion.

To give a bit more detail, before, I would make an effort to complete a school assignment (such as a lovely major term paper/ essay) by framing it in my mind in the form of a negative, that is, what I would lose if I didn’t complete it. “If I don’t finish this essay on time…I won’t get a good course mark (fear).” “…I will be a bad student (shame).” “…I will regret it later (guilt).”

On the other hand, a type of motivation that I am just learning to use more would be out of love and positivity. I am completing a task because I am taking good care of myself, or because I enjoy doing it, or because I have an inherent motivation to direct my mental/ physical energy toward something and I choose this object as a target. In other words, I am gaining something positive by doing it, whether it be the satisfaction of completing a task I set my mind to, the inherent enjoyment of the work, or a paycheck that puts food on my breakfast table.

I spent a lot of time (i.e., years) practicing the negative forms of motivation of shame, guilt, and fear, so its no surprise that they are taking quite a bit of effort to overcome. They have become quite heavily engrained habit energies.

I completed most of an undergraduate degree motivating myself through fear and anxiety. I actually went through a period of time once I completed my degree where I had quite a bit of ambivalence about my accomplishment. I felt that I didn’t really deserve to have a bachelor’s degree, that piece of paper that set me in a different category from my parents and many people in my family and a large proportion of the population. I felt that I didn’t deserve it because I could look back over the course of four years and see quite clearly just how much negative emotions and mental states were used to achieve that accomplishment. And as a result, I was still living in those states of impatience, anxiety, and shame that were still causing so much suffering in so many other areas of my life.

I think meditation has a big part to play in my determination to be more positive in motivating myself to work. Meditation is the cultivation of awareness, so I have become more aware of just how much negativity can surround my work. This awareness doesn’t just take place in the moment, but builds and increases and accumulates over time. I get to the point where I just get so absolutely tired of seeing how my regular behaviour can directly cause my own suffering that I veer myself in the other direction. (I’m not sure if the veering is always a conscious phenomenon.)

Sometimes that other direction can be just as painful, because its new and uncertain and scary: I don’t know if this whole lovey-dovey, positivity stuff will work. Negativity seems to be all that I have ever known as far as I can tell, and its seems like a big mistake to throw something out if it has been working.

But again, when these types of motivations are so heavily engrained and become such strong habit energy, I have to veer myself in the other direction again and again. Its a daily practice. I have to remind myself again and again why I am doing it. And that reminder often occurs in the midst of suffering, when I am filled with shame or guilt or regret, or physical pain and exhaustion, and I remember why I am trying to make changes.

I recently explained to someone who is very close to me my determination to be more positive and loving in my efforts to complete my work, in this case my job search process. The other person responded to me with, “Well, isn’t that just the way life is sometimes, is that we have to just suck it up and get something over with so that its done?”

And my response was no, not for me. Maybe for other people it can work from time to time, but as far as I am concerned I have to do a complete 180 degree turn. My default, automatic response is to use that “suck it up, get it over with—even though it hurts and is painful and will cause suffering down the road”. So I don’t need to think about using that strategy. Instead what takes more effort, and is better for my well-being, is the opposite, using a desire to love myself or to frame my situation in a positive light in order to accomplish something.

I think if I can’t successfully use that strategy, then maybe I just shouldn’t be doing whatever it is I am trying to do.

On Loving Speech August 8, 2012

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Recently I have had the opportunity to practice loving speech. Since I’ve moved back from Ontario, I have spent some time staying at my parents’ house, with my brother also staying with us. Many times I have watched myself resort to critical and negative speech, despite my view of myself as a dedicated practitioner of the five mindfulness trainings. Nevertheless, I am committed to practicing loving speech, despite the great effort it can take and the many learning experiences I encounter.

Visiting my parents has made loving speech particularly challenging, in part because I am not used to living with so many people at once in a small space since I was a teenager. Also, I feel constricted at times by my family’s best efforts to make conversation with me and catch up after being away for so long, where often I’m really not in the mood to visit.

Perhaps the biggest reason why I’m finding loving speech challenging is because I find myself drawn into old habitual ways of thinking, speaking, and acting since I was a teenager, despite the years I have had separation from my family and been on my own. I guess this is just to be expected that we all resort to familiar ways of being with each other. After all, family and familiar are made of the same root word origins.  My parents also resort to speaking to me and treating me like I’m still a teenager. But it is up to me to pause and take a step out of those unskilful patterns and find new ways of relating to my family.

How do I practice loving speech? I try to keep mindful of my intention as much and as often as I can. I intend to treat my family members with love, care, and respect (and that can include standing up for myself to assert my own needs). I am determined to do no more harm to my family in the way I speak and act toward them.

The times when I have to try my hardest to practice loving speech is when I am asking someone to do something for me, or when I want to criticize or suggest a different way of doing something around the house. I have noticed that I can ask someone to do something in a kind and loving way that doesn’t put an expectation that they should do it, or they are supposed to. Instead, what I can do is preface my request with a statement about myself (“It’s hard for me to prepare a meal when there are dishes in the way.”). Then I visualize myself calmly smiling, and that the words coming out of my mouth are kind and loving.

I ask as kindly as I can if they would like to helpme out by doing something for me (“Can you move your dishes for me?”). But even in the asking, I try to make it a soft request, not  a harsh demand that has to be fulfilled. I try not to have attachment to the outcome of another person’s behaviour. In other words, if they desire to help me out, it is great, but if not, that’s perfectly fine, too, and I can figure out a way to handle it myself.

Of course, this is the ideal of how I would like things to happen. But as always happens, people get tired, irritated and impatient, and these ideals are not always fulfilled.

Nevertheless, the times when I am able to try my best to act this way, I find that things go much more smoothly with my family. Its satisfying to see the practice put to work and to see such rapid results.

I hope I can take these lessons and apply them elsewhere…with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, coworkers, and relatives.

I will end with a reflection that I think I feel such a strong desire to act and speak lovingly to my family because strong memories have become so salient of how much I used to be verbally abusive to my family members as a teenager. As a typical teenager, I was egotistical, selfish, and completely self-absorbed. So I resorted to yelling and screaming at them, and acting violent around the home, in order to get what I wanted. I want to reverse these harmful effects in whatever way I can in the present.

Happy Listening: Anyway by Martina McBride July 17, 2012

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Marina McBride – Anyway

You can spend your whole life buildin’
Somethin’ from nothin’
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

[chorus:]

God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good
When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway

This world’s gone crazy
And it’s hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway

You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away
love ’em anyway

[chorus]

You can pour your soul out singing
A song you believe in
That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway
Yeah, sing it anyway
I sing, I dream, I love
Anyway