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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!

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…

Mindfulness Meditation: Perspectives from a Young Adult Practitioner January 25, 2013

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As a young adult who practices meditation, I think I might possess a unique perspective compared to my many less young dharma sisters and brothers. I often find myself being the odd woman out due to my age while attending various sanghas and retreats. Nevertheless, I think I might be in an advantageous situation by being treated favorably as a relatively young practitioner in an ageist society. I have also heard some thought-provoking comments from other people who can project a younger version of themselves onto their perception of me.

Let’s face facts: meditation is not something my age-mates are lining up in droves to try. Meditation seems to be part of the life stage of middle age or retirement, or “the kids have moved out and all of a sudden I have some ‘spare time’ on my hands.” As a young adult, I can often feel out of place taking part in sanghas and retreats when I can look around me and sometimes see only people twice my age or more.

I will admit I can become self-conscious of not fitting in with the rest of the crowd, but perhaps more so when I was starting out in my practice. Feeling out of place due to my age alone used to raise a fair amount of doubt in me, leaving me to wonder whether meditation really was the right path for me, or if I should throw in the towel, give in to (self-perceived) peer pressure, and spend my evenings watching TV or drinking at the local pub. Now I have just accepted meditation as what works for me as a person, regardless of how young I am.

I have sometimes found it difficult when the times for socializing with my dharma friends leave me with little opportunity to contribute, when conversations topics can center on living with spouses, in-laws, or children, dealing with coworkers or bosses, caring for aging parents, or managing a home. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer my perspective here! I am grateful, however, to listen in on these conversations when I am better able to understand my parents’ perspective of having a relationship with adult children.

On the other hand, one nice aspect of being a relatively young practitioner is that I think I am treated favourably or more “special” in sanghas because of my young age. In a youth-centered society, younger is better, because youthfulness and its abundant energy offers more possibility for doing and achieving, as well as more potential for acquiring skills and knowledge. The wisdom and accumulated life experience of our elders is discounted in a society that is rapidly changing and evolving. I can’t quite describe exactly how I might be treated differently, but I have a few examples.

People have told me more than once after asking me why I came to the practice that I have a “head start” on them for being so young. An unspoken assumption here, I think, is that starting to practice “sooner” at a younger age would be better. Could this be identification with “doing mind,” where more experience with a skill is inherently better because it leads to more expertise?

Another phenomena I have noticed while meeting so many fellow practitioners less younger than me is that people seem to have a tendency to project their younger self onto their perception of me. I have heard numerous comments similar to, “Oh, I wish I had been practicing when I was your age!” The funniest comment I will always remember was from someone who applauded my ability to practice despite my young age: “I’m just amazed that you are able to practice meditation. When I was your age, I wouldn’t have been able to sit still for two minutes!”

One problem I have with the projection of a younger self onto meditation is that it ignores all of the causes and conditions that bring us to the practice. Perhaps the subtext here is, “If I had been practicing sooner, I could have avoided experiencing a great deal of suffering.” But isn’t suffering what brings us to the practice in the first place? I will speak for myself by saying that if I hadn’t undergone the difficulties at the age I did, I wouldn’t have discovered the practice, nor would I have stayed with it with such determination. It is like Thay says, “No mud, no lotus.”

Another problem I have with people projecting themselves onto their perception of me is that it ignores impermanence. Yes, I will certainly admit that as a younger person I have the potential to enjoy more years than my less young friends, all things considered. Nevertheless, potential is far from reality. As someone very close to me has often liked to remind me very matter-of-factly, “We might all be dead tomorrow.” I may have no more of a chance to practice in the future than people two or three times my age. All we ever have is the present moment.

Finally, I want to end with a mention of higher education as a doorway to the dharma. I think many people, myself included, come to the practice as a form of stress relief, and university and college education brings a great deal of stress. Therefore, I think mindfulness can be a powerful and welcome practice for many university students struggling to complete their programs.

One reason university was particularly stressful for me was that I felt I had so much on the line. One low mark on one assignment wasn’t just one assignment, it was my entire future: a low mark on an assignment meant a low mark in the class, and a low mark in the class meant not getting a job or scholarship or not getting into a graduate program, and not getting a job meant not having a career, and not having a career meant that “my life would be over,” or so I used to tell myself at the time.

Clearly this type of thinking creates much more stress and suffering than it needs to. But I will add that although mindfulness might be used as a stress-relief tool initially, to receive the full benefits of the practice one has to cut to the very root of the disease instead of just using coping strategies to simply cover up the symptoms.

While practicing meditation as a young adult has brought some unique and often challenging experiences, I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to gain perspective on applying the practice to this stage of my life. I am inviting some of my fellow dharma buddies to add any comments to this post. I am curious for some other voices to let me know if I hit the mark and spoke to their experience, or if there was anything I missed that would better describe practicing meditation as a young sangha member. Thanks in advance for your input!

Reflections from Weekend Mindfulness Retreat January 18, 2013

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Recently I had the opportunity to organize and attend a weekend mindfulness retreat where I am living. It was a wonderful experience overall, and I wanted to share just a few of many reflections from the weekend, including opening my heart, restoring my confidence, and hugging meditation.
Opening My Heart
On the retreat I was able to enjoy many periods of dwelling in an open heart. Numerous times I would be making my way around the retreat, as well as during walking and eating meditation, and I would notice or see my fellow retreat attendees, some of whom were complete strangers to me. I would feel an immense sense of gratitude and appreciation for these wonderful living beings directly in front of me, simply for their presence. I also experienced a softening in compassion at the same time of their vulnerability to suffering.
This sense of dwelling in an open heart felt amazing: very warm, peaceful, natural, satisfying, spacious and expansive. It is only recently in the past few months since my weekend lovingkindness retreat that I have been able to recognize when my heart is open to others.
I think that an important factor to help these feelings arise might be the incredible safety and comfort I usually feel on retreat of being in a safe, quiet place, surrounded by fellow practitioners, and watched over by a dharma teacher. I am grateful that I was able to get a glimpse of that place of open-heartedness. I hope that I can use it as an experience to remember, and to which I can refer later: Oh right, this is what an open heart feels like.
Restoring My Confidence
The teacher asked us at the start of the retreat to really take some time to consider our intention for coming. To ask ourselves: Why am I here? What do I hope to get out of this? I spent some time trying to narrow down and clarify a few thoughts or themes going through my mind up until that point. One intention that came out that really spoke to me was my intention to strengthen and restore my faith in the practice.
I had a difficult time over the winter holidays sustaining my practice, to which I’m sure many people can relate, and I returned feeling quite depleted in my typical trust and confidence in practicing mindfulness. Specifically, I felt that maintaining my mindfulness practice was taking more effort than it was “worth”, or that I was putting more into it than I was getting out of it. Looking back now, I think I can see that I may have been lost in confusion and despair.
Regardless, I remembered from past retreats that these weekends usually left me with a stronger sense of faith and confidence that I am on the right path. I will say that my faith and trust was completely restore as soon  as I had the chance to practice mindful breathing and walking in a supportive environment. A large part of this restored faith also was due, I think, to sharing or enjoying the expressions of deep faith and heartfelt aspirations of others, especially of those who were new to the practice. I felt genuinely moved and touched by the sincerity of other people’s aspirations and the bare honesty of what people shared during dharma discussion and question & answer sessions. Maybe it reminded me that I, too, have turned to the three jewels in deep humility of not knowing all of the answers and turning to something outside of myself for help and refuge.
Enjoying Hugging Meditation
One part of the retreat I especially enjoyed was hugging meditation. I had the sense that I was really able to grasp the full meaning behind Thay’s instruction on the purpose of hugging meditation. This wasn’t my first opportunity to enjoy hugging meditation on retreat, but it was one time I felt deeply moved by it.
From my understanding, hugging meditation can be an opportunity to enjoy sharing the presence of another person. When we practice hugging meditation, we can be completely present for that person and recognize that they are here with us. I was able to relate to Thay’s connection of impermanence to the practice of being able to say, I know that you are here and I am so happy. Realizing that every moment of our and another’s life is precious, and all we really have is the present moment.
I try to really appreciate and savour every moment I share together with my loved ones. It is a chance to recognize that all of the infinite causes and conditions that had to come together for ourself and the other person to be here, alive and well, in this moment. I really was able to get a good sense of all of these teachings during hugging meditation. Perhaps it helped that I was so moved by the deep aspirations of others who took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and knowing that many more were considering taking the trainings. I was really able to see the good heart of everyone shining through and reflecting in their eyes.
Something I have been trying hard to do is to practice this with my family, and to not take for granted as much that my family members will always be here with me when I spend time with them, but that every moment I have with them is precious simply because we are able to be together. This intention is something I continue to explore and practice.
These are just a few reflections from my experience of a great weekend retreat. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to take part and to help organize the retreat. My task now is to integrate these experiences and insights into my everyday situations. Wish me luck!

Meditation and Voluntary Simplicity December 7, 2012

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I would like to write a post about meditation and voluntary simplicity, which are two activities in which I am dedicated that are quite important to me. This post is prompted by an upcoming book club meeting I will be attending in a few days to discuss Less is More by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbansky. I also wanted to write about these two topics together, because I recall that I became interested in both of them at the same time, and its easy to see how interest in one may have prompted interest in the other, and vice versa.

First I will start with a statement that I think should be included in any discussion of voluntary simplicity: I occupy a position of privilege and power that allows me the luxury to be able to choose voluntary simplicity that many people can’t afford to make. I have to acknowledge that my existence as a White, university-educated, middle-class, able-bodied, English-speaking, young, healthy woman makes it much easier for me to choose a different lifestyle than it would be for others. In other words, people can’t afford to choose voluntary simplicity when they are denied their basic rights and struggling to make ends meet.

So what is voluntary simplicity? Simply put, it is choosing to simplify my lifestyle, or to live a more “simple life,” by scaling back on the unnecessary details that occupy my life situation and end up only making me miserable. Much of the philosophy has to do with scaling back on material possessions and external goals, to live a more balanced life valuing intrinsically satisfying goals and inner experience.

However, to tie the philosophy specifically to the practice of meditation, I’ll focus on one important aspect of voluntary simplicity: slowing down. Voluntary simplicity involves slowing down the hectic pace of my life situation to take the time to enjoy the pleasures of being alive, while I am still living on our Earth.

In this way, voluntary simplicity is closely linked to a similar movement, the Slow Food movement. The philosophy behind the Slow Food movement is that when taking the time to grow, buy, prepare, and/or eat our food at a slower pace results in food that will be much healthier for our bodies and more satisfying.

Besides slowing down food habits, voluntary simplicity supports slowing down different areas of the modern lifestyle as a protest to the hectic, fast-paced modern world of electronic gadgets and work productivity. If I am always rushing from one task to the next—from sleeping to dressing to transportation to work to eating to exercising to recreation to socializing—I’m not really enjoying any of my experience because I’m so caught up in “nexting,” in getting to the next thing.

Meditation practice can be a way to slow down and simplify my life situation. I think it could be said that there are some forms of relaxation meditation that might be away to maintain a fast-paced habit, when meditation would be used to relieve the symptoms of experiencing stress in a fast-paced world. Relaxation meditation could be a way to recover the body and mind for a short time, in order to get up and do it all over again.

I don’t see mindfulness meditation as meant for the purpose of relaxation, although relaxation is an essential ingredient for the practice if I want to do it skilfully. Instead of using meditation to relieve or cover up the symptoms, mindfulness meditation has the goal of curing the disease. The goal is to cut the root of what makes me stressed in the first place. And efforts toward that goal aren’t always necessarily experienced as relaxing.

Meditation is slowing down because I am deliberately setting aside the time for formal sitting practice. That is time that I could be using being busy and productive and getting other stuff done! In this sense, meditation at first seemed almost anti-productive. Nevertheless, when I actually started to practice meditation regularly, I realized that it can make me more productive when I am more aware of how I am doing tasks in a more skilful, efficient way. Meditation also fulfills the mind’s need for rest and space, a concept that seems completely foreign in this day and age. Meditation practice can be refreshing and revitalizing when it gives the mind a break from the relentless, habitual thought patterns that leave me worn out. I can get up off the cushion feeling much more prepared to face the day.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of slowing down because in order to do a task mindfully, I have to do it slowly. I have to give my full and complete attention to whatever occupies my activity in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about having a Day of Mindfulness, where we take twice as much time to do anything (cooking, eating, cleaning, tidying, organizing, bathing, washing dishes, drinking tea, gardening, walking). It is at this slow pace that these simple tasks I overlook on my busy days actually become quite enjoyable in and of themselves.

Mindfulness is also slowing down because I am doing one thing at a time if I do it mindfully. Mindfulness supports the practice of uni-tasking! I have to do one thing at a time if I want to actually be aware of what I am doing. In this sense, mindfulness can contradict a multi-tasking culture that expects humans to run like computers: constantly, at high speeds, processing multiple amounts of information at once. When I am multi-tasking, like cooking and talking on the phone at the same time, I end up being less productive or efficient. If I pay close attention to the quality of what I am doing, I see that I end up doing two (or more) tasks at once to a poorer quality, because I make mistakes and I don’t remember what I did afterward.

Spending time in meditation communities reveals to me that the people who attend these groups often have adopted similar attitudes and philosophies of slowing down and having a more simple life. It is quite refreshing to spend time with these people as a break from the dominant culture. Finally, I will add that one of the main reasons I chose not to pursue a PhD, despite many people’s insistence that I should take that route, was that the end goal of having a doctorate degree was completely opposite to voluntary simplicity. The academic lifestyle is not at all what I would describe as balanced or slow, and it didn’t appeal to me in the least.

I chose to focus specifically on the practice of meditation as related to voluntary simplicity, but my meditation practice is part of a larger spiritual practice that incorporates many more of the values of voluntary simplicity. I am quite excited for this upcoming book club meeting, and I know that I have enjoyed similar events in the past.

Speaking of books, here are some of the many titles I have read over the past few years on or related to the topic:

In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (should be no impact family in my opinion) by Colin Beavan

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (androcentric writing warning)

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of A Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich

How I Came to the Practice: Part 7 – Finding Sangha November 20, 2012

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(This is the final post in a series on the full story of how I came to meditation practice. Click on the links for part 1 – My Christian Rootspart 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally To Mepart 3 – Asian Exoticism and Zen for Dummiespart 4 – Religious Studies and Meditation Instruction, part 5 – Running From The Darkness, and part 6 – Seeking Spirit).

Some time after receiving meditation instruction, I received an e-mail list from the local meditation community list for which I was signed up. The e-mail let me know that a weekly meditation group was starting up again for the year, and it happened to be very close to my house. I saw this as my chance to check out a nearby meditation event to see what it was like.

I had never heard of the teacher, but I later learned that the teacher was someone who had taught meditation classes for some time. The teacher held the Buddhist weekly meditation group for people who either had never tried meditation, or those that had taken the classes and still wanted more instruction and guidance.

I biked over on a fall day and just showed up to the meeting place, a nice quiet little room in a basement of an old church. I really didn’t know what to expect, and I felt quite awkward and shy to meet complete strangers. There was only one or two other people there on that first day because it was one of the first sessions of the year. More people would show up gradually as the year went on.

The teacher led a half hour guided meditation. I found the meditation very easy to follow, in contrast to my own silent sitting periods. Afterwards, there was a dharma talk, and I forget the exact topic but I think it touched on suffering caused by attachment and clinging. This dharma talk really resonated with me, because I had the distinct feeling that this was true and applicable for myself: I knew that I was attached and clinging to certain things, and I knew that it was causing me suffering. Up until this point, I had been able to experience the relief and freedom of being able to let go of my anxious, worrisome thoughts during my own attempts at formal meditation.

Whether it was this first dharma talk I heard from the teacher, or whether it was during the few upcoming sessions I would attend over the next few weeks, I eventually had the very powerful feeling of truth. I felt that the teacher was speaking my truth, they were providing an explanation that described how I experienced the world. It was the sense that there was words being put on what I had always known, or known so long, but hadn’t been able to express it myself. Never before had I come across someone expressing these types of ideas that provided me with a sense of truth.

The discovery of the dharma was a very exciting moment for me, because I felt a shared understanding between myself, the teacher, and all the people who were following these teachings. I had the first taste of the dharma, and I needed to know more. I was eager to seek more knowledge to gain a better understanding. It was the sense that my truth was out there and I would be able to find it.

Being able to attend a regular meditation group provided me with the support to begin a regular daily formal meditation practice. Where I had gotten discouraged and given up before, I was now more determined to “get it” and master the meditation techniques for myself. There are likely a number of reasons why my practice was supported by the group.

First, I had the guidance of an experienced teacher, a real live person who I could ask questions if ever I needed. Not that I did seek the teacher out for questions very often, but just the fact that the teacher was regularly available was a big reassurance.

Second, I had the support of a group of people who shared similar goals with me and had a great deal more experience with meditation. I was supported by the group because I didn’t feel that I had to measure up to them or compare myself to them in any way. They were all very humble in how they described their own personal practice. Over time, I was able to gain the sense that, even when people had been practicing for a number of years, they still had challenges and struggles, too, in many different ways. What a relief not to have the expectation to be perfect.

Third, there was a social aspect to it that provided a sense of bonding. These people who regularly attended the group together took the time to get to know each other as friends. After the meditation sessions, there was always tea, where everyone had the opportunity to just sit and visit with each other. I felt very welcome by the group because it seemed that people were genuinely interested in who I was and where I came from. It was a nice feeling to have a very friendly group of people wanting to get to know you more.

Some time after first attending, I approached the teacher asking for suggestions on a book to read for more information about meditation. (I think the first dharma book I read was Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia Boorstein). The teacher would also make announcements about upcoming retreats in the community, and, along with others in the group, would encourage people to attend retreat to deepen their meditation practice. I was quite intrigued, and very curious to see what a retreat was like. After attending my first retreat, there was no going back.

And the rest is herstory!

Embracing the Sangha October 29, 2012

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

Having a Sangha

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

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

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

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

Dharma Sharing

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

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

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

Review: You Are Here September 3, 2012

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 Review: You are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment

I recently finished You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. Much of what I read, I have come across previously in other books by Thay, but this book has been arranged so that the main focus and message of the book is specifically the present moment. The book is very small and very easy to read. It is an instruction manual for how to dwell fully in the present moment, and explains all of the benefits we can receive if we know how to do this.

If I could sum up the main message of the book, it would be this:

“I am here.”

If we are able to say this and know that it is true, then we know we are practicing skilfully. To be able to say, “I am here. I have arrived.” is the main practice offered in this book. It is a simple (perhaps not so easy) practice that can have immense benefits.

“The Buddha said, ‘The past no longer exists and the future is not yet here.’ There is only a single moment in which we can truly be alive, and that is the present moment. Being present in the here and now is our practice.”

The book also describes the miracles of mindfulness in the present moment, both for ourselves and for the other.

The miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can heal from the past. Thay explains how to practice skilfully with our past and not be lost in regret. We can also practice in the present moment to make right any unskilful actions from our past. If we have a painful past, we can practice to heal from it and enjoy freedom and happiness.

Another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we can skilfully handle the future. Thay says it best in that:

“The future is being made out of the present, so the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment… Spending a lot of time speculating and worrying about the future is totally useless.”

Finally, another miracle of mindfulness for ourselves is that we are able to handle difficult emotions if we are able to dwell in the present moment. Thay uses the metaphor of a tree blowing in a storm that appears as if it might be uprooted by the strong winds. The base and roots of the tree are firmly rooted in the earth, and not shaken by the storm. For ourselves, we can handle storms of difficult emotions by focusing our concentration on our bodies, in the space below the belly button.

Thay also describes how our dwelling in the present moment can be a miracle for others. In the book, the ability to stay in the present moment and focus all of our attention on another person is love. Our presence and undivided attention is a wonderful thing we can offer to others. There are some wonderful examples and stories of students who have learned this important lesson. I would agree that I feel most loved when I am acknowledged and appreciated by others with their full accepting attention.

Another part of the book I particularly enjoyed was a description of the benefits of practicing with a sangha. Thay suggests that a sangha can help us to handle storms of difficult emotions, and can help us to cultivate our own power of mindfulness, especially if we are just beginning.

Finally, the book ended with the story of a monk comforting a dying person (Teachings to be Given to the Sick), an anecdote I have always enjoyed the few times I have come across it. Here are some quotes from this section:

 “We are in the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies, ‘This body is me and I am this body.’ But we are not just this body, we are much more than that… We are life, and life is far vaster than this body, this concept, this mind.”

 “We should never forget that dying is as important as living.”

A point that I really appreciated was that we can ask an experienced sangha member how to improve our practice. Thay firmly instructs that our mindfulness practice should be enjoyable, with no struggling. If we are finding this is not the case, we are not practicing correctly, so we can ask someone else how improve our practice. For myself, this was an eye-opener, because I think I started out my mindfulness practice with the idea that if it wasn’t working or bringing benefits, I should stop practicing. Nevertheless, I understand the suggestion that perhaps I just wasn’t practicing skilfully or completely understanding the instructions. So instead of abandoning my practice that doesn’t provide immediate results, I could ask someone else for help (a difficult instruction for me, as I am quite an independent learner with a preference to read more books than ask someone for advice).

I would recommend this book for someone who is beginning the practice, or for someone who would like a short, easy-to-read reminder of the benefits of present moment awareness.

One final quote I enjoyed:

 “Our bodies and minds are sustained by the cosmos. The clouds in the sky nourish us; the light of the sun nourishes us. The cosmos offers us vitality and love in every moment. Despite this fact, some people feel isolated and alienated from the world.”

Nature and Meditation August 21, 2012

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I noticed after posting my previous article about the camping and meditation retreat that I didn’t say much about the nature setting of the retreat. Because it was my first retreat outdoors, I have been thinking about how to capture the effect that being in the wilderness for four days had on my overall experience.

In some sense, its not very surprising to me that I don’t have any huge insights or intense experiences to share about being on retreat in nature. For me, the effect that nature has on my overall well-being and my consciousness is nothing new. Nature has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Over the past few years, I have been discovering all of the many different ways that nature and wilderness affects my wellness. Again and again, I keep seeing just how important it is for me to spend time in nature regularly. Perhaps because it can be difficult at times for me to get out into nature and wilderness, it seems I keep underestimating just how restorative and healing this type of environment can be.

As I mentioned in my previous post, being in a natural environment where I am immersed in, and surrounded by, wild plants and animals, allows me to feel a great deal of ease and peace that I rarely feel in urban settings. I think silence is an important part of this, I realize now after living in noise pollution for so many years.

I also enjoy a great deal of love and acceptance while being in nature. It seems I can drop the persona or self-identity of the various aspects of my human experience, and just be another living being, walking on the earth, under the sun and sky. It seems that these environments allow me to find a sense of love and acceptance within myself,  or that nature reflects back to me my own loving and caring nature.

I could say that it doesn’t matter what I write about regarding how important nature is to me, because the act of participating in the event says more than any words I could write. I turned down many other very appealing and exciting opportunities to take part in the trip, so the fact that I prioritized this trip in my life says something about what I need to be well and what I find satisfying.

I will say that it was important to me to be able to meet other people who place importance on both meditation and nature in their lives, because these two aspects have become quite important in my life lately. It was also important to me to meet a meditation teacher who incorporates nature into their teachings. I was very eager to learn how the teacher combined nature and the dharma in a way that would speak to me.

In all, I found it very satisfying to have the chance to meet and spend four wonderful days with so many people. I experienced a strong sense of community and connection with my fellow campers and practitioners. In a sense, it was a relief to not feel the alienation I often experience of being a nature-lover trapped in the city (although it is more likely that many people in the city feel more like I do but don’t express it).

Touching the Earth Deeply: Canoe Trip Meditation Retreat August 16, 2012

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I recently had the wonderful opportunity to take part in a combined canoe trip and meditation retreat aptly named Touching the Earth. The retreat was led by a meditation teacher from Saskatoon who I had met years before at a Day of Lovingkindness. I had heard about the retreat from a friend, and other sangha members told me it would be a wonderful opportunity.

The main reason I wanted to go was because I needed to go camping. I didn’t go camping last summer while living in Ontario for many reasons, and I thought I would be okay going without just this once. I thought I could compensate by going outside a lot. I was wrong, I wasn’t okay.

I gave up an annual family vacation in BC to go on the trip. I had to explain to many of my family members why I was going, and told them plain and simply I needed to go. This is what I need.

The trip lasted four days, and I caught a ride with a sangha buddy to a small, quiet lake up north in Saskatchewan. There were 11 people total.

One of the main benefits I received from the trip was a huge letting go of my preoccupations, and I enjoyed a great amount of space, freedom, ease, and peace inside. It was truly a delight for me to let go of a lot of burdens and preoccupations. I felt like the environment around me was the perfect setting to do this. I experienced a lot of harmony with my surroundings, and a great deal of deep connection and communion with all of the wildlife around me–I had never seen so many birds in my life! It was like I was letting go of everything and letting all of the Earth, all of Nature, all of the trees and birds and plants and animals just hold it all for me until I ready to deal with it again.

I experienced a great deal of healing on the trip. Being surrounded by so much space–such big sky, such huge expansive lakes, so many trees as far as I could see–in an environment where I felt safe and secure and supported created so much space inside for myself. I was able to take a step back and look clearly at how I was living my life this past little while and see what was causing so much pain in my heart. My heart had been hurting and grieving for some time, and I was too ashamed and afraid to look at the reasons why. The teacher’s guided lovingkindness meditation really helped, it was a wake up call for me to treat myself more kindly, more gently, more lovingly.

The retreat was named Touching the Earth, and I really felt like I touched the Earth deeply. We actually got to do the five earth touchings from Thay’s book Happiness which I have practiced on several recent retreats. I find that ritual to be very deeply moving, and I had tears streaming down my face the entire time. When we prostrated to touch the Earth, I really had a powerful feeling that I was touching deeply and intimately with the Earth below me. Very moving.

The retreat was actually held in silence with sharing circles. At first I was a bit ambivalent about the silence because all camping trips I had been on before were never silent, so I wasn’t sure what to think, maybe I even thought it was a little bit silly. But as always, once I fall into silence, I absolutely love it. I am so comfortable with it. I forget the delight and freedom of not having to engage in social conversations, while still enjoy the company of other people.

One more aspect of the trip about which I was a bit ambivalent was not being able to fish. I love to fish (maybe because I’m Metis), and find it to be so much fun. While on the trip, I would see and hear fish jumping all of the time, and my immediate reaction was, “Oh, I bet there’s fish over there!” And then I would realize, oh, yeah, I don’t actually have any fishing gear with me, so sometimes I would just smile to myself. Habit energy, I guess. It was actually kind of nice not to have to worry about all of the fishing gear and what to do with fish once you catch them.

All in all, the trip was exactly what I needed. It was worth it, all of the work I put into it to get arranged and all of the other opportunities I gave up. I knew it was worth it the first night we were out on the lake paddling on the calm water, the sky so big around me. That moment was pure magic, pure fulfillment of some of my deepest desires. It reminded me of feeling so filled with the amazing spirit of Nature and the Earth on my high school canoe trips.