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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Relationship With My Body: Ending Silence and Shame July 12, 2013

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It has been several years now since I endured the worst of my negative body image and unhealthy eating, but I still find that I can’t talk about these experiences as openly and honestly as other difficulties from the past. I would like to end the silence and shame in order to be healed in the present, and to help others to do the same.

In my feminist English class I took years ago, I learned that silence is secrecy, and secrecy is shame. I have found this to be true in my own personal circumstances, because as long as I cannot openly and honestly talk about some aspect of my experience, it means that I am ashamed about it.

Only recently have I been able to open up to a few close friends about my negative body image and unhealthy eating that I had in the past. I have only opened up to these few people when I knew that they were undergoing the same difficulties. But I can still tell that I have some shame around my past suffering, and this silence continues to contribute to suffering in the present.

When I was a fourth year honours university student, my honours thesis topic was on women’s body image. At the time, I had hoped that people would assume this was purely an academic research interest of mine. When I told them what I was studying. It wasn’t. I hoped that people would think it was merely a coincidence that my eating and physical activity habits had changed at the same time as starting the thesis. It wasn’t a coincidence.

What I didn’t tell people, what I kept secret because I was ashamed, was that I was struggling with my own negative body image. I was a perfectly healthy young woman, but I felt like a fat slob. I had a beautiful young woman’s body, feminine curves and all, but I wanted to look like the models on the fitness magazines, with their perfect abs, tightly toned muscles, and hardly an ounce of body fat bulging anywhere. I wanted my body perfect.

Oxygen_Feb_2010_Cover[1]

 

Can I buy your body?

I exercised religiously. I didn’t miss a single day of my workout routine, even when I was feeling tired or had come down with a cold. I lifted weights and went running every other day. When I couldn’t exercise while at the farm or on vacation, I was fraught with anxiety about when I would have the next chance to burn off the “extra” calories.

I planned every single meal and snack every single day. I eliminated as much dietary fat as I could until my dry itchy scalp drove me nuts and I realized my dandruff was caused from too little fat. I had lost weight and people were commenting on how skinny I was. I didn’t want to be skinny, I wanted to be thin and fit.

Thankfully, this didn’t last long. I now know my body image struggles were due to mental and emotional energy being diverted from the depression from which I was recovering and swore I would no longer revisit. Unfortunately I was still dealing with the same negative mental energy with my negative body image, just in a different form. Thankfully, I read a feminist book on eating disorders and learned that women’s body ideals are a patriarchal form of control over women’s and girls’ bodies and minds that keep our attention and energy diverted away from taking power. My negative mental energy still wasn’t completely healed, but instead resurfaced as intensified symptoms of anxiety.

My shame and silence is still the worst around my family. It is my family members and relatives who know what my body looked like before, during, and after my worst struggles with body image. It was my family with whom I shared meals and justified my food choices under my strict diet by saying that I was trying to “eat healthy.” It is my family with whom I feel the most self-conscious if I notice even the slightest changes in my body shape or size, because I am convinced that they will notice it, too.

I want to be more open and honest about my past suffering because I know some healing still has to be done, as much as I would not like to admit it. I want to end the silence, because I don’t want to be ashamed as if this was all something I deliberately and consciously chose to do to myself. Whenever I can look deeply at the full extent of my suffering, I can’t have any shame because I know that no one would ever choose to undergo that much pain and stress. All I can feel is compassion. Finally, I don’t want to keep silent, because keeping silent means that I take away responsibility from other people, groups, and institutions that are responsible for upholding and reinforcing harmful standards of women’s physical appearance (including other women).

Silence and shame still surround the negative body image and unhealthy eating that I experienced in the past, even though I would prefer to think that some healing has been done. Things have noticeably improved for myself, but I know that there is still some healing left to do. I have noticed that there is still some suffering in the present from some unresolved suffering in the past. I hope to end the silence by being more open and honest because I don’t want to feel shame over suffering I didn’t consciously choose to take on.

Understanding and Compassion Born in Suffering and Vulnerability July 5, 2013

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Recently, I went through an experience of a great deal of fear and anxiety that left me in a state of suffering. While I was able to take the time to generate compassion for myself, I still found the whole ordeal to be very difficult and unpleasant. Nevertheless, I did notice some important insights that came out of the situation when I saw that I was cultivating understanding and compassion for myself and others.

One day the other week I had an incredible amount of anxiety due to certain circumstances all coming together at once. Some of the circumstances had to do with making plans to go travelling (planning for trip, buying supplies, meeting up with fellow travellers), as well as other unrelated events (starting a new part time job the next day, roommate suspecting bed bugs in our house). A great deal of anxiety and fear about what I should do and what would happen in the future had accumulated all day. By the evening I felt awful. To top it off, I felt frustrated with myself for not being able to keep all of this anxiety under control.

At the end of the day, I set aside the time for myself because I decided that what I needed the most at that moment was to practice compassion. This decision to intentionally practice compassion was a huge difference compared to a year or a few months ago, because previously I would have more likely chosen to distract myself from my suffering.

It was really  challenging to stay with myself with compassion for as long as it took to feel better. I was amazed later at how much I avoided the temptation of losing myself in distraction in order to get away from my  suffering. But I still noticed judgement of myself that I didn’t have enough compassion to fix myself and make the painful feelings and thoughts stop right away. And these self judgements only added to my level of suffering, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

I had to hold the huge amount f fear and anxiety in compassion, which soon left me in tears. I twas probably the worst I have felt in a long time. I noticed that the fear was so strong that a lot of other feelings and thoughts were arising.

One feeling that came up was a sense of alienation. I felt alone and abandoned in my suffering with no one to help me. It reminded me of feeling like an elementary school kid on the playground when I’m being picked on by a bunch of classmates. Reliving these memories, I take the aggression personally and feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with me that leaves me rejected by others around me. I feel like “everyone” is out to get and to hurt me, and I’m not safe hear. I want to run away from this hostile situation.

Similar to this, the other feeling that arose was a strong sense of betrayal by others, as I mentioned above. I also felt betrayed by life, by this world in which I live. My expectation of the world and this human life as happy and benevolent was shattered when I experience this much suffering.  I felt humiliated and deeply regretting the stupid mistake of thinking that by paying attention to the positive I could be happy. I felt that I couldn’t trust life anymore to deliver happiness. Whatever happiness I had experienced before was a mistake and I shouldn’t count on it again.

Finally, in this deep state of fear, I also felt like I regressed or went back in time to a younger self. For a short while I felt like I was just a crying toddler again who just wants her parents to hold her and make it all better. All I could do was send out a powerful wish with my whole being to the universe, “May I be taken care of.” In that moment, I didn’t feel like I could take care of myself, but I needed to be looked after by someone or something outside of myself.

I was getting in touch with my vulnerability, and I will admit that in the moment I didn’t like it. I hated it. It was nothing but bad news. Here I thought as an adult I was in control and independent. But the wake up call that inside me is a needy, dependent, helpless, crying toddler was very painful to see.

Afterward, when I had recovered my sanity and felt much better, I realized that this vulnerability isn’t all bad news. It has good news, too. It has good news because it wakes me up to the truth that I am interdependent on everyone and everything around me to keep me alive, safe, healthy, and happy. I am not 100% independent and in control. I can’t do it all myself, all the time. Understanding was being born.

It is good news because seeing my vulnerability only makes me tender and gentle in response. I see that I am a fragile, precious living being, and I need to be cared for with great kindness. The hard rough hands that were gripping me in harsh self judgement earlier now get transformed into softness and gentleness. And I know that all living beings have exactly the same vulnerability and I can only treat others with the same kindness. Compassion was being born.

I share these thoughts in the hopes that others won’t feel alone when they feel the same way. And I hope to not feel so alone myself when I openly acknowledge these feelings that are at times too difficult to see.

Be Still and Heal June 9, 2013

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

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

calligraphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

May I Be Free From Tension: Practicing with Chronic Tension December 28, 2012

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A challenge that has recently arisen in my meditation practice is a great deal of physical tension that is causing quite a bit of pain and suffering. I have had the opportunity to look deeply into its causes and to come up with some strategies to alleviate the tension. Some changes I have had to make to help alleviate the tension and pain include changing my daily formal sitting practice, bringing awareness to the body off of the cushion, and cultivating compassion and equanimity.

For the past three weeks I have noticed chronic tension in my upper shoulders, an area that has given me trouble since I was a teenager. It is the area of my body where I hold any tension. The tension can get built up quite a bit and become quite painful. It seems the tension is there all day long, I even wake up and find that the tension hasn’t gone away completely overnight.

I wanted to look deeply to see the cause of this tension, to determine why it has arisen all of a sudden, when a few weeks ago I never noticed it. I realized that it started when I was given a new work assignment, where I had to complete a very challenging task over a one week period by a certain deadline. The work I did was very rushed, and I find being crunched for time is a situation where I often experience physical tension.

The work assignment was also difficult to complete because I never found that I was satisfied with the work I was doing. I was almost always or always producing less than ideal results. I finished the assignment over two weeks ago, but it has taken me at least that length of time to release all of the tension.

The first strategy I used to try and alleviate the tension was to change my daily formal sitting practice. I decided to use a concentration practice, and the object of my concentration was the specific area of the body that was holding the tension. I tried to pay attention to any sensations that were arising in my shoulders, which was difficult to do because it seemed so silly and informal.

I tried to pay specific attention to whether there was either tension or relaxation in the muscles, as well as pain or comfort/ absence of pain, and to try to focus on the exact specific area of the body. I am finding this practice to be quite challenging, because it is so difficult to maintain the focus of my concentration on such a small part of my body that often doesn’t seem to have any sensations arising to notice.

Another strategy I have tried to use off of the cushion is to try to maintain that awareness of any bodily tension in my shoulders. At times I can do this easily, but most of the time it seems I really can’t bring awareness to my shoulders at all. These practices have shown me just how much I can be numb to my body, or at least numb to specific areas, and how often I am dwelling in the mind and thinking.

It is difficult to try to maintain awareness of the body while trying to do other things at the same time. There are times when I am able to feel tension arising in my shoulders but I am not able to relax the tension. This is quite alarming and challenging to deal with, because it is that familiar situation of “I know that I am doing it but I can’t stop myself.” I know from experience that this can go on for some time before the next stage occurs where I am able to stop doing the unskilful behaviour altogether.

Another strategy is to cultivate compassion for myself. Ah, yes, compassion, that quality that I seem to be needing to develop more and more lately. I like the phrase I just came across from Jack Kornfield’s book, “May I be held in compassion.” I sometimes add, “May this/my sore, tired body be held in compassion.”

I also have had the chance to apply a reminder given to me by a teacher at a recent Day of Lovingkindness event that I am not my own fault. I did not knowingly choose to have this tension arise, but it is instead a result of the causes and conditions that made it happen, including my own habit energy. This reminder really helps alleviate the frustration I experience.

Off of the cushion, I like to use phrases to help relieve the tension, especially when I am walking. The two that seem to work best are, “May I be free from tension,” and “May I be relaxed.” I say them on the out breath and try to focus on releasing the tension as I exhale. One thing I noticed while using these phrases is that tension doesn’t necessarily only refer to physical tension. Instead, I recognize that mental, emotional, and spiritual/ existential tension can also cause a great deal of suffering. So using these phrases can be applied to any type of tension that builds up in the body or mind.

I have noticed that at times, usually the end of a formal sitting practice period, equanimity will arise and bring a lot of relief. I can hold the tension and pain in awareness and recognize that its just pain. Its just tension. There is no self identifying with the pain, it is just what is happening in this moment. It is not my pain. And I can hold it all with a calm, relaxed attitude and even a small gentle smile. The thought can arise that, “Its no big deal.” This is quite a relief from a habitual anxious, frustrated attitude about the whole thing.

Yet again, I am happy to be sharing what is arising in my practice and the ways that I am able to deal with it. This situation has given me challenges, but I am also able to recognize the positive aspects that are coming out of it. I recently listened to a podcast that reminded me that the Buddha taught according to each person’s individual circumstances and capabilities. So for me, right now, this is what I am applying my practice to. I also remember Karen Maezen Miller’s reminder that my life is my practice. Chronic tension is what is arising in my life, and that is what I will practice.

Quote: Renouncing Old Habits November 23, 2012

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“It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves that meditation becomes a transformative process. Only when we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns. Without maitri (metta), renunciation of old habits becomes abusive. This is an important point.”

– Pema Chodron

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.