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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!

Thesis Defense as Practice July 4, 2012

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I recently had to prepare for and complete my master’s thesis defense/ oral examination. I had a good friend of mine say to me how much they were anxious and worried about the defense, so much so that they were unable to even think about the future event. At the time I was talking to my friend, I had a few pieces of advice. But I wanted to write up a more complete account of how I used my mindfulness practice, and all of the tools I’ve been developing these past few years, to get me through the event.

From the beginning of my preparations, I had quite a bit of fear, stress, and anxiety about the defense. As much as I could, I tried to cultivate self-compassion toward myself  for experiencing these unpleasant, and even at times painful, emotions. I tried my best not to judge myself for being afraid or anxious, or to tell myself that I shouldn’t be experiencing these emotions. I have been practicing lovingkindness daily toward myself and others, so I spent my usual time practicing lovingkindness to instead cultivate a lot of self-compassion: “May I know freedom from fear…anxiety…stress…worry”

The fear that I was experiencing around the anticipation of the defense was quite constricting, I could feel myself closing up and shutting down (“I don’t want to do this, I want to get as far away from this as possible, I’m sick of this…”). What I tried to do was act out of love, not fear. Instead of motivating myself from this place of constricting fear, I tried my best to act out of love and abundance, telling myself that I would succeed, and that there are many people supporting me and wishing me the best.

One practice that I try to use as much as I can (but really have a difficult time with) is non-attachment to outcome. I try to work on a task just for the sheer joy or satisfaction of putting my effort into it, with no (or as little as possible) expectations for what will be the results of my efforts. I tried not to place attachments on the success or failure of my thesis defense. In other words, I tried not to say that my happiness will only be possible if I succeed at this task.

Another tool I found particularly useful was practicing non-self, or trying to see how there is no permanent, separate self. A phrase came to me that I remembered from a similar situation a few months ago: “This does not contain me.” I realized that who I am is not contained in my success or failure of a master’s thesis defense. In other words, my identity as a master’s student was not my complete identity.

If someone were to describe me by saying that I am a master’s psychology student, it cannot come close to capturing the totality and complexity of who I am, of my being. Instead, I realized how much bigger I was than this single event in my life, and how many other parts of myself are still present in me, and will continue after my defense.

My usual lovingkindness practice towards others was targeted specifically to the people involved in the event. I cultivated lovingkindness to the professors who would be examining me and to everyone else in the room. I tried my best to imagine the situation with as little hostility or judgement, and instead with a calm and peaceful atmosphere. This is a practice I have found really useful applying to my situation at work, so I thought it would help for this specific event.

Finally, I felt quite a bit of social pressure to perform perfectly, or to the best of my ability, for the sake of everyone there (my supervisor/boss, my professors/ instructors, my classmates, my friends and acquaintances). I felt quite anxious about being judged by others as being incompetent, or not as smart as they might think I am.

I remembered a phrase that one of my dharma buddies uses and who has passed it along to another friend of mine: “The people who mind don’t matter, and the people who matter don’t mind.” If people want to judge me for not trying hard enough or not meeting their expectations, then that is fine, I probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. And their judgements don’t concern me, I know how hard I worked at it so that is all the information I need to evaluate how I will do. If they truly are my friends, they will still be my friends even if I fail miserably and make a fool of myself.

These are all of the tools that I can think of, but I am sure there were many more that I wasn’t aware that I was using at the time. I still found the event quite stressful and anxiety-provoking, but I managed to get through it. I’m happy to say that it was a success, I did very well and managed not to make a complete fool of myself. Everyone who was there complimented me and said I did a really good job.

All I can say is a phrase I have heard my sangha members say time and time again: Thank goodness for the practice!

How I Came to the Practice: Part 2 – Why Meditation Came Naturally to Me May 26, 2012

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(How I Came to the Practice is a series I am writing to fully explain the story of how I came to Buddhist meditation–starting at the very beginning! This is part 2, read part 1 – My Christian Roots here.)

To encourage people, I like to assure them that meditation seemed to come quite naturally to me, because I possessed a certain number of factors that are related to meditation. Four areas toward which I was already predisposed, and which are related to meditation, were self-awareness, psychology, solitude, and non-activity.

First, meditation is related to self-awareness, and I think I have been very self-aware for as long as I can remember. It was usually quite easy for me to identify what was happening internally for me, for my thoughts and emotions. I was also quite sensitive, and it was easy to get me upset or to start crying.

I can remember being self-aware of my thoughts. When I was a teenager, I used to lie in bed at night waiting to fall asleep and I would actually trace my thought patterns one by one as I went down a long train of thought. I would catch my mind ending up at some quirky, random thought, and I would go, “Wow, how did I get there?” Then I would trace my pattern of thoughts all the way back to the initial thought that seemed to arise out of nowhere. The whole process was fascinating and fun for me!

Second, meditation is also a solitary practice, and I have been quite solitary for much of my life, and even more so when I was younger. I am quite introverted and am usually unable to be around people for large amounts of time. My fondest childhood memories were spent alone, where I would be outdoors for hours at a time “exploring” (wandering around in a field or forest, seeing new places I had never been to before).

I also had a deep need for solitude as I got older and spent more time with friends as a teenager. I actually used solitude as an antidote for too much socializing or to restore myself after spending large amounts of time with other people. I felt that when I spent time with other people, I really put on a false front in order to please others and was therefore not being true to myself. I used solitude after these times to come back to myself, or to feel more authentic. I think that I was tapping into a larger cultural discourse aimed at teenagers emphasizing “staying true to yourself” and “not changing for anyone else.”,

A time when I especially needed to be alone was after partying and drinking. As a teenager, I used alcohol as a way to be more outgoing, more energetic and lively, in order to please others. Extraversion was highly valued in high school, so I used alcohol to achieve that. But I knew that I wasn’t truly an extrovert, so I needed to spend time alone to feel okay just being myself.

Third, meditation is also closely related to the field of psychology, and both concern investigating the patterns of the mind in order to understand behaviour. I have been interested in psychology for quite a long time, probably mostly to understand myself when I was a teenager, but as I got older also to understand other people around me. To satisfy my curiosity, I took out a textbook from the high school library on introduction to psychology, and I read through most of it just for fun and personal interest.

I think another reason I was drawn toward psychology was to help come to grips with my own struggles with mental illness, as well as to deal with the history of mental illness in my family. Psychology gave me the tools to deal with these challenges, and it gave me confidence to skifully face the future when these issues might come up again.

Finally, meditation can be described as a “non-activity” because the point of the practice is, for the most part, not to actually “do” anything. I am sitting still, right where I am, and noticing what happens. For some people who are energetic and restless, meditation can be torture. But for someone like myself, who is already quite laid-back and relaxed, meditation was a needed break from the hassles of daily life.

I am quite easy going, and seem to have always needed to take time off just to be still and relax. People have described me as appearing quite calm on the outside (even if I am filled with anxiety inside). Even as early as high school, one of my teachers once described me as “calm, cool, and collected.”

So there you have it, some reasons why I was drawn toward meditation and why it came naturally to me once I started trying it out for myself. I’m not saying that someone who doesn’t have these qualities shouldn’t consider or practice meditation, but that they might face more challenges than I did.

Read on to part 3 in the series on Asian exoticism and Zen for Dummies.

Depression and Anxiety: Reasons for my Spiritual Practice May 4, 2012

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I once heard a meditation instructor or Dharma teacher quote someone saying that people come to spiritual practice for different reasons: they are running away from the light, they are running toward the light, they are running away from the darkness, or they are running toward the darkness. I knew when I heard that that I was running away from the darkness.

I have a personal history of both major depression and anxiety. I also share a family history of major depression and anxiety.

I have experienced major depressive episodes twice in my life: once when I was in high school at age 14 and again when I was in university at age 19. At both times I had suicidal thoughts but never suicidal intentions. I found both of these experiences to be quite painful and extremely scary, and I know for a fact that I am not completely over them or I haven’t completely made peace with what has happened in my past.

I experienced a great deal of social anxiety in high school, in part influenced by bullying as well as being what the psychologists label as “neglected” where my classmates didn’t pay attention to me, both of which started as early as elementary school. I can recall in high school sitting at the breakfast table having to force myself to eat because of a pit of nausea and tension in my stomach at the thought of going to school.

My social anxiety started to improve gradually, and much faster once I went to university. After I recovered from my depressive episode in university, all of the negative energy I was carrying in my consciousness turned from depression into anxiety, and I noticed eventually that my symptoms fit the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder.

It was at this stage of my life that I came across Buddhist meditation. At the time, I had made a change in my life to start being more positive in my thoughts and actions as well as with the people and activities which I surrounded myself. I remember wearing a rubber bracelet from a website I saw featured on the news called “A Complaint-Free World,” where the wearer was committed to not complaining for as long as 30 days!

I found Buddhist meditation to be a framework to support my intentions to have positive thinking. I also found valuable aspects to the spiritual tradition that my earlier reliance on self-help and clinical psychology couldn’t offer: Acceptance and compassion.

Before coming to meditation, if I was depressed, I couldn’t accept it and I judged myself for somehow bringing this on myself. I also judged my family for passing down the tendency to me in my genetic inheritance.

The Buddhist spiritual practice allowed me to just accept what was happening in the moment as what I had been handed in life, and that was what I had to work with. It gave me a way to help free me from judging myself, and instead allow myself to have some compassion for my suffering.

There are so many other important aspects that the Buddhist spiritual and meditation practice offers that helps me to heal my depression and anxiety. One other aspect I will mention is the need to not make up a story about what is happening to me. I don’t label myself as a depressed person, a survivor of depression, or an anxious person. I make every effort not to focus on my family history of these disorders or else I feel that there is no way to avoid inheriting them myself. I try my hardest not to focus on my lifetime history of what has happened to me, or to project into the future: “If this has happened for so long in my past, it must mean that it will continue to happen for a long time in the future.” Nothing fills me with more despair and grief than this type of thinking or feeling shackled down with an unbearable burden. Thankfully, I’m able to recognize the effect of these kinds of thoughts and try my hardest to not spend time there.

I continue to work on these memories of the painful times in my life, and know for certain that they have been transformed and will continue to heal. All I know now is that I can say my motivation for my spiritual practice is to run towards the light: I have known the joyful, peaceful, and fulfilling experiences that make up human life, and I have started to trust this as my true self.