Kindness and Gratitude go Together

Dancing Lady Orchid

Dancing Lady Orchid. Photo by Celia

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father.” ~ The Buddha, Kataññu Sutta

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

~ The Buddha, AN 2.118

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

Happy Father’s Day to all the father’s in our lives. Today we celebrate the contributions of our fathers, their remembered kindness, and thoughts of how our ancestors contributed to our creation. We are all in debt, that is the undeniable fact of living. We are indebted to our parents for having us and for their or others’ care in raising, feeding, and educating us. We are tribal creatures and our lives are enhanced by many other beings who contributed time, money, and attention to our lives.

The family we were born into may not be what we would have ordered if we had a choice. Perhaps we wanted more communication, better food, our own room, or more attention—or maybe we didn’t want what we got, too many siblings, or no siblings, harsh discipline and violence, or no discipline, and the belief that no one cared. Whatever our family contained, we are the people we became in response to our conditioning and we are indebted to those who did show us kindness along the way. Scholar monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes about the parents who were not kind and what is expected from the children of abusive parents, “Not only are they abusive to their children, but …[t]hey may demand an unreasonable level of repayment, involving actions that are downright harmful for you, themselves, and others. And yet this doesn’t cancel the debt you owe them for the simple fact that they’ve enabled you to live.” This is tricky stuff. This type of indebtedness does not mean we condone abuse or subject ourselves to further abuse because of the debt of our birth. In the Kataññu Sutta, the Buddha advises those who have parents who are unbelieving, immoral, stingy, and foolish to develop their own wisdom and goodness. By doing so we give the gifts of conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment to parents who lack these traits through our own purity of consciousness.

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of family harmony is the intention of kindness in thoughts, speech, and actions which are met with gratitude. The Buddha is reported to have said, “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity” (AN 2.31-32).  As the Buddha points out, those who practice kindness and those who give thanks for kindness received are rare and worth celebrating. When we encounter someone, who has gone out of their way to be kind to us, whether they are a parent, friend, or a teacher we are able to give them a gift in return, our gratitude.

It’s much easier to be grateful to non-humans, to the earth, the sky, the flowers and animals that make our lives more wonderful. It is much harder to be grateful to people who are kind and then act like people and say something unkind and harsh. We all make mistakes and we all need reminders. One of the most helpful rubrics is the Buddhist Five Factors of Right Speech. This is a checklist that can help us stay with the intention of kindness and non-harming. It is very beneficial to ask ourselves these questions before speaking: “Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious” AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.). When we can answer these questions with the open-hearted intention of kindness, that is a tremendous gift of gentleness and wisdom for our family and all those we come in contact with.

Today is a good day to take inventory of those who we are grateful for and make an offering towards them. It may be a verbal acknowledgment of their efforts or the gift of non-reactive speech, it may be cultivating our own faith, virtue, generosity, and wise judgment to share with our parents and with the world. Becoming our best selves, being an asset to the planet and bringing healing to the injustices and brokenness in the world, is one of the best repayments of indebtedness. It is this fullness of gratitude that receives, spills over, and keeps giving, receiving, and giving.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

Click on this link to celebrate Father’s Day with a Dad joining his daughter’s ballet rehearsal because she had stage fright. From Joanne Friday

Reverence-_G044_-11x17-vertical

 

Advertisements

Liberate Your Happiness

June Peonies

June Peonies. Photo by Celia

“Equanimity means to let go, not to abandon.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

 “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

“If I did not think this path and its fruition were possible for you, I would not ask it of you. Because I know the path of immeasurable freedom is possible for you, therefore I ask it of you.” ~ The Buddha

Dear Friends,

This week I spoke with a woman was going through a very difficult time with her young adult daughter. She said that her happiness was wholly dependent upon her daughter’s wellbeing. If her daughter was in crisis, her day was shattered. Realistically, we cannot expect that our children won’t have difficulties or real crises in their lifetimes. We all face the pain of being present with loved ones who suffer. If we do not have children, we have parents, partners, and assorted pets that all will suffer, get sick, and one day be separated from us, but as practitioners we have a secret weapon to keep us balanced and resilient in the midst of change, distress, and uncontrollable outcomes, it’s the practice of equanimity.

Equanimity is one of the Brahmavihāras, the highest abodes, or as meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls them, “our best homes.”  Equanimity is often translated as balance or a spacious stillness of the mind and heart. With practice, equanimity can help soften the heart that contracts in fear and pain. It can lead to peace in the midst of the world unfolding in the way it does, not in the way we would like. It can help us stop struggling against what is and in acceptance, enable us to take actions that are rooted in wise and loving intention. Equanimity is the raft that can save us from sinking in the turbulent water of stress and hopelessness.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) describes equanimity as “nonattachment, non-discrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go” (p. 174). Nonattachment means that the openhearted caring and compassion is not reserved for times of success, or when things are easy and free from struggle. Equanimity does not discriminate between the self and the other. It creates a base of stability from which we can include all beings, all emotions, and all moments into our conservation of care, leaving nothing out. Equanimity increases our capacity to tolerate what is difficult and painful without letting conditions we cannot control overwhelm us.

The world is made of innumerable changing situations and we may understand intellectually that very little is in our control, yet there is resistance and struggle when we encounter events and experiences that make us and others suffer. Witnessing those we love in distress can be excruciating when we believe we are responsible for their happiness and suffering. We may believe if we exert ourselves, or find that just right combination of ingredients, we have the power to make someone else change, to stop being depressed, to seek medical treatment, or to stop engaging in harmful acts. We are attached to the outcome, to the health and wellbeing of another. When we are enmeshed in the belief that we can only be happy when others are free from pain, we give away our power to create our own happiness and peace.

Letting go of control and not taking responsibility for the thoughts, and actions of others and not accepting the responsibility for the consequences of these thoughts and actions may seem cold and indifferent, especially for a parent who is supposed to be loving and continually sacrifice for their children. Sacrifice that comes from a spacious calm heart contains the intention of love, but grasping onto fixing and changing another is rooted in fear and aversion. It is running from what is so painful to tolerate. True equanimity leads with the heart, includes the self and the other without discriminating between the two.

Resignation and the coldness of not caring are shallow stand-ins for real equanimity. Indifference or numbing to pain is the near enemy of equanimity, while the far enemy is clinging and attachment. Equanimity gives space and a wide perspective. It understands impermanence and that nothing stays the same. Equanimity knows the nature of suffering and that no one is immune. I describe equanimity as loving and allowing. We stay with the intention of care and love, but we open to the way things are and the uncontrollable reality of living in a vulnerable human body.

Equanimity gives us balance and evenness when we encounter the loka dhamma, The Eight Worldly Winds, or The Vicissitudes. These are four pairs of conditions we meet repeatedly during our lifetime: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. When we can let go of attachment to wanting only the pleasure, gain, fame, and praise and learn to stay still when we encounter the unwanted pain, loss, disrepute, and blame, we liberate our happiness from dependence upon the wildly fluctuating conditions of the world.

Practicing equanimity creates boundaries. We understand that our jurisdiction does not extend to others, no matter how much we want it too. We remain present, loving, and open hearted, but we are not bound to the success or failure, the health, and happiness of another. To practice equanimity meditation we come into stillness and find the place of wholeness and limitless capacity that resides in us all. From the ground of mindful, loving presence we envision our loved one who suffers. Holding both ourselves and the other with tenderness, we may repeat the traditional equanimity phrase from Sharon Salzburg’s (1995) book, Loving Kindness: The Revolution Art of Happiness: “All beings are the owners of their kamma. There happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them” (p. 152). More modern phrases include “May we all accept things as they are. May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events. I will care for you, but I cannot keep you from suffering. I wish you happiness, but cannot make your choices for you” (Salzberg, p. 152). And an insightful phrase from Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho is, “Right now, it’s like this for me” (or for you).

Meditation teacher Christina Feldman (2017) offers some beautiful equanimity phrases in her book, Boundless Heart: The Buddhist Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity. “May I embrace change with stillness and calm. May I deeply accept this moment as it is. May my home be a balance of wisdom and spaciousness” (Feldman, p. 117). “You are the parent of the choices you make and their outcomes and I cannot make those choices for you. May I rest in care and stillness in the midst of sorrow” (Feldman, p. 126-127).

Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield offers, “May I be balanced. May I be at peace. May I learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance. May I be open and balanced and peaceful.” An 18th Century Singhalese blessing translated by Buddhist scholar John Peacock guides readers to a place of understanding of what is ours and what is not:

“Life is but a play of joy and sorrow

May I remain unshaken by life’s rise and fall

I care for you deeply

But you are the parent of your acts and their fruit

And sadly I cannot protect you from distress” ( Feldman, p.125).

You may consider spending the week with one phrase that resonates with you or create your own equanimity phrase.

Remaining equanimous, rooted in kindness and the intention to relieve suffering while another is in pain, is an advanced practice. Make no mistake, this is the heavy lifting we train for. Making our home in equanimity we can learn to unclench our expectations and release ourselves from the imprisonment of suffering, theirs and ours. Cultivating equanimity is the way to stay present with the one who is suffering without becoming overwhelmed and turning away. This is what stretches our capacity and gives us the solidity of a mountain to meet all of our joy and all of our sorrow with an easy heart.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Click on this link for an update on Thay’s health from Sister Chan Khong’s interview in Lion’s Roar. He’s Getting Stronger Every Day.

 

Breathe TNH

Resources:

Feldman, C. (2017). Boundless heart: The buddhist path of kindness, compassion, joy, and

equanimity. Boulder, CO: Shambala.

Hanh, T. N. (1998). The heart of the buddha’s teachings: Transforming suffering into peace, joy,

and liberation. New York, NY: Broadway.

Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

Letting go Means Letting in

Backyard Buddha

Backyard Buddha, photo by Celia

“Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,

a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.”

 ~Wu Men Hui-k’ai

“Don’t affix labels to people. If you want to learn anything you have to stop your habit of labeling. Give yourself the freedom to be in touch with the human being”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Well, I guess you’ll have to change the story that you were never loved.”

 ~James Baraz

 

Dear Friends,

June is the month when the spring settles in and redecorates. Trees are leafy and full while the grass grows vigorous and green. All this beauty and growth come after the bareness, the winter that blasts away the foliage and the icy landscape that weans us from unexamined acceptance and boredom in the beautiful. We know that even loveliness gets boring if it’s permanent. But that’s not a problem, because we all know that nothing is permanent.

Impermanence, anicca, is one of the three characteristics of existence. All living and non-living phenomena are subject to change. There is birth/creation, old age/deterioration, and death, or transformation inherent in all creation. This simple but profound truth is a difficult one for the complex human mind which desires stability, predictability, and certainty to feel safe. As we move through life, we shed identities, forms, and ideas. No longer children, we changed from a small body into this more spacious model. We let go of our former ideas about ourselves, fixed identities, and titles, or did we? Despite the reality that our cells are changing constantly, our minds are rewired with each thought we think, we don’t move on. We can’t let go of who and what we were or our former status. This type of clinging can lead to suffering as we create a static impression of the self that no longer reflects the present moment.

We may cling to the idea that we are a star athlete even as our body changes and we find it difficult to bend to tie our own shoes or walk up a flight of stairs without resting. Holding onto an image of ourselves that no longer reflects the present may create expectation and dissatisfaction. We may have the habit of believing that we are yet again a victim, that we are unlovable, or intellectually superior. When we have a fixed identity pattern we respond in predictable ways. These responses, created from protecting and coping at a much earlier age, no longer represent who we are and can block out any curiosity, or opportunity for growth we may have. We may label ourselves as disorganized, fearful, or lonely. We can see that state in ourselves again and again and with each viewing, our assessment becomes more enmeshed with our identity and creates the story of ourself. How would we be different if we chose to believe we were capable of creating our own life, able to have difficult conversations with compassion, or that people like me?

When we let go of old ideas of ourselves we release the barriers that keep us from the possibility of joy and contentment. Insight teacher, James Baraz (2012) and co-creator of the Awakening Joy course asks us to consider four questions about the usefulness of holding onto our stories of ourselves and others:

“What story do you believe about yourself or others that keeps you from experiencing well-being and joy?  When you think of this story as being true, how do you experience it in your body and mind? Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you took it as just a story, didn’t believe it and let it go. How does it feel in your body and mind when you do that?” (p. 169).

Letting go of our labels and ideas of who we are can open up previously protected and defended space for new ways of being. If we are able to set down the story of ourselves we are carrying, what do we want to put in its place, trust in ourselves, or the willingness to risk a new way of thinking and being?

When we freeze ourselves, or others in time, we ignore the inescapable reality of impermanence. It is highly unlikely the angry friend we encountered three months ago is still angry, or angry in the same way, yet they remain in our mind as that perpetually angry person. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “[w]e give labels only in order to praise or destroy…And when we stick them onto people we cut ourselves off from those people and we can no longer know who they are” (p. 84). We stay caught in the past and do not see that just as we are changing and responding to the world, others are doing the same. No one stays the same.

This week, take some time to reflect on the story of “me.” What thoughts are looping as we find ourselves doing what we always do? Can we remember that we have options, even when it seems there are none? Holding onto the reminder of choice, we may find the truth of our victimhood slipping. Recognizing that we can express our displeasure at ill-treatment without yelling and anger, we may not fit into the hothead category we identify with. Letting go of our labels means we are free to let something else in. Who are we when we respond skillfully to whatever is arising without a preset plan? Might we be the heroes we imagine when we shed the labels we’ve outgrown and make room for the possibility of authentic presence in each moment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become

 

Taking Care of Ourselves to Care for Others

10th Ave

Tire Shop, 10th Ave. NYC. Photo by Celia

“Looking after oneself, one looks after others.

“Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

~Gotama Buddha, SN 47:19

“One should not give up one’s own welfare,

Even for the sake of much welfare of others”

~Gotama Buddha, AN 49:5

“If one is drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning,

that is impossible”

~ Gotama Buddha, Sallekha Sutta

 

Dear Friends,

As children of aging parents, parents of children, pet owners, and citizens of a society that seems to be galloping towards calamity, we are called upon to care for others. The Bodhisattva vow, an integral part of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, stresses the importance of being of service, even deferring our own spiritual liberation until all beings are free from suffering. In the Brahmavihāra practice, we cultivate the mind states of care, compassion, joy, and equanimity for all beings. The Buddha asks us to stretch beyond our circle of ease and offer our care, love, and kindness to all beings, with no discrimination. That is a big ask and requires a lot of practice and training to shift from our protective and defensive evolutionary conditioning to an unlimited mind of love. While we may aspire to this openhearted state of selfless caring, no one is a boundless well of giving. There may be a part of us that asks, “what about me?” We all need replenishing and abundant self-care to be able to care for others.

In early Buddhist teachings, this idea of self-care is clear and direct. In the Aṅguttara-nikāya 4:95, translated by Buddhist monk and scholar, Anālayo, the Buddha describes four types of practitioners: one who helps themselves without helping another, one who helps another without helping oneself, one who aids neither self not other, and one who helps both self and other. The Buddha ranks these four approaches. Not surprisingly, one who helps neither self nor other is the “most inferior person” (A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). The person who helps another without helping oneself is superior to that and higher than that is one who helps themselves without helping another! The one who is “supreme,” predictably, is one who aids both self and other ((A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). Thus, merit is earned as one progresses on a spiritual path that includes both self and other.

As practitioners, we cannot advise others to practice purification if we are not walking that path ourselves. In order to have any type of transformation of suffering, we must attend to purifying our own hearts and minds first. As legendary Vipassana teacher, S. N. Goenka said repeatedly, “You have to work out your own salvation.” When we understand how to cultivate, equanimity, and joy in our own life and practice, we will have a strong foundation to be available and present for others, even when things get tough. If we do not take care of our own stability, we offer an unsteady footing for those who rely on us.

A popular parable from the Buddhist canon is the Sedaka Sutta: The Bamboo Acrobat. The Buddha tells of a team of acrobats, a master and his young assistant, Medakathalika, sometimes referred to as his granddaughter. The older acrobat perches atop a bamboo pole and Medakathalika climbs up the pole and balances upon the master’s shoulders. The master tells Medakathalika that they will need to take care of each other in order to keep safe in their act and make a living. The young assistant has another view and tells the bamboo acrobat, “That will not do at all, master! You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself. Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down from the bamboo pole. That’s the right way to do it!” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Young Medakathalika understands that each person is responsible for their own unwavering stability of mind and that clarity and focus directly influences others we interact with.

The Buddha goes on to describe how we care for ourselves in order to care for others and how to care for others in order to care for ourselves. “And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others). (Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others; and looking after others, one looks after oneself” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Leaving no one out, we extend this patience, gentleness, and goodwill towards ourselves. Being considerate and non-harming may mean we do not do all the things we believe we should, but includes those that help us stay balanced and peaceful.

The paradox of caring for others to care for ourselves involves the cultivation of a deep practice of kindness and gentleness to remove the hearts’ obstacles of hatred, conditional love, disapproval, and intolerance. Practicing in this way opens up the heart space and we reside in what Buddhists call the bliss of blamelessness. This joy and open-heartedness is the reward of self-care that allows for delight in our own goodness and fills up the emptiness and dissatisfaction that may impede caring for all beings. When we practice living a life of integrity and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to being a presence of love and healing we are caring for and protecting ourselves, our community, and all beings everywhere.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

peace15105ee28ccd3

Resources

Anālayo (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse.

Olendzki, A. trans. (2013). Sedaka sutta: The bamboo acrobat (SN 47.19). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html .

Being a Mother to the World

Dog walk

Dog walk at twilight, photo by Celia

When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, it is possible to have real communication, real communion, with the Earth. This is the highest possible form of prayer. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all beings, there is not one who has not been my mother innumerable times. Each has been my mother in human form countless times and will become my mother many times again. ~ Geshe Wangyal

 

Dear Friends,

Today is Mother’s Day and for some of us it is a very wonderful and joyful celebration of a loving and nurturing presence in our lives, but for others, it can be laced with sadness, loss, or unmet expectations. All babies need care and we could not have survived without a nurturing and caring presence. Today is the day we celebrate the embodiment of love and compassion that cares in the world, wherever we may find it. Some of us are lucky enough to have experienced the care and protection of a mother’s love. If we do not have a mother or have experienced this source of care from another, that person embodies the qualities of a mother for us. Sometimes, our true mother isn’t our mother.

What does being a mother mean? We have cultural expectations and wishes about the role of the perfect mother that may or may not have come true. But at the core, a mother is the archetypal embodiment of care, compassion, and protection. In the seventh verse of the metta sutta, there is the stanza, “Just as a mother who has an only son would protect her own son with her life, so one should cultivate a boundless mind toward all living beings” (Anālayo, trans., 2015, p. 29). Scholar monk Bhikkhu Anālayo points out that this relationship is based on selfless protection. We can imagine the fierce determination of this mother to keep her child safe at any cost and hear the Buddha’s instructions to extend this unflinching care to all beings.

Tibetan Buddhism reminds us that because all beings live countless lifetimes, all beings have been our mothers and fathers countless times. That means all beings in this world, even the ones whose company we do not enjoy, have cared for us in some way and done the best they could for us. Tibetan Buddhist, translator and Columbia professor, Geshe Wangyal (1973) writes about developing this view of gratitude and reverence for those who appear to be totally unconnected strangers:

“Though it now seems that they have no relationship to me, they have been my mother times beyond number, and in those lives, they protected me with love and kindness. When you have experienced this truth, meditate on those beings who are now your adversaries. Imagine them clearly before you and think: How can I now feel these are my enemies? As lifetimes are beyond number, they have been my mother countless times. When they were my mother they provided me with measureless happiness and benefits and protected me from misery and harm. Without them, I could not have lasted even a short time and without me, they could not have endured even a short time. We have felt such strong attachment countless times. That they are now my adversaries is due to bad evolutionary actions….Then meditate on repaying the kindness of all beings, your mothers” (p. 137). I find this last line really touches the collective appreciation for all beings who care for us, “protected us with love and kindness” and have given us “measureless happiness and benefits” whether in this lifetime, the past, or future (p. 137).

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Earth as the mother of us all who cares for us and also needs our care in return. The Earth is our refuge, our protection, and our solace. Speaking about our connection to the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:

“When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening to look after ourselves and the Earth so that we both can thrive.”

In his 2013 book, Love Letter to the Earth, Thay offers the practice of Touching the Earth. This involves lying peacefully on the Earth and expressing our gratitude and regrets. You can find his writing here, Ten Intimate Conversations with Mother Earth, guided reflections for practicing pouring our joy and sorrow onto the Earth and experiencing the healing of this being who has a boundless capacity to care for all living beings.

I also encourage you to find all of your mothers in this lifetime, all those who supported and nurtured you with their love and care and to reflect on your own motherhood, regardless of your gender or if you have children or not. Mothers are beings who see the value in others, show uncompromising protection, relentless care, and delight in the happiness of others. Recognizing the quality of true care, we can celebrate our own motherhood, and ability to care for all beings including ourselves.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

I am in love with Mother Earth

Resources:

Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge,

UK: Windhorse.

Hanh, T. N. (2013). Love letter to the earth. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.

Wagnal, G. (1973). The door of liberation: essential teachings of the tibetan buddhist

tradition. Boston: Wisdom.

 

 

If I Stop, I’ll Be Lost

Azalea

Azalea, photo by Celia

“I run and then I hop, hop, hop

I wish that I could fly

There’s danger if I dare to stop and here’s the reason why

You see I’m overdue

I’m in a rabbit stew

Can’t even say Good-bye, hello

I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.”

 ~from the White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, lyrics and music by Bob Hilliard, Sammy Fain, Oliver Wallace, Ted Sears, Mack David, Al Ho.

“One of the most significant negative habits we should be aware of is that of constantly allowing our mind to run off into the future. Perhaps we got this from our parents. Carried away by our worries, we’re unable to live fully and happily in the present. Deep down, we believe we can’t really be happy just yet—that we still have a few more boxes to be checked off before we can really enjoy life.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives

 

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I shared a half day of mindfulness with some folks new to practice. It was a lovely day. We sat, ate mindfully, slowed down and allowed the body to relax and feel safe. Several people spoke about the feeling of concern that arose when they gave themselves the permission to stop, take time to eat, and enjoy the simple acts of breathing and walking. This worry stemmed from the belief that if we allow ourselves to relax and drop the habit of anxiously leaning into the future, we will slip the leash and never return to our jobs or responsibilities. This belief comes from a feeling of distrust, that at our core, we are unreliable.

I see this restrictive guarding growing from the unconscious ground of deprivation. Many people do not have the luxury of scheduled lunch breaks. They eat at their desks while answering e-mails, or in medical settings, grab a few bites between clients. Taking time out from work or uncoupling from social media may set up the fear of missing out (FOMO). We will get behind in our work, not respond as expected and there is the rationale that it is better to keep the wheel spinning as fast as possible since pausing for a moment will create an insurmountable workload we won’t be able to dig out from.

We live in an age of extremes, of deprivation and binging. We supersize our cravings and when we indulge—we go hard.  “Binge-watching,” television is the new norm. We can observe the prevalence of restrictive diets that allow one “cheat day” a week, and the culture of obsessive exercise, work, and food. The Buddha counseled a middle way in life. One that does not fall into the ascetic practice of denial and self-mortification, but does not overfill the senses with too much of a good thing. This moderation doesn’t come from distrust and the belief that left to my own care, I will never get out of my pajamas, leave the sofa, turn off Netflix, or do anything requiring effort. The middle way comes from seeing the basic human need for sovereignty and self-dignity.

As a culture, we do not value time for self-care. It is seen as a privilege or a sign of vanity. The courage to step away from the pull of doing may be an act of self-preservation. A college survey in 2016 showed 62% of students felt “overwhelming anxiety.” Increasing, the expectation of constant response to the boundless connections of work, our online platforms, and social media can create a never-ending cycle of anxiety and insufficiency.

The Buddha is reported to have said, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness” (Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking, MN 19, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). This is what neuroscience calls neuroplasticity, the ability of the mind to increase connectivity and structure based on use. When we train in time scarcity and deprivation, that becomes our belief. Stopping, resting, or calming will feel alien, even unwelcome and frightening. And yes, the world dumps more into our inbox while we sleep. Few individuals get the permission to take time to stop. The 19th Century Tibetan teacher Patrul Rinpoche said, “Preoccupations do not end until the moment we die. They end when we put them down. This is their nature.” The world believes in busyness and gauges the importance of individuals on the fullness of their calendars, not on the contentment and peace in their hearts. This balance is increasingly challenging, especially for young people growing up in a digital world where constant evaluation, comparing, and responding is expected and the barometer of lovability.

I wish I had the magic cure to give folks the permission to trust their wise selves and return to the body that is speaking to us all the time and to the heart and mind that are calling out for attention. The middle way in the Buddha’s time was revolutionary, not falling into hedonism nor deprivation, and it remains so today. It is counter-culture to listen to ourselves with respect and consideration, valuing our own well-being more highly than the approval of the world. It is hard work and sometimes lonely to turn inward, to care, to set aside time to be healed and whole. But this is the birthright of all beings and the work that makes living a pleasure, not a punishment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

mindfulness

What’s the Deal With Anger?

mini mushrooms

Red Headed Soldiers, photo by Celia.

 

“When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: ‘Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.’ We behave exactly like a mother: ‘Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.’ This is the practice of compassion.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“If you aren’t feeding the fire of anger or the fire of craving by talking to yourself, then the fire doesn’t have anything to feed on.” ~ Pema Chodron

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear Friends,

As a child I often heard the expression, “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Maybe that was because back in the day, there was a tacit agreement of civility around expressing one’s opinion. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the level of social discourse has fallen into an extreme mosh-pit of bullying, shaming, and terrorizing those who don’t share our views. It’s all very angry and the loud shouting leads to louder shouting. It makes me wonder how to use our awareness of suffering and injustice in a way that doesn’t resort to hatred and violent words and is consistent with the Buddha’s teachings on Right Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action.

In the Buddhist texts, anger is always unwholesome and labeled as one of the ten fetters that must be undone to find the way out of suffering. There is a clear categorization of the Buddha’s classification of anger as unwholesome and negative. Anger is consistently associated with hatred and ill-will (dosa) and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Buddhist teacher, activist, and author,  Donald Rothberg (2006), in his book, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, defines when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action, and kamma or karma, will be harmful to self and others (p. 152). This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another, is the basis of the Buddha’s prohibition. This type of anger is akin to blind rage and causes damage to the one lost in anger.

The Buddha warns of the ruinous rage that makes blind in an excerpt from the Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person, “A person overwhelmed with anger destroys his wealth. Maddened with anger, he destroys his status. Relatives, friends, & colleagues avoid him. Anger brings loss. Anger inflames the mind. He doesn’t realize that his danger is born from within” (Thanissaro, trans. 2010). In the early Buddhist texts, the word for anger is often “khoda,” translated as anger, this leaves little room for the range of intensity that presents itself in anger. Anger, in western culture runs from irritable sniping on Twitter, righteousness, and condemnation, to full-blown assault, aggression,  and violence. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg (2006), consider “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,”(p. 152) to be more accurate translations.

The western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg (2006) writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust” (p. 153). The interesting thing about anger is that when it is used as a catalyst for action, and there is an intention of loving kindness and compassion, it ceases to be poisonous.

The Buddha said that the discernment of what is wholesome or unwholesome thought, speech and action rests on our intention before, during, and after producing the thought, words, or act. Kamma, or karma, in Sanskrit, means volitional action and its implied consequence. All kamma is made through the intention of the actor, “Intention I tell you is kamma. Having intended, one performs an action through body, speech, or mind” (AN 6:63) (Rothberg, 2006, p. 60). Someone who sees injustice and feels anger at a system of oppression, or at the treatment of oppressed people can act in a variety of ways. What separates wholesome from unwholesome kamma is the mind of compassion and goodwill or the mind filled with anger, revenge, and hatred.

Kamma is not like a restaurant tab that accumulates and is presented for payment as a tool of reckoning. We can experience the result of our kamma in this very moment. We can feel into the body’s response to judgmental thoughts of meanness and blame, or how our body responds to thoughts and words that arise from the kindness of an unbound heart. One way to do this is to call attention to bodily sensations of pleasant and unpleasant while watching the news. It’s not hard to find the kernel of bitterness and resentment that fuels many political groups who look to hurt and shame those with opposing views.

Anger is a strong emotion that calls for us to pay attention. When we can utilize anger as a wakeup call without letting it pull us into hatred or ill will, we see it can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions that are based on non-violence and compassion for the poor and powerless. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger at the systemic discrimination did not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and sought to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.

This week I invite you to check in with your own intentions before, during and after, thinking, speaking and acting. Ask the questions, “What is my true intention? How is my heart? Is compassion and understanding present?” Once we know that we have a choice of the root of our thoughts, speech, and acts, we can choose to cultivate only the beautiful blooms that grow from a wide-open loving heart.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Relax your body

References:

Thanissaro, B., trans. (2010). Kodhana Sutta: An Angry Person (AN 7.60). Access to Insight: BCBS Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.060.than.html .

Rothberg, D., (2006). The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World. Boston, Ma: Beacon Press.

 

The awakened heart of action

Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of great action

Samantrabdra the Bhodisattva of great action

Three Translations of the Bodhisattva Vow

The awakened way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

~Thich Nhat Hanh, trans.

Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.

Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.

The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

~Upaya Zen Center version

The many beings are numberless; I vow to save them.

greed, hatred, and ignorance rise endlessly; I vow to abandon them.

dharma gates are countless; I vow to wake to them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassed; I vow to embody it fully.

~Robert Aiken, trans.

 

Dear Friends,

What a beautiful day here in CT. The sun is out, daffodils are blooming, bees are busy and we are alive to witness the patient rewards of spring. It is Earth Day and I am truly glad to be an inhabitant of this generous earth today. The story of human life is one of connection and interdependence. We can easily see this in the food we eat that needs sun, soil, earth, and rain to thrive. Unless we are in denial, we know that our planet and all life that depends upon its wellbeing is in danger. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a practice of taking a vow to protect all life, including our own. This great vow involves compassion, wisdom, non-judgment, action and begins with Bodhicitta, the mind of love. It is called The Bodhisattva Vow.

In Mahayana tradition, a Bodhisattva is a being who has cultivated the six perfections or paramitas, generosity, morality, and patience, energy or zeal, meditation, and wisdom, over many lifetimes. Instead of choosing Nirvana, a Bodhisattva remains earthbound and vows to help all beings to enlightenment, freedom from oppression, and suffering. Bodhicitta, the awakened heart, is the foundation of all compassionate action for one who walks the path of a Bodhisattva.

Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron describes the awakened heart as a measure of our capacity to feel with others. The awakened heart resonates with the suffering of the other and the deep desire to relieve it. She writes, “An analogy for bodhicitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor, there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.” When we truly know the pain of another, we can offer the great gift of empathy and compassion and the desire to save them from pain.

In the three translations of the Bodhisattva Vow, we see that living beings are innumerable, they keep being born, and the bodhisattva vows to save all, or as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, to meet them with kindness and interest. This is not an unrealistic assignment we are condemned to fail. Saving all, is the active component of Bodhicitta, the wide open heart. All includes just that, no exceptions. It is this awakened heart that can lead us to act. If someone asks me to be brave, I find that a frightening invitation. I’m a shy activist, not at home with charging into conflict. If someone asks me to show that I care, that is a totally different intention. Caring for others, opening to their pain, is the ground that cultivates the seed of action. When my actions come from caring, I do not need to armor myself or brace for a battle. They are organic extensions of the woken heart.

So on this weekend when we turn our attention to the world we steward, to the animals on the cusp of extinction and the violence, hatred, and delusion we see in the world, I invite you to stand beside the pain, to witness and know how the heart of the frightened trembles. And… to act with the heart of a Bodhisattva made unafraid through caring. Compassionate action doesn’t mean we need to be heroes in a big way and rescue people from burning buildings. Maybe we take a lonely person to lunch or bring some spring flowers to someone who is ill. Perhaps we call our representatives when environmental regulations are threatened, or have a car-free day. I hope you rejoice in the intention of goodness and care and take delight in your determination to be a Bodhisattva, easing the pain of ourselves and all beings.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

protecting our planet

Getting Sick

Isley Woolen Mill

Isley Woolen Mills, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

The Five Remembrances (Thich Nhat Hahn, trans.)

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

 

Dear Friends,

We are all of the nature to be sick, that was my teaching this week. This was an especially bad flu season and I had been congratulating myself on escaping the influx of nasty ailments this year. There was some pride that my immunity had taken me into spring without so much as a head cold, but this week, my humanity caught up with me. Not only did I get sick, but all other members of my family were sick, which meant that I couldn’t actually act like a sick person. I used the experience to work with the intention to bring compassion into all moments of life.

The first obstacle to compassion is the troubling doubt that others who have chronic pain and serious diseases are more worthy of sympathy and my chills and sinus pressure are really baby stuff. There’s the habitual tendency to dismiss our own suffering because others have it worse. We each have a body that we are entrusted to care for and keep as well as possible. When my body is sending me messages that it needs attention it is not wise or kind to override it and ignore. This habit of shutting out the body sets up the pattern of distrust and we parcel out compassion only to the most deserving and innocent as if there’s a compassion test we must pass….am I truly worthy? Am I miserable enough? Are there others who are worse off? Maybe this is just a tiny thing? Of course! The answer is yes to it all. There are always those who have more suffering than we do and those who have less. It is not the degree of suffering that makes one worthy of compassion, self-compassion is an unremitting act of generosity. It is the ability to bring compassion into all areas of life, from the papercut to stage four cancer—we are taught to bring our care and kindness to hold all of what arises. Some key elements that stand out for me are acceptance, choice, capacity, impermanence, and universality.

When we bring acceptance to our body and mind that is suffering, we stop resisting, the body softens and there is less struggle. There is still discomfort, but not the added pressure to deny our experience. When I relaxed and gave up the fight to “feel normal,” I could get curious about what was arising, the heaviness in the eyes, the skin rippling chills, the pressure beneath the cheekbones, the cloudy feeling that threatened to tumble over my forehead and the mask of sleepiness that pressed in on me.

As I went about my days, driving to presentations, speaking to co-workers, caring for animals and family members, I remembered that even though I felt sick, it was my choice to stay vertical and take care of others. Respecting that my capacity was diminished, I came home early and let myself feel what was happening in the body. I told myself that this was suffering and that we all suffer. It is part of life; we all get sick. I recognized the impermanence of this moment, which is inherent in all moments, not just those that grab our attention because they are unpleasant. And I recognized the wisdom in taking care of myself.

Sickness is a great equalizer and reminds us that although we may believe we are the stories of self we weave, we are our achievements, our careers, our thought and ideologies, the reality of living in an undeniably shifting state, one that we do not control, is a wake up to the nature of how things really are. In sickness, there is also the tendency to fall into fear, imagining the worst possible future and outcome. In the space of seconds, a head cold becomes the flu. I’m hospitalized, unconscious. My dogs don’t get fed and perish from starvation while I’m in the intensive care ward, or maybe it’s neurological Lymes disease and I will never understand when to use affect or effect correctly. This type of thinking is called papancha, or mental proliferation that creates a further story with me as the star. Allowing myself to be pulled into the future takes me away from the reality of this changing state.

When we ascribe a permanent state to an impermanent situation we live in a delusion. When we label ourselves sickly or healthy, we also put a permanent label on a condition that is constantly shifting. Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki (2010) writes, “The self is a flawed strategy, born of ignorance, nurtured by craving, and perpetuated by endless moments of grasping in which we pull towards us what we like to consider part of ourselves and push away what don’t like” (pp. 135-136). If we label ourselves as sickly, or flawed, what are we believing? What is the conditioning that we are perpetuating and why? What is the reward for thinking in these terms? When we keep a notion of ourselves alive, we do so for a reason. My “superior immunity” label was enjoyable. It gave me a false sense of safety and invulnerability. Letting go of that and recognizing that I, just like 100 % of bodies, will get sick. With luck, I will age and eventually die. Understanding the impartiality of this body and illness gives me humility and exercises the muscle of compassion for myself and for all of us who get allergies, head colds, cancer, for all of us who suffer.

Although, I hope you aren’t sick—if you are so fortunate to have this learning opportunity, try some acceptance and curiosity. How is your body and your mind? Can you bring your care to the unpleasant without pushing it away and leaning into the future? Can you find a bit of ease even in the painful? Recognizing that the state is impermanent can lead to equanimity and balance. Knowing that there is sickness all over the world, we include all those who are in pain and feel hopeless in the wish for ourselves and all beings to be free from suffering and the roots of suffering.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Be Still and heal

Olendszki, A. (2010). Unlimiting mind: The radically experimental psycology of buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom.

The Strength of Vulnerability

spring flowers

Spring Flowers. Photo by Celia

 

“Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage. These bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature. You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” ~Pema Chodron

“In Buddhist meditation, you do not turn yourself into a battlefield, with good fighting against evil. Both sides belong to you, the good and the evil. Evil can be transformed into good and vice versa. They are completely organic things.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you are having some moments to sit and enjoy the changing weather, feeling the softness of the sunshine and stepping into days where we feel safe outside. We can unlayer from our winter coats, let our heads be bare and open to the air, and our fingers don’t get stiff and raw from the wind. In winter, it can feel like the world is a fierce and unforgiving place and going outside could kill us, but in spring—if we fall down and can’t get up, we’ll probably survive and not get hypothermia, or frostbite before we are rescued. This change in temperature helps the body relax and we have reason to celebrate this benign world. This change in seasons points to allowing the body to be more unprotected and vulnerable. That can be a difficult word—vulnerability. It is often thought of as weakness, but often what we consider vulnerability can be real strength.

Recently, I’ve been spending time with high school students practicing mindfulness. I intercepted one young man, a freshman, who was very close to a physical fight because he felt attacked. After we did some calming practice, he told me that the most stressful thing in school was that he had to hide his true feelings. It wasn’t safe for him to let others see that he was hurt. In that situation, the only acceptable emotion for this young man was anger. In our culture, we allow girls to feel hurt, but boys have to keep it all buttoned up or they are perceived as weak. Shame researcher from the University of Houston, Dr. Brene’ Brown tells us “The number one shame trigger for men is being perceived as weak. Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.” The observation made by this high school freshman is the truth; males in our society are shamed for expressing their full range of emotions. Our work together allowed him to see that he was hurt, to recognize what he was wanting and needed, including physical safety and to allow all his emotions and underlying needs to be ok. There was no blame or shame in feeling hurt or afraid. It’s the strategies we employ to try to escape from those mind states that gets us in trouble.

 

In our practice, we have the unique opportunity to recognize, investigate, and be with all of our emotional terrain. There is nothing that is off limits or too shameful. Learning to develop the capacity to be with what is pleasant, and what is very far from pleasant is a process. We can gradually open to staying present with what is mildly irritating and practice building the resilience to stay when we feel the trembling of our heart. When we can hang in with ourselves, and utilize mindful awareness, there is part of ourselves that doesn’t get flooded with emotion. This is the part of us who can tell us to take three breaths, to recognize that we are scared, to explore where the fear lives in the body and to bring our compassion and care to this feeling. When we deny our full emotional life and range, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of transforming. We make parts of ourselves unacceptable and in doing so, we create prisons of shame that are too painful for us to look at. This suppression and exiling of our emotions will not make them go away but actually convinces us that we are not capable of handling these big emotions and they become more powerful.

 

This week, as part of the process of strengthening our capacity to stay present with ourselves, we can utilize mindfulness of vedana. This is noting the feeling tone, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Pleasant and unpleasant are automatic responses, either an “ahhh,” or an “eww.” There is no need to analyze, these reactions are right up front, similar to the way people feel about cilantro—either we love it, or it tastes like soap. Neutral is a bit slipperier as we tend to ignore or space out neutral since it is neither what we grab ahold of or push away. Just check in, if possible each hour and notice what’s arising in the body and mind. Noticing what’s unpleasant, can we stay, even for three breaths investigating the pain that is in us? Where does it hurt? Is it consistent, or does it fluctuate? What is the pain asking for? Recognizing and allowing create the ability to relate to our pain, both emotional and physical, in a new and competent way. Are there moments of pleasant that shift to neutrality? Noticing the neutral, often I find that when there’s nothing wrong, that moment can become very pleasant. There is an absence of pain and I am not hungry, tired, or upset. What seems very neutral, shifts with mindful awareness into gratitude and the joy that arises from mindful presence. This week, please listen to your whole self. There is nothing to get rid of, just recycle what we think of as garbage into new spring flowers of understanding and compassion.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

No mud no lotus