A Net Big Enough to Hold it All

View from the top, Mount Diabolo, CA

View from the top, Mount Diabolo, CA, Photo Barbara Richardson

“Defense doesn’t ensure survival; it ensures isolation.”

 ~Christina Feldman

“The voice of caring and understanding must be separate from the voice of ambition”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Whatever you are doing, be aware of it.” ~Dipa Ma

 “Compassion and intention ask us to change the lens of how we hold the first noble truth of suffering.”  ~Christina Feldman

Dear Friends,

I was heartbroken and despairing this week as I heard of more young victims gunned down because of hatred and unrelenting suffering. Wednesday’s school shooting brought home the reminder that all life is impermanent and fragile. The attack is also direct karmic fruit of the US government’s delusion and greed enacted through continued support of gun proliferation that includes easy access to assault-style weapons.

Bhikkhu Bhodi writes in The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering (1999), “The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177).” We may be tempted to think that we are not contributing to the problem of weapons. We may believe wholeheartedly in non-violent solutions, be continuous objectors, or work for peace. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that “Right Livelihood is a collective matter.” No one is exempt from societal shared karma.

In the book Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thay writes about the global proliferation of arms, “the responsibility for this situation does not lie solely with the workers in the arms industry. All of us—politicians, economists, and consumers—share the responsibility for the death and destruction caused by these weapons. We do not see clearly enough, we do not speak out and we do not organize enough national debates on this huge problem” (p. 46). As a person who has taken vows to practice Right Speech and live in peace, how do I work with my helplessness and outrage to unseat the powerful gun lobby that has endangered my and my children’s right to be safe at school and at public gatherings? How do we, as engaged practitioners, take steps to act from compassion and not from rage and retaliation?

After much contemplation and meditation, I come to one conclusion which is to make the net of intention big enough to carry our whole lives. When we hold the intention to be peace, to be compassion, that is what is able to hold all our personal suffering and the place where we can remember the inheritance we want to create. Intention is the main ingredient in karma. The Buddha said “Intention, I tell you is kamma [karma]. Having intended, one performs an action, through body, speech, or mind.” Karma means action and is manifested by our ability to create our own heaven or hell through repeated thought and accumulated reactive patterns.

This ability to create happiness or suffering in our lives is not mysterious nor remote. In neuroscience, it is simply neuroplasticity, or Hebb’s law, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” When we practice thinking and acting in particular ways, we create neural pathways and synapses that become stronger and more powerful. These often-repeated pathways determine our reality at this very moment. Contemplating something unkind, we may not realize, but we already have tension or discomfort in the body. Our stomach may be tight, jaw clenched, we may feel somehow not right, certainly not loving or kind. When we remember our intention to be compassion and peace (or whatever words feel right to you) we can add this too. This moment of hurt and revenge becomes the object of our practice.

We can throw the net of our intention over big emotions, our fear, our outrage, our helplessness. There is nothing that is outside of the intention to show up with compassion, care, and presence. This week you may like to try access your intentions and keep them as the center of all volitional acts. Sitting in meditation, when the body and mind are still, you may ask, “what is the legacy I want to leave on this Earth? What is my deepest wish to transmit during this lifetime?” When you touch on the quality that you wish to embody, the invitation is to carry it into every area of your life. There is nothing to get rid of when we practice expanding the lens of our heart wide enough to hold all our thoughts, words, and deeds with presence and care. Our life is truly our practice. There is no sorrow or joy bigger than the heart’s capacity for caring.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become

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We Are the Buddha’s Hands

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Heartleaf, photo by Celia

 

“The object of your practice should first of all be yourself. Your love for the other, your ability to love another person, depends on your ability to love yourself.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart

“Searching all directions with one’s awareness,

one finds no one dearer than oneself.

In the same way, others are dear to themselves.

So one should not hurt others if one loves oneself.”

~ The Buddha, from the Udana

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

~Rumi

 

Dear Friends,

If you’ve entered a grocery store on the last two weeks you may have been assailed by red and pink hearts, balloons with sweet saying and isles of candy and cards that will communicate our most earnest regard and care. We call this showing our love. Whether a plush card or box of truffles will get that job done is uncertain. But I do know that there is a universal desire and need for love in our lives. Infants who do not experience caretaking connection or love, do not thrive. As human beings, we are designed to live in collectives and share this natural impulse to love and care. In our nuclear family system living in a tech world, we often are separated from our relations; we move for work or school and can feel disconnected and estranged from the love and acceptance of community and family. We can get out of the habit of loving others and of loving ourselves.

Loving ourselves may seem anathema to Buddhist practice, but it is an essential ingredient in our ability to connect with the care and desire to alleviate suffering in the world—this includes our own suffering as well. Loving ourselves is not outside of the realm of our practice. As we look deeply, we can see that this self we inhabit is not so fixed and permanent. Beginning its time on Earth, we began as two cells, then four. Now we are big people with histories and identities.

As adults, we tend to parcel out our love to those who are worthy, and innocent. Those who bring suffering on themselves and others are more difficult to love. That is for sure. But aren’t we those people too? Don’t we make mistakes and cause ourselves to suffer? Are we the ones who are thinking the repetitive thoughts that cause doubt and anxiety? Are we carrying our own internal critic who reminds us that we are not qualified to meet the challenges of our lives? For some of us, we may be our own worst enemy.

One way to practice with this habit is by shifting our view from interior to exterior and practicing regarding ourselves with care. This exercise is designed to help us connect with the potential for loving and care that is always within but gets clouded over by comparing and judging mind.

Caring Hands Practice: Begin by looking at your hands. Study the palms and the backs of your hands. See the length of the fingers, the span of your reach, the breadth of the palm. Notice the skin of the hands and the markings of age, strength, or resiliency. Consider some of the skills these hands have: do the play an instrument, cook, care for animals, heal? How have these hands brought love to your life and others?

Looking at your hands, can you see your mother and father in your hands, your grandparents? Do some of their talents and traits continue through these hands? Consider your lineage, your great grandparents and beyond; think of all the talents and skills that have been transmitted to you. The DNA and genetic material of generations are available to you right now in your own hands. Recognizing all the qualities that live in your hands, some beneficial and some not. Ask yourself what you want to manifest in the world through your hands? What do you want the legacy of your hands to be?

Choose a relative who was a figure of kindness and care. It could be one you never knew, a great-grandmother for example. Choose a self-care activity this week and allow the hands of this relative to participate. Have your great grandmother’s hands wash your face, or allow your great, great-grandfather you never knew, to brush your hair, or make you breakfast. How would this ancestor treat you, the unknown grandchild of their child? Access their tenderness and reverence as you do this one task. Explore what it feels like to infuse the intention of love and service in your hands as they take care of you. What does receiving loving touch feel like? Is it different from how you usually care for yourself? This valentine’s day spend some moments practicing love for one who is often overlooked and needs our love and care as much as anyone else—ourselves.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

~Derek Walcott

The Hardest Part is Stopping

Winter sky

Winter Sky, photo by Celia

 

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” ~ Zen proverb

“The first exercise is very simple, but the power, the result, can be very great. The exercise is simply to identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as the out-breath. When you breathe in, you know that this is your in-breath. When you breathe out, you are mindful that this is your out-breath. Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“We could learn to stop when the sun goes down and when the sun comes up. We could learn to listen to the wind; we could learn to notice that it’s raining or snowing or hailing or calm. We could reconnect with the weather that is ourselves, and we could realize that it’s sad. The sadder it is, and the vaster it is, the more our heart opens. We can stop thinking that good practice is when it’s smooth and calm, and bad practice is when it’s rough and dark. If we can hold it all in our hearts, then we can make a proper cup of tea.” ~ Pema Chodron

 

Dear Friends,

We are a busy people. For many of us, our lives include a careful navigation of time, running from one project to another, aware that we don’t get pulled into too much work, stray into too much family time, or take a detour into too much time for ourselves. And beneath all this disciplined steering there is a mighty effort that wills us to keep dodging obstacles that will send us sprawling in the midst of so many obligations. Even writing about it is tiring. For many of us, we want to have a meditation or mindfulness practice, but it’s one more thing to fit into our packed schedule and meditation won’t pay the tuition bill or drive us to the doctor’s office on time.

I was on retreat over New Year’s and a young woman asked Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein a question about how to continue her practice when she returned home. He instructed her to do one thing. “Get in your meditation posture every day.” And do it without planning to sit for a half hour or even ten minutes, just get in your meditation place and sit. He explained that it isn’t meditation that is difficult, it’s “disengaging,” That is the hardest thing for most of us. We believe that we will find peace, fulfillment, and contentment when we are finished with whatever we are doing. For most of us, finishing one task leads directly into the next. There never is empty space waiting to be filled. When we do this one thing, getting into position, we have done the hardest thing—we’ve stopped.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that we arrange our lives in order of our priorities. When meditation and practice are central to our lives, we organize our lives to support our practice. And in turn, the practice supports our life. The allotment of time we give to our practice is directly proportional to the benefits we receive and the importance we place on our spiritual growth. Even if we do not have time for extended sitting or walking practice, we can learn to stop and come home to ourselves during our day. We can practice taking small sips of mindfulness throughout the day, tuning into the body walking, the temperature of the water and glide of soap as we wash our hands. We can notice the degree of tension and relaxation in the body, listen to the sounds coming and going around us, and simply choose to stop right where we are and breathe.

Our breath can be one of the most powerful and consistent ways to practice while we work, drive, and engage. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “We have to learn the art of stopping – stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then we turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger, and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.” When we put this teaching into practice, we are doing what Joseph Goldstein advised, we are disengaging. Even off the cushion, we can stop. Stopping is the hardest part—always. The rest is just that, rest.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

I have arrived

 

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

 

Feeding our Intentions

womens' march

Making mindful steps with Sangha in Hartford, CT

 

“May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

May he/she know how to nourish the seeds of joy in him/herself every day.

May they know how to nourish the seeds of joy in themselves every day.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May he/she be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May they be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

May he/she be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

May they be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“It helps to remember that our spiritual practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is.”

~ Pema Chödrön, The Pocket Pema Chodron

“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.”

~ H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama

Dear Friends,

I’m hoping you are well and nourishing the best and most joyful parts of yourselves. Yesterday I was at the Women’s march in Hartford, CT. An impressive group of engaged citizens showed up to be visible dissenters from the rhetoric of scarcity, fear, and exclusion that is coming from the present U.S. administration.

A friend I walked with commented on how she felt re-energized during the march and it gave her hope and strength to keep on writing letters, making phone calls, and letting her voice be heard. The march and all the folks present fed the commitment to continue along the path of peaceful protection for the most vulnerable members of our planet, and for the planet herself.

The Buddha is recorded as saying, “All beings subsist on nutriment.” This includes our volition, our desire. The Buddha taught for over forty years. Speaking as a pre-enlightened being, that’s a long time to do anything, unless satisfaction and nourishment bring encouragement to keep going. The Buddha established a sangha of ten thousand bhikkhus; he had many enlightened students and taught kings. He also experienced great trials. His cousin Devadatta spread rumors about him, left the sangha and began his own, taking half of the Buddha’s followers. He tried to have the Buddha assassinated by a hired killer and an enraged bull elephant. Devadatta had a woman’s murdered body buried on the sangha’s grounds to incriminate the Buddha and his followers. The discovery of the buried woman caused the monastics to be looked upon as violent, hypocritical, sexual predators. The Buddha and his followers were eventually exonerated but endured shame and distrust from the lay community that supported them.

So, what kept the Buddha going through all these tribulations? He possessed the paramita, or perfection of equanimity. He worked to free all beings from suffering and understood that his misfortunes or perceived successes were not personal. They were a continuation of the thoughts, words, and deeds of many lifetimes and of the collective community he inhabited. He didn’t get depressed because his work bore no fruit. He didn’t get puffed up and demand a better parking spot or refuse to eat what was offered because he taught royalty and had people travel hundreds of miles for his teachings.

He did what he did because he knew that the betterment of the planet and humankind was not something that could be abandoned. It was part of his life as much as breathing and walking. It was not optional. Nor is it work that is finished in one’s lifetime. Humanity has spent a very long time getting to where it is right now, balanced on the cusp of war and possible irreversible damage to our food, air, and water source, this Earth. As practitioners who have not reached the perfection of equanimity, we could use some nourishment and encouragement to keep going.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we need to cultivate our happiness so we will be able to be with our personal and collective difficulties. Happiness and contentment are a necessary nutriment for continuing to care. If we spend all our time taking care of others, we will run aground, lose our health, energy, and commitment. In No Mud, No Lotus, Thây writes, “Happiness is impermanent, like everything else. In order for happiness to be extended and renewed, you have to learn how to feed your happiness. Nothing can survive without food, including happiness; your happiness can die if you don’t know how to nourish it. If you cut a flower but you don’t put it in some water, the flower will wilt in a few hours.” Being in a loving community nourished our hearts and minds and reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Nourishing the insight that we are all one family, is essential for us to continue to feel unified and that our contributions make a difference, even if they seem like the smallest of gestures. What we all do matters.

This week, I am asking the question, what nourishes my happiness and connection? What keeps my caring alive and reminds me that kindness, no matter how small is the way out? Make your own inquiry. What nourishes your connection to this world and helps feed your bodhisattva vow to free all beings from suffering? What is the food that brings you into a loving state?  So far, I’ve found that when I practice loving, with a smile, an acknowledgment, a helping gesture—it all comes back to me as more love, from strangers who are not strange, but parts of myself I never knew before.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

happiness is here and now

True Liberation Frees Us All

MLK and religious leaders

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. “

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Our daily lives have the most to do with the situation of the world. If we can change our daily lives, we can change our governments and we can change the world. Our presidents and our governments are us. They reflect our lifestyle and our way of thinking. The way we hold a cup of tea, pick up a newspaper, and even use toilet paper have to do with peace.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

 “Whereas the violence of the oppressors prevents the oppressed from being fully human, the response of the latter to this violence is grounded in the desire to pursue the right to be human. As the oppressors dehumanize others and violate their rights, they themselves also become dehumanized. As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressor’s power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.”

~ Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“The Bodhisattva helps row living beings to the other shore but in fact, no living beings are being helped to the other shore.” ~ The Prajnaparamita Sutra

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow in the United States we celebrate the life’s work and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King. Looking at his life’s goals and objectives, we see the justice, equality, and freedoms that Dr. King envisioned for people of color and all Americans are still not reality and seem to have slipped further away during this current administration. Many people who value basic human freedoms of justice and equality are experiencing frustration and shame about the words and actions of the representatives elected to support America’s alleged interests and ideals. Witnessing the words and deeds of the highest elected official in our country can make us wonder what direction we are headed in. Our policies reflect fearful, deluded minds and there is a clear demarcation between those who have power and those who do not.

In Buddhism, there is a teaching of non-duality. This is the understanding that there are “not two,” no separation of cause and effect and that “this is because that is.” We see this union enacted in the integrated system of discrimination and oppression that is held in place unknowingly and participated in by the majority of white-skinned US citizens, even those who want equality and justice. The problem is that there is the idea of helping. When one person helps another, there is a tacit understanding of power, of a superior being and an inferior being. Help is not liberation.

The father of critical pedagogy, Paolo Freire writes:

“In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands—whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”

When we are able to step out of the role of the one who dispenses generosity and helpfulness, we lose the conceit of superior when we are truly of service. When we act from compassion, we not only liberate others, we liberate ourselves from the superiority complex and we cease to perpetuate the system that keeps us in a small limited self and separate from the imagined other.

In the book Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hahn gives a contemplation on detached action. Bringing to mind a social project we believe is valuable, he asks us to consider:

“that the work is to serve, to alleviate suffering, to respond to compassion, not to satisfy the desire for praise or recognition. See that the methods used encourage cooperation between humans. Don’t consider the project as an act of charity. Consider the people involved. Do you still see in terms of ones who serve and ones who benefit? If you can still see who are the ones serving and who are the ones benefiting, your work is for the sake of yourself and the workers, and not for the sake of service.”

When we respond from a place of love and compassion, there is no “I” who is doing the action. There is only compassionate and wise response to a situation.

How do we do this in our lives? In my experience, it comes with listening and letting go of my ideas of what help looks like. If I believe I can teach the “right” way to view a situation or a concept, I am already investing in the idea of a self who is going to make someone’s life better and lift someone up. This way of looking at my contribution as something I do to, or, for you, creates expectation and hierarchy. Firstly, it puts a lot of pressure on me to get it right and secondly, it doesn’t honor the needs and intelligence of those I am serving. True helpfulness responds to the situation and allows each person’s unique intelligence to meet this moment in a shared understanding. This is Interbeing. It is the ability to see beyond the role we identify with, the oppressor, the oppressed, teacher, student, powerful, or disenfranchised. Interbeing reminds us that this moment does not belong to anyone. It is a creation of contribution, the pooling of immeasurable tributaries of time, space, and conditions. This shared moment belongs to us all and in the present moment, we find the way to liberate ourselves and all beings from the prison of wrong perceptions.

In the spirit of continuing the work of the Buddha and Dr. King, let us each reflect on our own liberation and the wholesome desire to free ourselves from our wrong perceptions and recognize that true liberation allows both the oppressed and oppressors to be healed, whole, human beings.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Be there for eachother

I Resolve not to get rid of Anything

interconnection in the tree

Tree Interbeing. Photo by Celia

 

“Go back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your feelings need you, your perceptions need you. Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it. Go home and be there for all these things.”

“To take good care of ourselves, we must go back and take care of the wounded child inside of us. You have to practice going back to your wounded child every day. You have to embrace him or her tenderly, like a big brother or a big sister. You have to talk to him, talk to her. And you can write a letter to the Little child in you, of two or three pages, to that you recognize his or her presence, and will do everything you can to heal his or her wounds.”

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.” ~All quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Dear Friends,

As we head towards the end of the year, there is the summation of our goodness, our badness, and the wish to be better. The New Year’s resolution is an interesting part of our calendar. In this resolve, we make a vow to stop eating so much, to stop gambling, or being addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, narcotics, shopping, pornography, to start exercising and keeping better hours, to eat healthier, to love even our enemies, to risk more, to work harder, be stronger, more diligent, to meditate twice a day, to begin to meditate, to stop thinking bad thoughts about those who don’t agree with us, and to be kind to all beings—always. We identify all the ways we do not enact true kindness and want to believe with the turn of the calendar we can leave our negative thoughts, our ugly habits in the previous year. And to some extent, we can be new in the sense that we can always start again. We are constantly laying down new neural connections, even up to the moment of death, there is neurological change. But we are not actors who end one miniseries and appear in the next as someone totally different, fresh and unencumbered by the past. We bring our conditioning and habits wherever we go.

Years ago, I was on a plane reading Suzuki Roshi’s book, Not Always So: Practicing the True Way of Zen, and I heard the teaching that there is nothing to get rid of. I put the book down in my lap and looked around the plane in wonder. I felt so light and free with this awareness that I didn’t have to work for years to become a different person to be worthy of waking up. I wanted to ring the call button for the flight attendant—did they know that there was nothing to get rid of? Did anyone else on my flight realize all the time spent trying to transform our lives and become worthy of other’s love and our own was unnecessary? Furthermore, we can’t do it. We don’t get rid of our stuff. We don’t just get over it, or let it go without doing the work of being with it. All our beliefs, words, and actions have a story. We do not do anything without good reason. When I want to get rid of a behavior or way of thinking through will-power, I am doomed to fail. We can’t muscle our way through to enlightenment.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to stop and come home to ourselves. When we do this, we stop searching outside ourselves to look and feel better.  We start to listen to what’s beneath our desires. When we see how we are caught and look at what we are doing we can ask what is the need beneath the behavior? Beneath the lust, we can hear the body’s cry of loneliness. Beneath the greed is the fear of annihilation, and under the rage, the truth that I am not considered. When we listen, we can hear these pieces of ourselves calling out for our attention. If we were children, we would cry out, express these needs as sobbing for help. As grown folks, we don’t cry out, but the sadness, the wanting comfort and care, the feeling that we need to be more, the unmovable discomfort, it’s still there.

These are places where we would rather not go because they call upon us to offer tenderness that we do not believe we deserve. It’s easier to condemn and hate ourselves for being weak, lazy, or indulgent, that to open to the part of us that is so deeply needing our love. If we expand this thinking into our society, it can seem bizarre, even frightening, to look at those who are enacting greed, hatred, and delusion with kindness. Just like our hurtful behavior tells a story of lack, of need, and of wrong beliefs, the people on the surface are symptoms. Until we as a country can look at what we cannot bear and collectively listening to the suffering, to the cries of the hurting, only then can we get to the why.

We can make laws, social reforms, and enact public policy, but in a country where in 2007 approximately 2.4 million people with black skin were part of the penal system, far more than the 1.7 million who were enslaved according to the 1850 U.S. census, we cannot say this is an equal and colorblind society and that the suffering has stopped (Alexander, 2010). We can’t say that we’ve gotten over, or let go of our brutal history. When we fall in line with the societal values that suppress our kindness, our cooperation, and our need to listen to the cries of our suffering and others, we reject our potential for wholeness and perpetuate an unjust and inhuman society.

We are incredibly sensitive beings. I bet we can remember any hurt or injustice that was ever perpetrated on us—and we can remember any kindness as well. The denial of our feelings in our bodies and minds tells us that we cannot be trusted to hold our own pain. But we are the only ones who know what we are looking for. We are the ones who know what we are crying out for and how to make ourselves whole. We stop. We calm. We listen and heal. It is not something that anyone else can do for us. Each one of us is uniquely gifted with the right medicine for what we are longing for.

I inhabit the body of a cisgender white skinned female for this lifetime. I cannot escape the reality that my life is easier and safer than if I had brown or black skin and much safer than if I were born a brown or black skinned male. As a society we embody a world where there is marginalization, there is injustice, and there are deep wounds that are calling out for us to lean in and listen, to do the hard work of opening to the things we would rather not look at and that we hope someone else will solve. Being present to this great wound with kindness, that is resistance. It is resisting the societal pull that tells us to buy something and shut up the sobbing in us and our country. It is resistance to look to ourselves to find the balm for our own loneliness, our disconnection, to lean into our greed, to say, “darling, what are you afraid of?” To hold prejudice and hatred like a sick child who needs healing, this is radical love, radical vulnerability, and radical trust. I do not know any other way to wholeness than through the very thing that looks so fearsome.

This year, my resolution is to lean in with as much tenderness and kindness as I can hold. Not resolving to be better or different, but resolving to be available for myself. To listen to the story of my whole life and reclaim my wholeness through this willingness to listen with gentleness. To have the courage to hear the brokenness. Not throwing anything away, I learn the way to healing, first with myself and then the world. Wishing us all a fierce gentleness for ourselves and all beings this holiday and new year.

May we all trust our light.

Celia

The way out is the way in

 

References

Alexander, M. (2010). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press: New York, NY.

Suzuki, S. (2003). Not always so: Practicing the true spirit of zen. Harper Collins: New York, NY.

What Right, Right Now?

white fern

Ghost Fern, Photo by Celia.

 

What gets between us and happiness?

This is an important inquiry in our lives. When you’re really happy ask yourself, what’s going on? What’s going on inside you when you’re really happy? ~Tara Brach

“Each minute we spend worrying about the future and regretting the past is a minute we miss in our appointment with life- a missed opportunity to engage life and to see that each moment gives us the chance to change for the better, to experience peace and joy.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

“Happiness is here and now.

I have dropped my worries.

Nothing to do. Nowhere to go.

There’s no need for hurry.

Happiness is here and now.

I have dropped my worries.

Something to do. Somewhere to go.

But, there’s no need for hurry.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and happy and enjoying your moments. For many people, this is an exciting and joyful time of year, but for some, it’s stressful, demanding, and fraught with expectations and obligation. Often, the holidays feel like something to be endured, as if we’re holding our breath until January second until we can relax and return to our routine. For many of us, happiness is something that will happen once all the work is finished, the shopping done, all the presents and visits are over and the obligations are complete.

We know from neuroimaging that how we train our minds creates the functional connections of thought. This is called neuroplasticity. The regions and connections in our brains that are used repeatedly become strong, denser, and more active, resulting in faster and more direct activation. Neuroscientist Willoughby Britton says that every thought we have is micro-surgery in our brain. This means that every thought we have changes the physical structure and function of our brain.

When we spend our days leaning into the future and waiting to be happy, what are we practicing? What kind of neural infrastructure are we creating? We are learning to ignore the present moment and focus on the future promise of happiness when we are finished with chores, our education when we get the promotion, or move to Seattle. What we often find is that when we get the thing we’ve been trying for, the quiet moment, the completed list of projects, we can’t enjoy it. That’s because we do not know how to stop and find contentment in this moment. We’ve learned to only feel alive when we’re chasing a goal. When we arrive, we find deflation and disappointment. It’s not exactly what we thought. We don’t know how to relax, to find happiness and contentment in not striving.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “The present moment is the substance with which the future is made. Therefore, the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. What else can you do?” If I wait until all my chores are done to find some happiness and joy in my life, I will never find it, because I am training in pushing forward. I am not training in the practice of happiness.

Stopping and recognizing my goodness and my gifts is counter-culture in our capitalistic society. If I believe that I have enough, that I am enough, I don’t need to buy a new car to feel my worth. The belief that I can have happiness right here and now won’t keep the economy growing. A consumer society needs us to feel lacking and desperation in order to fill our emptiness with smartphones and devices that promise happiness and connection but cannot deliver on their promise.  Nothing that we buy or achieve will fill the void of not enough. That can only come from trusting our own worth. If I believe I am enough, I may stop working so hard and chasing promotions and opportunities because my peace, relationships, and well-being are more important than being regarded by others as successful.

The Buddha encouraged us to be with the body in the body. This means stopping planning and doing and dropping back into an embodied presence. Slowing down and feeling what is happening in this body and mind. Insight meditation teacher Narayan Liebson asks us to consider how much metta (loving kindness) is in our hands. This means infusing our actions with kindness, caring, and compassion. Ask yourself, how can my hands transmit kindness today? My eyes, my thoughts, and words? Can I spend a day being kindness in action? When we open up to connecting with a larger identity, we stop seeing the world as something we need to conquer and overcome, and we can gradually learn to practice finding joy, contentment, and solidity right here, right now. So please take a moment to consider, what’s right with me, right now. That is how we train to create the habit of happiness.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Lion_s_Roar_You_Have_Enough_1_grande

This Precious Human Life

Painting on the bluffs

Painting on Mohegan Bluffs, Block Island, RI. Photo by Barbara Richardson

 

“Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace.

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

~H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama

“Each one of us is sovereign over the territory of our own being and the five elements we are made of. These elements are form (body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Our practice is to look deeply into these five elements and discover the true nature of our being—the true nature of our suffering, our happiness, our peace, our fearlessness.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Dear Friends,

The first time I heard the phrase, “this precious human life,” I wondered what was so precious about it?  There are 7.6 billion humans on this planet, being born, dying, suffering, and enjoying. Being born a human didn’t seem an extraordinary accomplishment or any type of accomplishment. Looking around, I saw some dogs that were living very enviable lives and being a moth or a butterfly seemed like an alright existence, beautiful albeit fleeting. What made being human a distinction?

The Buddha told his monks, if the world was covered in water and there was a wooden yoke that floated untethered around the globe, the chances of a blind turtle living at the bottom of the sea who surfaces once every hundred years placing his head through that wooden yoke—those are the same odds of being born as a human. Slim indeed. The Buddha goes on to say, the chances of human birth are slight, but the chances of being born into a time where there is a fully realized Buddha who has given you teachings and the opportunity for enlightenment, those odds are even smaller.

This lifetime is the only one we have at this moment. We are given the gifts of a human body to experience this world in all its pleasure and pain. This body and this life are our unique classroom for learning our life’s lessons that bring us closer to wisdom. From an evolutionary standpoint, we as humans are the highest, most evolved creatures on the planet (unless the stories about aliens are true). Modern humans are classified as homo sapiens. The words sapiens means wise or knowing. We are the people with wisdom or at least the capacity for wisdom. We are the only species that can become enlightened and extinguish the fires of greed, anger, and delusion. We are endowed with a brain and thought system that unravels genetic codes, DNA sequences, and is investigating the nature of life and the micro precision of creation. With all this mind power and potential, we as a species become responsible. We are not the overlords of the earth, that can deplete it and discard it. We can see the effects of our interventions on our earth and see that we are dependent upon the health of our environment for all life to continue. Our actions and attitudes matter.

Homo sapiens are the privileged ones whose actions can affect not only our own species but all other species on this planet. We have power as human beings. We have autonomy and the choice about what we do, unlike animals who react with innate species-specific responses. We are free to make our lives and our own choices. As Thây reminds us, we are sovereign over our bodies, our thought, speech, and actions. We are uniquely fortunate to be in the position to have a human life—and to make good use of this precious opportunity, for our benefit and for the welfare of all who inhabit this home.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Dont ignore suffering

Take my Advice

beach stones

Beach stones, photo by Barabra Richardson

 

“Avoid giving advice, even if it asked for.

In general, it is helpful to always use the word “I” instead of the word “you”. Speaking from our own experience eliminates the opportunity to give advice. If someone asks for advice and a practice that we have worked with comes to mind it is fine to share our experience rather than telling someone what she or he should do.”

~Order of Interbeing website. Dharma sharing guidelines.

“Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“If you listen too much to advice, you may wind up making other people’s mistakes.”

~CROFT M. PENTZ, 1001 Things Your Mother Told You

“Good advice offering requires knowing a person very, very well. So well, in fact, that you may know more about them than they know about themselves in certain situations. Then, good advice is loving and given out of love. It is never to control or manipulate. Then, it is giving information; just giving, not enforcing, information. And lastly and most importantly, after advice is given, the outcome is let go of completely, trusting that the other person will take it, leave it, or ponder it.”

~ANNE WILSON SCHAEF, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well, happy, and finding some ease today. One habit that’s been on my mind is the desire to advise. The first time I noticed this, I was in a dharma sharing group at Blue Cliff monastery and one of the guidelines was “avoid giving advice.” We were to practice deep listening, listening with the express intention of hearing what it was like to be the other person. This guideline was not only included in the dharma sharing circle but in the sangha in general. No advice.

I was dismayed to find that I had a strong habit of giving advice. I had never noticed how quick I was to offer helpful suggestions, to give names, websites, “try this. It worked for me.” I also saw that I came from a lineage of advice givers.

Once I stopped feeling ashamed of my unmindful habit, I took a deep look. I was uncomfortable with the unhappiness and suffering I saw in the other person. I wanted them to feel better, to be better, to be happy and healed—fast. And I noticed conversely, how spending time with someone who repeatedly said, “you should really….” Left me feeling small and diminished after the visit. In her advice I heard, you’re doing it all wrong. You clearly do not have the skills to meet these challenges and you aren’t trusted. It felt a lot better to give unsolicited advice than receive it.

I often think, if wisdom traveled by ear, my kids wouldn’t have to go through what I did to learn. But the truth of life is that we don’t always learn from words. We need the mud to grow the lotus. We need to find our own way out. When we rush to advice—especially unsolicited advice, we stop looking at our own situation and apply our remodeling powers towards someone else. It is always easier to fix someone else’s life than our own. If only they would do this, or follow this diet, or stop that, then they’d be all set.

When we give advice, we reduce our capacity to be with suffering, our own and the other person’s. The practice of equanimity is the recognition that all beings suffer, despite my wishes for them. They are heirs of their karma and their happiness and suffering are made from their life choices. I cannot shift that no matter how hard I try to steer. And, they often do not follow our gems of advice. Almost four hundred years ago, the French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” To truly allow others their own journey, we must offer them space and time. Their wisdom and insights come from their lives and our task is to listen, to try and understand their struggles, and to love them, just as they are.

When we practice looking at our own desire to control, to fix, and manage. We can ask, “what’s keeping me from accepting what is? What’s bothering me about the suffering?” For most of us, what we can’t bear to see in others is the same stuff we can’t tolerate in ourselves. When we see something that calls for fixing, this is an invitation to become curious. We can look at that confusion, weakness, indecision, or failings in ourselves and ask, what does this feel like for me? Generally, there’s some shame beneath the behavior that fuels the rush to remove what we see as wrong. Never underestimate the power of shame.

This is not to say we lose our common sense and stop helping, or let people endanger their safety. If I go into my parents’ home and the gas burner is blazing away with nothing cooking. I don’t think, “Oh this decision is not what I’d choose. It may be a problem, but it’s their karma.” No, I turn the stove off and tell them what I saw to make them more aware of what’s happening. We do what is needed in the real world to keep people safe. I am speaking about being present with other’s choices that bring confusion, pain, or unwanted consequences.

Offering our own experience is different from unsolicited advice. We can share our struggles without attachment to outcome and without the intention of control and the energy of dissatisfaction found in advice. I often say, “advice is like manure. If I ask for it in my garden, it’s a wonderful gift that makes the flowers and vegetables grow. If I don’t, it’s a pile of poop in my living room.” Not a dainty simile, but I think it gets the point across.

Please use your social interactions with family and colleagues to pay attention to what comes up for you. What is it that you can’t tolerate in others and yourself? The old expression is so true, “you spot it, you got it.” What a different world it would be if we all paid attention to “what we got”—and let others do the same—and I need to follow my own advice.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Be there for eachother

Resting in your smile

Islay horse

Islay horse, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

 

“The practice of mindfulness should not be tiring but rather, it should be energizing. But when we recognize that we are tired, we should find every means possible to rest.”

~Plum Village Website

“Scientists are coming to recognize the effects of the mind on physical health. The sense of relaxation associated with inner peace involves not only being physically at ease. If you are nagged by worry or seething with anger, you’re not really relaxed. The key to relaxation is peace of mind. The relaxation gained from alcohol, drugs or just listening to music may seem attractive, but it doesn’t last.”

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Resting is a very important practice; we have to learn the art of resting. Resting is the first part of Buddhist meditation. You should allow your body and your mind to rest. Our mind, as well as our body, needs to rest.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“When you begin to see life from the point of view that everything is spontaneously arising and that things aren’t coming at you or trying to attack you,’ in any given moment, you will likely experience more space and more room to relax into.

Your stomach, which is in a knot, can just relax. The back of your neck, which is all tensed up, can just relax. Your mind, which is spinning and spinning like one of those little bears that you wind-up, so it walks across the floor, can just relax.”

~Pema Chodron

 

Dear Friends,

There is a beautiful word—relax. It promises the feeling of ease and release. Another equally valuable word is rest. We know that the opposite of relaxation and rest is tension and exhaustion. These conditions bring on stress, but Americans as a group resist resting, both physically and mentally. We have a disease of busyness. Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) writes that “There is in us what we call the energy of restlessness. We cannot be at peace with ourselves. We cannot be peaceful. We cannot sit; we cannot lie down. There is some energy in us to do this, to do that, to think of this, to think of that, and that kind of restlessness makes us unhappy. That is why it is so important for us to learn first of all to allow our body to rest” (Lions Roar, Resting in the River). We cannot keep running and expect to be calm, centered, and at ease. The amount of hurry and restlessness in the mind is also held in the body. The body and mind are interconnected and inform each other.

If our bodies are tight and constricted, the brain receives a message that it is in danger. This activates our efficient and lightning fast protection system and we fire up the cortisol and the adrenalin. This cascade of stress hormones and neurotransmitters tells the body that the situation is really unsafe. The body reacts by further tightening and we are caught in a stress feedback loop. These types of interdependent reactions can lead to long-term anxiety, adrenal fatigue, depression, and despair.

The body needs rest to repair and prepare. The mind needs rest to have the emotional and intellectual capacity to be present and available, but something so basic and essential as rest takes low priority in our online, constantly connected lives. In a commentary on the Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing, Thich Nhat Hanh (2008) observes, “Human beings have lost confidence in their body. We don’t know how to rest. Mindful breathing helps us to relearn the art of resting. Mindful breathing is like a loving mother holding her sick baby in her arms saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of you, just rest” (p. 56, Breathe, you are alive!). Our bodies desperately want us to listen. They speak to us constantly, but often we are too involved in our projects or we are unwilling to listen. When we practice stopping and listening to the body, the body responds. The body can relax when it knows it is cared for.

This ability to stop, to rest, and relax is critical to our ability to be peaceful. On retreat a few years ago a young person asked Thây how do you create a calm mind. Thây answered that he relaxed his body. Something so simple can have profound results. When we attend kindly to the amount of tension or ease in the body, we develop the muscle of relaxation and calm. The body needs to know it’s considered and the mind needs to stop, attend, and embrace any difficulty in the body.

Here’s a link to Sister Jewel leading a 45-minute total relaxation. If you have time, lie down, close your eyes and take a vacation from doing. Let yourself listen to what the body is asking for, send the body love and compassion and let it know that it is safe. When the body receives the message that the world is safe, the body softens and can rest and heal. Scientists have found that something so seemingly insignificant as a smile, triggers inhibitory neurotransmitters and increases our wellbeing. Smiling actually makes us happier and deactivates our bodies defense system. We all have time to smile, even if we can’t stop doing. Try some mindful smiling this week and see how it makes you feel. Maybe someone will smile back and then two people will be smiling. 

 

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

Peace begins with your lovely smile