A compassionate society is created through compassionate action

Rainbow Cloud

Rainbow cloud, Oregon. Photo by Celia

“By protecting oneself (e.g., morally), one protects others; by protecting others, one protects oneself.” ~ Samyutta Nikaya (Kindred Sayings) 47; Satipatthana Samy., No. 19

“We may recognize an oppressor and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself a part of our growth towards enlightenment.”

~R.H. Blythe

“Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go. Please sit down and take an inventory of your life. There are things you’ve been hanging on to that really are not useful and deprive you of your freedom. Find the courage to let them go.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

We are so lucky that we live at a time when there has never been more Dharma available and more sangha participants than at any other period in the history of the world. As sangha members, we can directly receive the gifts of practicing in community and connection. The sangha offers us support for navigating these lifetimes of 10,000 joys and sorrows. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the sangha is a raft to keep us from drowning in despair. In Buddhism, there is the practice of taking refuge in the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the sangha. When we take refuge, we come for support to the wisdom of the Buddha, the path of practice and the living tradition of the Dharma, and the Sangha, the companionship of others who share their wisdom, empathy, and the experience of valuing liberation above the societal ideals of wealth and status.

The Buddha created a community based on cooperation and the equality of all people. He included those who were devalued by the rigorous system of discrimination which was part of the ancient Aryan social strata. The Buddha’s model of living and social harmony includes the foundations of loving kindness and the understanding that we are more alike than different. As we navigate through this period of visible tensions between classes, economic levels, and races, we can recognize that we have a choice to build a new system which diverges from the current culture of hierarchy. We can make profound changes to shift towards an economy that cares instead of one that looks to exploit.

Chinese garden koi

Practicing living with the values of compassion and including all people in our circle of care is counterculture. It is easily mistaken for passivity or weakness to treat all beings, even those who are causing harm from ignorance, with consideration and friendliness.

We cannot build a compassionate society following the blueprint of domination and discrimination. We cannot conquer to create harmony and lasting peace. We know that all actions have value. The word karma in Sanskrit means action. Our karma includes all actions, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. The words we do not speak, the thoughts no one can see, these are our possessions as well.

Opening to understanding and compassionate speech does not mean we approve or agree with the views of others. It means we consider that all living beings have a right to exist, have fears, and joys, and just like me, they will all experience pain and at some point, die. If I hold this awareness of how similar I am to another, I am moved to caring for their welfare. This is the open-hearted awareness of Bodhicitta, the awakened heart of love.

This can sound like an incentive to be nice, not rock the boat and stay far from the messy ignorance that manifestations as fear, hatred, and greed. We can pat ourselves on the back for silently wishing that all problems and injustices will go away and consider ourselves a good person because we care. But true caring is not just a platitude and arms reach altruism. Removing hatred and ignorance from our hearts asks us to look at where we are stuck in domination and injustice. Who do we believe is it ok to hate? Rapists, sexual offenders, racists, sexist, those who discriminate on the bases of sexual preference, or those who don’t see the enslavement of animals and the self-proclaimed supremacy of humans?

We are called to look carefully at our own bias, at how we fit into this culture of oppression. If we are a person of color, we are called to turn towards the truth of the devaluation of people with black or brown skin, at the lack of welcome and the daily reminders of difference, the micro-aggressions that exist in this society designed to favor white European immigrants. If we are a white person, we are called to see how we have benefited from the transfer of intergenerational wealth, how we take for granted the ability to choose where to live, what neighborhoods we can drive through without being stopped by the police, the privilege to freely select where we want to be educated, and what vocation we desire. As white people, we do not need to identify our race because we are the “norm.” We don’t call ourselves, European-Americans, or white Americans we are just Americans, while others carry the systemic distinction of separation and exclusion with titles of Asian America, African American, or Latinx American.

The path of purification leaves nothing out—not our implicit bias, or the ignorance that creates cultures of intolerance and discrimination. What we think, what we say, what we do has value and meaning. Out actions create the future and the seeds we sow, invariable bear fruit. When our actions flow from an awakened mind and heart that seeks to remove suffering our intention is vastly different than the mind that seeks to punish and defeat. The action may look the same—but the energy of care does not contain the seeds of violence and hatred. When we bring the spirit of compassion into all actions, political, as well as personal, there is a freedom born of non-harming. When there is no enemy outside of us, we are naturally free from fear and free to act because there is no residue of hate, only the mind that understands the causes of suffering and sees the way out is a collective achievement.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

wake up

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It’s not you; it’s my vedana.

Columbia River Gorge, WA

Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Celia

“May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease.”

~John O’Donohue

“Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Desirable things do not provoke one’s mind. Towards the undesirable one has no aversion.” ~The Buddha. Connected Discourses, 1265, Bhodi trans.

 

Dear Friends,

I am back East from the great state of Oregon—Go Ducks! Travel is a wonderful way to notice our habits. When we lose our routines and possessions that insulate us, we often find ourselves anxious and fearful of what is coming our way. It can be humorous to look at all the ways we protect ourselves from the unwanted, all the ways we move and adjust our bodies, the temperature, and our surroundings to minimize discomfort. Dharma teacher Jack Kornfield (2013, 2016) notes that “It would be interesting to notice how many of our actions during the day—even small changes of posture—come about through an effort to avoid unpleasant feeling” (p.83). The unpleasant feelings are not usually the things we tell ourselves we are avoiding because we unconsciously equate pleasure and displeasure with what is outside ourselves. This is mistaking vedana (the second foundation of mindfulness) for the thing itself.

Vedana is sometimes translated as feeling, which can be confusing as the third foundation of mindfulness [cognition/objects of the mind] consists of the activities of the mind, including thoughts and emotional states. Former Forest monk, Buddhist psychotherapist, and meditation teacher Akincino Marc Weber has done extensive scholarly research on vedana. I’ve learned from him that vedana is never merely sensation or to be confused with emotion. Vedana is the quality of “hedonic feeling tone,” meaning that it contains that instant hit of liking, disliking. Even in the space called “neutral,” there exists a subtle flavor of pleasure and displeasure, too quiet to perceive. This is true even for enlightened beings, who still sense what is sweet and sour, but without the pull that drags us towards or away from.

Vedana is the awareness of the automatic like and dislike that comes from living in a body that has a built-in threat detection system. We see this easily with food. We are designed to like sugar, fat, and salt because those ingredients help us survive. Sugar and fat have the biggest caloric bang for our buck and salt is the essential mineral we need to sustain homeostasis. Most of us have very pleasant vedana when confronted with these tastes—and this is where it can get confusing—we believe that pleasure lives in the chocolate cake, or the bag of chips when it’s really pleasant vedana which comes and goes. The first potato chip tastes very different than the last as we finish off the family-sized bag and the chocolate cake isn’t at all appealing when we have a stomach virus.

Foodtruck, Portland

In the groovy city of Portland, OR, we visited pods of food trucks and I noticed how I was drawn to certain items, smells, physically pleasing images, and tastes I associated with pleasure.  I could sit back and watch the vedana show from all the six sense doors, sights, smells, sounds, the quality of touch, tastes, and the mind’s perception.

I saw my expectation shattered and the pleasant vedana I associated with an item shift abruptly when the tofu taco was watery, or the coffee was tepid. Instant dislike. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reacting to the thing itself—I had slid into the third foundation of mindfulness [cognition] and was feeling disappointment. And I didn’t want to confuse my dislike and the disappointment with the actual thing.

A good example of confusing the thing for the vedana comes from the founder of Nonviolent Communication and admirer of Buddhist thought, Marshall Rosenberg, who uses the experience of waiting for someone who is late to demonstrate how we blame the external situation and other people for our own emotional state. We have all had the experience of waiting for someone and believing their lateness is the cause of our irritation. We can easily move into judgment and say they are inconsiderate. We can label them as chronically tardy. And my favorite pastime while waiting, to strategize how to never wait again, by being purposefully late in the future. When we confuse the unpleasant vedana for that specific person in that specific situation, we may say, I hate waiting, or I hate John. He’s so disrespectful. We don’t take responsibility for our own mental formations and emotions that are conditioned by our unpleasant vedana.

Marshall Rosenberg offers a second scenario. What if we are waiting for someone and it’s our first chance all day to rest—maybe we have been looking for an opportunity to check our email, or we just need a break. Or we are late ourselves and arrive fifteen minutes late. When our person shows up seventeen minutes late, we are actually glad they are so late. In this example, we see that lateness is not the cause of our anger. It’s our vedana and mental formations that create our happiness or unhappiness with the situation.

This week I invite you to look at the things you like and dislike—things you are drawn towards or move away from. What is the mental formation and vedana in that situation or thing that is pulling you? When we imbue something with a permanent fixed identity, we can be jerked around by the automatic response of vedana. Whenever we have a judgment, that is a good indication that we have mistaken vedana and our emotions for the thing itself and we are believing what we think

We can still have a favorite dessert—and it might taste even better when we let ourselves enjoy the experience of pleasant vedana, knowing that all vedana is fleeting and conditional. Practicing with vedana, we can get some clarity and use this awareness as information. Knowing our experience as it truly is, shows us the impermanent and constant flickering nature of pleasant and unpleasant. Recognizing the tireless pulse of liking and disliking for what it is can give us the clarity we need to choose our path instead of being dragged along by our senses.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The way out is the way in

Reference:

Kornfield, J. (2013, 2016). Mindfulness: A practical guide to awakening. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

 

 

 

I Want to Live With An Empty Boat

Rainbow island

Rainbow on Cape Newagen, ME: Photo by Karen Swanson

“How much ‘ego’ do you need? Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.”

 ~Shunryu Suzuki

“Whatever happens in your life, joyful or painful, do not be swept away by reactivity. Be patient with yourself and don’t lose your sense of perspective.”

~ Pema Chodron

“Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch nonfear, you are free.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

I was cleaning out my oversized bag, getting ready for my trip across country. As I discarded old receipts and empty stevia packets, I found a note to myself that said, “write about loving without the judgment, the non-self—the empty boat.” I was delighted to remember the story of the empty boat and decided to take my own suggestion and write about these three things. To begin, I must write about the story first. I loved this story the first time I heard it in one of Jack Kornfield’s dharma talks. It is also included in a book by Tibetan nun, Pema Chodron. Searching a bit more on the internet, I found that that the seed of this story originally came from the Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, who lived in the 4oo BCE.

The story goes that a fisherman is out in the early morning on the river. As the sun comes up, he sees another boat further down the river. As the boat approaches, the fisherman can see it is steering directly towards his boat. He shouts a warning as the boat gets nearer. The boat continues to come closer. Again, this time with anger, he yells to steer the boat away from his. The approaching boat doesn’t turn, and the fisherman watches embroiled in rage, as the boat crashes into the side of his vessel. Screaming curses, he glares into the interior of the immobile boat. There is no one in it. All his rage and judgment vanish at the sight of the empty boat.

When I heard this story, I wanted to carry it with me in my pocket to remember that the acts I imbue with vicious intent, all the wrongs done to me, are really mistaken perception. I wanted to see the empty boat in the moments when I was on hold with my health insurance being transferred to a specialist for the third time and when the kids didn’t clean up after making late night macaroni and cheese. I wanted to know the impersonal nature of life and remember that these actions are not done “to me” when I was disappointed that I didn’t get the email, or the acknowledgment I was longing for. The empty boat lets us experience the spaciousness of non-self and just as the fisherman’s blame and judgment evaporated seeing the lack of malice, so may we become empty of our righteous rush to condemn.

Chuang Tzu spoke about this as a protection, “If a man could succeed in making himself empty, and in that way wander through the world, then who could do him harm?” This way of seeing brings us the willingness to stop the dance of victim and perpetrator. There is a paradox that comes about when we empty ourselves of our desire to punish and blame, we become harmless to others—and as a result, we lose our fear of others.

When we can look at our lives with the reminder of non-harming and blamelessness, we can touch into the joyful aspect of not being a small self. And recognize that we are more than the trembling ego who reacts with temper tantrums when we don’t get our way, or when we are not considered. The idea of the empty boat releases the other person from the weight of our judgment and frees us both. Practicing emptying our boat, we can begin to see that our desire not to harm is rooted in integrity and caring. This is the love that we hoard and ration out to those who are worthy—the select few who agree to our rules of conduct, don’t irritate us, or cause problems.

There is a phrase in Buddhism, The Bliss of Blamelessness. This is the joy that comes from following our precepts and mindfulness trainings. Living in accord with our highest and best desires, we can rejoice that we are living lives dedicated to caring for living beings, generosity, kind and wise speech, sexual responsibility, and compassionate consumption.

When we live with an empty boat, it doesn’t stay empty for long. It naturally fills with concern for the quality of our consciousness and care for others. Our vessel becomes greater as we jettison our righteousness, our pride, and blame. We make room for what comes next—the love that values the purity of our own hearts and our own peace above the need to be right. Once we experience the spacious happiness of non-fear and are free from the confines of condemning and punishing, our boat has no room for war.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

TNH_15_are_you_sure_ag_grande

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

References:

B. Watson, trans. (1964, 1999). Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

 

I am Happy For you–No, Really, I am.

New Harbor Sky

New Harbor Sky, Photo by Rick Errichetti

“Contentment is one of the key cornerstones of joy.”

~Christine Feldman

“How wonderful you are in your being.

 I delight that you are here.

I take joy in your good fortune.

May your happiness continue.”

~16th C. Singhalese blessing

“May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

may the clarity of light be yours,

may the fluency of the ocean be yours,

may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

wind work these words

of love around you,

an invisible cloak

to mind your life.”

~ John O’Donohue

 

Dear Friends,

Joy at the success and good fortune of others is an inconstant thing. It might be easy for us to be happy for a friend’s child who received the football scholarship when we have no school tuition to pay, but if I am struggling to send my children school and I don’t have a job that pays well while my relative buys a vacation home, feeling some joy at their good fortune is harder and sometimes unavailable.

This ability to feel joy at the success of others is a very old attribute. It is called mudita in Pali and comes through the Vedic tradition that preceded the Buddha. It is the third brahmavihara. The name evokes Brahma, the exalted god who contains only love. Vihara means abode or dwelling. The brahmaviharas are the best homes or highest dwelling places of the heart and mind. They are also called the immeasurable as the Buddha directed the monastics to boundlessly radiate these qualities to all beings without discrimination. The four qualities are part of our birthright; they are not foreign to us but may be occluded by the three poisons of coveting, ill will, and wrong understanding. We may need some reminders that these qualities are waiting and available for us to develop.

The first quality is metta (maître/Sanskrit) which is universal friendliness, the second is karuna, compassion which includes the ability to remove suffering, and the third, mudita, is joy at other’s good fortune, and lastly upekka, equanimity or solidity. The least understood and least popular of these virtues is the third, mudita.

Pema Chodron, an American nun in the Shambala tradition says that mudita is the hardest brahmavihara to practice. In the face of overwhelming success of her friends she candidly wishes they would not “shine so brightly.” Being in the shadow of someone else’s success can test our commitment to the quality of our consciousness. It’s hard to be happy for others who seem to have so much more when we don’t have our basic needs met. And even when we do have our needs met, when we hear about someone else getting something we would like, it stirs the fire of envy and jealousy.

There are a few ways to look at this, one is that when there is contraction of the heart and smallness at another’s happiness it is because we mistakenly believe that there is a finite amount of happiness and if someone else has it—that’s the happiness we won’t have. We take their success personally. I am unbothered by the success of others in areas I have no interest in. Folks can become marathon runners or archeologist who gain fame and recognition without arousing any envy in me, but when they do something that edges into my territory—their child gets into the school my child was rejected from or they get the job I applied for—the reaction is pain, not happiness because I believe that the thing out there is actually mine and the success rightfully belongs to me.

Buddhist scholar and translator Bhikkhu Bhodi writes “’ Envy arises because we identify things as ‘I,’ because we perpetually seek to establish a personal identity for ourselves internally and to project that identity outward for others to recognize and accept.’” The remedy for this type of egoic drive is the understanding of non-self, and in the case of jealousy and envy, it is difficult not to be a self–and an especially cranky one.

The Buddha tells us that when we notice our thought taking us to an unhappy place, we should stop thinking those thoughts. “If, as one pursues a certain type of idea cognizable by the intellect, unskillful mental qualities increase, and skillful mental qualities decline, that sort of idea cognizable by the intellect is not to be pursued.” (DN 21). But how do we actually do this not pursuing? How do we drop the notion that success, prosperity, and accolades should belong to me?

This negative emotion of ill will and craving is a signal. Jealousy is information that we have left our own experience and are comparing ourselves with someone else. Founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg said, “If you want to make life miserable for yourself, compare yourself to other people.” He gives the salient example of comparing your lifetime achievements to Mozart’s at age 12. We do not tend to rejoice for others when they are too fabulous or when we feel we are not enough.

There’s the Sanskrit word, Santoshta which means contentment. Thich Nhat Hanh translates this as “I have enough.” It is also the reminder that I am enough as I am. When we can dwell in the beauty of contentment with our own goodness and our gifts, we do not need to turn our eyes to the world for validation of our worth. We can begin by offering ourselves loving kindness in the form of metta, compassionate touch, or holding ourselves with empathy and understanding. I find the phrases, “May I know my worth,” and “May I delight in my goodness,” remind me what I do have instead of what I am lacking. When we can fill ourselves up with joy in our own lives, we are less likely to be swept away by jealousy and desire for what others have—no matter how good it looks from the outside.

Thich Nhat Hahn asks, “How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves?” The lack of joy for another can alert us that our own joy reserve is running low. A practice for creating more joy in our lives is simply to train ourselves to notice the good and to stop. Be fully present for a sunset, the scent of lilacs at night, a kind word or a smile from a friend. Wherever we find small joys we can train ourselves to pay attention to these everyday moments of happiness. We can actively note how our body feels when we experience joy and happiness, what our senses register. We can bathe in joy instead of dismissing it in search of new obstacles to our happiness. When we make time for joy, it accrues in our life. Noticing the good, we tune to the richness we have overlooked. Joy comes in small drops, filling us up with contentment that spills over and offers itself to others—even those who get what we did not.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Lion_s_Roar_You_Have_Enough_1_grande

Thich Nhat Hanh Calligraphy, Lion’s Roar. You Have Enough, Nov 2015

 

 

 

Life Is Always Teaching Us

crop, water tower

Woods and water tower, photo by Celia

“Joy is being willing for things to be as they are.”

~ Charlotte Joko Beck

“Mindfulness helps us go home to the here and now and get in touch with life. We have an appointment with life. That appointment takes place in the present moment. If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Life always gives us

exactly the teacher we need

at every moment.

This includes every mosquito,

every misfortune, every red light,

every traffic jam,

every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),

every illness, every loss,

every moment of joy or depression,

every addiction,

every piece of garbage,

every breath.

Every moment is the guru.”

~ Charlotte Joko Beck

 

Dear friends,

Have you noticed that identifying what we don’t like and arranging our lives to avoid that thing doesn’t really work? Our life is our teacher. Life is the best and the most unyielding teacher we possess. What I’ve noticed is wherever I am caught, whatever I am resisting and hoping to get a respite from—that’s the very thing that life is going to shower me with. There’s a self-selecting pattern that keeps whatever is too big or scary playing out in my life, like a theme song.

A meditation teacher explained to me years ago that whatever we take issue with, whether it is irritating people, ignorance, fighting, not being considered, greed—name your poison—life would keep presenting us with this situation until something shifts. That sounds rather mysterious and vague. To make it more real, we can use the example of wanting peace and harmony and finding ourselves in the company of those who enjoy fighting and loudly debating, or we want to be considered…and we are not invited to the decision-making conversations. As my teacher explained, when we give ourselves enough respect and consideration, we no longer put ourselves in the way of what is painful. We learn to protect our own consciousness. She explained that this was also an energetic transformation and others recognize who will put up with their shenanigans—and who won’t. The world doesn’t change—we do.

Recently, I’ve been wanting some solidity, some connection with community and to put down roots, but life is not affording me that opportunity and I am left wondering if I will be moving again soon. I recognize that life is purifying me, pulling the earth from beneath my feet so I can learn to trust my own ability to balance. Life is teaching me at each transition and when things stop rocking my world, it is a sign that I have learned something. When there are balance and equanimity in times that would have sent us running from the room—or running to the Ben and Jerry’s—those events no longer have power to throw us off kilter and we may find that their incidence declines or stops.

Personally, I find it a relief to know that there is a purpose to this tumult and agitation—one of purification. There is a saying in meditation circles, “what is in the way, is the way.” This requires looking at our reactivity and conditioning without running. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that if we are not available to the present moment, we miss our appointment with life. We don’t show up for the moments that are our teacher. Research shows us that not being present with what’s happening is not only commonplace, it actually causes more unhappiness than being present with what is.

Harvard University happiness researchers Matt Killingworth and Daniel Gilbert developed an I-phone app to sample real-time data relating to being present and happiness. They received over 650,000 reports from more than 15,000 adults aged 18-80 in over 80 countries evaluating their happiness. This data answered only three questions, “How are you feeling right now? What are you doing right now?” And, “Are you thinking of something other than what you’re currently doing?” Analyzing the results, the data showed mind wandering which ranged from a high of 65% during tooth brushing and showering to 50% at work, 40% while exercising and a low of 10% during sex. Researchers found that regardless of activity, the mind that wandered was “generally the cause, and not merely the consequence of unhappiness.” Regardless of the activity, the more the mind wandered, the lower the happiness level reported. This was true even in events like traffic jams and housework.

Matt Killingworth describes this correlation in his TED talk, “Yet even when people are thinking about something they describe as neutral, they’re still considerably less happy than when they’re not mind-wandering. In fact, even when they’re thinking about something they describe as pleasant, they’re still slightly less happy than when they aren’t mind-wandering at all.” Being with what is not only can create more happiness in us, it is the only way we can learn from our life.

Standing firmly present with compassionate mindfulness can give us the tools we need to make changes that matter. This week, I am inviting you to use the Zen teaching that asks us, “what in this moment is lacking?” It’s a real question, deserving an authentic, honest answer. Only when we are willing to know our fear, resistance, or hesitation in this moment, can we realize our solidity and accept the appointment with life. Only by being with what is can we learn what life is teaching us about our freedom.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Mindfulness is a source of happiness

 

 

Less Intoxicants Means Less Apologizing

Exit Buddha

Exit Buddha, Photo by Celia

“The bad things, don’t do them.

The good things, try to do them.

Try to purify, subdue your own mind.

That is the teaching of all buddhas.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power

“Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression.”

~Abhisanda Sutta: Rewards, AN 8.39

“Monks, these four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The one who practices for his own benefit but not for that of others. The one who practices for the benefit of others but not for his own. The one who practices neither for his own benefit nor for that of others. The one who practices for his own benefit and for that of others…He himself abstains from intoxicants that cause heedlessness and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from intoxicants that cause heedlessness. Such is the individual who practices for his own benefit and for that of others.”

~ Sikkha Sutta: Trainings, AN 4.99

 

Dear Friends,

Over 2,600 hundred years ago the Buddha gave a set of five practical instructions called the Five Precepts, or Five Mindfulness Trainings for lay people to help eliminate unnecessary suffering in their lives. For some time, I’ve been wanting to write about the fifth precept that calls on us to refrain from “intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” I’ve been hesitant to weigh in because it can sound like an ultimatum and distance people from the practice. But I would like to share my own experience with this training and what I’ve learned putting it into practice.

In the Plum Village tradition, we can formally receive the transmission of the updated  Five Mindfulness Trainings. Folks are free to make the commitment to practice one or all five of the trainings. The most common training to be left out is—no surprise—number five which states, “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” At first glance it does seem severe and Puritanical—I mean even if we don’t have a problem with intoxicants, with recreational drugs and alcohol, why would we stop using them if we are responsible adults and we are not harming anyone?

Early in my practice, I spoke with an older member of the sangha about his sobriety. He was never an abuser of alcohol or drugs, but he told me that he noticed his motivation to drink. When he used to drink, he gave himself permission for the ease and solitude that he wasn’t able to offer without a glass in his hand. Drinking was the signal that he wanted some rest. This led me to consider how I used alcohol. I had small children and was busy all day long. I looked forward to a glass of wine in the evening to relax and it seemed like a small gift I could give myself after a tiring day. What I noticed was that I was doing the same thing as my friend. My wine glass was a sign that I was done. This was mommy’s time—leave her alone and go to bed. Alcohol created distance between me and my children. Alcohol was what I gave myself instead of time to rest and the permission to stop and take care of myself. A glass of wine meant that I didn’t have to look into my exhaustion, my tiredness, my wanting to have some tranquility. Alcohol meant that I could do it all again the next day the same way and not have to recognize that I was withholding kindness, rest, and peace from myself. Drinking was a way to ignore my body and mind and abdicate responsibility for caring for myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the word, “Interbeing” to describe how we are not separate small selves, but that we are part of a vast interconnected field of cause and effect. He reminds us that we belong to each other and our behavior affects each other. “In modern life, people think that their body belongs to them and they can do anything they want to it. When they make such a determination, the law supports them. This is one of the manifestations of individualism. But, according to the teachings of emptiness, non-self, and interbeing, your body is not yours alone. It also belongs to your ancestors, your parents, future generations, and all other living beings.” As a parent and someone who has seen close up the devastation of addiction, I consider my abstinence as a way to actively demonstrate my care and concern, not just for my own children, but for all of my species.

We live in a society where according to a 2012 Columbia University study, “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.” This is a greater number of folks than those with heart disease, diabetes or cancer combined. 80 Million more Americans are designated as “risky substance users,” and while not meeting the clinical definition of addiction, they overuse, binge and generally “use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten public health and safety.” That brings the total of those who are highly involved with drugs and alcohol in the United States to 120 million. The U.S. Census Bureau recorded the population as 328,977, 514 on June 1st, 2019, which means that well over a third of our country is struggling with addictive behavior.

When we follow these trainings, they are a source of protection, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us. “When we practice not drinking alcohol, we protect ourselves, and we also protect our family and our society. A woman in London told me, ‘I have been drinking two glasses of wine every week for the last twenty years, and it has done me no harm at all. Why should I give it up?’ I said, ‘It’s true that two glasses of wine do not harm you. But are you sure they do not harm your children? You may not have the seed of alcoholism in you, but who knows whether the seed of alcoholism is in your children. If you give up wine, you’ll be doing it not only for yourself but also for your children and for your society.”’ When we model a behavior, we may give someone the strength to stop using. And when we don’t have the first drink, we won’t get to the fourth.

I never formally planned to stop drinking and never said, “this will be my last drink.” I am extremely fortunate that I did not have the added burden of addiction linked to my decision to stop drinking. As I committed to mindfulness, one of the most difficult times was in the company of friends who drank and used alcohol to allow themselves to do what they were longing to…either relaxing, giving permission to have fun, to celebrate and feel connection, or as an opportunity to express what was really bothering them. I used to wait for some bits of wisdom and insight from those who were drinking and each time I would be surprised when they got cloudy and lost any mental acuity. They fit the Buddha’s description of the brahmins and contemplatives who took intoxicants, “Because of these obscurations some brahmans & contemplatives don’t glow, don’t shine, are impure, dusty, dead” (AN 4.50. Upakkilesa Sutta: Obscurations). I needed to be a witness to understand that loosening control leads to the opposite of creativity and clarity and the opposite of mindfulness.

I do know that my ability to be mindful of my feelings and emotions and care for them without using substances has been a great gift to my family. I’ve recognized that sobriety has been immensely supportive for maintain right speech and using words that promote communication and understanding. And for the last 14 years, my kids have witnessed a reasonably happy person, capable of relaxing and caring for myself and others without the use of alcohol and drugs.

Applying our own compassionate mindfulness to our habits enables us to see what we are doing…and most importantly, what is calling out for my care? What do I really want in this moment and more importantly, how am I caring for my consciousness with this action? Can I meet myself honestly in this moment and be enough just as I am? Thich Nhat Hanh recommends if we want to stop a behavior, don’t just stop. Keep doing it—but with awareness. Know when you are smoking. Know when you are drinking…and do it mindfully. If we accept that the whole of our life is our practice, there is no area that is exempt from our awareness and care.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The way out is the way in

 

 

Nothing is Exempt From Impermanence

Forest in the window

Forest. Photo by Celia

“Whatever IS will be WAS.”

~ Bhikkhu Ñanamoli

“It would be better, bhikkhus, if an uninstructed ordinary person regarded this body, made of the four great elements, as himself rather than the mind. For what reason? This body is seen to continue for a year, for two years, five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years, and even more. But of that which is called mind, is called thought, is called consciousness, one moment arises and ceases as another continually both day and night.”

~ SN 12.61

“Transient are all compounded things,

Subject to arise and vanish;

Having come into existence they pass away;

Good is the peace when they forever cease.”  ~DN 15, chapter 6, verse 14

 

Dear Friends,

Happy Memorial Day. For most of us, we enjoy a day off, cookouts and family and friends, but this is a day to celebrate those who gave their lives in military service. Part of our path of practice is to find an end to the reactivity and ignorance that creates the conditions for war—and we begin by becoming mindful citizens capable of creating mindful governments. We know that governments and civilizations are born, continue, change, and fall and just like all composite things they are subject to the truth of anicca [impermanence].

The idea of impermanence is one that we would rather not look at too hard, because it means that not only me but everyone I see and all my relationships have a beginning, a middle and an end—and there is no advisory that details what stage of existence is happening now.

Buddhism is an experiential path. While we intellectually understand concepts and agree with them, in our practice we are asked to do more than that. The Buddha wanted us to integrate these truths into our beings and every cell of our bodies, so we are unsurprised by what is surprising. When we touch anicca and understand it on an experiential level, it becomes the reality we see in all moments—and because all moments are impermanent this also means that change is possible in each moment.

Speaking for my species—we don’t find impermanence comforting or comfortable. We want some firm ground—the people who “never change” and experiences we can consistently rely on. We crave stability and belonging and safety—and we get these vulnerable fleshy bodies that disappoint us, need constant maintenance and protection and at some point, stop working altogether and become an expensive item to dispose of. Indeed, skin cells only last three days and the liver completely regenerates in about a year. Change is a hard thing to depend upon because there is nothing that is exempt.

At the end of his life, the last words of the Buddha are recorded as, “Behold now, bhikkhus, I exhort you: All compounded things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!” (DN 15, chapter 6, v 8). The result of living with conditioned things is that because all things come together, then break apart; we can’t find lasting happiness in them or with them. This is dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness and wanting things to be other than they are.

We believe we are a solid self—an ever-evolving being, separate and distinct who lives independently, but if we ask our cells to confirm this truth—the cells just laugh at the notion of remaining one thing for a lifetime. They know that they come and go. They can become cancer cells or a tree in the next go-round. They understand this truth much more gracefully than I do.

baby fern

Psychiatrist and meditation teacher Mark Epstein wrote about the understanding of anicca that permeated the life of the Venerable Thai Forest monk, Achaan Chaa. ‘“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”’ (pp. 80-81). This is the earned understanding that leads to delight in what we have now and to calm in the face of change because Achaan Chaa understood that impermanence makes no exceptions.

This week, impermanence smacked me upside the head and reminded me of how this teaching weaves through every interaction and relationship in life. Earlier this year, I inherited a former barn cat with brown/black fur and a Siamese profile. Forest proved to be alternately hilarious and annoying with her attempts to climb all vertical surface in the house and by biting the toes of anyone wearing socks. Just out of kittenhood, she was fearless. She hissed at the dogs and taunted the cat-in-residence. For such a big personality she had a tiny meow and slept beneath the covers.

Friday we couldn’t find her at bedtime. We walked outdoors, called and called. I checked the old stable, the attic, my car—no Forest.

I’ve seen a muscular bobcat on the driveway and a well-kept fox walks through the yard each morning making the dogs howl. We have bear and coyotes in the area. There’s a busy road just beyond the woods and I hoped if she did end up on it—it was over fast.

I was up at 5:30 looking for her slim, black form at the door, but nope. I called her name in the woods where I last remembered seeing her. My neighbors probably wondered why I was yelling Forest in an actual forest, but there was no tiny meow or response to all my searching. I was surprised at the sadness I felt. A mourning and loss—she was so young. And the dukkha arose: could I have kept her inside? Could I have taken her indoors earlier that evening? She was too young, not even a year—and this sadness, this mourning and wanting things to be otherwise was painful. And there was a part of me that said—of course—this is the teaching. Her life as abbreviated at it is, is what she got. As I reminded myself about the teaching of impermanence and dukkha and how this is the perfect example, I felt snagged. I had forgotten that even young beings are subject to this law.

Turkey vultures were circling in the yard and I hoped it wasn’t Forest…and it wasn’t. I found her shut up in my closet, oddly subdued and quiet. And I am delighted and more aware that the cup can break at any moment, whether I am ready—or not.

Comprehending impermanence comes through breaking the bonds of convention and going to the place that knows, the cellular level that understands this constant flickering life beyond an intellectual understanding. The Buddha knew the freedom that comes from dispensing with life expectancies and expiration dates and being unsurprised by loss and change. We all have lost people, have mourned, and we all have more to lose. No political party, no nation, no body, organization, civilization, and species are immune from impermanence. Hearing this, the cells laugh because they do know. It’s the me who is typing this who has a hard time keeping this reality from getting too solid and thinking it will go on forever.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The miracle is to be alive

Reference

Marl Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1995) pp, 80-81.

 

 

Finding Love in the Laundry

Orange Moon

Orange Moon, Photo by Celia

“No one is more worthy of your kindness and compassion than you are.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness,

however small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop

“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama

 

Dear Friends,

It is really spring here in CT. Schools are ending; people are getting things done; everywhere there is evidence of change and movement. Spring does not feel restful. In fact, it feels like a big to-do list. The lawn which has recently begun to grow is made up of plantain leaves and patches of thatch. There are invasive plants encroaching on the driveway and a myriad array of windows to find screens for in my 134-year-old house. A pipe sprung a leak and there’s no water, but the basement always has water. Doctor’s appointments, Lyme’s disease—graduations, summer plans, workshops to schedule, it’s all happening now. The dog has arthritis, argh. I want order, ritual, and not more than three events that require my attention per day.

And yet amid all of this quicksand of a schedule, which is my life, there’s the reminder that this is all temporary. Finding the quiet in the midst of the chaos can only happen when the struggle ceases and we release the desire to have things another way. When we give ourselves over to what is unfolding, as unwelcome and hectic as it, only then can we find the space in ourselves to rest while life tumbles and twists around us. Coming back to remembering that even what seems so massive and important has a beginning, a middle and an end, and this too will change.

Last week in Sangha we spoke about doing things mindfully—one action at a time. I was reminded of a poem I wrote years ago about the practice of Laundry Metta. This is a way to bring the first Brahmavihara [Loving Kindness] into our daily lives and connect with those we often overlook. This poem tells us about the power to create community and engage in the world, even when we feel isolated and too busy to make a grand gesture of kindness and compassion. When we wholeheartedly engage in our lives–yes even folding our laundry, we can nurture the loving kindness in ourselves. Please give this laundry folding practice a try, even if it’s just for a few items. I guarantee you will never look at your laundry the same way.

abstract cloth colors cotton

Photo by Digital Buggu on Pexels.com

Small Works

There is so much helping that needs doing. And always the wonder and the worry—how do I begin to do the extraordinary

And heal the world when I have this pile of laundry keeping me from sainthood, from fulfilling my big destiny? I must start in this ordinary life with its teeth to brush and moldy lentils to toss out.

So I begin the work of my life.

I lift my son’s small green shirt into my hands.

Made in Bangladesh the label says.

I close my eyes and see hands darker than mine cutting green cloth, hands setting down the foot-press of the sewing machine. May you be paid fairly for your work.  May you have clean water for you and your family, I say as my hands fold the same fabric.

A gray sweatshirt lies in my lap. Made in Cambodia. I watch hands smoothing the thick material on a table, tracing the pattern.  May you not have to choose between food and medicine.  May your life be easy.

There’s a tee-shirt from China.

May you be free to speak the truth.  May you live without fear.

I add the folded tee-shirt to my pile.

My daughter’s camisole comes from Vietnam. I think of tired hands holding the edging and carefully stitching the lace.  May your children be safe and healthy.  May you rest when you need to.

I lift a towel, Made in the USA.

There were hands paler than mine folding this white cloth.  May you not be lonely.  May you have someone to love you. 

My laundry is folded as my prayers travel around the world offering my small service.

Each day, I wear the labor of unknown hands. The work of tired eyelashes and the longings for ease and beauty. This clothing, birthed amidst the blistering buzz of sewing machine armies, traveled through your life.

Sat on your cutting table and flew over your needle plate with the rat-tat-tat of a rifle fast stitch.

For you, who dresses this body each day,

I weave for you, this garment made of kindness wished and folded socks.

Pressed between the moments of tiredness and fluorescent lights, I send a whisper of care to touch your skin and tell you, I know you are there.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

leaf calligraphy

 

 

 

The Making of a Mother

Ricky on retreat

The Buddha and friend. Photo by Celia

“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

“Those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct & good mental conduct have themselves protected. Even though neither a squadron of elephant troops, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, nor a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they have themselves protected. Why is that? Because that’s an internal protection, not an external one. Therefore, they have themselves protected.” ~SN 3.5

“Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned.” ~MN 62

Dear Friends,

It’s Mother’s Day in the U.S. and it is also the time of year to celebrate Vesak, the birth of the Buddha. The qualities of a mother in the Buddhist tradition incorporate protection, compassion, and love. For some of us, we may have been blessed with loving nurturing mothers and caregivers we felt safe with. For others, this is far from our experience. Today, if you have a loving mother to celebrate, you are a fortunate being! If you have a complicated relationship, perhaps there is some mourning for the childhood you wanted but did not have. When the mourning is enough, we can move on to looking deeply into the causes and conditions that created our mother and her relationships. When we have understanding, it is the first building block of love.

The wonderful qualities we long for in our caregivers are not dispensed on the day a child is born; they are created from lifetimes of intergenerational transference. The Buddha taught that all things arise because of the interconnected web of causes and conditions. This is described as Dependent Origination. The Buddha is quoted as saying, “With the arising of this, that arises. When this is not, neither is that. With the cessation of this, that ceases” (S.II.28,65). Insight meditation teacher Christina Feldman speaks about “paṭicca-samuppāda,” (Pali) as the understanding “that there is nothing separate, nothing standing alone. Everything effects everything else. We are part of this system. We are part of this process of dependent origination—causal relationships effected by everything that happens around us and, in turn, effecting the kind of world that we all live in in­wardly and outwardly.” This system is described by Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in the word Interbeing.

We can see Interbeing in all of us.  We can see the results of genetics, of our upbringing and how our lives have marked us. Not one of us can create ourselves or our environment. Like it or not, we are continuously influenced and influencing our environment and relationships.

Tulip Tree Flower

A mother is not a static, constant identity. Being a mother is a process made of conditions. For a mother to be loving, there needs to be the experience of being loved and understanding what love means to oneself and to another. Loving someone else also requires that we do not put our experience on the other person, who may have a very different understanding of love than we do. This is the Buddhist teaching on the equality complex or conceit. Perhaps we have had an experience of loving someone who is very different from ourselves. The quality of Metta, loving-kindness, does not insist that someone accept love as we would like it to be. Some people connect love with gifts, with touch, with words, food, or compliments but true love is formless; it transmits through presence and intention. True love transcends simple form.

Another aspect of motherhood is patience. Patience is much more accessible for one who understands the teaching of impermanence (Anicca) and that what seems so solid and important will change and adapt. If we longed for more patience from our caretakers, what conditions would have supported that–enough sleep, enough money? Is it possible to trace the lack of patience as a continuation of ancestral conditioning and to see how it shows up in our daily life? If we were lucky enough to have been given the gift of patience, how did it develop in our caretakers? How do we offer this gift to others in our lives?

The foundation of compassion is said to occur when loving kindness encounters suffering and the natural desire and ability arises to remove the suffering from our beloved. To do this, one must have presence and calm enough to be near the suffering of another without fear or aversion. One must possess equanimity. Compassion also requires the knowledge of how to relieve suffering and the competence to do so. True compassion requires bravery. For a parent working 60 hours a week and uncertain they can pay the mortgage, how likely is it that this sort of calm presence is available?

In the Discourse on Love is exhorts the Buddha’s followers to protect their own willingness to love all beings just as a “mother protects with her life Her child, her only child. So, with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings” (Sn 1.8). To protect another one needs confidence, clarity, and a firm resolve in the goodness of their actions. We protect that which we value and especially those who are unable to protect themselves. The conditions that instill protection come from the recognition of what is wholesome linked with the wisdom to use one’s energy and power for the good. Parents who have known protection and care in their lives are much better equipped to protect their children without violence and aggression. Understanding an adult’s responsibility and power are also part of creating safety for vulnerable children. Protection creates a safe home where trust and ease can grow. The guidelines of sila [virtue] offer these protections for ourselves and for our children to ensure we all can live with integrity and safety.

When we see our upbringing in a wider lens that connects us to the past and the future, we can understand the conditions that have contributed to creating our mothers and ourselves. When we can look with understanding and see how the law of cause and effect has shaped our lives, we can learn to give gratitude for the kindness we have known and forgiveness for what we may have received but didn’t want.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Look

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Calm Horse and the Racehorse

Calm water

Calm water, Photo by Celia

“Calm is his thought, calm his speech, and calm his deed, who, truly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly tranquil and wise.”

 ~Dhammapada 70, Arahantavagga: The Arahant or Perfected One

“They do not grieve over the past,

Nor do they yearn for the future;

They live only in the present

— That is why their face is so calm.”

 ~SN 1.10, Arañña Sutta: A Face So Calm

“Like a deep lake,

clear, unruffled, & calm:

so the wise become clear, calm,

on hearing words of the Dhamma.”

~Dhammapada 82, Panditavagga: The Wise

Dear Friends,

I hear there was added excitement during this year’s Kentucky Derby. I didn’t see the race. In fact, I’ve only seen one. Five years ago, I was invited to a viewing party and I remember two things about that gathering. The first was that I wore a hat. The second memory has greater significance and has remained with me. That day, I watched one of the racehorses being led toward the starting gate. I saw another horse, clearly not a racehorse walk next to the racer. They seemed to have a connection and a comradery between them. “What are they doing?”  I asked someone who knew about these things. “That’s the calm horse.” She told me. “The racehorse is all wired and knows he’s got to run. They’d never get him into the gate without the calm horse.”  I had to take that in. The transference of calm presence is felt between animals. I know I’ve experienced in my own life. More and more as I deepen my commitment to practice, I am the calm horse.

I don’t know much about racehorses and their lives, but from where I stand, the life of an animal that is bred and conditioned solely to run fast and to win it seems like an unwholesome way to live. It’s easy to see the parallel between an animal that is rewarded for what it can do, is valued for performance with our societal values. The calm horse is not rewarded for doing, but rather, for being. It is the ability to transfer presence and ease, that is valued in this other horse. The path of practice and the commitment to presence and compassion is a way to create calm horses out of racehorses.

A few years ago, I had surgery. A kind nurse walked me into the operating room. As I entered the bright room, I felt the cold air and saw the eyes of the doctors and support people looking at me expectantly above their masks. Every cell in my body wanted to bolt while the nurse spoke to me gently, telling me where to go and what was going to happen. I was clearly the racehorse at that moment and was so grateful for another’s calm presence.

I invite you to reflect on the times that you’ve been the racehorse and encountered a calm presence—and the times when you’ve been that calming presence for others. This ability to stay calm and centered in the face of other’s pain comes from the work of being present and transforming our own anxiety, fear, and distress. Calm presence is not just a nice way to be, it is a way to diffuse violence and aggression. We know that reactivity can provoke more reactivity. Responding to provocation with hatred, greed, or ignorance are ways to keep the cycle of war and suffering alive. We are called upon to transform our reactivity through our willingness to sit with what is arising and recognize our own impatience, disappointment, and hurt, that fuels our own reactivity.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that our willingness to do the difficult work of transformation is not only for ourselves. It is a communal responsibility. “Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.” The more we are able to meet ourselves where we are without running, the greater ability we have to give this gift of non-fear to others.

fish

In Dharma talks and in his books, Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of the Vietnamese refugees who escaped after the fall of Saigon. Just as today, there were many deaths from too many people escaping violence and death in unsafe boats. Thich Nhat Hanh observes that in extreme stress “if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.” When others are in distress, anxious, or touching their suffering, our ability to be calm and unafraid of emotions is itself a gift.

This week you may like to notice the dynamic transference of calm that is going on around you and in you. We all have experienced being “whipped up,” by other’s agitation, can we remember and embody the felt experience of calm we have received? Perhaps we access calm through meditation, breath awareness, slow walking, chanting, or the awareness of ourselves as the whole, loving person that is our true self. Whatever way we have experienced calm in our lives, how do we bring it to the world? How does calm live in our daily life? Does it vanish when we are triggered by someone with different views, or in pain? Who are the people we receive calm from? I know in my life; I deeply enjoy being around those who infuse their lives with calm. Their calm nourishes mine. My wish for us all is that each day, we can nourish the calm in one other person. We can become the calm horse for all the racehorses in our lives.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Interbeing