Sangha and the Power of Change

FullSizeRender

Sangha Members marching for climate protection

“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” ~Dorothy Day

“What do most people say on their deathbed? They don’t say, ‘I wish I’d made more money.’ What they say is, ‘I wish I’d spent more time with my family and done more for society or my community.’” ~David Rubenstein

“We say, ‘I take refuge in sangha,’ but sangha is made of individual practitioners. So you have to take care of yourself. Otherwise you don’t have much to contribute to the community because you do not have enough calm, peace, solidity, and freedom in your heart. That is why in order to build a community, you have to build yourself at the same time. The community is in you and you are in the community. You interpenetrate each other. That is why I emphasize sangha-building. That doesn’t mean that you neglect your own practice. It is by taking good care of your breath, of your body, of your feelings, that you can build a good community.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Dear friends,

I just returned from the People’s Climate March in Washington D. C. I rode on the bus, round trip from New York City to Washington with One Earth Sangha.

The founder, the Venerable Bhikkhu Bhodi, gave a talk as we rode to D.C. He repeated the Reverend Martin Luther King’s words, invoking “The fierce urgency of now.” He spoke passionately about what is at stake if we who live in industrialized nations continue to consume resources at our current rate: the loss of lives, new strains of pathogens and epidemics that spring from the alteration in climate, food shortages, geographically specific trauma for the poorest and most vulnerable populations, political instability, and the rise of tyranny that threatens society. He encouraged us as practitioners to act both personally and communally to dispel the combination of greed and delusion that surrounds the world’s response to this threat.

 

Personally, we can practice purifying our minds to promote contentment and simplicity. We are taught that the key to happiness is through consumption. Experience proves this wrong, but we may be unwilling to let go of our ideas of success and status regarding what we own, drive, and where we vacation. If we devote our lives to work and money there is little time for relationships, family and developing communication with nature. Paying attention to how satisfying our cravings impact the world’s well being is part of cultivating a heart of compassion. We can develop wisdom to understand the long-term consequences of our actions. We can increase the capacity of our heart and look at the suffering of those around the world in Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Yemen, Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands who are already suffering from drought, floods, food shortages and epidemics related to climate. We can reduce our meat consumption and shift towards a plant based diet. Even one meat free day a week helps reduce our carbon footprint. We can grow vegetables or buy from small producers. Currently, conventional agriculture uses petroleum based soil inputs, this combined with the use of machinery and transportation accounts for 32% of the nation’s carbon emissions.

 

In our outreach, we can support political candidates who value the earth and believe climate change is real. We can sign online petitions, write letters to our representatives and let them know we vote with attention to climate protection. We can put our money where our heart is and move investments from fossil fuel to clean energy alternatives. We can lobby congress for a carbon tax on polluters and to end the 37.5 billion dollars of annual subsidy the U.S. government pays to fossil fuel companies. We can become activist and take direct action to block climate destroying projects, like mega-pipelines, Dakota Access and the Keystone XL. Bhikkhu Bhodi ended his talk by urging us all to become involved with a larger climate change action groups, such as 350.org or the Sierra Club.

 

What is clear to me as I listened to these powerful words and walked in solidarity with other Buddhists and climate protectors, was that we need sangha to help us act in both small ways and large. The sangha made my being at the march possible. Traveling with my sangha siblings, the journey became peaceful and the anxiety of logistics and schedules melted away. We enjoyed our steps and our peaceful presence. We took comfort in the fact that there are so many people working with “fierce urgency.”  The sangha gives us inspiration; it nourishes our commitment to do what is often difficult and unpleasant. Taking a stand against injustice can feel frightening, or hopeless, especially when we act alone, but in the company of sangha we are supported and support each other. Knowing that we have friends who understand that every action we do contains compassion and peace, gives us solidity to continue our daily practice of caring for the earth. The Buddha urged his followers to keep the company of the wise ones. Nourished by the sangha, we have the energy to act in our own lives. Bringing our presence and voice to the sangha we support each other and create a change that moves beyond our small worlds into shifting the global veil of greed and delusion that threaten all sentient life on the earth, our only home.

With gratitude for sharing our planet,

Celia

go_as_a_river-A-150x150

Take Care of Your Mother

Magnolia bud

Magnolia bud with cap

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” ~Pablo Neruda

“The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.” ~Rumi

“I think that no matter how old or infirm I may become, I will always plant a large garden in the spring. Who can resist the feelings of hope and joy that one gets from participating in nature’s rebirth?” ~Edward Giobbi

“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

Dear Friends,

Happy Easter! Happy Passover! Happy Solstice! Spring is here. The new begins again. We see the evidence of growth and the energy of life all around. The spring reminds us that there is growth and change even when the world looks like winter, all frozen and solid. Not everything is what it seems on the surface. In Buddhism, there is an idea called signlessness or animitta (Sanskrit) or animitto (Pali). This is the freedom from being caught by signs and outward appearance. We recognize signlessness when the lakes are frozen solid, but we know when conditions are different, the ice will become water, mist, or vapor. We are not caught in a fixed and permanent idea of ice remaining permanently ice. The same is true for all appearances. Nothing that is created stays in one form. Babies are born, grow, age, become senior citizens and ultimately die. The material body transmutes back into Earth elements, water and gas. There is nothing inherently human about our forms.

Thich Naht Hanh writes, “Until we can break through the signs, we cannot touch reality. As long as we are caught by signs round, square, solid, liquid, gas—we will suffer…. When we free ourselves from signs we enter the heart of reality.” This freedom involves looking in to the nature of things. All things are made of other things. Thay tells us:

We get caught in the sign of “self,” because we think there are things that are not self. But when we look deeply, we see that there is no separate independent self, and we become free from the sign of self…. We separate humans from animals, trees and rocks, and feel that the non-humans, the fish, the cows, the vegetation, the earth, the air, the seas—are all there for our exploitation. Other species also hunt for food, but not in such an exploitative way. When we look deeply at our own species, we can see the non-human elements in it, and when we look deeply at the animal, vegetal, and mineral realms, we see the human element in them…When we pollute the so-called non-living species, like the air or the rivers, we pollute living beings as well. If we look deeply into the  interbeing of living and non-living beings, we will stop acting this way. (1998, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings)

Training to see past the conventional separation of things, into their coming, going and interdependence is essential to the understanding of signlessness. This ability to perceive the world as changing and fluid is at the core of the desire to care for the earth. This realization is an awakening to how interconnected and dependent we are on the planet. Indeed, the earth appears to be a separate element from the human, but with a little examination we can see that we are inextricably intertwined. The sign of the earth is replaced by the softening and expansion of the idea of self. We see the boundaries and edges of the small self dissolve and include the environment and all life on earth. Conversely, the entire universe is making the life of this self, down to the smallest single celled animal possible, providing food, atmosphere, and light.

The Buddha directed his followers to use stillness and meditative concentration to come to the awareness of the “signless concentration of the heart.” Dwelling in this place we touch “suchness,” the truth of things. When we peek into this still place, we see that our lives and the lives of all beings are interconnected in a matrix of energy. In this spirit, we can honor ourselves and the planet this spring, observing that the future of the earth and all living beings is in each one of our hands. That we are made only of the elements from the earth, sky and air, we contain all and it contains us. The earth needs us and we cannot survive without her. The spring tells us to stop in the sunshine, to rest and feel the relaxation that permeates our bodies. This is our heritage and the gift of spring. Let us remember to give the gift back, to honor and cherish the earth.

With three breaths,

Celia

I am in love with Mother Earth

Daffodil head 2

All Clear

Crane-Hand-Signals-Label-CRANE-400_1000

“I have noticed that people are dealing too much with the negative, with what is wrong. … Why not try the other way, to look into the patient and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Inner peace is the key: if you have inner peace, the external problems do not affect your deep sense of peace and tranquility…without this inner peace, no matter how comfortable your life is materially, you may still be worried, disturbed, or unhappy because of circumstances.” ~Dalai Lama

 

Dear Friends,

Who gives us permission to feel safe? Is it the news media who declares peace and tranquility, survey results, or the Gross National Product?  What happens in our bodies and minds when we feel safe? I have been thinking about the idea of being safe and trusting since reading a teaching by Jack Kornfield where he writes, “May I trust this world.” This sentence totally stopped me.  What does he mean, to “trust this world?” My first response was it’s not safe to trust this world. I will be unprepared, a little fish going over a precipice, or end up as lunch for a sharp-eyed heron. “No,” I told myself, “you can’t feel safe. It is too dangerous a world. You will let your guard down, start giving your passwords to strangers and send money to that African Price who emailed you. No, don’t do it!”  

In a 2016 New York Times article titled,  We’re Seeing a Trend Toward Less Violence in the World, author, Emma Ashford writes, “For an American, the odds of dying in a terrorist attack is an astronomically unlikely one in 45 million.” But, that’s not what it feels like. Our felt sense of safety or threat is largely built upon our perceptions. Unless we are living in a conflict zone, we often find ourselves responding to threats that are largely due to our thinking, not the reality of the situation. So, what is the resistance to feeling safe and trusting? There is the notion that if I give myself permission to feel safe, I will lose my vigilance and become prey. Keeping this body and life conditions safe is the primary job of our subcortical brain. Unlike the later evolved prefrontal cortex that uses rational thought and can be compassionate, delay gratification and reward, the more primitive limbic responses react swiftly with cascades of neurochemicals to protect our bodies. The sympathetic nervous system response is so vigilant that we do not realize that this transformation is occurring, according to Harvard health:

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

This system is a masterpiece of integrated organization and terrific at keeping us alive.  With all this automated gear in place, why would it be scary to trust the world? What is the benefit of keeping up this extra mental protection? I sat with this question and experimented with the feeling of safety. What happens when I feel safe? What shifts in my mind?

The first change is in muscle tension. The muscles soften and there is a feeling of softening and gravity. There is more feeling of presence and spaciousness. Instead of a protective, guarded posture, the spine straightens, and the head lifts. The face muscles smooth and maybe a smile dares to bloom. The interior changes include a slowing down, a solidity, and internal stillness. There is less reactivity and less mental tension. I notice that even though nothing in my exterior world is different, I am different. Trust in the world is also a trust in myself, a confidence that I am able to meet whatever situation arises. In this state of trust, or safety, there is less nervous energy and a greater ability to think clearly.

There is a practice that was prescribed to me when I felt apprehension before traveling to India alone: imagine that all other beings are enlightened and they are all our teachers. Whatever they bring to us, that is the lesson we need to learn. With this in mind, all the world and all beings become our liberators. As Dharma teacher, Joanne Friday says, the Universe keeps sending us the lesson, until we learn it. If I look at the Universe as a teacher, then I can trust in the vastness of its wisdom and compassion.

When I practice with trust and safety, I give myself permission to experience those feelings. The phrase, “May I trust this world,” sounds to my ear, like something far away in the future–when I win the lottery or become enlightened. But if I tell myself, “It’s Okay to feel safe. It’s Okay to trust the world,” that slight difference gives me permission and the power to enact that in this moment. That is the practice I am using daily and it is making a difference—especially when I drive! I remember that safety and trust do not mean I am powerless and dependent. Trusting this world means that I am trusting myself.

All clear sign

May we all find our own path to inner peace,

Celia

Be beautiful be yourself

What’s Yours is Yours

March snow at Tranquility Farm

The last of March snow at Tranquility Farm

“The fact is that when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more. The result is an escalation of suffering on both sides.”~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

 

“When you say something really unkind, when you do something in retaliation your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or to do something back to get relief from his suffering. That is how conflict escalates.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

 

 “In true love, there is no pride.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

 

Dear Friends,

One of the hardest things for me to do is refrain from responding when I perceive I am being insulted. There is an overwhelming desire to convert the mind of someone who thinks ill of me and let them know they are mistaken. I am not who they think I am. That person is selfish and nothing like me. You’ve got it all wrong. I know many people have a difficult time when they feel insulted by others, especially from a mistaken perception.

I recently read the Akkossa Sutta, also known as, The Insult. The sutta recounts a discourse between the angry Brahman, Akossa, and the Buddha. Hearing that a fellow clansman had renounced his possessions and become a follower of the Buddha, Akossa seeks out the Buddha and delivers a verbal dressing down, complete with cursing and abuse. This in itself was surprising to me. I had imagined that the Buddha’s magnificent calm, which protected him from a raging elephant and a murderer, would disarm the hostility in any person before they could utter an angry or disparaging word. But no, an angry person is apparently harder to subdue than an elephant. Hearing the insults, the Buddha does not respond by defending, empathizing, or explaining, instead he begins to teach. 

The Buddha asks Akossa when acting as a host, if your guests do not eat the food you offer, who does it belong to? Akossa answers that the food remains the possession of the host, not the guest. The Buddha uses this visual metaphor to underscore his next statement, “That with which you have insulted me…that with which you have berated me: that I do not accept from you. It is all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.” The Buddha’s example shows the ownership of abuse. If one does not meet anger with anger, but remains aware that there is a choice, the insulting words remain the possession of the one who spoke them. This is an enlightened way of saying, “I am rubber you are glue.” When we do not accept the validity of the negative words offered, there is no need to defend ourselves.

The Buddha goes on to say:

You make things worse when you flare up at someone who’s angry. Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win. You live for the good of both—your own, the other’s—when, knowing the other’s provoked you mindfully grow calm.

These words were so wise, they calmed the angry Brahmin and he renounced his worldly life and became a monk on the spot.

My initial reaction was Wow! The wow is from what the Buddha calls, winning “the battle hard to win. It is hard to not respond when we are provoked and not accept the negative criticism offered by an angry person. This involves renouncing the habit of being offended.

What we are invited to reject is abuse and angry tirades that have nothing to do with us. We do not need to take them personally. It sounds delightful to be free from others’ anger and judgement, but why is it so hard to not grasp onto the harsh words, even when we know they don’t reflect truth? One reason is our innate biological protective nature calls us to respond, to protect our bodies and our territory. When someone’s words contradict the self-image I want to project and that I am attached to, it can be intolerable. My conditioned reactivity is powerful and following the Buddha’s example requires practice.

The Buddha shows us the fruit of “mindfully grow calm” in the face of an attack. This calm is not just for our own benefit, but for the “good of both.” If we do not engage and pick up the other side of an argument, there is no argument. As in so many examples, when we care for ourselves and our consciousness, we care and protect the other. Non reactivity is a path to caring for ourselves. This involves awareness of the body’s responses, caring for our thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, so when the heat is on and there is the energy of anger present we can choose to come back to ourselves, to our breath and stability instead of lashing out. This is the way of creating peace through our cultivated mindfulness. Developing our equanimity and strengthening our resolve to care deeply for our consciousness and for the welfare of others is the path of peace.

With three breaths,

 

Celia