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

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Training the Grateful Heart

Isley, sunset

Isley, Scotland, Sunset. photo by Barbara Richardson

 

“It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.”

~ Germany Kent

Waking up this morning I smile

knowing there are 24 brand new hours before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment,

and look at beings with eyes of compassion.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, Morning Gatha

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”

~ Meister Eckhart

Years ago, I was relieved to read that humans have a biological inclination towards pessimism. That meant I wasn’t the only one. The perpetually cheerful people I knew were like a different species, not of my tribe. How did they wake up smiling each day and just be so dang cheerful all the time? Why couldn’t they take a vacation from enthusiasm and be depressed and negative for a few days? Not everything is so great. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to put a pin in their bubble of happiness because it was so annoying.

I have learned much about gratitude and happiness. For most of us, it isn’t a natural trait. It’s a state we work to create. That’s right, we work on gratitude. Cultivate is another way to say we train, we prepare, we pay attention to, we expend effort to bring gratitude into our lives. For most of us, due to our heritage, our conditioning, our exposure to the media, and the innate propensity to track what can harm us, we focus on what’s wrong.

When we watch elite athletes, artists, or musicians, we get the idea that they are gifted. They came out of the womb super talented. What we don’t always see is the years of training and cultivation that is beneath what looks effortless. It is the same with any skill. Gratitude is a skill we can develop and not just for Thanksgiving. Gratitude is a shift in awareness. It is letting go of the deadly habits of judgment, comparing, and holding on. Gratitude opens us up to noticing what is alive in us and around us. What is going right for you today?

A few years ago, I was speaking to dharma teacher, Joanne Friday. She remarked that she was always amazed how smoothly the traffic ran, even with tie-ups and delays. She focused on all the millions of journeys that happened without accident, delay, or problems. How many people navigate roadways safely every day? We all tend to focus on the frustrating, the obstacles and getting rid of what’s in our way.

There’s a beautiful reminder of what we are given from Benedictine monk, Brother David Seindl-Rast. It’s a five-and-a-half-minute video on gratefulness, well worth the time. When we spend time bringing our attention to what is good in our lives, we change our minds. In Buddharakkhita’s translation of The Dhammapada, the second stanza reads, “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.” Several thousands of years later, we have fMRI’s that show us where we spend our time, creates neural connectivity. The brain is amazingly plastic, and we can actively create connection and synchronicity in our thinking. If we spend our time thinking about all that is wrong, all that we don’t have, we feel resentful and poor. When we spend our time appreciating what we do possess, we are suddenly rich and blessed.  This shows us that our happiness and contentment is a choice. Making this choice part of our lives requires diligence and attention. We can shift from a life of lack to one of abundance if we commit to this training.

Luckily, increasing gratitude activates the reward network in our brain. This leads to increased neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and the generation of oxytocin, the hormone that signifies the presence of love. We feel an increased experience of well-being or happiness. Gratitude actually makes us feel better. We can think of this gratitude practice as an outward and inward gift. Sharing our appreciations and gratitude brings happiness to others and shifts our own neural path towards happiness. As we head into Thanksgiving here is the US, I send my gratitude for all of you for your kindness and practice, for your wise and compassionate hearts. Please know how wonderful it is to be in this world with you.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Every moment is a gift of life

 

Add Some Play to Your Day

Blue cliff nuns

Nuns at Play, BlueCliff Monastery

 

 “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” ~ Charles Schaefer

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

“We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”

~ Dalai Lama

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” ~ Albert Einstein

If you’ve ever visited a monastery in the tradition of Plum Village, you will see something that is unusual in monastic life, monks and nuns playing. Monastics play soccer with kids, score goals, run in circles. They play volleyball with each other and retreatants. They sing songs with hand gestures, laugh together, and make paper art. They do some serious playing. This is anathema to many religious traditions, especially for renunciants, but Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that play is central to our spiritual growth.

Thây gave a dharma talk to the monastics about balancing our spiritual lives to include, study, practice, work and play. Brother Phap Hai, in his 2015 book, nothing to it: ten ways to be at home with yourself, details these four aspects that help us to grow in happiness and wisdom. To deepen our understanding we read the dharma and listen to teachings, we train in meditation with our mind and bodies, we work to embody the bodhisattva ideal of ending suffering on earth and give our time to others, and we take time to do things that bring us joy. Allowing ourselves to play is what rejuvenates us. Play reminds of our capacity for joy and nurtures our reserves needed to study, practice, and give of ourselves. While it may seem undignified, or unbecoming to the status of a spiritual seeker, we need play to keep us from becoming strict and proud, from setting ourselves above others or losing our happiness and delight in living.

Brother Phap Hai tells us that, “The practice of play is really the practice of being at ease” (p.25).  He reminds us that “we need to bring the elements of ease, relaxation, and joy into our lives of spiritual practice” (p.28). If we are joyless in our practice, doing things because we should, we become tight and burdened by our practice. The Buddha said repeatedly, he taught only about suffering and the end of suffering. If our spiritual life creates more suffering, stress, and tension for us, we need to examine our practice. How are we balancing the four elements of spirituality in our lives? And how can we look at this next phase of our lives in the holiday season with the element of play? How do we play together with our families, our co-workers, and our friends?

As we head into the last few months of the year there is so much to do. For American’s we begin with Thanksgiving and progress into a frenzy of consumption with holiday gift giving and the countdown to the New year. For many, this season can feel like obligation and pressure. I want to stop and explore what is beneath all this preparation, all this shopping, feasting, and feting. It’s time to wake up to the constant impermanence in this changing world and be curious about who is sharing our lives and our table.

What if creating the holidays was not work, but play? When we give up the idea of perfection, we can add the element of play. If we grimly endure life’s events, this time of year can feel like one long obligation, a prison of unwanted traditions. When we look with the eyes of a child, we can ask, how can I enjoy this day? How can I enjoy these people, whom I may not see again in my lifetime?  We shift from obligation to opportunity.

Any occasion is an opportunity to share our lives and to create happiness. I remember a story by Lama Surya Das of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Yale University. “That evening, the formal hosts’ pedagogues all went to get him. After knocking on the Nobel Laureates door, they were greeted by a man in maroon lama robes wearing a Groucho Marx mask: eyeglasses, nose, and mustache. It was His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet himself, having a bit of fun. A jolly lama, indeed. This is a true story.” If the Dalai Lama can wear a plastic nose and furry acrylic eyebrows, what could you do to add some playtime to your life and to the lives of those we love? Let’s imagine ways our practice can include friendship, happiness, and delight. Let’s play at that.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Burrito meditation

Burrito Meditation, Courtesy of Chipotle

 

 

Staying Small

Islay, Scotland beach

Isley, Scotland. Photo by Barbara Richardson

“When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don’t have a toothache, we don’t treasure our non-toothache. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to appreciate the well-being that is already there.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. ~Thornton Wilder

The struggle ends when the gratitude begins. ~Neale Donald Walsch

Dear Friends,

This past week, a tropical storm blew through the North East and left many of us without electricity. We are used to what we are used to and any type of change can feel threatening and unsettling. My road was without power for four days and when it was restored, there was a surge that blew out our modem and then, no internet or phone service. Neighbors expressed discomfort and aversion. What I observed in my own thoughts during this time, was the habit to move towards comfort and how quickly irritation, frustration, and uncertainty crept in—even with this relatively small shift. My house had a generator for heat, water, and fridge and I was still out of sorts. I thought of the people in Puerto Rico who are living without power and will be for months. I know many of them have nothing left. The hurricane brought a river of toxic mud that turned everything it touched into garbage. What was fascinating, was that when I became curious about my mind state, I could observe this phenomenon of clinging to what I think of as “normal,” when in fact, it’s not the norm. It’s the condition of well-being that we take for granted.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about this phenomenon in the joy of a non-tooth ache. We all know the pain of a toothache or can imagine how debilitating that is. If we have a toothache, then it’s gone, we are full of gratitude and joy, but we don’t wake up a week later still overjoyed. The happiness from a non-toothache fades quickly. The same happiness at having lights that work, water from a tap and being able to look at our email from home fades after a day or two and all these wonderful conditions we live with become the way life is supposed to be. We are entitled to electricity and all that comes with it.

We do this when we are sick. There’s a first glorious moment when we breathe through an un-stuffy nose, but we don’t think—I am so glad I am not clogged up every night after we are well. We look for the newest problem and let the small non-problems slide by. We look for the big dramatic things to feel thankful for and miss out on what is happening all the time in us and around us.

I try to practice staying small. This is a way to recognize the often-overlooked reasons for happiness. I start with the body and what’s happening in this small space I inhabit. Does anything feel good today? Any areas that are healthy and well?  I’m not on an intravenous drip or a ventilator, so I am off to a good start. I consider if I have enough food. Seldom is there any lack and that’s easily remedied by a trip to Stop n Shop. Not so, for many in the world. What else is going well? What am I doing and why? If I am writing, is it a chore or a pleasure? When I reflect, it is a privilege to share my thoughts with others, so that’s a good thing too. This doesn’t mean that I paint a rainbow on a terrible time, but being aware of what is working, and all the times there are no traffic jams, that really helps ease the fear of discomfort when it arises. Even in the power outage, I could use the Internet at the library, or go eat at a restaurant. That is also a privilege.

This week, perhaps, take some time to stay small and reflect on the areas of goodness and wellbeing right here, right now. The cup of tea in your hand, or the presence of a beloved pet, the ability to read and comprehend, all the small things we forget are gifts when we’re busy thinking about the obstacles to getting what we want. There’s goodness right here waiting for us to discover it.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Wilting flowers