Not Abandoning Ourselves

James' feet

James’ feet. X-ray by Dr. McHugh.

“It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.”

 “I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”

 “The heart surrenders everything to the moment. The mind judges and holds back.”

~ All quotes by Ram Dass

Dear Friends,

What if right now, reading this, wherever you are, life is as good as it will ever be? And it is. That moment is already past and whatever level of satisfaction or discomfort was there is already flowing into the next moment and the next. We live in a culture devoted to half of life’s experiences and we strategize to keep our sadness and loneliness away with events and achievements. We design campaigns and create boundaries of responsibility so we will never know how it feels to be ashamed, afraid, or helpless. We make room in our hearts for what is welcome and flattering, while edging out the unwanted, believing if we just try a little harder, we can have this life a little sweeter, a little less stressful and lots easier. There was an advertising slogan a few years back that declared, “You can have it all.” The publicists were talking about light beer, but in life, we don’t want it all. We want only what we want.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “This is it.” Life is not a dress rehearsal that we repeat until we get it just right; it’s happening now. And what if we are never kinder, wiser, healthier, smarter, or wealthier than we are in this moment? Are we enough as we are right now to make this moment count and meet it as we want to be? Can we stop trying to manipulate this moment and rest in our own capacity to meet the edges of what is unpleasant and unwanted? The more we can get comfortable with the range of our mind, the more we can make space to include everything and allow it to be.

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Raindrops in a puddle. Photo by Celia

This allowing can stop the push and pull of wanting the half of the whole and surprisingly lessen the power of the unwanted. When we don’t push back we can give the unwanted the freedom it needs to rise and fall without the struggle of dislike that makes it so painful. Another way to frame this is, “it’s ok to not be ok.” Pain is part of each life. Even at the best times, we may find a shading of sadness or fear. It’s ok to see the darkness or unwanted in ourselves and let it come and go without feeding it with opposition.

Including everything with the knowledge that our purpose is to meet ourselves where we stand just as we are is what I call the practice of non-abandoning, or inclusivity, leaving nothing out.  When we set our intention to stay connected and present to all of our emotional life, we can meet each interaction with kindness and understanding. This week, you may like to try setting an intention of non-abandoning and put your acceptance of whatever is arising in you, as your first priority. This diligence to stand beside ourselves creates a framework of care for ourselves. When we can hold ourselves with this kind attention, we naturally bring our capacity for care to the world. When we stay present and do not abandon ourselves we can make this moment count. Developing the capacity to show up for ourselves means we don’t have to wait for a perfect future to be here now, fully present, engaged, and grounded in unshakeable love.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

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Take your vacation any time

Soil and Story Cappucinos

Non-dairy cappuccinos from Story and Soil, Hartford, CT

 “My body is my first home. Breathing in, I arrive in my body. Breathing out, I am home.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning  not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” ~ Pema Chodron

“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”

 ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

The wind is blowing through the trees making the leafy rustling music of summer at its peak. The air is humid and the excitement about warm days and no snow is long past. We’ve settled into the belly of summer’s hazy warmth with the lure of hammocks and afternoon naps. Some lie on towels in the park or catch rays at the beach, but we all get the message. It’s summer—relax.

For many of us, summer is vacation time when we give ourselves permission to take time from our busyness and relax. But we don’t have to reserve relaxation for a week’s vacation at the beach. A daily dose of relaxation can help bring well-being into our bodies and minds.

Every day our body carries our worries, our thoughts, and the physical story of our lives. The mind is not separate from the body and the body is responsible for transmitting sensory information which informs the mind, such as pain, or the perception of unfairness. When the mind registers danger or discomfort it sends neurotransmitters across neural pathways in milliseconds. These excitatory messages prepare the body for action and the body automatically responds and tenses. This tension is perceived by the mind as confirmation of threat while the body reinforces the brain’s warning message by releasing stress hormones creating a tighter and more contracted body. This is the definition of a stress loop, the body and mind reacting to the signals of fear emanating from each other.StressLoopPainMuch of the time, the danger the mind is reacting to is fear of the future which creates vigilance. When vigilance becomes a habit, it can easily slide into anxiety which is the opposite of relaxation. Relaxation during the day is a way to discharge the tension in the body and mind and care for the fearful heart. Relaxing during the day doesn’t mean you have to lie on the floor or even move from where you are. The experience of relaxation involves the willingness to release defensiveness and rest in a quiet, contented body and mind.

If you ever visit a Plum Village tradition monastery, you will notice the bells. There are bells to sit, bells to stand, bells for meal times, bells for activities, and bells from the clocks sounding every fifteen minutes. At each bell, the whole community stops and breathes for at least three deep breaths. In three breaths we can pause, soften the face muscles, and release the tension from the body, and allow the mind to rest. Sometimes, in three breaths we can remember there are reasons to smile. In just three breaths we can diffuse the building tension and vigilance and give ourselves back to the present moment. There is even an app that can help.

Like many folks, I spend a lot of time looking at screens. After two hours on the computer, my shoulders are up by my ears and there’s lots of tension in my neck and upper back. Many days, I’ll use the mindfulness bell app and every fifteen minutes practice stopping, breathing and relaxing and bring some peace to my body. In three breaths I consciously relax my shoulders, my jaw and let my body and mind know I am here and I care. This small practice makes a big difference in my day. Interestingly, on the days I stop and remember to relax, there’s the impression of more time in my day and definitely more ease.

This week, even if you don’t get to practice coming back to the body and mind every fifteen minutes, try out the practice of stopping and relaxing several times a day. Before starting the car to drive in rush hour is an excellent time to breathe and relax the body, before picking up the phone, or before the first bite of a meal. Three breathes takes about fifteen seconds, not a long time for something that can be so beneficial. Building these small sips of relaxation into our day can bring about long-term transformation. Some people like the stopping and breathing so much, they take five or ten breaths. Daily relaxation is a way to take our vacation into our work day and our lives, to rest, even when we work.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Relax your body

Finding the present moment to heal the anxious heart

Lilly and Queen Anne's Lace

Lilly and Queen Anne’s Lace. Photo by Celia

“The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it.
Worrying is worthless.
When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment.
Then you will begin to experience joy in life.”

“Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.” 

“There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.”

All quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

Today I read the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings with friends. Each time I read them they arrive in my life in a different way. Today, I was struck by number seven, Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment and the message of cultivating our own happiness and joy through our attention to the present in the midst of an anxious world. The training begins:

“Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and the now.”

More and more I hear the words, “living in uncertain times” referring to climate change and the polarized political spheres worldwide. These issues are truly disturbing and vast, creating a myriad of responses, from social activism, outrage, to increased anxiety, or apathy. We hear about genocide and wars, the rate of species extinction, and children with automatic weapons. There’s upheaval in every sphere of the world if we look. So with all this going on, how can we not be carried away by fear and worries about the future? Wouldn’t fear, worry, and protection be a natural response to this uncontrollable world?

We can consider whether the world actually is more unpredictable than it used to be? Is there more worry in a life than there was in the time of the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammed when a cut finger could result in death from infection? There has always been uncertainty. There have always been disasters and the threat of loss. It may seem irresponsible to attempt to be happy in the unfolding turmoil, but our happiness and solidity are not to be mistaken for denial of indifference. Living happily, attending to what we are engaging in at the present moment is the way to stay with our intention to care and to give longevity to our actions. And, present moment awareness, paying attention to what is happening in me and around me right now, is the medicine to heal the anxiety of worry. We believe we can solve the problems of a future that has not yet arrived and spend our time bracing ourselves for eventualities that may never happen. If our minds are constantly spinning about what might happen, we will end up exhausted and miss the opportunities that exist right in from of us.

Attending to the present moments and what is unfolding in and around us is the best way to take care of the future. We have an instinct to muscle through unpleasantness until it all gets sorted out. We don’t want to stop and be with what is happening at this moment because it is painful. The imaginary future moments, when the world has been saved, or a different administration is elected, sound much better and much more relaxing—that’s when I’ll relax. I can’t afford to let my guard down now.

This habit of leaning into the future is just like all habits, something that increases with use. When we push off contentment and the possibility of happiness, thus we train our minds. We won’t be able to stop and smell the roses in the future, because we are so good at ignoring the roses in the present. We can give ourselves permission to stay with our own range of awareness and our ability to take care of what is arising right here and now from washing the dishes to creating a resistance movement. Whatever we engage in, we can be present for it fully and find that in doing so, there is no space left for the worry to seep in.

When we are immersed in our lives, we honor ourselves and our work through our own attention. We can be grateful for our own commitments, our good hearts, and give ourselves the time and attention to follow through on what we do. In this way, we save ourselves from worry and speculation and we can be truly useful and a source of joy right here and now.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Breathe you are alive

Irritation is a pain in the heart

Butterfly on daisy

Butterfly resting on Judith’s daisy. Photo by Celia

“If you do not know how to take care of yourself, and the violence in you, then you will not be able to take care of others. You must have love and patience before you can truly listen to your partner or child. If you are irritated you cannot listen. You have to know how to breathe mindfully, embrace your irritation and transform it.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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

“Others may be harmful, but I shall be harmless, thus should I train myself.” ~ The Buddha, Kakacupama Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 21

Dear Friends,

This past week was one of those weeks where it felt like everyone was making life more complicated than it needed to be. I could tell my frustration level was rising and my equanimity sagging. I thought about escaping to a spiritual retreat, taking a week in silence where no one would speak to me or complain. That sounded like heaven, but a retreat is temporary and there’s always something in our lives we can find that’s irritating, some relative who lets us down, a political figure who speaks without thinking, emails asking for clarifications about clarifications. Irritation is inversely correlated to the amount of self-compassion, love, and understanding available in ourselves. If we haven’t been sending ourselves loving kindness, if we haven’t practiced stopping, breathing and calming our body, showing care for our own situation and capacity, then we will exhaust our fund of equanimity, compassion, and care and quickly fall into illbeing [dukkha].

Although irritation can seem like small potatoes in the realm of unwholesome thoughts, it is also called ill-will and categorized as one of the five lower fetters and is a direct forerunner to aversion or hatred, one of the three root poisons that creates the conditions for suffering in ourselves and the world. When we feel irritation, we don’t need to wait months, or even seconds to experience illbeing; we have an immediate mind and body sensation of discomfort. Just the state of experiencing irritation is already suffering.

The Buddha stated that he taught only the knowledge of suffering and the release from suffering. In a comprehensive talk to his son Rahula, the Buddha instructed him in a variety of methods to guard the mind against irritation, “Develop the meditation of good will. For when you are developing the meditation of good will, ill-will will be abandoned. Develop the meditation of compassion. For when you are developing the meditation of compassion, cruelty will be abandoned. Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned. Develop the meditation of equanimity. For when you are developing the meditation of equanimity, irritation will be abandoned,” from the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Trans.).

To develop this mind of good will, consider in the moment of irritation, how much good will is present towards ourselves or another? Usually, in irritation, all thoughts are projected outward to the other person or condition. We believe that’s where the change needs to happen—out there. That person needs to stop being annoying and then I’ll be fine. But when we engage in the habit of irritation, we no longer offer our support and friendship to ourselves. Falling into irritation we abandon ourselves. Sending ourselves loving kindness is the way to transform our aversion, hatred, and anger. Accepting what is without fear or distrusting ourselves is the remedy for irritation. That sort of acceptance requires a base of goodwill, or kindness, and self-care. Appreciating others dislodges resentment and the urge towards cruelty is abandoned when we cultivate the desire to protect others.

On a spiritual path, sometimes, we have smooth and easy progress, then we hit some turbulence and the going gets a bit rougher. We may act in ways we know are not helpful, and even though we know better, we find ourselves doing it anyway. We may observe ourselves chewing on thoughts of dislike and revenge and end up disappointed in ourselves.

The good news is that we have immeasurable opportunities to begin again in mindful awareness. Beginning with being present for ourselves, we may want to comfort ourselves the way we would a friend, to tell ourselves, “I understand. It’s ok, I am here for you,” or use Thich Nhat Hanh’s mantras of, “Darling, I am here for you” and “I know you suffer.” We can promise to care for ourselves in our discomfort and recognize external irritation as a cry from the heart for our own help. Reminding ourselves that “this is how it is right now,” or “may I be at ease with the changing conditions,” or simply, “I care,” can give us confidence in our ability to meet all the conditions we encounter. Although the world keeps sending stormy weather, we have the potential to keep a calm, still place of shelter within us at all times. In the coming weeks, I am planning on carving out more time to fill up my treasure store of self-compassion, and when I have saturated my own heart with care, to be that understanding presence for another who may have no resources left in their heart.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The way out is the way in

 

 

 

Who Belongs?

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“We have a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the U.S. But in the name of freedom, people have done a lot of damage to our nation and to other people. I think we have to make a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast in order to attain balance. Liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. You are not free to destroy.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, from Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.

“What the miser fears,

that keeps him from giving,

is the very danger that comes

when he doesn’t give.”

~ The Buddha (SN 1.32) 

“In true love, you don’t discriminate anymore. Whatever a person’s color, religion, or political beliefs, you accept them all with no discrimination whatsoever. Inclusiveness here means nondiscrimination.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh, from Buddha Mind, Buddha Body.

Dear friends,

Happy almost Independence Day. In three days we celebrate the 242nd birthday of America with fireworks, cookouts, and family picnics. We celebrate freedom from England and the birth of this nation that is now one of the most powerful players on the world stage. Right now in America, there’s the big question of “who belongs?” It may make us uncomfortable when we reckon with the legacy of this country and see that the immigrants who colonized this country are the ones making the regulations about who truly is worthy to be an American.

Beginning with the European colonization, we know of the displacement and genocide of native peoples, the kidnapping, and trafficking of enslaved lives to build a society for the benefit of white European settlers who did not acknowledge the lives, worth, or rights of those that enabled them to create this rich, powerful nation. And if we are paying attention, we see the inheritance of non-inclusion in the way our legal system works, in the disparate number of black and brown bodies who are incarcerated, killed by police, subject to violence or shot in neighborhoods where there is little intervention or investment from municipalities. The unrest that the current administration has brought to light is not new, it’s simply more blatant and visible. The embargo against Muslim immigration and the recent imprisoning children of unsanctioned immigrants are acts of terrorism designed to create fear and deliver a message of unmistakable separation and superiority, without considering our responsibility towards other lives, especially those of children. These are some of the unbeautiful parts of my country.

Recently I heard of a radical de-colonization idea that would send all immigrants back to their original countries. It made me consider as a third generation immigrant where I would go, to Germany, Belarus, Austria, or Israel? Would anyone take me in? After three generations in this country, where is home if not here? Where do we belong and what gives us the right to belong and not others?

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about “the practice of inclusiveness, kshanti paramita, the practice of helping your heart grow larger and larger all the time” (Buddha Mind, Buddha Body). Helping our hearts to grow large enough to include all beings in our compassion and to help all beings see the responsibility they hold for their thoughts, speech, and actions. Freedom without responsibility can be destructive, as Thay tells us. Responsibility keeps freedom from becoming greedy and selfish, encouraging a country that values the few at the expense of the many.

For America’s birthday, I am considering the legacy of this country. America’s legacy is tied to my legacy. I am part of this country whether I agree with the policies or not. This fourth of July my celebration will come as an awareness of the larger place this country has in the world, the America before a wall was built around its borders. I will celebrate the America based on generosity and compassion, the refuge for the poor, the hungry, the tired and those who are exhausted from trying to find their way home.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

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