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

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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?

Symbols-statue-of-liberty-sunrise.jpg

“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

Look

 

Loving and Accepting: Good Medicine for Blame

Lotus with honey bee

Lotus and honey bee. Photo by Celia

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

“Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Blaming is a way that we discharge anger.”

Brenè Brown

                                 “I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame.                  I simply follow my own feelings.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Dear Friends,

Are you a blamer, or do you know a blamer? For most of us being in the company of a blamer for extended periods of time leads to some difficult moments. I am a recovering blamer. Over a decade ago, I first tried a practice of having a blame-free day. I made it all the way to 10:00 am when a friend commented that a task I agreed to do was undone. Not only did I defend myself, but I got down off my metaphorical high horse and cut off someone else’s head with my sword of blame. It was intolerable to be perceived as unreliable and I had to let my friend know—it was not my fault. After the blaming massacre, I was shocked at how automatic my response was and how I was willing to malign another person to save myself.  But save me from what? What would happen if I simply forgot to do what I said? What would be so wrong with making a mistake? For blamers, and recovering blamers, being seen as wrong or less than perfect can be excruciating.

Blaming others is a powerful tool which absolves us of responsibility and shame and allows us to remain as an innocent victim of the situation. Our egoic self remains pure and intact; there’s no risk of looking bad or feeling inferior. Shame researcher Brenè Brown points out that blame does not lead to accountability. Blame hijacks the mind into a frenzy of evidence seeking and does not go any further. Blame cannot consider reasons, understanding, or empathy. Blame seeks only to condemn and punish. It is the opposite of healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.” Blame is nothing new. Over 2,600 years ago the Buddha is reported to have listed the qualities that make a monk difficult to be with and the qualities that make a monk welcome in the community:

“he does not accuse one who has corrected him; he does not disparage one who has corrected him; he does not correct in turn one who has corrected him; he does not evade the criticism by asking another question; he does not change the subject…he succeeds in explaining his behavior when corrected; he is not jealous and greedy; he is not hypocritical and deceitful; he is not stubborn and arrogant; he is not worldly nor does he cling to things that belong to this world and he does not find it difficult to let go. These, my friends, are the qualities that make it easy to approach and talk to him” (Nhat Hanh, Trans. Anumana Sutta, MN 15). The first time I read this, I was surprised that monks would evade the question and blame the one who points out a fault, all lawyerly tactics, and apparently not new.

At the heart of blame is a frightened small self and the belief that seeing one’s imperfections is unacceptable. There is a fierce impulse beneath the blame to keep the egoic image free from stains and we are willing to sacrifice another to maintain our own purity. This type of egoic fury does not care about relationships, justice, or truth, all it seeks is its own survival and status. Buddhist nun, Sister Khema, describes the rationale behind blame in a 1994 dharma talk titled Meditating on No-Self, “Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is our reaction. The problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard time reasserting itself. So, what we usually do is we blame back, making the other’s ego a bit smaller too…So we are constantly in a quandary, and in constant fear.” Blaming is a habit that took time to root in oneself. It also takes time to uproot.

When something goes wrong, we have an opportunity to ask a different question. Instead of “who did this?” We can shift and consider, “how am I with this?” What is happening in the body and the mind? Is there a visceral feeling of agitation and intolerance? Where is it in the body and what is its story? What would happen if we didn’t blame, but made a vow to love and accept ourselves no matter what—even if we made a mistake? At the root of blame is a very young desire to keep safe and accepted, the way every child needs to feel they are safe and loved. This old way of adaptive thinking still believes that is we are in the right and righteous, our place in the group is secure. But blaming does the opposite. It creates division and bad feelings within families and communities and blocks the transformation of our own fear and intolerance beneath the blame/shame response.

There’s always time to change behavior and the first step is always to notice what we are doing, to stop and consider what would happen to us if we made a mistake? Can we stand beside ourselves even if we are imperfect, forgetful, we drop things, get lost, are late, are human? We can move from blaming others to accepting the full range of our experience with kindness, curiosity, and the confidence that comes from loving and welcoming all of ourselves without discrimination

May we all trust our light,

Celia

This is a link to a story about the habit of blaming from Mindful Magazine by Dr. Brenè Brown.

https://www.mindful.org/two-lessons-on-blame-from-brene-brown/

Be Still and heal

 

Kindness and Gratitude go Together

Dancing Lady Orchid

Dancing Lady Orchid. Photo by Celia

“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father.” ~ The Buddha, Kataññu Sutta

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.”

~ The Buddha, AN 2.118

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

Happy Father’s Day to all the father’s in our lives. Today we celebrate the contributions of our fathers, their remembered kindness, and thoughts of how our ancestors contributed to our creation. We are all in debt, that is the undeniable fact of living. We are indebted to our parents for having us and for their or others’ care in raising, feeding, and educating us. We are tribal creatures and our lives are enhanced by many other beings who contributed time, money, and attention to our lives.

The family we were born into may not be what we would have ordered if we had a choice. Perhaps we wanted more communication, better food, our own room, or more attention—or maybe we didn’t want what we got, too many siblings, or no siblings, harsh discipline and violence, or no discipline, and the belief that no one cared. Whatever our family contained, we are the people we became in response to our conditioning and we are indebted to those who did show us kindness along the way. Scholar monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes about the parents who were not kind and what is expected from the children of abusive parents, “Not only are they abusive to their children, but …[t]hey may demand an unreasonable level of repayment, involving actions that are downright harmful for you, themselves, and others. And yet this doesn’t cancel the debt you owe them for the simple fact that they’ve enabled you to live.” This is tricky stuff. This type of indebtedness does not mean we condone abuse or subject ourselves to further abuse because of the debt of our birth. In the Kataññu Sutta, the Buddha advises those who have parents who are unbelieving, immoral, stingy, and foolish to develop their own wisdom and goodness. By doing so we give the gifts of conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment to parents who lack these traits through our own purity of consciousness.

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of family harmony is the intention of kindness in thoughts, speech, and actions which are met with gratitude. The Buddha is reported to have said, “Now what is the level of a person of no integrity? A person of no integrity is ungrateful and unthankful. This ingratitude, this lack of thankfulness, is advocated by rude people. It is entirely on the level of people of no integrity. A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity” (AN 2.31-32).  As the Buddha points out, those who practice kindness and those who give thanks for kindness received are rare and worth celebrating. When we encounter someone, who has gone out of their way to be kind to us, whether they are a parent, friend, or a teacher we are able to give them a gift in return, our gratitude.

It’s much easier to be grateful to non-humans, to the earth, the sky, the flowers and animals that make our lives more wonderful. It is much harder to be grateful to people who are kind and then act like people and say something unkind and harsh. We all make mistakes and we all need reminders. One of the most helpful rubrics is the Buddhist Five Factors of Right Speech. This is a checklist that can help us stay with the intention of kindness and non-harming. It is very beneficial to ask ourselves these questions before speaking: “Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious” AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.). When we can answer these questions with the open-hearted intention of kindness, that is a tremendous gift of gentleness and wisdom for our family and all those we come in contact with.

Today is a good day to take inventory of those who we are grateful for and make an offering towards them. It may be a verbal acknowledgment of their efforts or the gift of non-reactive speech, it may be cultivating our own faith, virtue, generosity, and wise judgment to share with our parents and with the world. Becoming our best selves, being an asset to the planet and bringing healing to the injustices and brokenness in the world, is one of the best repayments of indebtedness. It is this fullness of gratitude that receives, spills over, and keeps giving, receiving, and giving.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

Click on this link to celebrate Father’s Day with a Dad joining his daughter’s ballet rehearsal because she had stage fright. From Joanne Friday

Reverence-_G044_-11x17-vertical

 

Liberate Your Happiness

June Peonies

June Peonies. Photo by Celia

“Equanimity means to let go, not to abandon.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

 “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better to take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

“If I did not think this path and its fruition were possible for you, I would not ask it of you. Because I know the path of immeasurable freedom is possible for you, therefore I ask it of you.” ~ The Buddha

Dear Friends,

This week I spoke with a woman was going through a very difficult time with her young adult daughter. She said that her happiness was wholly dependent upon her daughter’s wellbeing. If her daughter was in crisis, her day was shattered. Realistically, we cannot expect that our children won’t have difficulties or real crises in their lifetimes. We all face the pain of being present with loved ones who suffer. If we do not have children, we have parents, partners, and assorted pets that all will suffer, get sick, and one day be separated from us, but as practitioners we have a secret weapon to keep us balanced and resilient in the midst of change, distress, and uncontrollable outcomes, it’s the practice of equanimity.

Equanimity is one of the Brahmavihāras, the highest abodes, or as meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls them, “our best homes.”  Equanimity is often translated as balance or a spacious stillness of the mind and heart. With practice, equanimity can help soften the heart that contracts in fear and pain. It can lead to peace in the midst of the world unfolding in the way it does, not in the way we would like. It can help us stop struggling against what is and in acceptance, enable us to take actions that are rooted in wise and loving intention. Equanimity is the raft that can save us from sinking in the turbulent water of stress and hopelessness.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) describes equanimity as “nonattachment, non-discrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go” (p. 174). Nonattachment means that the openhearted caring and compassion is not reserved for times of success, or when things are easy and free from struggle. Equanimity does not discriminate between the self and the other. It creates a base of stability from which we can include all beings, all emotions, and all moments into our conservation of care, leaving nothing out. Equanimity increases our capacity to tolerate what is difficult and painful without letting conditions we cannot control overwhelm us.

The world is made of innumerable changing situations and we may understand intellectually that very little is in our control, yet there is resistance and struggle when we encounter events and experiences that make us and others suffer. Witnessing those we love in distress can be excruciating when we believe we are responsible for their happiness and suffering. We may believe if we exert ourselves, or find that just right combination of ingredients, we have the power to make someone else change, to stop being depressed, to seek medical treatment, or to stop engaging in harmful acts. We are attached to the outcome, to the health and wellbeing of another. When we are enmeshed in the belief that we can only be happy when others are free from pain, we give away our power to create our own happiness and peace.

Letting go of control and not taking responsibility for the thoughts, and actions of others and not accepting the responsibility for the consequences of these thoughts and actions may seem cold and indifferent, especially for a parent who is supposed to be loving and continually sacrifice for their children. Sacrifice that comes from a spacious calm heart contains the intention of love, but grasping onto fixing and changing another is rooted in fear and aversion. It is running from what is so painful to tolerate. True equanimity leads with the heart, includes the self and the other without discriminating between the two.

Resignation and the coldness of not caring are shallow stand-ins for real equanimity. Indifference or numbing to pain is the near enemy of equanimity, while the far enemy is clinging and attachment. Equanimity gives space and a wide perspective. It understands impermanence and that nothing stays the same. Equanimity knows the nature of suffering and that no one is immune. I describe equanimity as loving and allowing. We stay with the intention of care and love, but we open to the way things are and the uncontrollable reality of living in a vulnerable human body.

Equanimity gives us balance and evenness when we encounter the loka dhamma, The Eight Worldly Winds, or The Vicissitudes. These are four pairs of conditions we meet repeatedly during our lifetime: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. When we can let go of attachment to wanting only the pleasure, gain, fame, and praise and learn to stay still when we encounter the unwanted pain, loss, disrepute, and blame, we liberate our happiness from dependence upon the wildly fluctuating conditions of the world.

Practicing equanimity creates boundaries. We understand that our jurisdiction does not extend to others, no matter how much we want it too. We remain present, loving, and open hearted, but we are not bound to the success or failure, the health, and happiness of another. To practice equanimity meditation we come into stillness and find the place of wholeness and limitless capacity that resides in us all. From the ground of mindful, loving presence we envision our loved one who suffers. Holding both ourselves and the other with tenderness, we may repeat the traditional equanimity phrase from Sharon Salzburg’s (1995) book, Loving Kindness: The Revolution Art of Happiness: “All beings are the owners of their kamma. There happiness and unhappiness depend upon their actions, not upon my wishes for them” (p. 152). More modern phrases include “May we all accept things as they are. May we be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events. I will care for you, but I cannot keep you from suffering. I wish you happiness, but cannot make your choices for you” (Salzberg, p. 152). And an insightful phrase from Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho is, “Right now, it’s like this for me” (or for you).

Meditation teacher Christina Feldman (2017) offers some beautiful equanimity phrases in her book, Boundless Heart: The Buddhist Path of Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity. “May I embrace change with stillness and calm. May I deeply accept this moment as it is. May my home be a balance of wisdom and spaciousness” (Feldman, p. 117). “You are the parent of the choices you make and their outcomes and I cannot make those choices for you. May I rest in care and stillness in the midst of sorrow” (Feldman, p. 126-127).

Spirit Rock founder Jack Kornfield offers, “May I be balanced. May I be at peace. May I learn to see the arising and passing of all things with equanimity and balance. May I be open and balanced and peaceful.” An 18th Century Singhalese blessing translated by Buddhist scholar John Peacock guides readers to a place of understanding of what is ours and what is not:

“Life is but a play of joy and sorrow

May I remain unshaken by life’s rise and fall

I care for you deeply

But you are the parent of your acts and their fruit

And sadly I cannot protect you from distress” ( Feldman, p.125).

You may consider spending the week with one phrase that resonates with you or create your own equanimity phrase.

Remaining equanimous, rooted in kindness and the intention to relieve suffering while another is in pain, is an advanced practice. Make no mistake, this is the heavy lifting we train for. Making our home in equanimity we can learn to unclench our expectations and release ourselves from the imprisonment of suffering, theirs and ours. Cultivating equanimity is the way to stay present with the one who is suffering without becoming overwhelmed and turning away. This is what stretches our capacity and gives us the solidity of a mountain to meet all of our joy and all of our sorrow with an easy heart.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Click on this link for an update on Thay’s health from Sister Chan Khong’s interview in Lion’s Roar. He’s Getting Stronger Every Day.

 

Breathe TNH

Resources:

Feldman, C. (2017). Boundless heart: The buddhist path of kindness, compassion, joy, and

equanimity. Boulder, CO: Shambala.

Hanh, T. N. (1998). The heart of the buddha’s teachings: Transforming suffering into peace, joy,

and liberation. New York, NY: Broadway.

Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston: Shambala.

 

 

Letting go Means Letting in

Backyard Buddha

Backyard Buddha, photo by Celia

“Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,

a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.”

 ~Wu Men Hui-k’ai

“Don’t affix labels to people. If you want to learn anything you have to stop your habit of labeling. Give yourself the freedom to be in touch with the human being”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Well, I guess you’ll have to change the story that you were never loved.”

 ~James Baraz

 

Dear Friends,

June is the month when the spring settles in and redecorates. Trees are leafy and full while the grass grows vigorous and green. All this beauty and growth come after the bareness, the winter that blasts away the foliage and the icy landscape that weans us from unexamined acceptance and boredom in the beautiful. We know that even loveliness gets boring if it’s permanent. But that’s not a problem, because we all know that nothing is permanent.

Impermanence, anicca, is one of the three characteristics of existence. All living and non-living phenomena are subject to change. There is birth/creation, old age/deterioration, and death, or transformation inherent in all creation. This simple but profound truth is a difficult one for the complex human mind which desires stability, predictability, and certainty to feel safe. As we move through life, we shed identities, forms, and ideas. No longer children, we changed from a small body into this more spacious model. We let go of our former ideas about ourselves, fixed identities, and titles, or did we? Despite the reality that our cells are changing constantly, our minds are rewired with each thought we think, we don’t move on. We can’t let go of who and what we were or our former status. This type of clinging can lead to suffering as we create a static impression of the self that no longer reflects the present moment.

We may cling to the idea that we are a star athlete even as our body changes and we find it difficult to bend to tie our own shoes or walk up a flight of stairs without resting. Holding onto an image of ourselves that no longer reflects the present may create expectation and dissatisfaction. We may have the habit of believing that we are yet again a victim, that we are unlovable, or intellectually superior. When we have a fixed identity pattern we respond in predictable ways. These responses, created from protecting and coping at a much earlier age, no longer represent who we are and can block out any curiosity, or opportunity for growth we may have. We may label ourselves as disorganized, fearful, or lonely. We can see that state in ourselves again and again and with each viewing, our assessment becomes more enmeshed with our identity and creates the story of ourself. How would we be different if we chose to believe we were capable of creating our own life, able to have difficult conversations with compassion, or that people like me?

When we let go of old ideas of ourselves we release the barriers that keep us from the possibility of joy and contentment. Insight teacher, James Baraz (2012) and co-creator of the Awakening Joy course asks us to consider four questions about the usefulness of holding onto our stories of ourselves and others:

“What story do you believe about yourself or others that keeps you from experiencing well-being and joy?  When you think of this story as being true, how do you experience it in your body and mind? Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you took it as just a story, didn’t believe it and let it go. How does it feel in your body and mind when you do that?” (p. 169).

Letting go of our labels and ideas of who we are can open up previously protected and defended space for new ways of being. If we are able to set down the story of ourselves we are carrying, what do we want to put in its place, trust in ourselves, or the willingness to risk a new way of thinking and being?

When we freeze ourselves, or others in time, we ignore the inescapable reality of impermanence. It is highly unlikely the angry friend we encountered three months ago is still angry, or angry in the same way, yet they remain in our mind as that perpetually angry person. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “[w]e give labels only in order to praise or destroy…And when we stick them onto people we cut ourselves off from those people and we can no longer know who they are” (p. 84). We stay caught in the past and do not see that just as we are changing and responding to the world, others are doing the same. No one stays the same.

This week, take some time to reflect on the story of “me.” What thoughts are looping as we find ourselves doing what we always do? Can we remember that we have options, even when it seems there are none? Holding onto the reminder of choice, we may find the truth of our victimhood slipping. Recognizing that we can express our displeasure at ill-treatment without yelling and anger, we may not fit into the hothead category we identify with. Letting go of our labels means we are free to let something else in. Who are we when we respond skillfully to whatever is arising without a preset plan? Might we be the heroes we imagine when we shed the labels we’ve outgrown and make room for the possibility of authentic presence in each moment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become

 

Taking Care of Ourselves to Care for Others

10th Ave

Tire Shop, 10th Ave. NYC. Photo by Celia

“Looking after oneself, one looks after others.

“Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

~Gotama Buddha, SN 47:19

“One should not give up one’s own welfare,

Even for the sake of much welfare of others”

~Gotama Buddha, AN 49:5

“If one is drowning oneself and wishes to rescue someone else who is drowning,

that is impossible”

~ Gotama Buddha, Sallekha Sutta

 

Dear Friends,

As children of aging parents, parents of children, pet owners, and citizens of a society that seems to be galloping towards calamity, we are called upon to care for others. The Bodhisattva vow, an integral part of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, stresses the importance of being of service, even deferring our own spiritual liberation until all beings are free from suffering. In the Brahmavihāra practice, we cultivate the mind states of care, compassion, joy, and equanimity for all beings. The Buddha asks us to stretch beyond our circle of ease and offer our care, love, and kindness to all beings, with no discrimination. That is a big ask and requires a lot of practice and training to shift from our protective and defensive evolutionary conditioning to an unlimited mind of love. While we may aspire to this openhearted state of selfless caring, no one is a boundless well of giving. There may be a part of us that asks, “what about me?” We all need replenishing and abundant self-care to be able to care for others.

In early Buddhist teachings, this idea of self-care is clear and direct. In the Aṅguttara-nikāya 4:95, translated by Buddhist monk and scholar, Anālayo, the Buddha describes four types of practitioners: one who helps themselves without helping another, one who helps another without helping oneself, one who aids neither self not other, and one who helps both self and other. The Buddha ranks these four approaches. Not surprisingly, one who helps neither self nor other is the “most inferior person” (A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). The person who helps another without helping oneself is superior to that and higher than that is one who helps themselves without helping another! The one who is “supreme,” predictably, is one who aids both self and other ((A. N. 4:95, Anālayo, trans. 2015, p. 18). Thus, merit is earned as one progresses on a spiritual path that includes both self and other.

As practitioners, we cannot advise others to practice purification if we are not walking that path ourselves. In order to have any type of transformation of suffering, we must attend to purifying our own hearts and minds first. As legendary Vipassana teacher, S. N. Goenka said repeatedly, “You have to work out your own salvation.” When we understand how to cultivate, equanimity, and joy in our own life and practice, we will have a strong foundation to be available and present for others, even when things get tough. If we do not take care of our own stability, we offer an unsteady footing for those who rely on us.

A popular parable from the Buddhist canon is the Sedaka Sutta: The Bamboo Acrobat. The Buddha tells of a team of acrobats, a master and his young assistant, Medakathalika, sometimes referred to as his granddaughter. The older acrobat perches atop a bamboo pole and Medakathalika climbs up the pole and balances upon the master’s shoulders. The master tells Medakathalika that they will need to take care of each other in order to keep safe in their act and make a living. The young assistant has another view and tells the bamboo acrobat, “That will not do at all, master! You look after yourself, master, and I will look after myself. Thus with each of us looking after ourselves, guarding ourselves, we’ll show off our craft, receive some payment, and safely climb down from the bamboo pole. That’s the right way to do it!” (SN 47:19, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Young Medakathalika understands that each person is responsible for their own unwavering stability of mind and that clarity and focus directly influences others we interact with.

The Buddha goes on to describe how we care for ourselves in order to care for others and how to care for others in order to care for ourselves. “And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? 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, Olendszi, trans., 2013). Leaving no one out, we extend this patience, gentleness, and goodwill towards ourselves. Being considerate and non-harming may mean we do not do all the things we believe we should, but includes those that help us stay balanced and peaceful.

The paradox of caring for others to care for ourselves involves the cultivation of a deep practice of kindness and gentleness to remove the hearts’ obstacles of hatred, conditional love, disapproval, and intolerance. Practicing in this way opens up the heart space and we reside in what Buddhists call the bliss of blamelessness. This joy and open-heartedness is the reward of self-care that allows for delight in our own goodness and fills up the emptiness and dissatisfaction that may impede caring for all beings. When we practice living a life of integrity and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to being a presence of love and healing we are caring for and protecting ourselves, our community, and all beings everywhere.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

 

peace15105ee28ccd3

Resources

Anālayo (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse.

Olendzki, A. trans. (2013). Sedaka sutta: The bamboo acrobat (SN 47.19). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). Retrieved from: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.019.olen.html .

Being a Mother to the World

Dog walk

Dog walk at twilight, photo by Celia

When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, it is possible to have real communication, real communion, with the Earth. This is the highest possible form of prayer. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all beings, there is not one who has not been my mother innumerable times. Each has been my mother in human form countless times and will become my mother many times again. ~ Geshe Wangyal

 

Dear Friends,

Today is Mother’s Day and for some of us it is a very wonderful and joyful celebration of a loving and nurturing presence in our lives, but for others, it can be laced with sadness, loss, or unmet expectations. All babies need care and we could not have survived without a nurturing and caring presence. Today is the day we celebrate the embodiment of love and compassion that cares in the world, wherever we may find it. Some of us are lucky enough to have experienced the care and protection of a mother’s love. If we do not have a mother or have experienced this source of care from another, that person embodies the qualities of a mother for us. Sometimes, our true mother isn’t our mother.

What does being a mother mean? We have cultural expectations and wishes about the role of the perfect mother that may or may not have come true. But at the core, a mother is the archetypal embodiment of care, compassion, and protection. In the seventh verse of the metta sutta, there is the stanza, “Just as a mother who has an only son would protect her own son with her life, so one should cultivate a boundless mind toward all living beings” (Anālayo, trans., 2015, p. 29). Scholar monk Bhikkhu Anālayo points out that this relationship is based on selfless protection. We can imagine the fierce determination of this mother to keep her child safe at any cost and hear the Buddha’s instructions to extend this unflinching care to all beings.

Tibetan Buddhism reminds us that because all beings live countless lifetimes, all beings have been our mothers and fathers countless times. That means all beings in this world, even the ones whose company we do not enjoy, have cared for us in some way and done the best they could for us. Tibetan Buddhist, translator and Columbia professor, Geshe Wangyal (1973) writes about developing this view of gratitude and reverence for those who appear to be totally unconnected strangers:

“Though it now seems that they have no relationship to me, they have been my mother times beyond number, and in those lives, they protected me with love and kindness. When you have experienced this truth, meditate on those beings who are now your adversaries. Imagine them clearly before you and think: How can I now feel these are my enemies? As lifetimes are beyond number, they have been my mother countless times. When they were my mother they provided me with measureless happiness and benefits and protected me from misery and harm. Without them, I could not have lasted even a short time and without me, they could not have endured even a short time. We have felt such strong attachment countless times. That they are now my adversaries is due to bad evolutionary actions….Then meditate on repaying the kindness of all beings, your mothers” (p. 137). I find this last line really touches the collective appreciation for all beings who care for us, “protected us with love and kindness” and have given us “measureless happiness and benefits” whether in this lifetime, the past, or future (p. 137).

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Earth as the mother of us all who cares for us and also needs our care in return. The Earth is our refuge, our protection, and our solace. Speaking about our connection to the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:

“When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening to look after ourselves and the Earth so that we both can thrive.”

In his 2013 book, Love Letter to the Earth, Thay offers the practice of Touching the Earth. This involves lying peacefully on the Earth and expressing our gratitude and regrets. You can find his writing here, Ten Intimate Conversations with Mother Earth, guided reflections for practicing pouring our joy and sorrow onto the Earth and experiencing the healing of this being who has a boundless capacity to care for all living beings.

I also encourage you to find all of your mothers in this lifetime, all those who supported and nurtured you with their love and care and to reflect on your own motherhood, regardless of your gender or if you have children or not. Mothers are beings who see the value in others, show uncompromising protection, relentless care, and delight in the happiness of others. Recognizing the quality of true care, we can celebrate our own motherhood, and ability to care for all beings including ourselves.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

I am in love with Mother Earth

Resources:

Anālayo. (2015). Compassion and emptiness in early buddhist meditation. Cambridge,

UK: Windhorse.

Hanh, T. N. (2013). Love letter to the earth. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.

Wagnal, G. (1973). The door of liberation: essential teachings of the tibetan buddhist

tradition. Boston: Wisdom.

 

 

If I Stop, I’ll Be Lost

Azalea

Azalea, photo by Celia

“I run and then I hop, hop, hop

I wish that I could fly

There’s danger if I dare to stop and here’s the reason why

You see I’m overdue

I’m in a rabbit stew

Can’t even say Good-bye, hello

I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.”

 ~from the White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, lyrics and music by Bob Hilliard, Sammy Fain, Oliver Wallace, Ted Sears, Mack David, Al Ho.

“One of the most significant negative habits we should be aware of is that of constantly allowing our mind to run off into the future. Perhaps we got this from our parents. Carried away by our worries, we’re unable to live fully and happily in the present. Deep down, we believe we can’t really be happy just yet—that we still have a few more boxes to be checked off before we can really enjoy life.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Breath: A Practice for Our Busy Lives

 

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I shared a half day of mindfulness with some folks new to practice. It was a lovely day. We sat, ate mindfully, slowed down and allowed the body to relax and feel safe. Several people spoke about the feeling of concern that arose when they gave themselves the permission to stop, take time to eat, and enjoy the simple acts of breathing and walking. This worry stemmed from the belief that if we allow ourselves to relax and drop the habit of anxiously leaning into the future, we will slip the leash and never return to our jobs or responsibilities. This belief comes from a feeling of distrust, that at our core, we are unreliable.

I see this restrictive guarding growing from the unconscious ground of deprivation. Many people do not have the luxury of scheduled lunch breaks. They eat at their desks while answering e-mails, or in medical settings, grab a few bites between clients. Taking time out from work or uncoupling from social media may set up the fear of missing out (FOMO). We will get behind in our work, not respond as expected and there is the rationale that it is better to keep the wheel spinning as fast as possible since pausing for a moment will create an insurmountable workload we won’t be able to dig out from.

We live in an age of extremes, of deprivation and binging. We supersize our cravings and when we indulge—we go hard.  “Binge-watching,” television is the new norm. We can observe the prevalence of restrictive diets that allow one “cheat day” a week, and the culture of obsessive exercise, work, and food. The Buddha counseled a middle way in life. One that does not fall into the ascetic practice of denial and self-mortification, but does not overfill the senses with too much of a good thing. This moderation doesn’t come from distrust and the belief that left to my own care, I will never get out of my pajamas, leave the sofa, turn off Netflix, or do anything requiring effort. The middle way comes from seeing the basic human need for sovereignty and self-dignity.

As a culture, we do not value time for self-care. It is seen as a privilege or a sign of vanity. The courage to step away from the pull of doing may be an act of self-preservation. A college survey in 2016 showed 62% of students felt “overwhelming anxiety.” Increasing, the expectation of constant response to the boundless connections of work, our online platforms, and social media can create a never-ending cycle of anxiety and insufficiency.

The Buddha is reported to have said, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking & pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness” (Dvedhavitakka Sutta: Two Sorts of Thinking, MN 19, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, trans.). This is what neuroscience calls neuroplasticity, the ability of the mind to increase connectivity and structure based on use. When we train in time scarcity and deprivation, that becomes our belief. Stopping, resting, or calming will feel alien, even unwelcome and frightening. And yes, the world dumps more into our inbox while we sleep. Few individuals get the permission to take time to stop. The 19th Century Tibetan teacher Patrul Rinpoche said, “Preoccupations do not end until the moment we die. They end when we put them down. This is their nature.” The world believes in busyness and gauges the importance of individuals on the fullness of their calendars, not on the contentment and peace in their hearts. This balance is increasingly challenging, especially for young people growing up in a digital world where constant evaluation, comparing, and responding is expected and the barometer of lovability.

I wish I had the magic cure to give folks the permission to trust their wise selves and return to the body that is speaking to us all the time and to the heart and mind that are calling out for attention. The middle way in the Buddha’s time was revolutionary, not falling into hedonism nor deprivation, and it remains so today. It is counter-culture to listen to ourselves with respect and consideration, valuing our own well-being more highly than the approval of the world. It is hard work and sometimes lonely to turn inward, to care, to set aside time to be healed and whole. But this is the birthright of all beings and the work that makes living a pleasure, not a punishment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

mindfulness