Dharma Dog

Lilly and Daisy in snow

Lilly and Daisy. Photo by Celia

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” ~Milan Kundera

“If you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.”

~Jack Kornfield

“There never yet has been a dog

Who learned to double cross,

Nor catered to you when you won

Then dropped you when you lost.”

~Mary Hale

Dear friends,

Some days wouldn’t you rather be a dog? Life would be so simple. Dogs don’t worry much about what comes next, or how to be a better dog. There is no complex examination of morality or conflicted intention in action because clearly, if you are smaller than I am, you are to be chased and if you are larger than I am, you are to be chased. Not much scheduling or planning—car’s broken, oh well, let’s eat something and have a nap. Pretty much all unpleasantness in a dog’s life arises because of external conditions since dogs do not have a sense of self like you and I. It is this profound difference that creates so much trouble for us humans and can make us our most painful companions.

Last week a friend told me the teaching story of farmers looking out at their fields in April. If they think of everything that needs to happen between spring and harvest, their heads would pop off. I could really relate. Just trying to keep my life on schedule brings me dukkha of planning. Mixed into this adventure is the fear of making a mistake (FOMAM). The mistakes I am speaking of will not result in an oil spill, a train wreck, or a bridge collapsing, but they are painful and inconvenient for me and those who are waiting for me to show up.

I am looking into this unpleasantness through the lens of the system of causation the Buddha set forth, the twelve links of Dependent Origination. This is a complex and accurate map of how we get stuck in repeating behavior from the past in the present moment and creating our future. This simplest description of this web of cause and effect is from Thich Nhat Hanh, “this is because that is.” Looking into what “that is” can take us through past experiences, to see how we recreate our habits, our longings, and addictions and perpetuate the view of who we believe we are.

Last week, I was fifteen minutes late to a school meeting and forgot a phone meeting, both on the same day. These two missteps have stuck with me much more than all the things I did right on that same day, including arriving at two other meetings on time with traveling over an hour each way. This propensity to dwell on mistakes is part of our natural negativity bias. A useful trait for the continuation of the species, this innate evolutionary function emphasizes the unpleasant or painful in order to instill avoidance of events and situations that can bring us suffering. I see this bias in the view that glosses over all the ways I was organized and on-time that day.

Negativity bias pulls us into auto-pilot mode and adds fuel to the self-critical voice, and to our doubt and reactivity. Instead of focusing on our ability to meet the challenges in our lives, we hone in on the mistakes, the imperfections which may lead us to believe and cling to these roles as flawed or wrong. As we respond to these self-imposed labels, we either push against them (I don’t want to be the late one) or we embrace them (I am happy to be the responsible one). They can last for a few moments, or for a lifetime, bringing with them a tangle of views and behaviors to solidify or purge these traits.

In his astonishingly comprehensive book, The Foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin (1998) describes the mind which mistakes biological responses to life for a personality as “merely an underlying mass of ever-changing causes and conditions, arising and falling, but which none the less, as it flows on, maintains a certain pattern which gives it the appearance of relative identity” (p. 246). When we believe we are what we think we are, we repeatedly take birth in our self-view. Each time I am late, I can further reinforce my belief, I am flaky—or each time I am on time, I could reinforce the idea that I am punctual, but even a pleasant identity will also cause pain on the day I get stuck in traffic. And being late will go against the identity I want to present, to be seen as competent, mistake-proof, reliable, as someone who lives up to their promises. So, we can see that all of these labels will eventually cause us the pain of trying to live up to them, or the pain of trying to run away from them.

This week, you may like to try this exercise, to list all of our self-views, all the good and the bad: compassionate, cruel, aggressive, patient, intelligent, slow, generous, selfish, all the ways we limit and evaluate our behavior. We tend to reward and punish ourselves based on these views. Consider what would it be like to have the same amount of acceptance and caring for ourselves when we have disappointing labels as the good ones? Can we stretch our compassion to include all of our existence without exclusion and offer ourselves to ourselves even when we make a mistake? I wonder if this is the secret of dogs? To not be sad about what we did last week and to not know how to withhold our love.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

TNH_15_are_you_sure_ag_grande

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Reference

Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, New York: Oxford Press.

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Stuck in the Mud

“‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion arises, or arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of irritation,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of irritation, unarisen aversion arises and arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance.…’” ~ Sectarians
Titthiya Sutta (AN 3:69)

“Aversion, my friend, makes you blind, makes you sightless, makes you ignorant. It brings about the cessation of discernment, is conducive to trouble, and does not lead to Unbinding.” ~Channa Sutta (AN 3:72)

“They, superlative people, put out the fire of aversion
with good will.”  ~Iti 93

all translations by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Marsh in winter

Marsh in winter. Photo by Celia

Dear Friends,

There’s a phenomenon that plagues all practitioners from time to time—it lessens as we progress along the path, but it’s a sticky thing and can catch us unaware. I am going to call it getting stuck in the mud. I had one of those muddy days last week where even before I opened my eyes my thoughts were brimming with the injustice of how others were making my life hard. The wrongness of this ate at me and as I opened emails, I saw brusqueness and blame and fights to be fought. Everything was irritating: My spouse was impatient and vexatious. The cats were quarreling. My son moped like a dejected prophet and wouldn’t accept vegetables in his lunch. The news was particularly distressing, hate crimes were up and the British labor party had split over overt anti-Semitism and bullying in the party. The world was going to hell and I was ticked off.

The only one who wasn’t irritating me was the dog sleeping on the floor. Even my meditation seemed pointless to help with these big problems of the world. And—I was supposed to be peaceful and happy, which made another thing wrong. But I didn’t want to feel better; I wanted to be miserable. I was right to be miserable because things were miserable. In short, I had jumped into the mud pit of vexation and aversion and was stomping around in it.

It was still morning and already I was tired of myself and this mood, but I was in it, victimized and defended. Aversion sat victoriously upon my chest, like a pugnacious toddler in a dirty diaper, stinking and drooling. I felt irritable and knew that this mind-state would lead to even more suffering as the day wore on.

I decided if I was in this hell-realm, I was going to really do it right and jump in with both feet.  I would make a list of all the things that were the source of my irritation starting with the dent in my car, the cat’s mysterious dandruff, the medication my health insurance wouldn’t cover, the neighbor who thinks I am odd, the meeting that didn’t get rescheduled because of snow, the never-ending winter, this wind that’s threatening to bash in the door. The list went on and by the time I got to the oligarchy in America—my aversion had changed. I could see that I was hating the whole kitchen sink of events, and they were stupendously uncontrollable. As the weight of the list got heavier and more unwieldy, I began to see my aversion as just plain aversion. In fact, I was smiling as I contemplated me complaining loudly against the litany of wrong in the world.

Deer footprint in snow

deer footprint in snow

Ajahn Sumedho (2014), a senior Thai Forest monk writes about falling into this pit of aversion and becoming very righteous and indignant. He suggests we “bring it up into conscious form, where you can see it, make it absurd, and when you have a perspective on it, and it gets quite amusing. You can see what comedy is about!” (pp. 44-45). My list of irritations was not going away, or trivial, like climate change, they were difficult and challenging conditions created from ignorance, fear, and delusion, but when I saw them all heaped up on the scale—the enormity of my judgment was what was causing the pain and coloring my view of everything.

Instead of suppressing aversion, the permission to let it be, allowed it to flower into a mass of ridiculousness. It does become funny when we can stop pushing back against the aversion and believing it—stop taking our likes and dislikes so seriously that they pull us into reactivity and stop us from being able to see clearly—and they rob us of all the enjoyment and potential to act with wisdom and discernment at this moment.

Being able to look at aversion separates it from the unconscious belief that we are the aversion and gives us the necessary space to observe our choices. Caring for our irritation means we stop fighting against it—we stop the internal conflict that judges the judgment and creates more suffering. This is an act of loving kindness—of metta. Not accepting ourselves in this less than ideal state and always wanting to be loving and cheery is what Ajahn Sumedho calls “impractical idealism” (p. 34) that leads us to the punishing judgment of being a “good Buddhist” (p. 33). We can use our caring attention to contact the aversion and as Sumedho advises, “Have metta for the aversion you feel, for the pettiness of mind, the jealousy, envy, meaning peaceful coexisting, not creating problems out of the difficulties that arise in life, within our minds and bodies” (p. 35). The difficulties don’t stop—but we stop going to war with what is difficult. Sometimes things are painful and feel bad and knowing it, making peace, and laughing at our seriousness and the sticky righteousness of our unpleasant and grumpy thoughts is as good as it gets right now.

Maybe you have never visited the aversion pit, or maybe you can always get out easily—maybe painful feelings and judging don’t catch you up—lucky you! But if you find yourself stuck in the mud, please remember sometimes letting ourselves roll around in it is enough to get us free.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Mindfulness is a source of happiness

Reference

Sumedho, A. (2014). The seeds of understanding: The ajahn Sumedho anthology. Hertfordshire, UK: Amaravati Publications.

The Transformational Practice of Tonglen

Buddha under glass

Buddha under glass. Photo by Celia

When you are suffering, you become more understanding about yourself, but also about other people’s sufferings too. That’s the first step to understand somebody is to understand their sufferings. So then love follows. ~Yoko Ono

Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. ~Matthieu Ricard

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama

 

Dear Friends,

There’s a lot to like in Buddhism, the potential of finding total enlightenment, the reliance upon oneself and the trust in our own ability to make changes and free ourselves. I also enjoy the richness from the three limbs of Buddhism, Theravadin (the teaching of the elders), Zen, and Tibetan Vajrayana. Within each branch of Buddhism, there are sub-schools, different traditions, each with a slightly different flavor depending upon the lineage. One Pure Land monk described these diverse traditions as flowers in a bouquet, each one with its own beauty and fragrance, each offering a unique and distinct gift. And while I am not immersed in the Tibetan school of practice, I’ve had the good fortune to be introduced to a practice that I’ve relied on throughout the years when things get really tough. It’s the practice of Tonglen or sending and taking. What is so useful about Tonglen, is that you can practice it on the spot, in an emergency, or what feels like an emergency.

This winter, my son was missing school due to stomach pain. At first, we believed it was a virus, but after weeks he wasn’t improving. On the advice of our general practitioner, I booked an appointment with a Pediatric Gastroenterologist. Where I live, these specialists are pretty rare, and the first appointment I could get was for three weeks away at 8:30 am, on a weekday in Hartford, CT. I consulted my “maps” app, which told me it was 34 miles from home. To be safe, I estimated an hour’s drive.

The day finally came for our appointment and as we got into the car, I opened my app and saw the estimated travel time was an hour and a half. How could that be?  I found out why as I sat and waited in the line of cars while the traffic light turned red for the third time; I was aware of the burn of adrenalin in my forearms and an infusion of frustration and anger. I felt absolutely helpless caught in this traffic. I couldn’t speak to a human at the doctor’s office; I kept getting an answering service; I couldn’t turn around. I was stuck. I believed I had failed my son and this time screw-up made me furious with myself. Why hadn’t I checked the night before? Why hadn’t I asked someone or known better?

I did my best to breathe and to remember my intention to be a presence of care of each moment, but my mind was churning. I wanted to be airlifted above this clogged morning commute and escape. The pain of my judgment and the physical sensations of helplessness and panic was making my trip a hell-realm. I told myself, “this feels terrible; I don’t know what to do,” and in that moment I remembered Tonglen.

red bud leaf

I breathed in with all the tension in my body and mind, feeling this crunch of expectation and disappointment and breathed out the wish for ease and spaciousness. I breathed in again and felt the helplessness, the fear that I was going to miss this appointment, the doubt that I wouldn’t be able to care for my son, the binding frustration of being held in this line of traffic and breathed out understanding for the situation, the tender recognition that I care, and forgiveness for what I didn’t know. Then I widened my practice to include all the people in this world of more than 7 billion who, just like me, felt frustrated and blamed themselves. I breathed in with all the parents who were afraid that they couldn’t relieve their child’s suffering, felt the shared anger and disappointment, the feeling of injustice and hopelessness. I breathed out a breath of deep peace for all these people caught, just as I was, in situations we could not control. Breathing in I took in our shared pain and with each out-breath, I sent us all the wish for capacity to bear discomfort, forgiveness, and dispassion.

When I did this, I could become the witness to this experience, as well as the one who was in it. I knew that even though this moment felt so out of control and uncomfortable, it was a moment of shared experience and I was capable of transforming these emotions, no matter how fierce or unwanted. After practicing for a few minutes, I breathed in and accepted the pain of those who were suffering from this same frustration and feeling lost. I willingly breathed in the feeling of anger, hopelessness, and despair so others would not have to feel these things. Taking on their suffering and transforming it, I breathed out, sending all those who were in a panic, late, feeling frazzled and in trouble, peace, deep contentment, and non-fear.

This is the practice of Tonglen in action that moves us from victimhood, experiencing suffering as uniquely our, and connects us to all those who are suffering just like us. Tonglen reminds us of the impersonal nature of suffering and develops our compassion and bodhicitta—our Buddha nature and awakened loving heart.

The practice is simple, recognizing our pain, or the pain of another person and breathing in experiencing that discomfort, noticing the feeling, color, taste, and particulars of that suffering and breathing out the antidote to that poison. In this vast world, there must be a few other people feeling what we are feeling right now—it could be boredom, ill-health, grief, fear, or rage. We can know these emotions and breath them in with those who, just like us, are suffering. When we breathe out, we can offer them and ourselves the cooling intention of relief.

As we continue to practice, we can develop some more capacity to move through our own suffering and we can offer this practice exclusively for others by breathing in their anxiety, discomfort, and confusion, willing ourselves to take on these painful states to save others from suffering. Breathing out we offer the benefit of our merit and give them the fruits of our practice, our peace, happiness, and stillness—freely given to save others from future suffering.

Back in my car, practicing Tonglen, I recognized that maybe I would have to re-schedule, but it wasn’t the crisis that I was manufacturing. Tonglen isn’t a magic bullet, but it can transform our understanding of our situation and bring compassion to our actions. When we breathe in and recognize all those we share this moment with, we are no longer alone, or helpless. We become agents of our own well being and active participants in the wellbeing of all those on this planet who are caught, just as we are.

That day, we were 40 minutes late and we still got to see the doctor. I had gratitude for the understanding of the staff and for this practice that helped me transform pain and open my heart to all of our suffering. This week, please give this a try—you don’t have to have a crisis to start. Tonglen is as accessible as an inhale and an exhale and can join us to all those around the world, reestablish our sovereignty, and reconnect us with our true intention to live with kindness for ourselves and others.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

For a deeper guided experience with Tonglen, click here for writing from Roshi Joan Halifax.

Peace is every breathe

 

The Monastery of Family Life

Frozen water

Stream in winter. Photo by Rick Errichetti

“Each person is different. Freedom does not come by imitating others.” ~ Ajahn Chah

“You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.”      ~ Bhante Gunaratana

 “Live your life. Do the dishes. Do the laundry. Take your kids to kindergarten. Raise your children or grandchildren. Take care of the community in which you live. Make all that your path and follow your path with heart.” ~ Dipa Ma

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” ~ Albert Einstein

 

Dear Friends,

We are imperfect and relationships don’t follow rules. Families and children can create unimagined tests of patience and endurance. Our lives can become consumed and seemingly hi-jacked by the urgent needs of another and we are left feeling like a shell of ourselves, all our desires thwarted. And this is the monastery of family life.

The hardest role I have in my life and the one that has taught me the most about love, renunciation, diligence, humility, and equanimity is parenthood. Meditation teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield writes “Parenting is a labor of love. It’s a path of service and surrender and, like the practice of a Buddha or a bodhisattva, it demands patience and understanding and tremendous sacrifice.” A great part of this sacrifice is learning to let go over and over. Before my kids were born, I thought I was calm and freed from much of my reactivity—then I had kids and my enlightenment date got pushed way back. How could these small people, turn me from a mellow sage into a neurotic parent I would not want to sit next to on a bus?

Our culture is driven by success. We want to look like we are able to cope with our lives, but sometimes our children can provide us with challenges that we cannot overcome. My first child had colic, which meant she cried about seven hours a day and woke up many times during the night. If my success and happiness as a new mother was measured by my ability to soothe my child—I was a terrible failure. If my daughter was born twenty years earlier, I would have read about letting her cry and not picking her up. But she was born in the time of attachment parenting and I read that the best, kindest thing to do was to pick up the baby whenever she cried. So that’s what I did, with the result of being exhausted and totally resentful and she didn’t stop crying. When she was older, I was advised to parent according to the Myers Briggs personality traits and be firm and decisive with her, set strong limits and distance myself. Whenever I followed the directions from a book written by experts, it hurt my heart. Instructions written by someone who never met me didn’t allow for my own authentic way of relating and I ended up feeling like a fraud.

snow heart

Our brain’s ability to analyze can pull us into the path of self-doubt where we distrust our own instinct and abandon our internal sense of truth for the cookie-cutter actions of experts. We are flooded with self-help books from experts in all fields. We have been told to eat like a Mediterranean, a Californian, and a cave-person. I’ve lost track or what we’re supposed to eat; I believe food is out and we are supposed to subsist on Kombucha. We can get seduced by the world of pretend perfection and invulnerability we see on social media. The beautiful houses and the how-to blogs can create the obsession of correctness and competency. There’s the expression, “fake it ‘till you make it,” meaning to just do the thing to create the habit and confidence to make it our own behavior. But what if we fake it and it stays fake?

What I came to embrace in parenting is the practice of authenticity and respect—of looking into my own heart and letting my children know how their actions affected me. I stopped being a superior being exercising my legitimate authority and set my intention to care for me and for them without sacrificing either of us on the altar of social approval. I learned to pause and sense my body and emotions before responding. I would ask my kids how they would handle the situation if they were the parent. I didn’t become an equal or a friend. I became someone who respected themselves and allowed themselves to make mistakes because I trust that we can figure it out. We are designed as a species to be in relationship and when we make missteps we can have the confidence in our ability to make repairs.

Monastics entering the life of renunciation learn to give up comforts and to endure hardship, not sleeping, living in arduous conditions and often being in contact with those who they would rather avoid. Renunciation is also part of parenting. There is the relinquishment of sleep, comforts, projects and plans, showering and preferences. Parenthood anchors the focus of attention on a small helpless being. When we learn to see that householder life can be a pathway to practice, we learn to stop trying to make it free from pain and let it teach us how to stay with grace in the midst of pain and things that aren’t the way we would choose. Zen poet Gary Synder wrote, “It is as hard to get children herded into the carpool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha Hall on a cold morning. One is not better than another. Each can be quite boring. They both have the virtuous quality of repetition.”

Weekdays, I wake before sunrise and begin my sandwich meditation—this includes waking my teenaged son up, waking him up again, making his lunch—seeing he has something in his stomach before ejecting him from the house so he can meet his bus. I feed two cats and two dogs, clean two litter boxes, wash some dishes, drink coffee and then sit in meditation. I have a choice. I can think about everything I do before sitting meditation as an obstacle, or I can see all my actions as a continuous stream of meditation. When I look at my life without compartmentalizing, my everyday acts transcend the mundane and become acts of devotion. All of our life can be an act of dedication and respect for ourselves, our time and talents, and for those close to us.

This week, I invite you to look at your routine and roles in a new light, as sacred acts. How much love is in our hands as we clean the toilet, or put gas into the car? Can we know the end of suffering as we pet a cat or wash our hair? Can we respect all of our time and leave nothing out? There are no throwaway experiences or times when we are off the clock of practice. The Buddha directed his monks to have clear comprehension and awareness when sitting, standing, walking, putting on robes, using the bathroom—in short, paying attention with the same amount of care, to all of our lives, even what isn’t formal practice. With attention and respect—doing the dishes, folding laundry, tending our lives—it is all a path to awakening.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

we are already what we want to become

 

 

 

A True Gift

Bison in Yellowstone

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Joaquin Carral

“Love is trembling happiness.”
~ Kahlil Gibran

“Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
~ Robert Heinlein

“When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.”
~ H. H. The Dalai Lama

 

Dear Friends,

We live in a culture obsessed and mesmerized by romantic love, the idea that there is a perfect, or at least acceptable, someone that will love and support us as we go through life, age, and show the inescapable results of gravitational pull. They will be there for us when we lose our shiny luster and are held together with tape and stretch fabric. But mostly, they will make us happy—or at least give it a good try.

Culturally we celebrate romantic love this week with the observance of Valentine’s Day. Some folks think this holiday is nothing more than a money-making endeavor of card sellers, candy-hawkers, and flower-peddlers, capable of creating emotional damage for children who are excluded and adults who feel more alone on this day. For those who are coupled, it can be akin to extortion, expected by their partner to get a gift—a good one—and are judged and blamed if they don’t come through.

Not a big surprise that in Buddhism, unlike Hollywood, romantic love is not the highest pursuit. The Buddha was an exceptional realist who understood that this singular love, that seeks to discriminate and exclude, will bring pain. The Buddha taught that whatever is dear to us, will cause us to suffer and become distraught when we encounter those we love in distress. Holding someone dear will always bring pain when there is change and impermanence. It may seem surprising that the Buddha also taught about the benefits of holding ourselves dear.

In The Rajan Sutta: The King, both King Pasenadi Kosala and his wife, Queen Mallikā, have the realization that in all the world, they love themselves the best. This may seem at odds with Buddhist ideals that our life’s goal is to be of service and the idea of self-cherishing sinks the raft we are taking to the other shore, but there it is. The Buddha gave his endorsement of this insight, noting that self-cherishing leads directly to cherishing others, “Searching all directions with your awareness, you find no one dearer than yourself. In the same way, others are thickly dear to themselves. So you shouldn’t hurt others if you love yourself” (Ud 5.1, Thanissaro trans.) If we hold our own life to be a gift of great worth, we can see that it is the same for others. Finding our own worth and goodness allows us to see that in others, who just like me want happiness.

I had an experience with this teaching a few years ago on retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. It was a melting hot August. There was a group of Korean nuns visiting from a university to study the propagation of Buddhism in the West. Dressing in their immaculate, crisp grey linen robes, they seemed cool and immune to the stultifying humidity. For one evening’s activity, I was paired with one of the nuns for an exercise on mindful speech and deep listening. Perhaps because her English was limited and we were both taking care to communicate authentically, we shared a rare depth of understanding and appreciation in a short amount of time. As we ended our communication for the night, returning to silence, we bowed to each other and she said, “I will pray for your happiness always.” This is one of the most generous and beautiful things anyone has offered me—and I know it is not personal.

It is her practice to pray for the happiness of everyone and yet being told that I was one of those deserving of her prayers for happiness has stayed with me. This simple phrase was so meaningful and humbling, knowing that another person cared enough to act to bring about my happiness. This meant more to me than the declaration that I was loved—which is a one-sided statement. The willingness to let another know their intrinsic worth is a supreme gift that incorporates dana, [generosity] and metta [non-discriminatory love]. It enobles both the giver and the receiver, creates beautiful kamma [action] and keeps giving. To me, this is the best Valentine’s gift, letting someone know they are worthy of happiness and working to bring it about.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

I know you are there

 

 

Life Contains Death

Thay inviting the bell

Thich Nhat Hanh, 2013. Photo by Celia

“Someday when we die, we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything.  Our freedom, peace, and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have.  But without an awakened understanding of impermanence, it is not possible to be happy.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

“Impermanence is, in fact, just another name for perfection. Leaves fall; debris and garbage accumulate; out of the debris come flowers, greenery, things that we think are lovely. Destruction is necessary. A good forest fire is necessary. The way we interfere with forest fires may not be a good thing. Without destruction, there could be no new life; and the wonder of life, the constant change, could not be. We must live and die. And this process is perfection itself.”

~ Charlotte J. Beck, Everyday Zen

“Watering the seeds of happiness is a very important practice for the sick or dying.  All of us have seeds of happiness inside us, and in difficult moments when we are sick or when we are dying, there should be a friend sitting with us to help us touch the seeds of happiness within.  Otherwise, seeds of fear, of regret or of despair can easily overwhelm us.”

 ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

 

Dear Friends,

I hope you are well and weathering the weather this winter. This season is long and can feel like it’s never ending—but as we know, all things begin and end. One of the reasons I find Buddhism so supportive is because it is so practical and honest about endings—specifically death, ours and everyone else’s. We all know that everything that takes life will one day die. This is a very unpopular part of living. In the U.S. we expect to get our 78.6 years as promised. We don’t see death as a natural, unavoidable part of life. In popular culture, death is seen as somehow not only unfair but avoidable if we play our cards right and eat, exercise and take our meds. This wasn’t always the case. Before funeral homes and embalmment, death was something that happened at home, with family. It was met with ritual and community sharing grief and loss as naturally as sharing the celebration of birth.

In the time of the Buddha, death was out in the open and 2,600 years later in India, death continues to be center stage. It is not uncommon to see funeral processions and bodies carried through the streets to the burning ghats. One of the contemplations the Buddha gave repeatedly is to meditate on death and the parts of the body. Monks still visit the equivalent of the charnel grounds in Asia and reflect on the process of dissolution and decomposition. In Tibet, children are taught that everyone they encounter will have suffering and death. This teaching helps to develop compassion for each person. Developing a familiarity with death allows us to touch the poignancy of living in impermanent bodies. We touch the shared pain and vulnerability that comes from the death of those we love and the collective fear of losing our own existence.

Just as we see in nature, the constant fluid shift of season and change, death is transformation. Death does not mean we stop and become nothing. Thich Nhat Hanh, in No Death No Fear, reminds us that we are subject to natural laws, specifically, the first law of thermodynamics. This principle of life states that energy can become matter and matter can become energy, both are transient, but they cannot be destroyed or annihilated. In the same way, we are always becoming.

crumple leaf

When we leave this lifetime, we leave the marks of our actions, our karma as our legacy. Buddhist practice recommends that the dying person have the chance to hear how their good actions contributed to life. This is an opportunity for caretakers to tell the dying about the ways they have made a difference. The reminder of one’s own goodness helps folks die without regrets and the fear they have wasted this lifetime.

One of the most famous Buddhist teachings on death is the story of Kisagotami an impoverished and disrespected woman who bore a son and earned the esteem of her in-laws. When the boy died from an accident, she went mad with grief. She carried her dead son with her asking everyone she could for medicine to cure him. When she encountered the Buddha, he promised to give her medicine to cure her son if she could bring him a mustard seed—something as common as a grain of salt—from a house that had never known death. As Kisagotami knocked on door after door receiving the answer that ‘yes, this house knew death,’ the realization of the impersonal and inescapable nature of death restored her to a clear mind. She was able to recognize the truth of death and release her son. She uttered the words, “It’s not just a truth for one village or town, Nor is it a truth for a single family. But for every world settled by gods [and men] This indeed is what is true — impermanence” (ThigA 10.1, Olendzki trans.).

Recognizing death puts our lives into perspective. When we realize that each person we encounter will die—just as we will, that knowledge can profoundly change how we interact with those around us. Those who have terminal diagnoses recognize this. And we all have a terminal diagnosis—we just don’t know our expiration date. Mindfulness of death promotes, samvega [spiritual urgency]. It also produces compassion to know that each person we meet, the lovely ones, AND the irritating, abrasive ones are subject to impermanence. Recognition of death is also a call to show our authentic caring for others. Rather than hesitate from fear, we can practice communicating our love and appreciation while we are here now. We learn not to hold back for someday since events and circumstances may never be more perfect than this minute.

One way to be with this recognition of death is to practice the awareness that everyone you meet today will one day die. This simple reminder can make a big difference in our day. The disappointments and desires to achieve or be seen a certain way may take a back-seat to being present with people right now. The awareness of transience in all things can be a way to access this teaching in a gentle way. Noticing how all things, animate and inanimate constantly break down and rebuild, take life and decline, can help us see the inherent naturalness of this change. As we learn to stay and be a presence of compassion at each moment, we create the solidity and presence to look at death without fear. We can learn to trust that we are strong enough to bear all that life has to offer and in not turning away, we gain freedom and the joy of living an authentic, courageous life.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

no death no fear

Can Anger be Love?

hidden bench

 Cliffside, Barre, MA, photo by Celia

 “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

All quotes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Dear friends,

On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, we collectively celebrate the life that included a fierce commitment to compassion and dignity for all people. We also recognize that Dr. King was leading people to a social revolution in a society unwilling to recognize justice and equality. Dr. King brought the eyes of the world to see the unlivable reality of being black in a white world. He did this without firing a single bullet, but through non-violent action which removes hatred from our hearts. That was the teaching of love Dr. King brought to an America incapable of receiving his message without fear. His murder and death are part of the American legacy of violence, continued fear, and discrimination against people of color. This Monday we have a collective reminder of the promise of the beloved community, where all people are considered, and an opportunity to mourn Dr. King’s dream that is still beyond the reach of our American reality.

Dr. King understood that aggression and violence lead to more violence. Violence may serve as a justification to oppressors to continue their domination and persecutions and violence and aggression continue the fire of hatred. This is the fire that can only be quenched through a radically different approach. We’ve seen the power dynamics of warring countries. Conflicts can last for generations with one side oppressing the other, then shifting power so the other becomes the oppressor. This is a continuous cycle of ignorance and violence without end.

The Buddha’s words always categorize anger as unwholesome, consistently associated with hatred and ill-will and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Bhikkhu Bhodi told me that anger is a “wrong motivation” and Buddhist teacher and activist Donald Rothberg states when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action and kamma will be harmful to self and others. We know from our own experience that when we act in anger—we are at a deficit and the best part of our brain is unavailable due to the increased amount of cortisol and adrenalin, starving off the full engagement of our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for compassion, wisdom, and can discern consequence.

While unchecked anger is without question dangerous to our relationships and clear thinking, anger does have a place in our emotional life. This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another may not be the whole story. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg consider the terms “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,” to be more accurate translations for the Pali word “kodha” which is commonly listed as anger. An action rooted in hatred is always harmful–but anger can serve us.

When we understand the usefulness of anger, we can see it as energy and information. The Western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust.” Anger can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger does not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and seek to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.

Anger sends the clear message that something is wrong and needs our attention and can be the sustenance to create an organization that uses civil disobedience to save lives. Anger at injustice may be what love feels like. Looking at the intention beneath the action there is the desire to protect and defend life and to change what is intolerable to live with. When we know how to be with anger, not to allow it to bring us into hatred, or cause pain, but when we can hold our anger with care and understanding, we can use it as the fuel for change.

In the Dhammapada, a poetic interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching from Francis Story reads, “Not by hating hatred ceases. In this world of tooth and claw; Love alone from hate releases —This is the Eternal Law.” (Dhp Verse 5). This same idea is expressed by Dr. King when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It was the commitment to love without exception that made revolutionaries like the Buddha, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela create revolutions that change not only the power structure but also free the oppressors from the continuous damage of perpetuating hate and discrimination. Guided by wisdom and non-preferential love, we can make wise choices towards loving others—even those who perpetuate the cycle of abuse and hatred. Treating our anger with respect and consideration, we can use the information to act with fierce compassion, just as Dr. King taught—because we are not free until all of us are free.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

one buddha is not enough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opening the Channels to Life

buddha cliff

Buddha Cliff, Photo by Celia

 “If I were to tell you that your life is already perfect, whole, and complete just as it is, you would think I was crazy. Nobody believes his or her life is perfect. And yet there is something within each of us that basically knows we are boundless, limitless.”

“As long as you’re capable of becoming annoyed, you can be sure something will annoy you.”

“Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward after something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that.”

 ~ All quotes from Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen Master

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year. I wish you much delight and ease as you continue caring for yourselves and others in 2019. For the past four years, I’ve taken time off from my life during the busyness of the holidays to disengage from the pattern of my regular life and spend time on retreat in silence, listening to myself.

Retreat is a precious gift we can give to ourselves, a time of giving permission to slow down and to pay attention to things we normally don’t notice. We can take our time to chew each mouthful off food and reflect on our great good fortune to have food, especially when it is made with care and skill. During retreat, we can let go of plans and allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted by the weather since we have nowhere to go and nothing to do. And we do not have to have an opinion about the weather.

This time away, I had the opportunity to re-connect with the beauty of the forest, the green starbursts of mosses and streams flowing under thin glazings of ice. What I noticed was that my attention became wider. I could sit and listen to the rain and the wind, or go outside at night and look at the stars. In stillness and quiet, with an unhurried mind, the gifts of the universe are available to us.

Thinking about the sensitivity and receptivity while on retreat contrasted with daily worldly life, the difference is clear. On retreat, we are invested in being and in the world we are invested in doing. To my mind, it’s like a sea sponge—a filter feeder whose pores are open to all the nutrient-rich content of the ocean. At our most still, we are the same as the filter feeders, all channels open to experience without discrimination. As we return to our working lives where we have projects, responsibilities, and deadlines we close off some of our attention from what is unimportant to achieving our goals. Gradually without awareness, we can close all channels of attention until there is only one channel we are filtering all experience through, the story of me and mine. To each sensation, each sound, taste, and sight, we constantly ask—how is this for me; how does this affect my bottom line; is this helping me with my agenda? We become like a sea sponge with only one aperture unable to be adequately nourished, unable to take in what won’t benefit our status or wellbeing. We forget to enjoy the life that is constantly swirling around us and we forget that we too are part of this flow of arising and passing.

Sound meditation is a wonderful way to create a bigger mind and experience the constant arising and passing of phenomena. Noticing the beginning of sounds, the ending, the way sounds overlap creating interplay and texture is a sure way to access some of our closed channels of attention and nourish the reality of Interbeing. What is also wonderful about sound meditation, is that it includes everything, the traffic, the neighbors’ loud TV, or your colleague typing in the next room. Sound meditation is portable and makes room for all the experiences that are happening right now—and it can soothe the judging mind that uses the label “irritating.”

If you like, right now, stop and listen without grasping onto the sounds, just allowing them to come to you without preference. Notice how the body reacts to listening. Do the shoulders get tighter with certain sounds, or soften and release with different sounds? There is no right way to hear—it is solely your unique human privilege right now. If your hearing is compromised—you can use your eyes—soften the focus and notice color or form, use the sense door of contact and direct your attention to the experience of contact on the skin. How does the skin on the hands feel in contact with the air, or the skin of the arms covered with clothing?

This week you may like to use your sense doors to nourish yourself in ways often overlooked. Taking in the uniqueness of this moment—knowing that there will never be another moment just like this one we can fully receive the gift of the present moment.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

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Home to Ourselves for the Holidays

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Paperwhites, photo by Celia

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” ~David Whyte

 “I have gone forth,

but not in search of sensual pleasures.

Seeing the danger in sensual pleasures

— and renunciation as rest —

    I go to strive.

            That’s where my heart delights.”

~ The Buddha, “Pabbaja Sutta: The Going Forth”, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.)

“The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.” ~ Pema Chödrön

 

Dear Friends,

It’s busy out there. We are shopping, hosting, checking Amazon Wishlists, buying Secret Santa gifts for the office, traveling to be with relatives, making New Year’s plans, and let us not forget there’s always some last minute shopping. There’s overwhelm and preparations for the hosts and tremendous longing for those who are unable to be with their families. There’s also isolation and sadness for those who are not part of the dominant Christian culture or are alone on holidays. December is both the busiest and loneliest time of the year.

More than a dozen years ago, I read about a simple holiday practice of making gifts for the wild animals. The author made peanut butter pinecone bird feeders for the chickadees and the squirrels and scattered dried corn for the deer in his yard on Christmas day. These simple gifts for those whose opinions won’t get us a promotion or be able to reciprocate in kind really touched me. This man was able to detach from the loud voices of the commercial world, to listen to the quieter voice of his own deepest intentions and honor his own kindness, inclusivity, and unrequited giving. That is my message today, a heartfelt encouragement for us all to take some time to stop and listen deeply to what our lives are calling out for.

This was the choice the Buddha made. Born into a life of privilege and power, he recognized that pleasures and comfort were not enough. His life needed to become simpler to find the truth. So he left. The Buddha must have been deeply discontent and unable to participate in a life that was so unsatisfactory. Instead of burying his heartsickness and living out his life comfortably as the pampered son of a tribal leader, he listened deeply to his own sense of responsibility for his own salvation and wellbeing. We know his journey ended with enlightenment and his teachings on the end of suffering have set free countless numbers of humans. For most of us, taking off from our lives, leaving our children and spouses to begin our spiritual quest raises issues about honoring our agreements and our compassion for others, not to mention our financial responsibilities and subsistence. As lay people with families and jobs, we can remember that there are many ways to come back to ourselves, to our true intentions and stay in our role as parent, partner, and householder.

We can start small and take a five-minute break to listen. Listening to ourselves is a way to remember who we are and what is going to set us free. We can begin with mindfulness of the body/mind. How are we feeling today? What’s the territory of my mind—what emotions are visiting and how am I really? We can ask if we are aligned with our heart’s intentions.  How are we living our deepest desires today?  Have we dropped our aspirations to spend today in the present moment and unconsciously consented to exchange our peace and ease for irritation and exhaustion in the form of a completed shopping list and a clean house? We can ask the poet David Whyte’s question, “What brings me alive right now?” What do we want our lives to be made of?

At this time of year, we can remember that all moments contain choice. We can pause and consider what we consenting to in each encounter and each moment. Remembering that returning to our inner wisdom and stillness is available for us even in this season of doing and getting. That’s my wish for us all as we turn towards a new year, that we may deepen our trust in our own goodness and learn to listen to our truest desires.

Wishing you joy and happiness for the new year.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

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To Reconcile Means to Trust

Winter Stream

Winter Stream. Photo by Rick Errichetti

“The wounded child is there and we don’t even know she is there.

The wounded child in us is a reality, but we can’t see her.

That inability to see it is a kind of ignorance. This child has been severely wounded.

She or he really needs us to return.

Instead, we turn away.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh from Reconciliation

“It’s a cause of growth in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the noble ones when, seeing a

transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma

and exercises restraint in the future.”

Digha Nikaya verse 2

“The people around us, our family and friends, may also have a severely

wounded child inside. If we’ve managed to help ourselves, we can also help them.

When we’ve healed ourselves, our relationships with others become much easier.

There’s more peace and more love in us.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, from Reconciliation

Dear Friends,

The holiday season brings lots of opportunities for families to connect and be together. For some of us, these celebrations are a real celebration, joyful occasions where we renew our connection with our families experience support, trust, and feel at home again with those we are closely linked to. And then, there is the dark side of the holiday, when old habits appear, people say things and react uncovering old wounds or creating new ones. We may leave the holiday table feeling bruised and battered and running for shelter instead of experiencing a safe refuge where we encounter care and consideration.

There is no standardization in how families react to hurt feelings and disappointment. Some minimize or ignore, some have a blowup and engage in simultaneous loud and energetic opinions. Some decide who is at fault and who to punish, while some distance, not trusting that there are welcome and respect. Individuals may stay away and try to keep safe from afar. It can be painful to have division and discord in our families especially at this time of year when there is a cultural expectation about what a happy welcoming family is.

Our expectations can make these situations much worse. These are the “shoulds” we insert in our judgments; my daughter should call because I am the parent. We should get along because we are family. My parents should apologize because they are wrong. He shouldn’t say/ do/think that. She should…fill in the blank. We believe that families are supposed to get along without conflict and when they don’t, we experience a loss. This loss of an ideal can hurt as much as the actual words and actions of family members. There is an often unconscious belief that if we try harder or were a better person, or they were a better person, we would stop feeling hurt and angry and there would be a magical spontaneous healing and understanding.

I recall being on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh when a son asked about staying connected to his father who spoke with anger and refused to listen to him. Each conversation ended in a fight and hurt. Thây recommended that the son stop communicating with his father and care for his own suffering. He needed to listen to the part of himself that was hurt and discouraged, to hear the longing for trust, respect, and care for his own loss and sadness. Only then would he could be able to engage with his father without reacting from the place of rawness and quick reactivity.

In Buddhism, there is the opportunity to do lots of violence to the self through spiritual-bypass. This is a rush to get over our hurt, because –if we are good Buddhists, we know this world, including all spoken words and even our solid appearance of a self, are in the ultimate reality a chimera and have the consistency of a soap bubble. That is an often convenient mindset to escape the nitty-gritty and humbling work of looking at our own words, deeds, and intentions. We all exist in the historical dimension and when we use the teachings as an escape route from admitting our culpability or to not take responsibility for how we hurt another, we are abiding in ignorance.

Forgiveness and reconciliation and two different things. Tibetan nun Thubten Chodron says that one cannot truly forgive until they fully understand the depth of hurt they have suffered. This doesn’t mean to dive into self-righteous recounting and blaming but is a call to do the work of sitting with the difficult feelings with empathy, tenderness, and pure understanding that we are all sensitive beings who desire love, trust, and consideration. We cannot forgive until we have cared for the parts of the self who are hurt. A rush to forgive and reconcile before one has the time and space to meet their own needs results in a veneer of friendliness that tears apart quickly at the slightest offense. True forgiveness requires patience and the willingness to care for the self before extending ourselves to another who has hurt us.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes a beautiful article about forgiveness and reconciliation for the sangha and in our own lives that outlines some of the stages in this process. He writes, “[r]econciliation — patisaraniya-kamma — means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future.” Reestablishing trust is at the root of reconciliation. There can be no friendship, no connection, or willingness to be near someone we do not trust. And we know that trust takes time to build.

Social scientist Dr. Breneʹ Brown describes building trust as adding marbles to a jar. Each time we encounter another and experience safety when we share what is dear to us, we add a marble to the jar. When the jar is full of these small moments, we have a foundation of trust. When we do not feel safe with another person, when there are unkind words or actions, there is no trust and the marbles spill out of the jar. Building trust means we are sensitive to the needs of another and their feelings and it takes time. Rebuilding relationships does not coincide with a calendar date, as much as we may feel pressure to do so.

This holiday season, no matter what side of the table you find yourself are on—the one who feels hurt and unheard, or the one who acted and spoke with good intentions, but was unskillful and is experiencing the consequence of unmindful speech, please start at the beginning. As Thay would say, come home to yourself and make your own home a safe place. Take the time to listen to that hurt in you—and the part of yourself that needs your own care, compassion, and nurture. Remember that healing is non-linear and doesn’t go in a straight line. True forgiveness and reconciliation happen when there is enough self-care to heal the willingness to trust again.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

When Another Person makes you suffer...