Not to Hate the Haters

Sunrise, Ferry Beach

Sunrise at Ferry Beach, ME. Photo by Karen Swanson

“Killing another person is not an act of freedom but an act of great despair and great ignorance; it will not bring freedom or peace.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

All

tremble at the rod,

all

are fearful of death.

Drawing the parallel to

yourself,

neither kill nor get others to kill.

 

All

tremble at the rod,

all

hold their life dear.

Drawing the parallel to

yourself,

neither kill nor get others to kill. ~Dhammapada 129-130

“Nonviolence is not a set of techniques that we can learn with our intellect. Nonviolent action is born naturally, from compassion, lucidity and understanding within yourself.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Friends,

I returned from the Order of Interbeing retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery to read about Saturday’s shooting at the synagogue in California. Yet again, we see violence, hatred, and ignorance made lethal by the availability of weapons in the US. The rise of acceptability of white supremacy and the normalization of racism has me deeply concerned and sometimes afraid. While it is nothing new, there has always been suspicion, dominance, and distrust, it seems that the world is turning backward and forgetting. We are forgetting the atrocities of genocide, the deaths of millions in Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, in the concentration camps of Europe and the ethnic cleansing of Native Peoples on the Great Plains of America. Right now, there is the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people by the government of Myanmar, the most religious Buddhist country in the world. There are no simple and quick answers to hatred and violence. When we see how long it has taken to create these states of separation and ignorance, we know these institutions will take a long while to dismantle.

More than ever we can clearly see the need to transform society—and society is made of individuals who will either adopt the populist views or not. Reactivity and intolerance can grow to become dangerous and powerful destructive forces if tended and especially when communities support the idea of separation and belief in an enemy. This enemy image creates a rationale for attack and persecution. Thich Nhat Hanh tells us “our enemy is never another person; our enemy is the wrong perception and suffering within him, within her.” In truth, the enemy is our untransformed anger, judgment, fear, and illusion of separateness that drives humans to do violence to others in the belief that they will be safe, have enough, and even have peace and happiness through violence.

We know that domination does not eradicate hatred but adds resentment and anger and fuels what it seeks to eradicate. Telling someone they are wrong, trafficking in shame and judgment will not lead to change. Real willingness to change comes from an unprotected heart that feels safe enough to admit mistake. Polarization and division, winning and conquering others only leads to violence. We know this. The hardest work is what we resist—to see the humanness is those we see as enemy, to listen to our own broken hearts and not respond with hatred and judgment. We can listen to the world that cries for help, and hear the need for understanding, for safety, and care. This is the teaching of the Buddha, of Jesus and the Prophets, to treat the one who is caught in the delusion of separateness as a friend. True change comes only when one is connected to their full humanity.

An excerpt from the Third Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing reads, “We will learn to help others let go of and transform fanaticism and narrowness through loving speech and compassionate dialogue.” This is a radically different path to engagement. We condemn the violence that takes lives, the greed that deprives others of opportunities to live and the delusion that believes that separation is real and that one type of people has greater value than others. This we condemn, but we also see that we are the people caught in these views as well. We are part of them and to transform them, we must begin with ourselves. We are all co-creating each other. We are all responsible. My only encouragement is to check your heart and mind. Who are you telling yourself it’s ok to hate? Can we see the longing for consideration, justice, trust, and safety that fuels our judgments? When we can bring compassion to our own minds and care for the anger, discrimination, and separation that is alive in ourselves, we can heal our own broken hearts. When we do this, we are already healing the world.

Please be gentle with your suffering witnessing the pain and division in the world. Here is a link to a letter you may like to read. It is about reading the news mindfully by Order of Interbeing member and Sociology/ Global Studies Professor, Matthew Williams. He speaks about using the news as a practice to deepen our desire to relieve suffering in others and as an opportunity to recognize and transform our own reactivity and suffering.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

wake up

 

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The Patient Flower of Transformation

 

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The First Daffodil, photo by Celia

“Change is a continuous process. You cannot assess it with the static yardstick of a limited time frame. When a seed is sown into the ground, you cannot immediately see the plant. You have to be patient. With time, it grows into a large tree. And then the flowers bloom, and only then can the fruits be plucked.” ~Mamata Banerjee

“When you increase the number of gardens, you increase the number of heavens too!” ~Mehmet Murat ildan

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~Anais Nin

Dear Friends,

Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy spring. Today, the grass actually looks green; there’s a mist of new green leaves on the underbrush in the woods, and the daylight stretches beyond dinnertime. The red flowers of the maples are turning the hills red and spring has settled in. Spring more than any other season is a period of change. The land is transformed, and we are too. We change our clothes, our attitudes, and begin to live more in the outdoors. We can see change clearly in the spring and we want to see change in our own lives as well.

Last fall, a friend and I planted over 100 daffodils lining my driveway. Halfway through April, I counted five emerging sprouts. That was it. I was disappointed that my efforts were for nothing and some mysterious blight had destroyed my daffodil crop. I told my friend about my doubts, and she said, “You’re two weeks behind everyone else. Patience.” But I didn’t want patience; I wanted what I saw in other people’s gardens—a bunch of great looking daffodils. It occurred to me that this daffodil conundrum was just like life. We put in effort with our practice, we fertilize and plan, but sometimes our efforts don’t manifest the way we want them too. Sometimes our daffodils don’t appear on schedule.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with achievement in everything we do. We do things to bring about results, to get better, to have peace, and change things. Improvement invades our hobbies; we need to become a better painter, singer, or have a beautiful garden. We don’t usually just do things because we enjoy them, and they are a wholesome way to spend time. A lack of measurable progress in our practice can bring on an attack of doubt, worsened by the undeniable happiness killer—comparison.

Forest and Lily.jpg

Our spiritual progress is distinctly personal—it may not look like anyone else’s. While others may be engaging in heroic actions, volunteering at clinics in war zones and traveling to give aid to those in conflicts, our path may look quiet and mundane. Sometimes we need to look deeply to see what is happening in our lives. It is hard to remember how we were before practice. It can be helpful to have a close friend or kind family member remind us. Occasionally my husband tells me, “you’re so much nicer now.” And although I understand that he appreciates how the practice is making a difference in my life, I also wonder, how awful was I before?

We may not see the ways calming the body and mind, and bringing mindful awareness to our thoughts, words, and actions are making a difference. If we turn our attention to how we interact with others, we may notice distinct marks of change. Do we have more patience and understanding with the service folks who are on the other end of the phone or the drivers in other cars? One of the best barometers of our practice is our relationships with our family, friends, and coworkers. Have we transformed our own suffering enough to make a happy life? Are we in conflict with others, or able to express our authentic truth without blaming and judging? When we consider the whole of our lives, our interactions and being each day, what one word comes to mind? Is our attitude one of service and compassion or competition and defense? What are we bringing to ourselves and to the world each day?

This week on the driveway, I started to see more green shoots poking up. Now there are buds and my doubts have vanished. Buds become flowers. It’s the natural progression, the same way practicing centering our hearts and minds brings us peace and clarity. These things go together. Sometimes that progress is difficult to see, and our gardens may not look as beautiful as our neighbors, but if we practice and continue, it is unavoidable. We change. Today you may like to sit for a while and bring gratitude to yourself for your commitment to practicing, gratitude for the ways in which you’ve been diligent and worked to transform fear, judgment, and suffering in your life. This progress is truly a celebration, even if it’s only a single flower.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

The flower is made of non flower elements

                                    special thanks to David Nelson for sharing this photo!

Radical Choice

Waterfall

Waterfall, Photo by Rick Errichetti

“During the Vietnam War I didn’t want to pay taxes that would be used to bomb villages, so I gave money to charity and lived on a poverty income. That was one of the best things I ever did.”

~Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

~Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

“’Others may be harmful, but I shall be harmless, thus should I train myself.’” We must not forget that the whole spirit of Buddhism is one of pacification. In the calm and placid atmosphere of the Buddha’s teaching there is every chance, every possibility, of removing hatred, jealousy and violence from our mind.”

~Ven. K. Piyatissa Thera

Dear Friends,

It’s tax season and many of us are fuming and grumbling that taxes are one area of life where there is no choice. Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication recognized he had a choice about paying taxes. For most of us, it would seem radical to cut back our income so we don’t support violence and live in alignment with our values—but for some folks, it is a real possibility. Another radical was the Buddha whose teaching was all about choice: choice about what we believe, what we do, and the choice to remember that we are actually responsible for our thoughts, speech, and actions.

Most of us have been raised in a culture of “have to” and “should,” and taught to believe we do not have a choice because the more choiceless we are the more compliant we are. This is true on the collective and personal level. In our relationships we may believe we are powerless to change our habits, We may believe our thoughts; I can’t stop getting mad, that’s how I was raised, or No one cares what I think. I’ve learned to shut up and not make waves. When we abnegate our choice, we are giving away the power to create our own lives. In reality, we make choices all the time. Sometimes it is simpler to be a victim— because choice means that we have responsibility. Choice means we are accountable for our behavior, our thoughts, our speech, and our actions.

One of the areas that we have the most choice about is how we will perceive another. We can come from a reactive place where we return fire for fire, but this is not what the Buddha taught. In Buddhism, the purity and kindness of one’s mind is the highest treasure. How we perceive and how we treat others is a choice. We are the architects and owners of the anger and hatred in us. If we choose to train ourselves to be free from anger and ill will, no unkind act can provoke us.

In the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw The Buddha told his followers that they should guard their minds to hold onto kindness, even in the event that they are sawed apart by bandits, “…we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love.” For most of us, training ourselves to hold onto a mind imbued with love even to the point of death seems impossible and even foolish. It certainly is a huge shift from our habit of reactivity that meets threat and violence with equal force.

buds-e1554772722407.jpg

An example of this call to radical responsibility is seen in an article from  Tricycle magazine which recounts when the Dalai Lama’s “former chant master now severely crippled from many years of torture and imprisonment, [was] asked about the greatest danger he faced during incarceration. [He replied] ‘The danger of losing compassion for the Chinese guards and torturers.” Most of us thankfully will not be tested with extreme violence, but we will likely encounter unkind words. In this area, we also have a distinct choice of our response.

When we are the recipient of unkind and harsh words the Buddha counseled, “In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will … abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.” (MN 21). Mindfulness gives us the awareness to recognize the possibility of choice.

For most of us, holding onto a beautifully free and kind mind while we are being berated, hearing hate speech, or being physically or verbally assaulted is advanced practice. This is the training of Nonviolence, and the example of Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ. A small way to begin on the path of non-reactivity and remembering choice is using a pause. The pause is an essential tool to re-align our bodies and minds with our true intentions. A simple space of three breaths can help. With the first breath, we can inhale and feel tension in the body, as we exhale, we can release tightness and fear from the body. With the second inhale, we can be present for our thoughts and the activity of our mind. As we exhale, we can remember that it’s ok to feel our feelings without letting them push us into acting. With the third inhale, we can be present for our true intention and as we exhale remind ourselves that we are worthy of our care and have a choice about our behavior.

Stopping and breathing may not give us the outcome we want, but it can help create more space and open our minds to choices that we can’t see when the mind is reactive and tight. Stopping and breathing can help us to see that the one we believe is the enemy is actually the one who is giving us the opportunity to become free.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Relax your body

The Care and Feeding of Intention

Biddeford

Biddeford, ME, Photo by Celia

“The quality or purity of any spiritual practice is determined by the individual’s intention and motivation.” ~ H.H. The Dalai Lama

“If you were at the end of your life looking back, what would matter about today?”  ~Tara Brach

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.”  ~Mahatma Gandhi

 

Dear Friends,

More than twenty years ago, I was driving home from a writing class late at night. After years of creating my own business and being someone in the eyes of the world, I was overworked and unhappy and looking to change directions. I was searching for my path that would keep me from falling into the sea of nothingness, where I would flounder and let my life ebb away in meaningless flailing towards a new identity. The class was my floatation device. I remember that very unpleasant fear that if I gave up what I knew, even with all its stress and pain, reaching towards the unknown would be a worse—some sort of soulless, bland existence. Without putting a name to it, I was looking for something bigger than my business, bigger than my own self, I was looking for an intention.

I don’t remember the radio show I was listening to that night, but the topic was about creating a framework for your life—it was nothing new in the world, but new to me. Listening, the interviewees gave examples of big intentions. For example, if your life’s work was to bring beauty to the world, you could garden, paint, write a book, raise a child, become an environmental activist, all things in line with your intention, or life’s purpose. Up to that point, my life’s goal as a designer was to make enough money to live and to be respected—which was something I could not control. The respect and recognition I longed for would come from outside myself and gauging my worth according to my approval rating effectively gave away all my own power for happiness. I could see in my writing class that I was merely transferring this small goal to another discipline. My life’s work was not money or fame; it needed to transcend myself. As the poet, David Whyte writes, “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anyone or anything that doesn’t bring you alive is too small for you.” What I recognized was that I had mistaken the smallness of a goal for the intention of a lifetime.

There is a knowing in the body that resonates with a true intention. You can feel it—guaranteed.  Getting 10,000 followers for your blog or find that one perfect partner and living a fairytale romance is not a true intention, but a mark of achievement. This is common in our culture that looks to financial success and power as the worthy aims of our lives. When we assign ourselves a task—even a noble one, such as raising children or reversing climate change, we can tend to focus on the outcome and transfer our habits of busyness and achieving onto a more wholesome scaffolding—but we can still be tied to our judgment and evaluations of how well we are accomplishing, still caught in desire for rewards and praise and lose touch with what connects us to our larger and more selfless nature.

A true intention must also be large enough to hold everyone we encounter, including ourselves. I can’t be passionate about clean water and air and ignore the suffering in my relationships that pollute my own life—that is not integrating my intention. My intention to be a presence of care for others must also encompass myself and my family. An intention to be peace cannot thrive in a house where there is fighting and hurt. Intentions do not overlook any relationship, any moment; they are a magical size that can enfold all experiences and conditions of life.

Daffodil Buddhas

The Buddha is recorded as saying that all mindstates and mental qualities require food. In the Food Discourse, Ahara Sutta, SN 46.5, the Buddha described the nutriments that feed both the “skillful and unskillful, blameworthy and blameless, gross and refined.” There is a type of attention that feeds the desires of greed, anger, and the belief that I am separate from the world, and there is that the food that feeds the intentions that connect me to the truth of living in the temporary housing of a body that is part of a much larger interrelated world. The food the Buddha spoke of is the “appropriate attention” to the goodness that is arising and sensitivity to the experience of the wholesome when it is manifesting. Through attention to how we are already living in alignment without our intentions—and using this experience as our food to create energy and persistence, we nurture our own goodness and commitment through appreciating our own efforts. In short—we strengthen our own commitment through experiencing our own good heart.

For a while now, I have had the intention to be a presence of care in each moment, for myself and others. This is a big intention and one that can sound theoretical and live in the mind. When we commit to our intention, there is an inquiry into sustaining it—giving it the necessary nutriments to keep it alive. We also notice what starves our intention. In my experience, there is nothing so deadly as time pressure to make me forget my true purpose.

When we are rushing and filled with deadlines, the world can become very small. We forget we are connected to others. In my life, I know that more I am rushing, when others are an obstacle instead of an opportunity, I lose my intention. Intention is made of Attention. One simple thing I do each day is to recall my intention. When the Buddha used the word remembering, sati [mindfulness], his message was that through remembering the path to liberation and the four steps leading out of suffering, we all could become ennobled. Our worth was not determined by birth, but through the goodness of our actions, our thoughts, and words…and the way we made ourselves noble was by remembering how much choice and power we do have over our habitual thoughts and actions. So, remembering our larger intention is a daily practice.

Peace activist and Buddhist teacher Donald Rothberg suggests writing out intention on a piece of paper and looking at it before a meeting or having a difficult conversation. Some days, I have written my intention on my arm in pen and am contemplating a tattoo, but things keep changing, don’t they? This week you may want to consider your larger intention in the world. Ask yourself, what is the thing that brings me alive? Leaning back into the gifts of the ancestors, the kindness we have received in our lives, the wisdom teachings, what do we want to continue and bring forth into the future to bless ours and other’s lives? How do we make our beautiful dreams into the scaffolding of our lives? If your intention is to bring healing to the world, how are you manifesting that towards yourself? Towards this moment? Are we willing to nourish our intention with appreciation for the moments that our intention is manifesting? Aligning our work, and our life with our truth and intention that can infuse the whole of our lives with purpose and the nourishment of appreciation gives us strength to continue.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

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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.

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