Cultivating a Beautiful Life

20150814_105929_HDRA few weeks ago, I facilitated a group Dharma discussion after an evening of sitting and walking meditation with Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. What follows is the topic I wrote up in advance of the discussion:

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Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my path in life: where I’ve been and how I want to move forward. I usually assume that my future happiness depends on setting the right goal, determining the best way to work towards that, and checking off each step as I go. I’ve even got a note taped to my computer monitor that reads “What can I do today that will positively change what I will be doing in two years?”

So I was intrigued to read an interview in Daily Good with Gina Sharpe, who has been a corporate lawyer and Vipassana meditation teacher, among other professions. The article’s author, Tracy Cochran, explains that she approached the interview much as I’ve been approaching my life, expecting Sharpe to present a tidy timeline when asked to described the choices that had led her to this moment. And yet instead Sharpe replied:

I don’t think of life as a sum of choices. I think of outcomes as a result of each choice. I’m not sure that so called ‘choices’ would have been as wise as what actually happened. We fool ourselves to think that we are making big choices that are going to direct our lives. What’s actually happening is that in every moment small, intimate choices present themselves, depending on conditions that previously arose. And appropriate responses can happen if we’re present. Those appropriate responses come together to be part of a kaleidoscopic pattern that can later on appear to be a huge choice that we made. Actually, the pattern is always changing, and if we look at it with spaciousness, it’s beautiful.

Reading this made me consider that trying to plan my life on a grand scale is the wrong approach. Perhaps in agonizing over making the right big decisions, I’m completely missing the importance of the small decisions. What is beautiful, wise, and valuable–those determinations must be made here and now. Conditions only exist in the present moment and can be met best with what Sharpe calls a beautiful mind: one that is authentically present to everything that arises, that integrates every experience yet carefully chooses which qualities to cultivate, that makes small decisions wisely and with equanimity in the face of impermanence. Continue reading

Losar Tashi Delek

IMG_0748 (2)It’s almost Losar (Tibetan New Year), meaning that the Year of the Male Fire Monkey is soon upon us. I can hardly imagine a more dynamic, even frenetic, combination of characteristics than “male”, “fire”, and “monkey”! It will be interesting, as always, to see what the coming year brings.

To my great surprise, it is already February. January disappeared in a flurry of activity, anxiety, and snow. There are a lot of changes underway in our household as our eldest child charts a path towards independence. I’m not sure any of us are actually ready for that transition, but it seems to be happening nonetheless. There is no time dilation quite like parenting. Individual days last forever while entire years fly by. In the beginning, you are completely and utterly responsible for every aspect of their care, required to make every decision that affects them, and then suddenly they become young people deciding on their own what will determine their future course. It’s a powerful series of lessons in impermanence, patience, equanimity, and many other difficult virtues. Continue reading

gratitude, obligation, and generosity

20150802_094903Recently I listened to about 20 minutes of a special on NPR about the science of gratitude. I happened to tune in at the point where the specific topic was how some people feel indebtedness in circumstances in which others feel gratitude instead. Apparently this indebtedness view goes at least back to Aristotle, who said that “doing good is proper to the superior person, and receiving it to the inferior”. I’ve found a larger philosophical analysis of this topic here, which delves at length into the question of gratitude as moral obligation. Reflections on this concept in the modern era refer to Kant’s thoughts on the subject:

. . . Kant suggested in the Lectures on Ethics that beneficiaries should cringe at receiving favors, since in doing so, a beneficiary becomes the debtor of his benefactor—a shameful position (Kant 1775–1780 [1981]: 118–119). For Kant, owing an obligation of gratitude is especially bad, since duties of gratitude are sacred duties—duties which can never be fully discharged. This is because any attempt on a beneficiary’s part to “pay off” the debt of gratitude will always be done essentially as a reaction to the original act of benevolence. The benefactor alone has the honor of having acted benevolently in a purely proactive way. Insofar as we would want to avoid being in such an eternally imbalanced relationship, we should be wary of accepting gifts and favors.

I had never thought about this dichotomy before and my initial reaction was decidedly negative. I try to prize gratitude. I think it’s important to thank my husband for things he does, to always thank whoever cooked dinner, to say thank you and write thank you notes and teach my children to do the same. One of our family practices at Thanksgiving is to write down what we are grateful for – our health, our home, the food on our table. Continue reading

Aspiration

Jizo 10One of my favorite Buddhist verses, the aspiration from Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, here interlaced with some commentary of my own that keeps occurring to me as I do my morning breathing exercises with this aspiration at eye-level:

May I become at all times, both now and forever

     today, tomorrow, this very breath, every breath until I have no more

A protector for those without protection

     including those who need protected from their own delusions

A guide for those who have lost their way

    including those who threw away every map, every compass

A ship for those with oceans to cross

     including those running away from whatever they refuse to face

A bridge for those with rivers to cross

     including those who have burnt the very bridges they now need

A sanctuary for those in danger

     including those who are their own greatest enemy

A lamp for those without light

     including those who will not open their own tightly clenched eyes

A place of refuge for those who lack shelter

     including those who have rejected every shelter offered them

And a servant to all in need.

     including those who are difficult and those I dislike. Including every sentient being. Every single one.

mindful speech

20150802_095818At the end of August, I returned to Denver for another long weekend at beautiful Orgyen Khamdroling, Anyen Rinpoche’s center. This was the second retreat in the Phowa: Dying with Confidence series I’m attending. Once again, I found the experience nourishing in unexpected ways. This time one of the pieces that resonated most with me was the importance of decreasing sensitivity in order to give rise to the mental spaciousness in which compassion and wisdom can grow.

The natural tendency of so many people, including myself, is to filter every interaction and experience through ego: what does this conversation tell me about how this person views me? How do my words add to or detract from the self-image I want to create? What do I need to do to make others understand that this negative situation is not my fault? How can I make sure that others know how much I’ve contributed to this positive situation? So much energy goes into the endless cycle of these thoughts.  Continue reading

Setbacks

20150802_095647I think it’s important to acknowledge periods of setback just as I’ve written about periods of growth and strength in my practice. July was definitely a month of setbacks. At the time, things just sort of seemed to happen; looking back, I can see how one event led to another.

My work hours increased – first a little, then a lot. Once I was working or on call on multiple successive evenings and weekends, I began to feel more tired. I suspect this was less about losing actual sleep time and more about higher stress levels and losing the pre-sleep decompression time that for me is a necessity to get good sleep. I became much more tired all the time. My 30 minutes of practice in the morning slipped to 10 minutes of meditation so that I could sleep a bit more. Then I dropped the 10 minutes of meditation. I also dropped my morning preparation of a green smoothie, of which I would usually drink half with breakfast and half around 10am. All of my meals became more hurried and less healthy. Some meals I ate at my desk or while checking my BlackBerry. My body craved sleep that I couldn’t give it, so I snacked instead. When I did have free time, I felt rushed to catch up on things I’d let slip and to spend time with my family, though I was distracted and irritable even when I wasn’t working. I was always hurrying from one thing to another, trying to fit everything in. I cut out almost all of the self-care parts of my day: my morning practice, my mid-day walk, my after-dinner walk, my pre-sleep decompression time. Continue reading

Acceptance

Jizo 2“I want to be more patient, more mindful, less angry, less sad. I’ve been a Buddhist for years but I’ve always struggled to maintain a regular practice, to commit to a Sangha. I want to change, to be a better version of myself. I think this will help.”

Something like these words spilled out of me a few years back when I was on the phone rapidly talking to the senior teacher of the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, trying to explain why I wanted to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the upcoming transmission ceremony. He listened quietly before gently asking me to consider that while taking the trainings would no doubt be of benefit to me, was it possible that I was fine just as I was, that I could even accept myself the way I was? I revolted internally against the idea. I didn’t like myself the way I was. I hated my anger, my fear, my anxiety, my depression. I saw them as shrouds suffocating the qualities I did value – patience, joy, compassion, attentiveness. I wanted to push the negatives away, reject them, punish them even. I desperately wanted to be different than I was.

In the book Being Peace, Thay writes:

If I have a feeling of anger, how would I meditate on that? How would I deal with it, as a Buddhist, or as an intelligent person? I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight, to have surgery in order to remove it. I know that anger is me, and I am anger. Nonduality, not two. I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence. Because anger is me, I have to tend my anger as I would tend a younger brother or sister, with love, with care, because I myself am anger. I am in it, I am it. In Buddhism we do not consider anger, hatred, greed as enemies we have to fight, to destroy, to annihilate. If we annihilate anger, we annihilate ourselves. Dealing with anger in that way would be like transforming yourself into a battlefield, tearing yourself into parts, one part taking the side of Buddha, and one part taking the side of Mara. If you struggle in that way, you do violence to yourself. If you cannot be compassionate to yourself, you will not be able to be compassionate to others. When we get angry, we have to produce awareness: “I am angry. Anger is in me. I am anger.” That is the first thing to do.

Thay frequently speaks about how each of us contains seeds of everything in ourselves – it’s the seeds we water that grow and flower. If we dwell on fear and anger, we water those seeds, strengthening those unhelpful emotions. However, if we try to repress them, we commit violence against ourselves. We must instead acknowledge them, bringing up the loving energy of mindfulness to care for them. We must accept that they are there and that we are them. Continue reading