At 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 →
Hello my fear!
I see you standing there –
come into the light.
Do not be afraid.
I am sorry if I have hurt you
with the many unkind things I have thought and said about you.
You have guarded me so faithfully;
you have walked so many years by my side.
I know that you are weary;
you have been vigilant for so long.
Let me take your hand.
Let us find a place where you can rest.
Here, this tree is lovely.
You can sleep safely under her sheltering arms.
You do not need to need to worry about me any more.
I have a new guardian to walk by my side.
He knows how to listen to the suffering of beings.
He will teach me how to suffer well.
He will show me how to water the seeds of joy and understanding in myself and others.
With diligent and mindful practice, I will grow strong.
I bow in gratitude for your loyal service.
Close your eyes and do not worry any more.
Some day I will be strong enough to be my own guardian.
Then I will return here to sit by your side.
I will teach you all I have learned
and you will never need to be afraid again.
At heart, I am a storyteller. I love the English language, whether spoken or written, though my particular passion is playing with written words. I’ve written a couple of books and co-written a couple more; I earn my living through mastery of a highly technical and precise form of writing that has little room for creativity and often feels like assembling a verbal puzzle. I get a lot of enjoyment from crafting a well-turned phrase.
Stories are a wonderful way to learn, teach, and share. Some truths penetrate the heart easier when they are clothed in fiction; a lesson may face less resistance when presented through a well-told story. I spent my childhood unashamedly in love with books and can still be enthralled by a good author who knows the craft.
Mary McCarthy wrote, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” As an inveterate storyteller, I occasionally catch myself doing something akin to narrating my own life through internal dialogue. There is always a danger that I will sensationalize, catastrophize, romanticize, or otherwise subconsciously alter my own experience in order to make a “better” story. Mindfulness practice reminds me to remain in the unvarnished present moment, accepting and embracing what actually is rather than trying to recast it into something else. Continue reading →
I feel like the universe has been throwing a lot at me lately, sort of slapping my head with a signboard marked “impermanence” while I keep saying “ouch! I get it!” But I guess I must not really “get it” based on how thrown I keep feeling by each successive incident. I’m not feeling particularly centered or focused lately; I’m noting a lot of heaviness within. At the same time, I’m feeling a lot of gentleness with myself, which is encouraging. I’m not being harsh or disappointed with myself. I know that this is hard stuff, and I’m okay with the fact that it’s throwing me.
Pema Chödrön is one of my favorite Dharma teachers for her ability to both be gentle and inspiring. Her writings are in the vein of Suzuki Roshi, who once looked out on his students and said “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” In The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, Pema Chödrön expresses this wonderfully: Continue reading →
As Chinua Achebe said, things fall apart. This is true in all aspects of life and a key teaching of Buddhism. All things are composed of compound elements and are subject to change, decay, and dissolution. Impermanence affects our own bodies as well as everything around us. It’s something Buddhists are taught to reflect on in order to reduce our attachments.
Impermanence is a fact, not a value judgment. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his commentary to The Sutra on Knowing the Better way to Catch a Snake in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries: “Impermanence allows us to transform and move in a better direction. If things weren’t impermanent, your situation couldn’t change, a child couldn’t grow up, a grain of corn would never become an ear of corn to eat. . . thanks to impermanence, everything is possible . . . Because of impermanence, there is hope.”
In a house with active children, however, impermanence often seems less hopeful and more aggravating. Things break, things are broken. Lots of things. In our house, the things broken are toys, watches (so many watches!), alarm clocks, dishware, coat zippers, glasses, even little Jizo figurines. Oftentimes, the discovery of a broken item is accompanied by denials of responsibility couched in mystery or the passive tense: This is broken – I don’t know how. It just broke somehow, sometime, somewhere. Then there are the things that simply disappear: goggles, bathing suits, cameras. It’s gone – I don’t where, I don’t how, I just can’t find it anymore. Continue reading →
Choosing to be happy is hard stuff. The first time I read the lines from Pema Chödrön’s book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change that I quoted in my last post, the ones about how we have a choice between fighting everything that happens to us (and thus suffering all the time) or relaxing into the moment (and thus finding freedom), I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margin of the book: this is my fundamental problem – I actually seriously can’t decide sometimes which of these 2 options I want . . .
It’s scary how much of a hindrance I can be to my own happiness. It’s hard to admit that sometimes I can’t even decide whether I want to try something new in the hopes that it makes me feel better or just keep repeating the same old behaviors that have only brought me suffering every time I’ve relied on them in the past. When Thầy talks about the power of habit energy, the image that comes to my mind is deep ruts in the ground that my wagon wheels just naturally get stuck in. The ruts are familiar after all, even if they are confining and not particularly comfortable, and part of me gets frightened at the thought of leaving their security. Sometimes I’d actually rather complain about my own misery than risk making a change. At least I know what the misery feels like. Change feels risky.
I once read an article written by a pacifist who was tired of people saying that nonviolence could never work. The pacifist’s response was that we won’t know nonviolence won’t work until we’ve tried it for as long as we’ve tried violence. After all, we’ve been using violence for thousands of years and it hasn’t brought permanent solutions – so why do we keep giving it another chance? Habit energy. Continue reading →
My life is not all equanimity and joy. I’ve gone through periods of darkness when my mind has felt literally fogged up with clouds of misery. During such periods, it’s very difficult to think clearly, like trying to see the world through mud-colored glasses. Sometimes during such periods people have tried to be helpful to me in ways that haven’t been helpful at all. I have never once been comforted by hearing “it could always be worse”, no matter how true the statement is. “The universe never gives you more than you can handle” is another one that does not resonate with me. Sometimes I’ve faced situations that are more than I can handle. Sometimes I have broken. What I have learned, however, is that breaking gives me the opportunity to put myself back together stronger than I was before.
One of my favorite books is The Chocolate Cake Sutra by Geri Larkin. I was pretty skeptical when I started reading the book. There are a lot of pop culture references that initially felt pretty jarring in a Buddhist book and the author tends to be perky in a way that made me doubt whether she’d ever really been tested by difficult experiences. But the more I read, the more I realized that she’d been tested in far greater ways that I ever had and she’d come out with a deep happiness based not on platitudes but on radical acceptance of whatever life was throwing at her in the moment. She writes “Accepting what is leads to the surprise of a lifetime. Suddenly you realize that happiness is yours. And that it grows from the opposite of what you expect. Instead of control, it grows from letting go. Instead of stuff, it grows from simplicity. Instead of the need for fifteen minutes of fame, it grows from planting flowers and vegetables in an abandoned city plot – anonymously.”
This was revelatory to me. On some level, I’d always thought that my life was supposed to be happy all the time – and not little happiness like a clear sky or a fresh strawberry or a hug from my child but Hollywood-style happiness like fame, fortune, and vacations in Europe – and if I got less than that, I was being cheated. And yet. When I look deeply and really think about it – that’s not the way life is. Continue reading →
I regret that it’s taken me so long to be able to write that sentence. For decades I was a Buddhist without a regular sitting meditation practice, which I long carried as a source of guilt. Forget guilt – who knew that I was missing out on such a source of joy! I needed years of repetition before I could finally internalize what so many Buddhist teachers have said and written: sitting meditation shouldn’t be painful, shouldn’t be dour, shouldn’t be a chore. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Sitting is an enjoyment, not hard labor for enlightenment.” Meditation should be – it is – a source of peace, strength, and joy. I have to smile when I think that for so long I clung to each precious second of sleep in the morning and now I find myself rising before the alarm in anticipation of my sitting meditation. I bow in gratitude to the precious people in my life who have supported me in establishing a regular practice.
There are many excellent resources for meditation. The loving support of Sangha (a community that practices together) and an in-person teacher to provide guidance on the practice is incomparable. I also highly recommend the support of one other person in your life who also commits to sitting on a daily basis. Thank you, Mom! Regardless of whether you sit together, knowing that the other person is also making meditation a priority is a tremendous support. Delighting in the other person’s meditation is an excellent practice of sympathetic joy. I find it helpful to remember that my meditation benefits both myself and others; this is practice in generating bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings. As Thầy says in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries, “Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight.” Continue reading →
Parenting, publishing, taking the metro to work each morning – I have found that every aspect of life benefits from the practice of equanimity, described by Kalu Rinpoche in The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, as a state of mind in which “you are not overpowered by emotional afflictions such as desire, hatred and stupidity, but instead remain in the natural state of the mind.” Without mindfulness practice to ground me in equanimity, I all too easily get swept away by the emotional currents around me. In parenting in particular I have a real tendency to get caught up in whatever is going on with my children and husband. I have nicknamed this “empathetically induced anger”, though it’s simply lack of equanimity. A phone call from an upset teacher, a email from a stressed spouse, a child crying about something his or her sibling has done, and suddenly my own mind is about as far from peaceful as could be imagined. Almost immediately I feel corresponding physiological changes in my body and soon I am mired down in the very hell realm that I’d like to be able to raise those around me out of.
I wrote In the Garden of Our Minds and other Buddhist stories over a period of years where I was struggling to maintain my own sanity while also co-parenting two very energetic children and working full-time. The dialogues and practices described in the book are based very closely on ones I experienced and developed during that time. Parenting has been the most challenging experience of my life; it requires such a high number of on-the-spot reactions. For instance, it is one thing to consider questions about life and death in the abstract, but I have found a much higher degree of pressure when the questions are being posed by small sentient beings who I’ve vowed to raise and nourish and who are looking to me for specific answers about what I believe – and why. And there is no test of mindfulness and equanimity like parenting. I can have the most positive intentions in the world as I calmly breathe my way up the driveway, but if I walk through the door into a room full of people on edge and cannot maintain my peaceful mind, I will soon find that my own seeds of anger are not seeds at all, but little grasping vines ready to rise up and choke away every last good intention. Continue reading →
From Blue Moon Aurora, a book of children’s stories presenting the wisdom of Mahayana Buddhism through the accessible and entertaining lens of a modern Buddhist family.
Through books we do not only learn for this life but we also cultivate wisdom for future lives. When children read a book, it leaves an imprint in their mind, thus to teach them the dharma through books plants a seed of liberation in their minds. It is extremely important and beneficial to teach children when they are young; in this way they will form good habits for their entire life.
– from the introduction by His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche
Michelle L. Johnson-Weider’s book, In the Garden of our Minds and other Buddhist stories, provides a wonderful way to introduce Buddhist ideals to young children. . . My hope is that with stories like these we can help families, especially those with young children, live with compassion and, in that way, build a strong Western sangha.
– from the introduction by Venerable Bardor Tulku Rinpoche
Table of Contents
Prince Siddhartha Renounces the Throne
Fighting the Demon Mara
The Value of Persistence: the story of Mahaprajapati
In the Garden of Our Minds
The Doorway of Death: the story of Kisagotami
Lessons in Stopping: the story of Angulimala
A Visit with Rinpoche
Glossary of terms
Conversations with Children
About the Author and Illustrator