A 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:
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 →
The constraints I place on my blogging make it difficult for me to post regularly. When our children were young, I freely shared the many challenges my husband and I faced. I used to write extensively about the difficulties of parenting kids with behaviors and issues typical of post-institutionalized international adoptees. Now that our children are older and members of an internet-savvy peer group, I guard their privacy by posting almost nothing about them. I also cannot write about challenges I face at work. Since these two areas are the sources of most of my stresses, I’m self-censored, with little left to discuss except books I’ve read and my spiritual practice, often devoid of the context necessary to explain my motivations.
These constraints remind me of my email tagline: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Everyone faces challenges that they don’t speak about, whether due to privacy concerns, social mores, embarrassment, or fear. I am constantly surprised by how many people who appear through regular social interaction to be “perfectly happy” are actually combating illness, anxiety, death of a loved one, or family crisis. Often I don’t learn about what they’re dealing with until I talk about my own difficulties and see their faces flush with relief. I know exactly what you mean! someone will say then, completely unexpectedly. I’ve dealt with that too and I didn’t know you who had. It’s so hard to go through alone but you can’t talk about these things with most people.
I suspect that we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we did talk about these things more openly. Just like there’s still social stigma related to talking about mental health issues, I think there’s significant social stigma related to talking about suffering. From my own experience, I know there are myriad reasons for this beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Sometimes I’m worried about being seen as the person whose whining everyone else tries to avoid; we’ve all experienced a person who traps others in endless negative conversations. I want people to think well of me, to see me as someone who’s resolutely positive and who’s got things under control. I also have fear of being misunderstood, worrying that no one else could comprehend what I’m going through unless they’ve gone through it themselves. Many times I’m sick of thinking about my problems, many of which have repeated in seemingly perpetual cycles for more than a decade. The last thing I want to do is to spend even more time explaining all of that to someone else. And if I’m honest with myself, there is also a shame aspect: how can someone with as long of a spiritual practice as I have still struggle so much with suffering? Shouldn’t I have it all worked out by now – especially considering that the challenges I face are so small compared to those faced by so many other people? Continue reading →
Time really flew between the end of my first 100 days of practice and yesterday, which marked my 200th day of practice. Looking back, I see that I had a marked dip in practice during the first month of this year, especially when it came to mantra accumulation. Then I realized I was soon to see Anyen Rinpoche again at the March phowa retreat in Denver, and became much more diligent! The retreat inspired me further and the intensity of my practice continued from that point forward.
Due to my poor initial start, I actually recited fewer mantra this 100 days than the prior 100 days. I did keep to my Avalokitesvara sadhana every morning except two in February when I was on a silent mindfulness retreat and didn’t bring the text. That became my motivation to finally commit the English translation of the sadhana to memory. As a result, on this mindfulness retreat just passed, I was able to recite the sadhana every day without needing the text in front of me. It feels very good to have the words inside of me instead of just on the page. Continue reading →
Tomorrow I embark on another retreat, this time with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center. It’s a three-day silent retreat on the general theme of “Be Still and Heal”. The retreat description says “Through mindful sitting, walking, eating, and living, we will develop our capacity to more fully and compassionately embrace each moment. Sharing silence, we assist each other in letting go of worries and preoccupations, and opening to the sources of joy that are available to us in each moment.”
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 →
I’ve been struggling with focus the last few weeks as a number of unexpected events have brought suffering and impermanence directly to the forefront of my experience. The regular sitting meditation practice I had been carefully cultivating crumbled in the face of uncertainty and stress. Most days I had no formal practice at all, though I continued to practice mindfulness as much as I could manage.
I also did tonglen meditation, a Tibetan Buddhist breath meditation where you breathe in the pain and suffering of sentient beings and breathe out peace and happiness. Tonglen is a practice to develop bodhicitta, the mind intent on attaining enlightenment for the benefit of others. It’s also a wonderful, simple meditation when in the presence of suffering or when personally experiencing pain. If you’re interested in more direction, Lama Kathy Wesley has 2 excellent, concise PDFs about tonglen on her website here.
My Dharma reading the last few weeks has concentrated on being with, preparing for, and helping others cope with death and loss. I’ve recently acquired a great many excellent Buddhist books on the topic and so far have particularly enjoyed the two that I will profile in this blog. Continue reading →