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 →
Recently 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 : 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 →
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 →
I have been so fortunate in this life to have encountered several genuine teachers of the Dharma. Today I am thinking about one of them, Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called “Thay” by his students. I have been practicing with a mindfulness practice center in Thay’s tradition for the past two years. I want to take a moment to thank Thay for his teachings.
There are three aspects of Thay’s teachings that have been particularly relevant for me. One is acceptance. Thay has tirelessly traveled, taught, and written to share the practice of mindfulness with the world. He does not distinguish between people based on their religion or lack of religion or any other factor. He truly believes that mindfulness can help anyone to relate more peacefully, joyfully, and deeply to the world. While he has written books on Buddhist philosophy, most of his books are written to be accessible by a very wide audience, including people with little or no experience with Buddhism. Nevertheless, the practices he teaches in those books, the path of being truly awake to the present moment, can be followed for a lifetime. Thay’s centers welcome all people, regardless of their root religious traditions or current affiliation. Thank you Thay for teaching me the importance of acceptance. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →