Tuesday, March 22, 2011

if you can practice when distracted, you are well trained

This is another very powerful lojong slogan. It has been coming to mind often lately, as I have been, well, distracted. There have been a multitude of stresses and phenomena that have been pulling at my mind - trying to take it away from the present moment, often successfully.

I have said this many times before here, but it is all in the noticing. As soon as we notice we are distracted, as soon as we notice our mind has been pulled into the past or strayed into the future, we are back. We can only notice in the present moment. We notice, and we are right here, right now, once again. And then we notice if we are judging ourselves for having been lost in the fantasy of past or future. And we are back once again, and gentle once more.

We went to my parents' house for my youngest son's first birthday. We really went up to see my mother, who is slowly dying from multi-symptomatic Parkinson's disease. She has gotten much worse, and we hadn't been in awhile, so it was necessary to go as soon as we could, which coincided with my little love's turning one.

It was a long, hard car ride. My littlest screamed for the last two hours. We were exhausted when we arrived, but felt rejuvenated when we noticed (in the berry bush by my parents' back door), seven (yes, seven!) red cardinals. Their feathers were so vivid against the bare branches covered in snow. It brought us immediately into the now, and perked up our drooping spirits.

I have written before about the chaos in my mother's house due to her illness and the karma of the situation, and it is only getting worse as she gets sicker. So, it was hard. Then, our first night there, I became very ill with a stomach bug. The next day was my son's birthday, but we were unable to celebrate it as I spent the entire day in bed. My husband was left to care for our two little ones, my mother and my father. I was better the next day, but then he was struck with the bug. Then my father became ill, both our boys, and my mother, who ended up having to go to the ER to be rehydrated by IV. It was just a crazy, crazy visit. I had to really generate a lot of energy in order to care for everyone while still sick myself and arrange for more professional care for my mother - new aides to come at night (as we were too sick to feed her and get her to bed), calling doctors, getting the ok to bring her to the ER, arranging for aftercare. Calling social workers, health care agencies and siblings. Dealing with the family neurosis, heightened in these stressful circumstances. Working with my own guilt for getting everyone sick, especially my mother. Feeling disappointed and sad that my little one's first birthday was getting lost and forgotten in all of this life stuff happening. And feeling angry that my mom is dying. Talk about distraction.

Phenomena kept arising, and I kept being presented with the choice to really abide with it and let go of my desires or fight it, push it away, deflect it or try like hell to change it. Every time I chose the latter, the suffering level in the house increased tenfold. When I was able to let go and just be with the constantly changing reality, things were workable. They weren't easy, but they were workable and I could create some sanity. There was some breathing room.

When I resisted things as they are, I felt absolutely crazy and miserable. And what helped me keep coming back to the present moment and working with the circumstances with some level of equanimity and clarity were those beautiful cardinals. My parents' house is surrounded by bushes and bird feeders, which my father fills daily. The house has many windows as well. And there were so many moments each day when I was truly on the verge of losing my mind entirely when I would look out a window and there would be a flaming red cardinal looking back at me from his branch. Each time, it called me back to the now.

The great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful practice at his retreat centers. There is a large meditation gong, really huge, that can be heard, when rung, throughout the grounds and buildings. Throughout the day, every day, this gong is rung once, at various random times. Everyone who hears this gong stops for a moment, no matter what they are doing, and just reconnects to their breath and body. To the present moment. And then they proceed on. We don't need a giant gong to do this in our own lives. We can use whatever we have in our immediate environments to bring us back, no matter what is going on. Perhaps we live on a busy street and car horns often sound. What a wonderful mindfulness bell! Or perhaps crows haunt the parking lot of your workplace - when you notice one of their raucous cries - come back. Your baby crying. Your neighbor's telephone ringing. Your teen's Wii game. The glow of a neon sign. The flicker of a room light. Let these ordinary things bring you back. They are beautiful reminders, always available to us.

Having a well trained mind doesn't mean we don't get crazy or carried away. But it does mean we come back.

When reading about this slogan, I found a teaching by Judy Lief, who presented the following daily practice:

In your practice and during your daily activities, pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your mindfulness. In terms of bodhichitta practice, pay particular attention to the points at which you lose your openness or kindness. Notice the process of losing it and coming back.

This seemed useful for my daily life with children. This is why working with the raw, vivid, messy material of our daily life is so powerful. This is the richest mud for the lotus blossom of awakened heart to blossom in. Wishing you gentleness and good luck with your practice today and always.


  1. Thank you. I'm trying to come back to the moment. Alas, that is usually not when I'm losing it...

  2. It takes time, and just noticing that you have lost it means transformation is dawning :)