Wednesday, November 30, 2011

help for a sangha family

I learned last week that a new mother in my Shambhala Buddhist sangha had lost her life after giving birth to her much desired twin babies. Here is a link where, if you are inspired to, you can donate an amount, however small, to her husband and new babies, who are healthy and peaceful, but in need of assistance. If you can hold this family in your heart minds this week, and send them love and peace, I am certain it would be felt and appreciated. The preciousness of human birth, and the reality of death. Good contemplations to turn our minds to appreciation. May Michal be reborn in a completely pure realm, and may her family know peace and goodness.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Repost: be grateful to everyone

This was a popular post last year, so thought I would share it again.

"If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities, which we project onto the outside world. In traditional teachings on lojong it is put another way: other people trigger the karma that we haven't worked out. They mirror us and give us the chance to befriend all of that ancient stuff that we carry around like a backpack full of granite boulders." -Pema Chodron
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Library)

We are celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the United States, and so I have been contemplating this particular lojong slogan. It is a tough one. It is so tough that I often feel that if I was truly successful in following its teaching, I might actually wake up. Can I really be grateful to everyone? Not only that, but can I really be grateful to every circumstance that arises, no matter how challenging?

It is easy to appreciate the good things in our lives, the people and circumstances that make us happier. But to appreciate the other stuff - the people and situations that only cause us trouble and agita - well, that seems to take some practice. "Be grateful to everyone" is a radical way to live. It requires you to open up and let go when you would really prefer to close down, lash out, be right, hold onto a preference or opinion, and maybe just crawl into bed and stay there all day. It requires me to thank those circumstances and those sentient beings that I find difficult, distasteful or distressing. Because without them, I would have no opportunity to see where I still get stuck, caught up in this illusion/delusion of "me" and "mine". I would ultimately have no path to walk, nothing to transform. The difficult people and circumstances are the friendly reminders to me to wake up. They are the constant feedback telling me which way to go on the path, what I still need to make friends with. They show me where I still create suffering for myself and others.

In his teaching on this slogan, Chogyam Trungpa says some truly radical, ego shattering things. He also says a very small thing that always sticks with me: "if there is no noise outside during our sitting meditation, we cannot develop mindfulness". Our usual modus operandi is to try and protect ourselves from the noise, to shut it out. We want to try and wrap the world in bubble wrap rather than relate to the phenomena that arise constantly to disturb our peace of mind. But if we are really committed to manifesting our basic goodness and to getting unstuck, we need that noise, and we need those people - you know - those people that make us want to run away and wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. As I gather with family this week during the holiday, I will be holding this slogan sharply in focus. Our families are often so hard to be grateful to, especially when all gathered together with the expectation of having a celebratory day. So many buttons can be pushed during this time together. It is a good time to practice our mindfulness, especially with our children watching. A good time to practice gratitude for the troublemakers we know in our own inner circle - who hook us into our habitual pattern, into our old karma.

This is ultimately a friendly practice. It doesn't mean that we allow people to abuse us or walk all over us. If we need to set a boundary, then we do so. We can do that out of compassion for ourselves and our troublemakers, and not out of aggression. We do it out of gratitude. They are teaching us how to take care of ourselves, and by extension, others. This slogan can be contemplated on a daily basis, and I have found it invaluable in my own life with small children. There are times when I don't feel particularly grateful to my children even, and it is in those times that I bring this slogan to mind. It helps. I see where I am stuck. I see where I am not very friendly to myself and others. Slowly, I let go. Gentleness grows. Appreciation dawns.

So this Thanksgiving, try this slogan out for size when you feel like grabbing the turkey leg and running out the door. Or when the children are screaming in the car, when the person behind you in traffic cuts you off, when your mother-in-law makes her passive aggressive comment about your parenting, or whatever. Happy Thanksgiving, and as always, be gentle.

Monday, November 21, 2011

cultivating appreciation

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, I find it useful to consciously take on the daily practice of cultivating appreciation. Appreciation, while it encompasses and encourages gratitude, is a bit deeper than just being thankful. It includes deep respect and sacredness. Appreciation nurtures trust in the basic goodness and brilliance of the world and its beings. To water the seeds of appreciation in our daily life brings great joy to our time with children. When we are able to model appreciation and reverence for our tasks, our environment, our family, our neighbors, even our burdens - our children witness basic goodness and dignity in action.

The teacher Gaylon Ferguson writes in his book Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With

"The atmosphere surrounding meditation is warm and welcoming. We are cultivating appreciation, friendliness, a sense of gratitude for what we already have and are. This undercuts the speed and restlessness of materialism of all sorts."

To begin cultivating appreciation in our daily life with children, we can work with mindfulness to create a similar atmosphere of warmth, welcoming and understanding. We can work with our habitual pattern of judging our experience and things as "good" or "bad", "for us" or "against us". Using mindfulness, we can notice when we are engaged in negative speech (whether internal or external), and then make the choice to change our speech. We can treat ourselves with gentleness and acceptance, which will naturally extend out to others. Rather than looking in the mirror and greeting ourselves with a negative commentary of our flaws, we can smile and appreciate that we have a human body. Even if we are ill or disabled, there is something that our body does well, that works within it - our minds, our hearts, the blood flowing, our hair growing - something.

It can be easy this time of year to focus on what we don't have, on what we want to have, instead of taking a breath and the time to acknowledge everything we do possess. We can notice throughout our days when we are focusing on what is wrong - what is broken, who is misbehaving, when the weather isn't cooperating, the heat won't go on - we can always find a lot! Try to notice if you are dwelling on these obstacles, telling yourself or others stories about them, instead of just relating to them, cleanly. Then try to consciously notice what is working in your world! If we can pause and drop our projections and labeling, we will actually find, no matter how dire our circumstances are, that there is at least a little bit of magic and beauty and flow in our days, if we can only make ourselves available to it. Can we drop our resentment about the weather enough to notice the delight our children take in the rain falling down? Can we drop our scolding of a recalcitrant child long enough to see the fear or discomfort that caused the misbehavior? Can we notice the hawk circling overhead as we wait for the tow truck next to our broken down car? You get the idea.

So, in these days leading up to United States Thanksgiving, I am trying to pause each day, many times a day, and just honor my children, my physical space, animals, trees, my body, the food I am eating, the people I am passing - and just open to their wonder and sacredness. Sometimes, appreciation is as simple as bowing and acknowledging that this is how things are right now, and that this will also change. As simple as tasting our tears as they fall and savoring their salty warmth, another indication that yes, we are still alive, and that being alive is an extraordinary fluke, a gift, no matter how painful at times. We can appreciate how no matter how bad our day or week or year may be, the good earth is holding us up, the good sky is encompassing us, the sun is shining or the rain or snow are falling, nourishing many beings. The air is flowing through our lungs, in and out, in and out. All these little, interconnected, incredibly vast things that actively sustain us as we move through our days. And in every acknowledgement, we can bow to our children for being their brilliant, shining selves, whether smiling or screaming. Wishing you many days of appreciation and joy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

what is your story?

“The difference between misery and happiness depends on what we do with our attention.”
-Sharon Salzberg

If you can pay attention to your mind during the day, to where you are placing it, to the thoughts running in and out, you will discover something. You will discover your story. It is the thought you turn to again and again when you are feeling hassled by things, when your back is up against the wall. You probably turn to it even when you are feeling pretty good about everything, happy even. In those cases, it is usually a kind of nagging little fear that will raise its head. When you are really stressed out, or trying to get something done, your children out the door, the dinner ready, whatever - going forward with your agenda - and it is not happening easily - the eggs fall out of the fridge and break on the floor, your youngest poops his pants as you are getting him in the car seat, you get the phone call saying you haven't gotten the job- your story might even slip right out of your mouth, verbalized for all to hear. What do you say to them, to yourself?

With the last months being so stressful for us, full of so much heartbreak, I have found my story slipping out. It came out this morning in the seemingly simple task of getting my three year old and my 20 month old out the door to the library. I can't even remember the series of events that made this outing seem akin to climbing the Himalayas barefooted, but after yet another delay caused by some act of typical toddler behavior or potty learning adventure I said, aloud, "I just can't catch a break."

It is the same sentence I said aloud to my husband in the days after learning about my miscarriage, as I tried to prepare for my three year old's party, and a dozen eggs slid from their perch in the fridge and broke all over the newly mopped floor minutes before guests began arriving. "I just can't catch a break."

It is a sentence I have been repeating to myself for what seems like all of my life. "I can't catch a break, I can't catch a break, I just can't catch a break!" With meditation practice, I finally noticed it, finally really heard what I have been spending years telling myself. When I was home with my parents last month briefly, I heard the same sentence and its variations uttered many times by my father. I doubt he has ever really, truly noticed this story flying from his lips with such regularity.

We all have our particular story. Often, it is a story we first heard from our own parents, or perhaps it was given to us by another authority figure or maybe we came up with it all by ourselves. In any case, it doesn't serve us. It isn't true. It is a story, just that, and since we have been writing it, we can also rewrite it.

It depends, as Ms. Salzberg says, on where we place our attention. When we hear ourselves telling our particular story to ourselves or to others, we can stop. We can notice what is going on with our bodies, our breath. What are we feeling? Where are we? What is actually happening in this particular moment? Things as they are do not conspire against us, although that may be how we feel. Things just are, true, variable, moving, changing, vivid. If we drop the story, we may actually really see, really perceive what is actually happening in any given situation, what the phenomena is truly communicating to us. The world is not for or against us. Things and beings are all dancing, shifting, arising and ceasing in an enormous interconnected dance. What are we choosing to tell ourselves about it? It is important where we put our minds and what words we choose - the story we tell. Can we recognize it as a story? Or do we call it the truth?

When we sit in meditation practice, we notice the tricks we play on ourselves, the wild tales we tell that keep us hooked, deceived, yo-yoing up and down. The more we sit and just let those stories go, not feeding them, not pushing them away, just letting them flow through and continually dropping them, dropping them, dropping them, the more space we create and the more we can laugh. Laugh at what we have been telling ourselves for so long.

Byron Katie has a powerful book of her work entitled "What Would You Be Without Your Story?" It is full of dialogues between her and different students, all with a powerful story that they have spent many years placing their minds on, again and again, with great emotion and intent. In the simple conversations with her, these stories fall apart, get flipped on their heads, and the people become so much freer. They no longer believe them.

This is what I am working on this week. Noticing my story. Catching when I am telling it to myself or others. Dropping it. Touching it. Asking myself, "Is this really true?" And placing my mind again on the present moment. I don't want to give this story to my children. I would rather they tell themselves the vivid truth of basic goodness, again and again, rather than this lie of "I can't catch a break."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

wonderful reminders

I often find myself returning to the amazing dharma book "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Ms. Brach is a compassionate, insightful and wonderful teacher - I really can't recommend the book enough. I was looking at some old interviews with her the other day about her book, and came across this wonderful teaching, which I am reprinting in full, because it is just so good :). This is her response to a question about working with depression and anxiety, or other painful emotions. These gateways she discusses are powerful tools to use in our daily life and practice, and gifts we could give with great love to our children. Enjoy:
We suffer because we have forgotten who we are and our identity has become confined to the sense of a separate, usually deficient self. All difficult emotions-fear and anger, shame and depression-arise out of this trance of what I call false self.

I’ve found that whenever I am really suffering, on some level I am believing and feeling that “something is wrong with me.” Over the years I’ve been drawn to three primary gateways for awakening from this trance. In the Buddhist tradition they are referred to as the three refuges:

One (called “sangha”) is loving relationship-both live contact with loved ones and also meditation on the love that’s in my life. In the moments of remembering love, there is an opening out of the sense of separate self. For me, reflecting on love has included prayer to the beloved, to what I experience as the loving awareness that is my source. When I feel separate and stuck, that loving presence might seem like it’s apart from me and “out there.” But by reaching out in longing and prayer, I’m carried home to the loving presence that is intrinsic to my Being.

A second gateway (“dharma” or truth) is taking refuge in the present moment. The training of meditation is a gift as it has helped me to pause, wake up out of thoughts and contact my moment to moment experience. When I am no longer running away or resisting what is happening inside me, I reconnect with the space and compassion that has room for whatever is going on.

A third gateway (“buddha” or “buddha nature”) is turning towards awareness itself. Most of the time we are paying attention to the foreground of experience-to our thoughts, feelings and sensations. What we are missing out on is the background of experience, the formless dimension of Being itself. By asking questions like “What is aware right now?” or “What is knowing these sounds?” or “Who am I?” we begin to intuit our own presence or Beingness. The signs of this presence are space, stillness and silence.

For myself and so many I’ve worked with, becoming familiar with this formless dimension of who we are makes it possible to open with love to the changing expressions of life within and around us. It allows us to make peace with living and dying, and to live our moments fully.

Wishing everyone connection with your own Beingness today and every day. Much love to you all - you are all Buddhas!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

this is what we practice for

I have been waiting for my body to miscarry. I learned last Thursday that the baby didn't have a heartbeat, but my body wasn't ready yet to let go. Finally, yesterday, the process began, accelerating this morning, until the little being passed out of my body.

The waiting was an experience of consciously bringing myself back to the present moment, over and over. And when the process finally began, it was the conscious letting go, the noticing when I was resisting the process, and opening back up, just like in birth. This is what we practice for, with the little stuff. With letting go of our agenda of getting something done, or being right in an argument, or wanting our living room to be clean, or a person to like us, or our child to behave a certain way. With the letting go of our little hopes and fears in daily life with our children and in the world - so that when we are faced with the big stuff, with the letting go of a child, a loved one, a big dream, our own life itself - we can do it without suffering. Or if we do suffer, we can work with that, rather than being totally overwhelmed and stuck in our grief. We can face the moment, we can notice what we are feeling, and we can accept it. All of it.

It doesn't mean we don't grieve. It doesn't mean we aren't angry or sad or afraid. It means we accept all of that, fully. Once we do that, we can also accept that those emotions change, just as this moment is constantly changing, changing, ending, beginning. Never static, never still. That is the flow of life and death. It is in constant movement. This is what we are practicing for. To let that movement flow through us, and not resist it. If we resist it, we will get knocked down and pulled under.

So today I am trying to put all my years of practice to the big test of letting go of this brief little life. Of being present to my other children, who need me very much to be with them, and not distant or distracted. Practicing diving into the flow of life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

when you are sad, be sad

I haven't written here in several weeks. As I have mentioned in this space previously, the last couple of months have seen my family facing a series of obstacles that have arisen around our living situation, our livelihood, and our health. Things at times have been quite difficult, seemingly very immovable and unworkable, but somehow, we have found our way through. A bright spot in all of this was that after many months of trying, we discovered I was pregnant with a much wanted third baby. Because of all of the challenges we were experiencing, this third pregnancy felt like much more of a leap into groundlessness than our previous ones. But leap we did, as we all do when we open our hearts to life.
This past week, at almost 10 weeks along, I went in for an ultrasound my OB wanted in order to determine gestational age. During the exam, the technician told me that she couldn't find any fetal heartbeat.

We often think that enlightenment experiences are blissful, beautiful, gold tinged occasions that occur in a flowery meadow or on a mountain top or in a sacred meditation hall. We don't often think of them as occurring in a cold, clinical examination room with an ultrasound machine and an uncomfortable technician holding a latex gloved wand in her hand. But when we are faced with the stark fact of impermanence, of the reality of death and loss, we often experience an opening. Our usual torrent of habitual thought can be stopped, at least for a moment, and we can experience a kind of clarity and calm, when things as they are reveal themselves, naked, and completely vast. That is what happened when I heard "I can't find a heartbeat". It only lasted for a moment.

Immediately after that brief opening, the pain came. The sadness of losing a baby. The heartbreak of it, of watching all the aspirations, all the dreams pinned to the new life I carried so briefly. It is always so painful to have to let go of such hopes. To accept loss and the reality of the first noble truth - that life is full of suffering, and we suffer because of our constant desire to make permanent that which is inherently not.

Any loss we experience has been and will be experienced by countless other sentient beings. The nurse who took my vitals that morning told me of her own miscarriage when she was 17 weeks along with her first pregnancy. So many other women I know have had miscarriages, many more than one. I have friends who have lost children shortly after their birth, or years later. My own loss seemed so small when compared to all of those others. My heart is opening, breaking for so many other women and children.

"When Marpa's young son died, he cried so sadly that his disciples flocked around him and asked, "Master, didn't you say that the world is only an illusion? Why are you crying so brokenheartedly just because your son has died?"
Marpa answered them, "Yes, everything is illusionary, but the death of a child is the greatest illusion of them all."

At times like this one, it can seem important to find a reason, an answer to why this happened in order to prevent it from happening again, I suppose. But like all blossoming of karma, there are so many causes and conditions that lead to this, that it is impossible to tease out the what and why of it. We can surmise, guess, and so on, but to try and pinpoint, try and build some ground from what is inherently groundless, only causes further pain and is illusory at best. All my husband and I can do that is really useful is to keep touching our sadness, to just be sad when it arises. To not avoid it or cover it up, or elaborate upon it. To just be sad.

And to be happy when that comes as well. My eldest son turned three the day after we got the news of our loss, and we went forward with a nice birthday party for him, with guests and cake and balloons, all as he requested. And we allowed ourselves to be present to his joy and the joy of his brother during the festivities. We are exerting ourselves in cultivating appreciation - appreciation of what we have, of our two little boys and the goodness they weave each day into our lives. And when reminded of the vastness of loss, the knowledge that all beings lose those they love, both born and unborn, we are touching our tender, broken hearts, and sending our love out to everyone.