Friday, December 30, 2011

new year aspirations

Bodhichitta is essentially a quality of warmth, an experience of our connection with all beings and with all things. It's said traditionally that it's expressed as a wish or an aspiration, initially expressed as a strong longing or wish that nobody suffer, and that we could in some way in the course of our lifetime, as much as possible, help to alleviate suffering in the world. - Pema Chodron

One more day left in 2011, and to be honest, I am happy to see the back of this year and ready to greet the new one. In these last days of the dying year, my mind turns to aspirations. Not resolutions - I've written about that trap before. When we make resolutions, we are often setting ourselves up to fail, to repeat the constant cycle of aggression and suffering rather than cultivating seeds of gentleness and compassion. Aspirations are powerful because they are more open ended - we are not so much attached to a particularly specific result, but to a slower, more encompassing transformation in our lives or patterns. Our personal patterns and the patterns of our family.

What are your aspirations for yourself and your family in the coming year? For your parenting path? The fundamental aspiration of bodhichitta, as Pema Chodron describes above, is to cultivate our fundamental warmth and connection with all things, and prevent and alleviate suffering. This aspiration seems a powerful one to continue to return to on the parenting path, so that even at our most stuck, our most habitual, our most overwhelmed, we can breathe, touch our hearts, and return to some kind of gentleness. The gentleness has to begin with ourselves. We cannot be consistently gentle and compassionate with our children, our partners, our friends, strangers, unless we can be so with our own basically good selves.

My own aspirations for the new year are gentleness, compassion, understanding, and mind of no complaint. The last one has to do with continued mindfulness of speech, whether spoken or written, and refraining from complaint and negativity. On a more subtle level, I have the aspiration to continue to work with my thoughts, noticing when they are complaining or negative thoughts, and holding those thoughts with gentleness and compassion, rather than pushing them away or justifying them. I feel that by continuing to return to these aspirations, I will be nurturing the seeds of basic goodness in my family.

What are your aspirations? Whatever they may be, I wish you all a beautiful year to come, full of joy and sweetness.

Monday, December 19, 2011

gentleness during this season

During this time of year, it can be easy to put our children into situations where they are set up to fail. Where there is too much stimulation, too much going on, too much forced affection, too many expectations. Because of our own hope and fear in family and friendly gatherings, we can meet our children with a lack of understanding and compassion when they act out or do not conform with how we or others think they should be behaving during these times.

An important part of mindfulness during this season is to continue to cultivate gentleness and understanding towards our children. We can look at our schedule and see where things need to be dropped in favor of providing some quiet time for our family. We can provide some extra nurturing to ourselves and our children to bolster everyone for interactions with groups of family and friends. We can stay aware of our own expectations - are we projecting lots of hope and fear onto a situation? Are we being influenced by how others may be viewing our children, rather than viewing them from a place of basic goodness, compassion, and awareness of what their experience of the gathering, the gift, the person actually is?

Rather than reacting with disappointment and aggression when our children do not act as we think they should during this time, can we continue to cultivate gentleness, by acknowledging our own fear or sadness around what has occurred and out of that soft spot, helping our children by reassuring them, cuddling them, acknowledging their difficulty, their discomfort, and letting them know it is ok to feel what they are feeling?

My own family will be attending a Christmas gathering where I know my children will be overstimulated and will most likely, not be at their best. I am laying the ground this week by continuing to find spaces for us to pause and reconnect with the ground of goodness, to join our bodies and minds in the same place, to be gentle, gentle and again, gentle. There are lots of opportunities during the holiday times to really work skillfully with what is, to be aware of the story line we are creating around situations, and to cultivate our appreciation and compassion. This may actually be the greatest gift of this time!
Wishing everyone a mindful and peaceful season.

Monday, December 5, 2011

mindful holiday

This is the time of year when many families around the world are preparing for winter holiday celebrations. It is a time when speediness, busy-ness and materialism can overwhelm us and fill what we expect to be a happy time with aggression, depression and stress. It can be easy to have our minds stolen away by anxiety, desire, poverty mentality, and disappointment during these days. We can put so much pressure on ourselves to create the perfect holiday, to give our children everything they want, to reciprocate with family and friends. Our to-do lists seem endless, and our mind and body are often in two different places.

In the United States, it can often seem that a kind of never ending, naked materialism has taken over what has traditionally been a time when we cultivate and honor a radiance that cannot be dampened even by the darkest days of winter. Whether celebrating the inextinguishable lights of the Temple, the brilliant love of the Christ child, or the liberation of the Buddha - or simply the light of the returning sun on the shortest day of the year - this time has traditionally not been about buying X-boxes and knick knacks that will soon be discarded. In my own sangha, we celebrate Children's Day, a day when we honor our children for their constant reminder of goodness, even during dark times. Whatever we celebrate, these holidays all reflect the unchanging luminosity of our own basic goodness that shines in every moment, no matter what the weather or mood.

How can we honor our goodness and that of our children during these days, rather than giving into our confusion? How do we stay mindful and aware, when things are swirling and we have so much to do? How do we continue to cultivate appreciation, rather than create more wanting?
Following is a list that is helping me and my family to stay mindful and connected to appreciation during this time.

First, of course, is practice. What has helped me is to find a time each day, morning or night, where I can practice some sitting meditation, no matter how briefly. This clears away my discursiveness and joins my mind back to my body. Throughout my days, when I notice my mind is somewhere totally separate from the present moment, without judgement, I bring it back again. I take a breath.

Secondly, I continue to let go of "the perfect holiday", whatever that may mean. There is no such thing, and everything is perfect anyway! There can be the impulse to try to attend every holiday event, do every holiday craft, bake every cookie and so on! If our tree isn't like this, the holiday is ruined. If we don't see those lights, the holiday is ruined. Whatever - it is different for all of us. But to let go of externals, to let go of how the holiday "should" look, creates space for the true magic of this time to occur and be noticed. It is different for every family, but I encourage you to look at your "must do" lists this season, and see what is really doable and enjoyable. Young children in particular do better with spaciousness, so to clutter each day with an outing can be overwhelming for them as well as for you. Sometimes we discover that even cherished traditions or events are either too much right now, or no longer really resonate with our family. Be brave and let them go! The space created will have its own gifts.

During this time, I continue to contemplate what nurtures goodness and appreciation, and attempt to focus on creating traditions that align with that. For instance, although I am buddhist, I find Advent calendars to be a lovely way for young children to connect to the magic of this time as well as a helpful channel for their anticipation - an energy that can quickly turn to grasping if left to its own devices or fed in the wrong ways. I made our own calendar and filled it with pictures of birds, elves, stars and other animals. They are enjoying opening a picture each day, though it can be hard to open just one. It is an interesting dance of patience and impatience! I have found this to be a lovely, grounding ritual to begin our mornings with, and each day we are also doing a small craft or baking session that produces a present to give to friends or family. Again, it is different for every family, but what traditions, either from your own lineage or another, resonate with you and your children, and remind you of goodness and appreciation? What traditions encourage generosity and reflection? I recommend focusing on those - just be careful what you choose, as young children will expect them to be repeated the following year!

In terms of gifts, our full undivided presence and attention are the greatest ones that we can give to our children. Notice if you have the impulse to overwhelm with material items. Is there another way you can share your love? Can you spend an afternoon sledding with them, baking cookies to enjoy together and give away, looking at the seasonal light displays? How much do our children really need? How can we celebrate these days without encouraging materialism and grasping? I leave this to you to contemplate for your own family. For us, we give only a couple of toys, and try to focus on spending time together doing special activities, most connected with crafting or being in nature as a family. For me, buying gifts can actually be an awareness practice - before buying something, we can look at 1) what is motivating me to get this? 2) what will the impact be on our family? 3) what is the impact on the earth? 4) is there something else, simpler, more connected, that I can give instead? 5) will this gift create more wanting in the recipient, or does it satisfy a more profound need?

There are many opportunities during this time to encourage the seeds of generosity in our children. Baking cookies to give to others, making cards together to mail, letting a little one put some money into a Salvation Army can. On Children's Day at our center, we will be bringing food to bless and give to a local food pantry. Just as there are countless beings suffering, there are countless ways to ease them, and children often have an intuitive grasp of how that can be done, although our own modeling will be a great influence.

Ultimately, we can use this time of year to create deeper connection and appreciation in our family rather than stress and discord. We can use this time to nurture our goodness rather than simply feed our fleeting desires. I wish everyone a beautiful season, one of compassion, peace, love and unshakeable confidence in basic goodness.